THE MICHELIN SPIRIT AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF FINE DINING IN TAIWAN
H.H. CHIU（China Productivity Center Cross-sector Innovation and Brand Marketing Business Division）
The Food & Beverage Industry in Taiwan
The turnover of the food & beverage industry in Taiwan reached an unprecedented high of NT$811.58 billion in 2019, with a total of 146,009 operators and 750,000 employees. Even with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic started in early 2020, the turnover (as of the end of October) still came to NT641.13 billion in 2020, and the number of operators (as of the end of September) was 150,914. The total amount of the annual turnover accounts for 4.29% of the GDP in 2019, which was NT$18,932.5 billion. It is an important industry with a large number of labor input, strong industrial relevance, and high influence on people’s livelihood. The main concern now, however, is the stagnation found in terms of the per capita output value. Breakthroughs are needed on the current basis if the industry seeks continued growth, especially in terms of the growth of revenue and profitability.
The food & beverage industry in Taiwan has maintained continuous positive growth in the past 15 years in terms of its annual output value. It has always accommodated the dreams and efforts of many young people in their career development and life. As a service industry, it is also one of the important industries. On the beautiful island of Formosa, there are plenty of delicious foods. However, before Michelin came to Taiwan, the international reputation of local food was mainly on those side dishes found in night markets, and few restaurants were listed in the top 50 in Asia. The arrival of Michelin is a good chance for us to appreciate the fine fining in Taiwan.
The Impact of the Michelin Guide
A rule of thumb for the increase of revenue for the food & beverage industry is promoting the reputation of the restaurants. In Taiwan, a paradise of cuisines, many restaurants are eager to step on the international stage of gourmet food, and Michelin Guide is a best bridge. At the end of 2017, there was the hearsay that Michelin would enter Taiwan. Michelin then did conduct the selection of restaurants on the Michelin Bib Gourmand list on March 6, showing that the hearsay among the industry was not groundless. Then the "Taipei Michelin Guide" was released on March 14, which immediately stirred up the whole industry in Taipei. All the listed restaurants got fully booked even for reservations of the next New Year's Eve.
Initially, the "Michelin Guide" published by Michelin, a tire producer, was meant for promoting tourism and dining out. After more than a century, "Michelin Guide" has become a trustworthy guide of gourmet cuisines. In order to help diners make correct judgment, the selection is done by anonymous, independent, objective, professional, reliable, passionate, and quality-oriented inspectors. The evaluation is focused on the ingredients, cooking skills, the fusion of flavors, the creativity displayed, and the continuous stability of the quality. The Michelin star system also revealed five criteria: the quality of the products, mastery of flavor and cooking techniques, the personality of the chef in his cuisine, value for money, and consistency between visits. Among them, the criterion of "value for money" has encouraged the operators to re-examine the past myth of "value over money" potential risk problems it poses, and to pursue the reasonable profits and sustainable development.
Changes of Food & Beverage Enterprises Revealed in Michelin's Introduction to Star Restaurants
The Michelin star system is on three levels, with a single star denoting "a very good restaurant“, with two stars meaning "excellent cooking that is worth a detour", and three stars" meaning exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey." In addition, in the "Michelin Guide for Britain and Ireland", there are more specific definitions. One star is awarded to restaurants that use top ingredients to create unique flavor dishes. Two stars also value the talent and performance of the chef. As for three stars, an indispensable quality is to have the cuisine sublimated into an artwork. To a certain extent, Michelin stars not only represent the different restaurant qualities and cooking skills, but also signify the ability and creativity of the restaurant and the chef in cooking on an elevated level of art.
Though personally involved in the promotion of the food & beverage industry, I have not been able to visit all the Michelin-starred restaurants in Taiwan in the past three years. But I did have the pleasure to visit most of the Chinese restaurants on the list. I found the restaurants have paid more attention to the local ingredients and have taken into account the place of origin and the seasons of production. They have manifested more respect to the original taste of the ingredients and their balance in the cooking process. The use of local and classic sauce and seasoning is well-controlled in pursuit of pureness with least additives. The cooking procedure, heating, garnishing, presentation, and the order of tasting are carefully arranged. More attention is paid to tableside service manners and cuisine introduction, which adds a lot to the dining pleasure. In addition to the delicious dishes, all the elements of utensils used, time control, layout, angles, as well as the lighting, sound, atmosphere, etc. in the restaurant all remind diners of the "value for money."
The introduction of the western food & beverage industry management philosophy, coupled with the promotion of Michelin, has brought great influence on the local food & beverage industries. There is clear elevation on the use and rich combination of the ingredients, combining with the place of production. Local ingredients are explored for more breakthroughs of new styles and flavors using different methods. Consumer experience is focused on all the five senses (vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell), instead of that of taste only. In terms of business operation, the operators are not hesitant to invest in equipment and technologies for service. Considerate and prompt service is provided to the guests. The beverages to go with the cuisines are also of high quality and rich variety.
Some operators have changed, but some don’t even know what has happened. Here are some suggestions for those who feel the changes but are still exploring.
