When someone mentions Michelin star, your mind probably jumps to a fancy diner touting menus with names like “drizzled,” “braised,” “emulsion,” or “gelée.”
For decades, the coveted Michelin star has been the Olympic gold medal for professional chefs around the world. It made dining into a sort of competitive sport, with restaurants battling each other to create the most lavish dishes, and customers flocking to the ones lucky enough to be awarded the rating.
Stigma of pretentiousness
In recently years, critics have attacked the Michelin rating system for not being inclusive enough. What Michelin considers the “best food” isn’t what most people eat, they say.
Vanity Fair complained that the Michelin star system created a whole breed of people who care more about being pretentious than actually tasting the food:
“The Michelin guide also created a new type of customer, the foodie trainspotter, people who aren’t out for a good meal with friends but want to tick a cultural box and have bragging rights on some rare effete spirit…So, Michelin spawned restaurants that were based on no regional heritage or ingredient but grew out of cooks’ abused vanity, insecurity, and fawning hunger for compliments.”
But this year, Michelin gave out a surprising star to a street vendor in Singapore. It’s part of Michelin’s new category of street foods.
The place is called “Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle”, and it’s located in the Chinatown Food Complex in Singapore.
Chef Chan Hong Meng owns and runs the place. Although born in Malaysia, Meng learned Hong Kong style cuisine in restaurants and has created a delicious menu of chicken, rice, and pork belly at his street shop.
“I’ve been in this line for 35 years. I run my own business,” Meng told Michelin in a video interview. “I have been a hawker my whole life, but I learned how to cook from a restaurant. Because I learned from a Hong Kong chef, therefore I called it Hong Kong Soya Sauce Noodle.”
If you’re lucky enough to fly to Singapore, a visit to Meng’s shop will only set you back a few dollars. Most items on the menu are under only $2-$5.
Meng’s shop is known for its braised chicken
You can get your braised chicken with dumpling noodles, or hor fen, a thicker type of rice noodle.
A whole cooked chicken costs only $14, the price of a sip of water in New York or San Francisco.
Meng will also chop it for you into easily bitable pieces. Hmmm looks delicious…
He cooks the chicken to perfection, looking tender and moist
Despite costing only $3.50 and served on a foam plate, the chicken and noodles dish look really well made and appetizing.
According to Yelp reviewer Majeed F., Meng runs the place with only two assistants. “The chef was working feverishly with 2 lady assistants, one for chopping and plate prep and one for packaging and keeping the till. Fantastic little operation.”
“I stopped going to school at 15,” said Meng. “I had to help with the preparation of dishes from young, so I have a special interest and sensitivity when it comes to food and a keen understanding.”
Beware, the lines can get really long! And don’t expect it to get any shorter after the Michelin star. But if you have the patience, the food will be worth it.
How Meng was discovered
Michelin’s secretive award process makes sure that the inspectors’ identities are well protected. The New Yorker reported that even the company’s executive don’t know who the inspectors are:
“Inspectors themselves are advised not to disclose their line of work, even to their parents (who might be tempted to boast about it); and, in all the years that it has been putting out the guide, Michelin has refused to allow its inspectors to speak to journalists.”
One of Michelin’s secret inspectors most likely stopped by to try out a braised chicken dish and placed it into contention.
Michelin awarded Meng’s shop one Michelin star, meaning it’s given a “high-quality cooking, worth a stop” designation in the Michelin’s Singapore guide. While not in the most prestigious rank – three Michelin stars – even getting a star is an unprecedented achievement by a street vendor.
Last month, Michelin called to invite him to a gala to receive his award. Meng was shocked.
“Are you joking?” Meng recalled. “Why would Michelin want to come to my stall?”