Words by Hoe Ziqian
While it is not wrong to assume that a discerning palate is the key criteria to becoming a Certified F&B Mystery Judge under Wine & Dine, there is actually more than meets the eye.
On 3 Dec 2020, a carefully curated group of local F&B industry players and food enthusiasts gathered at the Crystal Jade Palace restaurant in Ngee Ann City for the inaugural Certified F&B Mystery Judge training session created by Better Together Pte Ltd, co-conducted by Wine & Dine, with support from NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i).
Since then, there have been another two sessions conducted as Wine & Dine look to improve its offering based on the feedback gathered in the initial session.
Having been the definitive guide for local foodies for the past 32 years, Wine & Dine magazine’s experience in judging the top dining spots in Singapore is second to none. Its annual publication – Singapore’s Top Restaurants Guide, is compiled based on the results of a series of extensive mystery judging for participating restaurants. In a bid to uphold the standard of judging and raise the overall standard of F&B in Singapore, Wine & Dine has set its sights on training more budding F&B mystery judges and elevating their skills to become competent and discerning food critics.
The objectives of the full-day course are simple. The fundamental aim is to equip a mystery judge with the relevant knowledge and build his or her confidence on the use of that knowledge. The course also seeks to hone a mystery judge’s judging, scoring, and comparison skills to improve the quality of judging so that participating restaurants can have the assurance that they are being evaluated objectively and professionally. Lastly, but arguably the most important objective, is to foster a community spirit to uplift the local F&B standard as a whole.
While it may sound like a lofty goal, Wine & Dine, Better Together and e2i are confident that the baby steps taken through this initiative would eventually yield the desired outcome with the appropriate level of passion and persistence. By providing constructive feedback and ratings during the mystery tastings, certified F&B mystery judges are helping to improve the restaurant’s qualities as they convey the observations from the perspective of the discerning mystery judge.
Ronald Tan, co-founder of Kings Cart Coffee felt that the ambition of improving the F&B standards resonated with him. “I feel more well-equipped with valuable knowledge of the evaluation process on the F&B industry. This will help me pinpoint areas to improve on my own business in a holistic manner.”
His business partner, Maggie Chen echoed the same sentiments by adding, “Not only do I have greater knowledge in judging others, I also gained better insights on how to improve our own business.”
Mr Benjamin Yang, managing director of Novitee, set the stage with his thought-provoking take on the impact of heuristics and biases on the judging process. For many participants, it was an eye-opening experience as they would never have considered the influence of a correct mindset on the outcome of the judging. By raising this awareness, the graduating mystery judges would then be able to apply the conscious effort to assess each restaurant with the correct frame of mind, which would invariably lead to a more objective and hence more accurate evaluation.
Ms Alison Ang, Executive Director of Wine and Dine followed up with the techniques employed in a judging assignment by taking participants through an in-depth look at the entire judging process. She took the opportunity to highlight all the valuable insights that would help graduating mystery judges better prepare for their assignments in time to come. It is also vital for the judges to be familiar with the scorecard as they would eventually need to submit one on the restaurant that they are evaluating on. That process of alignment is an important calibration exercise as the same scoring criteria might be interpreted differently by each individual.
Mr Derek Ong, co-founder of Tipsy Collective agreed on the need for the alignment, “It was a very good calibration and standardisation session for all the judges. The course also provided many detailed judging criteria which really helps us align and remove our personal subjectivity when judging. Most importantly, I love the spirit of the whole effort, on how the judges are not there to just criticise, but to help the operators identify areas for improvement and in turn improve the whole F&B industry by raising the standards of the businesses here.”
The Wine & Dine and e2i teams collaborated with the Crystal Jade operations team to come up with a customised lunch training segment where participants are put through a mock judging session. There were deliberate faults injected into certain dishes of unsuspecting participants and it was up to these aspiring mystery judges to identify and elaborate on the faults. It was a light-hearted look at how an actual judging assignment might look like, all the way from the plating of the meal to the taste and texture of the food. Some of the more eagle-eyed participants could even pinpoint on the service aspects like the attentiveness of the service staff in refilling the Chinese tea. Sometimes it may come down to such fine margins, especially when we are evaluating two well-honed establishments vying for the top fine dining restaurant award.
The last segment was a sensory training conducted by Mr David Chan, Director of ETC Services. Over the years, David has amassed extensive experience and knowledge in the food and hospitality sector, making him the ideal candidate to help participants understand flavours and how their perception of these flavours has a bearing on the overall judging process. For some of the participants, it was a unique experience finding out for the first time that they are actually a ‘Super Taster’. At the end of the day, regardless of where you might be on the taste test calibration scale, it is that appreciation and eventual calibration on your assessment rating that defines a good mystery judge from a great one.
Ms Caleen Leow, General Manager of F&G Food Pte Ltd, was one of the participants who thoroughly enjoyed this segment of the training. She commented, “The most memorable and unique experience has to be the taste test calibration. This training segment allow me to make better and informed decisions when pairing dishes with beverages, as I am made aware of how different flavours will impact my taste perception.”
The participants had to sit through an assessment at the end of the one-day training, which would determine if they have what it takes to be a certified F&B Mystery Judge. Successful graduates would be recognised at a graduation ceremony to be held at a later date.
Wine & Dine understands that mystery judging is very much an art form as it is a science. This is why it has painstakingly put together a well-rounded training program with the help of Better Together, even though it was intended as an introductory course. And for those who are keen to pursue this further, the more advanced extensions of this training are already in the pipeline. If the content of this inaugural session is anything to go by, there should be plenty more insightful learnings coming the way of interested participants.
Mr David Gan, Co-founder of Tipsy Collective reflected on his experience upon the completion of the training and acknowledged the efforts of e2i and Wine & Dine to improving the standard of local F&B. He shared, “The Certified F&B Mystery Judge’s training has been insightful and equipping us with the necessary knowledge which doesn’t just prepare us to better assess restaurants when we mystery judge in the future but also helped us to better improve the service and food quality standards in our own establishment. I would like to thank e2i and Wine & Dine for this initiative to constantly uplift the F&B standards in Singapore.”
Ms Angel Ding, Managing Director of Angliss Singapore Pte Ltd, felt that the opportunity to learn from fellow F&B professionals and industry experts was the highlight of the whole training. She also provided some suggestions on how the training programme can be elevated to improve the learning experience. One possible improvement was to showcase more real-life examples of restaurants and learn from their service philosophy and how they present their trademark dishes. Angel would also have liked to have members of the training team, as well as some of the participants, share their own experiences. Given the wealth of experience of these individuals, there would have been some interesting takeaways for everyone.
Perhaps the day was best summed up by Mr Yasin Razak, Director of Bluestar Banana Leaf Restaurant, “A day filled with pleasant senses and surprises; the F&B Mystery Judge’s training is a must for anyone who wants to learn what the industry standards are. With the new learnings, I can now better understand how to create a more memorable experience for my customers.”
We hear you Yasin; Wine & Dine and e2i are with you on every step of that journey.