Recommendations for the development of fine dining in Taiwan
Taiwan is a blessed land. The cuisines found here include those introduced from southern Fujian several centuries ago, the exotic dishes from the Portuguese and the Dutch, Japanese cuisines introduced during the Japanese ruling period, the local Taiwanese cuisines popular in commercial settings, the eight categories of Chinese cuisines introduced since the ROC government’s relocation in Taiwan, the American food, French, Italian, and Korean cuisines brought here through international trade, and the recent no-menu cuisines, borderless cuisines, etc. All of these have made Taiwan a unique paradise of fine cuisines.
The rich experience, products and features have provided Taiwan with strong support and momentum in its effort to step on the international stage of culinary excellence.
1. Focus on the major task, professional division of labor, team management
Either for physical satisfaction or for social gathering, dining is indispensable in human life. Cuisines of good quality turn drop-ins into regularly revisiting guests in a restaurant. This is the essence of running a restaurant. The chef is like the soul of a restaurant. He needs to focus on the major task, to be familiar with the ingredients, to refine the skills, blend the tastes, and to develop his own special styles by maintaining a balance between stabilization and innovation.
Nowadays, consumers' consumption patterns are changing. They obtain information much more quickly, and have more diverse and rich experiences. Restaurants need to have unique stories and characteristics to present the dishes and their techniques. The management team no longer just manages the kitchen and the dining room services, but needs to take into account the space features, visual design, media & public relations, online marketing, information technology, data applications, revenue control, customer management, taste reinforcement, materials & wine development, internal and external connection, breakthrough innovation, etc. All of these are beyond the capability of the manager and the chef. It takes time and may take the effort to develop a team for a total solution of upgrading the whole industry.
2. Develop special styles, unique features, and stabilized quality
There are enough restaurants in Taiwan. Anyone with the idea to run a restaurant should not just seek some meager profits, nor take it as a safe retreat during economic depression. Once the decision is made to run a restaurant, special styles and unique features must be formed to fully exercise the local specialties of Taiwan. Here are suggestions in four aspects: local ingredients, cooking skills, seasoning & sauces, and folk customs.
(1) Local ingredients: The seasonal ingredients of Taiwan’s rich geographical environment can enrich the quality of the cuisines. For example, for an ingredient in the famous cuisine “Buddha’s Delight” in Evergreen Restaurant (青青餐廳), the taro from Dajia, Taichung is often considered the first choice. However it dissolves in the soup quickly to make the soup too thick. Taro from Kinmen is grown in sand soil and is therefore more suitable in the soup. As for cuisine “Garlic-flavored Squid with Sea Snail Soup”, the garlic harvested in December is found most suitable for the taste of this cuisine. A clear understanding of the characteristics of the ingredients is the key to a delicious cuisine.
(2) Cooking skills: For the same ingredients, the processing skills like cutting, shredding into different shapes may involve different skills and sequences. Even simple ingredients can become delicacies with good cooking skills. For example: the fresh shredded tofu at the Guest House of Sheraton, Taipei is famous for the evenly intricate tofu made with exquisite cutting skills. The roast duck at My Humble House of le Meridien, Taipei requires a coordinated proportion of the crispy skin and the meat, which provides a consistent and elegant tasting experience.
(3) Seasoning & sauces: There are many seasoning spices made of local ingredients. The chef Afa has three special sauces for his Taiwanese cuisines: sesame oil + ginger, chicken fat + garlic, and lard + red onion. These all have the taste only possible with ingredients produced locally. Therefore the local foods cannot manifest their special flavors without them.
(4) Folk customs: Local flavors are outlined by the ethnography, geography, customs, and festival rituals of the locality. The unique culinary culture will also affect the Food & cuisine. The mud crab on steamed rice, a famous cuisine at Shin Yeh and Asha, may look similar everywhere but may have different metaphors when it appears in a wedding banquet. A wedding is the beginning of a united and harmonious family. The sweet rice balls are used in the first part of the banquet to suggest harmony and perfection. In the second half of the banquet, the mud crab on steamed rice is served to suggest a strong leadership and great success in future business. The claws of the crab also form an interesting metaphor.
When fully understood and applied, cuisines are more than just a meal. They are the characteristics and styles of life, and a concerto of culinary wisdom and the food.
3. Value for money, sustainable operation
Taiwan does not lack good food. What it lacks is the will to make due payment for the food. Delicacies created with heart, and the devotion and commitment, deserve the price paid. This can be achieved only through an optimized psycho journey of the consumers. The customer should be made fully aware and appreciative of the characteristics and intentions of the restaurant (story), the features of and devotion to the cuisine (cuisine introduction), the smooth dining experience like music or dance, and a dialogue with the food (local ingredients, cooking skills, seasoning & sauces, and folk customs), prompt, meticulous and non-disturbing service (service quality and technological applications), and finally a good impression and pleasant memories and longing for revisits (customer relations and marketing).
When the focus of thinking of the operator moves from table turnover rate and cost to a wonderful exchange of the diner experience and the delicious cuisine, the consumers will gladly make the payment for its worth. A virtuous cycle can support the continuous improvement and sustainability of the industry.