For over 100 years, the Michelin Guide series has represented the gold standard for fine dining all over the world.
If you've never been to a Michelin-starred restaurant, your imagination has probably conjured up something like this:
You might be seeing tablecloths, candles, and menus with words like "reduction," "consommé," and "foam." Your dishes are tiny yet mysteriously filling "deconstructions" served "over" this with a "drizzle" of that. You walk away feeling less like you had a meal, and more like you just had your tastebuds wistfully guided through a symphony of flavor, texture, and harmony the likes of which you may never be able to experience again. Mostly because you can't afford it.
In recent years, however, the Michelin-star experience has been changing.
Many have criticized the Michelin company and its rating system, saying it's too biased or its methods too secretive, or that it's just generally not an accurate measure of the planet's "best" restaurants, as it claims to be.
Yet the Michelin star remains a coveted symbol of excellence for chefs all over the world. They work toward it, fight over it, and clammer for it like nothing else. It's their Nobel Prize.
In response to some of that criticism, Michelin has been expanding its reach to include food from more and more corners of the globe.
One of the most recent inclusions is Singapore, the Southeast Asian nation most known (culinarily speaking) for its street food.
The streets and markets of Singapore are filled to the brim with so-called "hawker stalls" — tiny, intoxicating food stands serving up spicy, savory, sticky, fried, baked, and steamed flavorful bits of magic. The stalls are a national treasure in Singapore, and they're slinging out some of the best food that money can buy.
Singapore just became home to the first Michelin-starred street vendor in the world.
In a tiny park neighborhood called Outram, sits a hawker stall called "Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle."
It's run by Chan Hong Meng, a Malaysian born, Hong Kong trained chef whose chicken, pork belly, rice, and noodles have been known to create three-hour lines around the block in Singapore for years.
Meng recieved a phone call from Michelin in July 2016, inviting him to a gala. He was surprised, to say the least.
"Are you joking?" Meng recalls in a video for Michelin. "Why would Michelin want to come to my stall?"
They weren't joking, and they awarded him one of the highest honors in all of food.
The Michelin guide's expansion into Singapore represents a significant shift in what is widely considered the "best."
For decades, Michelin-starred food was synonymous with "expensive." Now you can get a Michelin-starred dish for under $2. That isn't just affordable ... it's symbolic.
The standard-bearers for what counts as "fine cuisine" have begun to recognize that the best food in the world is not limited to Western countries, or to posh restaurants with tablecloths and napkin towers.
You can find culinary and cultural magic in the hidden corners of the world. You can find it in the smoke-filled markets where chefs are serving simple cuisine on paper plates to massive hungry crowds.
You can find it wherever you look. You just have to be looking for it.