The significance of cheap Cantonese street food earning a Michelin star goes beyond just the price tag
If you’ve ever wondered what the Olympic medal for cooking is called, it’s known as a Michelin star. Instead of bronze, silver, and gold medals, it consists of one, two, or three playful looking red asterisks that resemble appliqués on a child’s hair clip more than symbols of culinary excellence.
Doled out in plaques to a handful of restaurants each year by an anthropomorphised stack of tires (yes, the eponymous Michelin Man), the Michelin stars are prestigious symbols that many chefs all over the world dream of collecting, and, for those who have them, work tirelessly to keep. But one unsuspecting chef didn’t even know he was competing for the prize until he received notice of his nomination and a listing in the 2016 Michelin Guide Singapore.
Meet Chan Hon Meng, the 52 year-old owner and chef at Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, a humble Cantonese food stall in the Chinatown Complex, one of Singapore’s hawker centers. A hawker center is an open air food court where an array of regional street food is prepared by chefs in cramped stalls and sold cheaply to crowds of locals and adventurous travelers.
Michelin’s recent five minute video, “The Story of Chan Hon Meng,” opens a window into the life of a food hawker, following Meng through his daily routine of working in his food stall to attending the Michelin Gala in Sentosa with his wife and daughter. Born to Malaysian farmers who raised pigs, ducks, and grew their own crops in the small village of Ipoh, Meng quit school at the age of 15 to begin cooking. He started out in a restaurant where he was trained by a chef from Hong Kong, to whom he credits the name of his food stall. Meng’s 35-year career in the food industry helped him to develop what he calls a “special interest and sensitivity when it comes to food.”
Chefs whose restaurants pass the Michelin criteria are considered veritable Keepers of the Flame—here, the gas pilot instead of the Olympic torch—so, out of the 29 new recipients of the 2016 Michelin stars, what makes Meng’s nomination so newsworthy?
The award is often given to restaurants with hefty price tags attached; we’re talking hundreds of dollars per meal, which might explain why, when Meng got the call about his nomination, he thought it was a joke.
“Why would Michelin come to my stall?” he asks. “We didn’t imagine that the Michelin Guide would come here. We thought it was just something found abroad.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="false"]How can these muggy, open-air centers offering regional street food compete with European fine dining establishments? Well, a Michelin star might help matters.[/quote]
But the significance of cheap Cantonese street food earning a Michelin star extends beyond just the price tag. According to a 2014 study on spending habits, there’s a growing cultural shift at work in Singapore where the rise in eating out at pricier pubs and air-conditioned restaurants has detracted from time and money eaters spend at hawker stands, especially among the younger, well-educated population with disposable income and an appetite for Western cuisine.
How can these muggy, open-air centers offering regional street food compete with European fine dining establishments? Well, a Michelin star might help matters by increasing publicity and bringing in tourism. But the organization perpetuates its own bias of taste; out of the six restaurants in Singapore to receive two stars, only one is Chinese. Three are French. The only restaurant in the country to earn the coveted three Michelin stars is Joël Robuchon, the French chef’s namesake restaurant where an evening spent dining on Contemporary French cuisine will cost anywhere from $250 to $500 per person.
The absence of more regional Chinese cuisines on the Michelin list doesn’t escape Weng’s notice. Before winning his star at the Michelin Gala, he said to a colleague, “If we don’t get it [this award] there won’t be many Chinese restaurants on the list.” And he was right: where more stars were awarded, fewer Chinese restaurants made the cut.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]My dream is to have more cuisine from Singapore and more of the undiscovered hawker talent, not just myself, but everyone else.[/quote]
Michelin stars are nothing if not complicated, but Weng’s desire to share the success he has received with his fellow hawker chefs is hopeful. It creates room for greater inclusion of non-Western, non-gourmet cuisines into the culinary elite, and may, over time, perhaps erode the very notion of a culinary elite.
Weng sees this honor, real or imagined, an opportunity for his colleagues to rise with him and take advantage of the spotlight.
“My dream is to have more cuisine from Singapore and more of the undiscovered hawker talent, not just myself, but everyone else,” he says.
Meng and another Singapore food stall owner, Tang Chay Seng of Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodles, are the only food hawkers to ever earn Michelin stars, and while Seng’s bowls of pork noodles average around $5, Meng dishes out food for a mere $1.50.
Long before his stall opens for business in the morning, while he’s still busy prepping ingredients for the day, customers begin to line-up for a taste of his chicken rice and noodles (that will inevitably sell out by early afternoon). At the Chinatown Complex, an hour-long wait is an easy indication that you’re eating from the best. The longer the queue, the more a food hawker stands out from all of the other stalls, and now that Meng is famous for preparing the cheapest Michelin-starred meal in the world, his lines are only going to get longer.