The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list attracts criticism and controversy soon after its released. Despite its flaws, if nothing else, the global guide to the world’s best fine dining establishments is a handy list for globetrotting foodies. Here’s why it matters.
Industry awards, annual polls and best lists are often controversial. Few more so than the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list announced in London earlier this month*. Conversations on social media and in the comments of mainstream media sites in the days and weeks following have been as critical as they have congratulatory.
The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants List and Why It Matters
I have to confess that I quite like annual polls, best lists and industry awards. When I was a young filmmaker, I lived for the Academy Awards’ Oscars night and the release of Sight and Sound magazine’s best films poll. I loved the sense of anticipation and lively discussion in the lead-up to announcements, as much as the spirited debate that inevitably ensued in the days after.
Whether you consider great meals, like great movies, to be works of art or products of a craft, or dining out, like cinema-going, to be entertainment, there’s no denying that debating best restaurants, like best films, are first world occupations that can appear frivolous in the grander scheme of life.
But landing on or dropping off such an influential guide as the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list can make or break a business. For food and wine loving travellers, our main concern, while a great restaurant meal can live on to become a treasured memory, a bad restaurant meal, especially an incredibly expensive restaurant meal, can spoil a holiday.
The Criticism and Controversy Surrounding the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants List
News editors love controversy, so, as you’d expect, the criticism that followed the recent Worlds 50 Best Restaurants 2015 awards got more media attention than the back-slapping and bear-hugs between chefs and the congratulatory messages that flooded social media channels.
It helped that some prominent chefs contributed to the post-announcement debate about the list, including French chef Joël Robuchon and Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, who publicly resigned as a voter on the list in a comment at the end of a New York Times article on the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants 2015.
The reason Mallmann offered for his resignation was that “cooking is a romance with produce, space, service, timing and silence”, which he believes runs counter to the conduct of chefs more “concerned with the awards that they spend the year lobbying the electorate, jetting to conferences, and, in my view, wasting precious time: walking away from the true values of what restaurants are. ” Fair enough.
The same thing happens in the film world. Studios and production companies fly directors and actors around the world to festivals and premieres to promote their films. Most would rather be on location, but marketing and PR is part of the job. Just like rocking up to awards nights.
With the phenomenal rise of foodie-ism and culinary culture as pop culture and all that goes with that – TV cooking contests, culinary TV shows, food festivals, bestselling cookbooks, food bloggers as critics, and so on – the best chefs, like great film directors, became celebrities, and signature dishes, like Ferran Adriá’s spherical olive and Peter Gilmore’s snow egg, their stars.
Like Mallmann, not all chefs like being under the spotlight or spending so much time on planes. Most prefer to be in their restaurants. However, food festivals and conferences can be stimulating, especially when they tackle serious issues like the future of food. They can also be loads of fun, providing opportunities for chefs to catch up with each other over meals. And let’s not forget the chance to travel and sample foreign foods that can serve as inspiration for chefs’ own culinary experiments.
Criticism by Robuchon, whose Paris restaurant L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, dropped to #63 from #31 on the list, received greater attention than Mallmann’s comment. According to the New York Times, Robuchon, who has had restaurants on the list, as well as judged, questioned the voting process, the integrity of his colleagues, and the credibility of the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list.
Robuchon argued that there was no way to determine if voters had eaten in the restaurants for which they’d cast ballots. This “loophole”, he claimed, gave free rein to “cronyism, ‘flip a coin’ voting, geopolitical influence, and lobbying”.
When judges vote for the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants they’re required to provide dates when they dined at the restaurants they’re voting for – easily verifiable with good restaurants, which keep reservations books, or by asking voters for bills or credit card receipts – and the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants employs Deloitte to oversee the process and audit votes.
The New York Times claimed other chefs had also criticised the judging as being “arbitrary, not credible and susceptible to corruption”, blaming government-sponsored “free trips and meals for journalists”.
The Issue of the Integrity of Voters on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List
The almost 1,000 jurors who vote on the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list include chefs and restaurateurs; restaurant, hospitality and tourism industry professionals; food and culinary travel media; and foodies, from globetrotting gourmands to food bloggers and social media influencers.
Started in 2002 by the British trade publication, Restaurant magazine, the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list has become the global go-to restaurant guide for globetrotting foodies. We’ve been using it for many years and have long found it handy if we only had a few meals in a city where we weren’t familiar with the restaurant scene.
The main reason we’ve always held the list in such high regard is because the judges are industry professionals and experts in their fields. These are the kinds of people we go to for restaurant tips when we travel and research stories, the sorts of authorities that publications like the New York Times consult when it wants opinions on restaurants, culinary scenes and food trends.
I can’t imagine restaurant industry professionals flipping a coin to cast a vote. Nor can I see them simply voting for their mates, as one anonymous critic who hid behind his avatar tried to argue on Twitter. The people who I know who work in the restaurant industry take their work seriously, especially the chefs. These are people who have studied and trained in their craft for many years, people who live to cook, to eat, to work around food, and/or write about food.
We’ve met, interviewed and photographed thousands of chefs during the course of our work as writers, and we can tell you these are people who really care. Even before we wrote professionally, when we ate out purely for pleasure, we met countless chefs at restaurants around the world who would go around to the tables at the end of the night, sweaty and tired, asking diners whether they enjoyed their meals.
