No Reservations

Michelle Garnaut’s famous M restaurants set the bar for upscale dining in Asia.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Michelle Garnaut’s famous M restaurants set the bar for upscale dining in Asia. Well ahead of her time, the trailblazer was in town recently for the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. She spoke to Keng Yang Shuen on her favourite food trends, and why we’ll all be eating fonio soon.

<b>Photography</b> Frenchescar Lim <b>Art Direction</b> Adeline Eng <b>Styling</b> Imran Jalal <b>Hair & Makeup</b> Sha Shamsi <b>Clothes & Accessories</b> Garnaut’s own
<b>Photography</b> Frenchescar Lim <b>Art Direction</b> Adeline Eng <b>Styling</b> Imran Jalal <b>Hair & Makeup</b> Sha Shamsi <b>Clothes & Accessories</b> Garnaut’s own

Following a trend is easy; creating one, though, is hard work.

Well before restaurants in Asia became the cultish Instagram temples they are today – hello Gaggan – entrepreneur, chef and restaurateur Michelle Garnaut was hard at work in the late ’80s and ’90s, building the scene with her restaurants M at the Fringe (Hong Kong), M on the Bund and Glamour Bar (Shanghai), and Capital M (Beijing).

A favourite of the city’s scenesters and celebrity set, each was a destination in itself: think plates of elegant global cuisine, as pretty as the (always) choice location, a sophisticated wine menu, and an enviable client list of in-the-know foodies – this was before “foodie” became an actual job description.

While the multi-tasker has taken a step back from Hong Kong and China’s highly competitive dining scene, her experience has never been more relevant. As the jury president (Asia Pacific region) of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, a platform to drive change by empowering women to set up their own businesses, Garnaut is channelling her years of know-how towards grooming Asia’s next wave of female entrepreneurs.

With her finger still on the pulse of what’s hot (and not) in the global dining scene, the savvy businesswoman is making a bold call on what we’ll all be eating next, and why.

On global food trends

“I think there’s more and more of a lean towards (consuming) organic and superfoods, but the more interesting aspect of this is how quickly it has taken root... I love that a lot of it is derived from traditional knowledge. For example, one of the products from Africa is called fonio, which is a grain that is gluten-free, so you can just imagine the Americans’ reactions. It’s highly nutritious and grows in infertile soil, which is a pretty fantastic thing, and you can see more and more of such foods gaining popularity.”

On how the food industry needs to change

“I would like a big movement towards (curbing) food wastage. The fact of the matter is that, in the food chain, about 35 percent of the food is lost before it even hits the supermarkets, just during the transportation process. In the Western world, another 20 percent comprises of food being thrown out of say, supermarkets, due to those “best before” dates. I mean, it’s just such a waste – one billion people do not have enough to eat!”

Why less is more

“We ate at Corner House at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. It was nice, but it was quite fussy in terms of food. I don’t like food that has been handled too much, I like food that doesn’t have too many clashing flavours. I feel that many young chefs are putting too many things into one dish... I was like, bloody hell, what’s on this plate, you know?”

The evolution of the modern dining scene

“What’s happening is two movements. One is, some food is becoming too fussy and, in my honest opinion, for people who don’t really care about eating; it’s about frivolity and novelty. That’s okay every now and then, but I think there’s too much emphasis on it. The other movement is where younger people are more concerned about upcycling and recycling – as with fashion. I think the same sustainability-minded movement is happening with food. I hope it continues to grow further, mixed in with a little bit of frivolity, because a little bit of frivolity is important as well.”

The new food capitals

“I think Peru has really been up there. Also, one of the cuisines that has always been largely underrated is the food of countries such as Bulgaria and Armenia. Bulgarian food has this Eastern European influence, but also has traces of Turkish ancestry, so that’s really interesting. Food is affected by politics as well. For example, Peruvian food became popular when the country was more stable, and people started to go there and explore what was available. I think the dominance of Western food is fading as people dive deeper into their own culture. People are often fond of their native cuisine, but they’re not as proud of it as they should be.”

A restaurant is...

“For me, a restaurant is more of a communal place. The essence of restaurants is about people eating and having a good time.”

More: think people