Chefs at this level are people who wake up each morning and go to work with the goal of making people happy. This is a profession that is all about giving pleasure. And the people intent on making you happy work long and hard to try to ensure that the people savouring their degustation menus in the dining rooms – many of whom have saved up for months for that meal – leave not only sated, but leave having had one of the most incredible meals of their lives.
The people working at the majority of restaurants on the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list know what it takes to make a great dish. They know how much blood, how much sweat, and how many tears go into creating a remarkable restaurant where the front-of-house and waiting staff are there to make diners feel special, and the kitchen crew are working their butts off behind the scenes to make meals that are truly memorable.
I can’t imagine professional chefs and restaurateurs flipping coins, nominating their mates, and voting arbitrarily. They don’t need to be given voting criteria, as some critics have suggested; they know how to evaluate a restaurant.
But not all voters are chefs and restaurant owners, who comprise just one third of jurors. Not all voters know the local industry nor understand or appreciate the cuisine they are evaluating. Maybe this is where part of the problem lies.
Why the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List Matters
For diners, the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list matters because it gives a helpful snapshot of the global gastronomic scene for any given year. We’ve eaten at a fair chunk of the restaurants on the list (which actually consists of 100 restaurants) and we agree that many of those restaurants are indeed some of the world’s greatest.
Of course there are plenty of restaurants that we think deserve to be on the list – or deserve to be higher up the list – and if we had to create our own worlds 50 best restaurants list it would be different. It’s never going to be possible for there to ever be one definitive list that everybody in the world agrees upon – not even between Terence and I.
The responses to the awards weren’t all negative, even in the comments of the New York Times, where one reader, Michael Currier, wrote (unedited):
“I think those who say it doesn’t matter are being really frivolous themselves. A great meal is something that last forever in one’s memory and changes what one believes is possible with food. It isn’t just entertainment either: great art is life changing. A truly great restaurant experience is so far beyond a mere restaurant meal, there is almost no comparison. As for the difference between the #1 restaurant and the number 10 restaurant? Lets consider a Oscar winner compared to all the other 8 or ten nominees: when everything goes right with Oscar voting, there is a very big difference indeed. The difference between a great Picasso or great Pollock or great Basquait and their more mediocre product is pretty profound too. When we see documentaries or read any of the fine books about food at El Bulli in it’s day, it is so clear they’d raised dining to another level few of us ever experience, and that few other chefs ever get close. That we all eat so many times a day as part of our lives creates a common thread for these rare experiences with our own lives and our own kitchens that makes all the politics of fine food and polls worth dwelling on. I eat in few of these places I read about but just reading about them (starting way back with Ruth Reichl’s amazing reviews in the times) means a great deal in my life. Should the voting be fair? fought about? debated? of course, just as ballet and music and art and fine writing is worth discussing endlessly.”
Worlds 50 Best Restaurants List 2015
1. El Celler de Can Roca, Girona, Spain
2. Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italy
3. Noma, Copenhagen
4. Central, Lima
5. Eleven Madison Park, New York City
6. Mugartiz, San Sebastian, Spain
7. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, London
8. Narisawa, Tokyo
9. D.O.M., Sao Paulo
10. Gaggan, Bangkok
11. Mirazur, Menton, France
12. Arpege, Paris
13. Asador Etxebarri, Biscay, Spain
14. Astrid y Gaston, Lima
15. Steirereck, Vienna
16. Pujol, Mexico City
17. Arzak, San Sebastian, Spain
18. Le Bernardin, New York City
19. Azurmendi, Bilbao, Spain
20. Ledbury, London
21. Le Chateaubriand, Paris
22. Nahm, Bangkok
23. White Rabbit, Moscow
24. Ultraviolet, Shanghai
25. Faviken, Fäviken, Sweden
26. Alinea, Chicago, USA
27. Piazza Duomo, Alba, Italy
28. The Test Kitchen, Cape Town
29. Nihonryori RyuGin, Tokyo
30. Vendome, Bergisch Gladbach, Germany
31. Restaurant Frantzen, Stockholm
32. Attica, Melbourne
33. Aqua, Wolfsberg, Germany
34. Le Calendre, San Pietro, Italy
35. Quintonil, Mexico City
36. L’Astrance, Paris
37. Biko, Mexico City
38. Amber, Hong Kong
39. Quique Dacosta, Dénia, Spain
40. Per Se, New York
41. Mani, Sao Paulo
42. Tickets Barcelona
42. Borago, Santiago
44. Maido, Lima
45. Relae, Copenhagen
46. Restaurant Andre, Singapore
47. Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenee, Paris
48. Schloss Schauenstein, Switzerland
49. Blue Hill at Stone Barns, USA
50. French Laundry, USA
Pictured above: The Roca brothers portrait by Terence outside El Celler de Can Roca, the day after our meal there late last year.
* We’ve come a tad late to this debate but we’ve been pretty busy of late; more on what we’ve been up to soon. Keep your eyes peeled for my story on the CNN site on the World’s 100 Best Chefs. Terence’s take on the same topic here.