As anyone who’s a foodie, or in the food and wine industry knows, this last weekend the latest round of “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list was announced. As usual, it’s created as much, or more furor than, say, the latest Michelin Guide, or at least it’s generated far more press. And there’s pro press and con press. I’m not going to jump on either bandwagon, because the truth is, awards like this are simply representative of our culture, both that of celebrity, and that of the restaurant industry, and in the end, any press is good press, no?
The common complaints about this particular list are that it’s too Euro-centric, too male-dominated, and too high-end focused. But bluntly, given the process for the selection, those are simply stupid critiques. As I understand it, explained to me by a food journalist who claims to be part of the group of voters, there are 900 people, a mix of restaurant industry folk, food journalists, and diners, who basically nominate their 10 best dining experiences of the last year. And if I’ve got the process down, basically being placed in position 1 on someone’s list gives you a certain number of points from them, on down to a lower number of points for their 10th. And once all 900 folk have turned in their lists, the 100 (it’s not really 50, though those are the ones that get the most press) restaurants that got the most overall points, rank the highest.
Now, anyone who understands math can spot the flaws in this system. All it takes is a smaller group of people who all put one particular restaurant as #1 to outweigh that perhaps, not one other person who voted even put that place on their list of top 10. And conversely, suppose that 600 people out of the 900 all put another place on their list, but all put it down around 9th or 10th. Because of the weighting of the point system, that place could easily find itself down around 40th or 50th, despite their actually being more agreement that it’s one of the top ten places in the world.
The system also is what generates the Eurocentric focus. You take 900 foodies and have them start talking about the best dining experiences IN THE PLACES THEY’VE GONE ON VACATION TO (or near to where they live), because that’s pretty much what it comes down to. So laments that amazing spots in India, or Africa, the Middle East, or the island of Nauru, didn’t make it onto the list are just a product of how it works, not of discrimination. How many of those 900 people packed their bags and flew off to Jaipur, Mbababne, Tunis, or Yaren? Three? None? They went on vacation to London, Paris, Rome, Barcelona, etc., etc.
The gender issue comes up a lot too. There’s no question that there are some amazingly talented women chefs out there in the world. I’ve dined at some of their restaurants, I’ve met some, I’ve worked with some. But the truth is, by and large, restaurant kitchens are dominated by men, worldwide. It’s just a fact of the industry, not a fault of the folk at San Pelegrino who sponsor the award lists. I’d also venture that men are more likely in the industry to actively seek celebrity than women are – it’s that competitive nature thing – my whisk is bigger than yours and all that. And that translates to a higher likelihood that those 900 folk have heard about them and have been enticed to check them out.
But it’s also just a macho culture thing in the industry, which anyone who works in it knows exists. Just recently, season 2 of Chef’s Table came out on Netflix, featuring a new crop of six folk. I had lunch a few weeks back, just before the show premiered, with a local colleague (who fancies himself one of the best chefs in Latin America, if not the world, but whose restaurant probably doesn’t make it to anyone’s top 100 list), and the conversation went more or less like this:
Him: “I’m only going to watch the first episode, Grant Achatz is the only one who should even be in the series.”
Me: “What? These are six of the most talented chefs on the planet, I’ll bet you’d find the others as interesting.”
“Not a chance. He’s the only of them one doing anything creative and new.”
“Seriously? Do you know anything about any of the others?”
“What’s to know? There’s that Atala guy in Brazil, he’s just copying the foraging thing that Rene Redzepi started. Then a couple of women, there’s nothing there to see, it’ll all be emotional shit. And then some fucking Mexican and an Indian, those aren’t even real cuisines. No one except the people in those countries even eats that kind of food. Besides, they’re just copying techniques from those of us who work with real food.”
Let’s just say I got nowhere trying to dig into this one. Pointing out that Dominique Crenn had just been named the world’s best female chef elicited a “So what? She’s still can’t be as good as any man who runs a real restaurant.” And indeed, as Eater pointed out in their critique of the top 50 awards, the very same organization was the one who named her to that lofty award, but somehow she doesn’t make it onto the top 100 restaurants in the world. Here, of course, it’s a matter of who’s doing the picking – the top 100 are by votes, the award to her was from a select committee who were specifically comparing female chefs.
Another similar show, The Mind of a Chef, narrated by Anthony Bourdain and hosted during its first season by David Chang, never seemed to encounter a female chef. It was Chang hanging out with his boys (other than one episode where he talks with his pastry chef, Christina Tosi). Hell, he even went to one of the world’s most famous restaurants run by a female chef, Arzak, and spent the whole time hanging out drinking with her father rather than talking to her.
Interestingly, I haven’t seen anyone really address other minorities. As far as I know, no black chef has made the top 100 list, in any year, though I could be wrong about that. I know of at least two gay chefs who are on the list this year, though both are so closeted they may as well not be. There certainly aren’t any openly gay chefs on the list. And in high-end restaurants around the world? Go ahead, try to name an openly gay chef. (Besides yours truly, of course…).
Or take other lists – there’s the French La Liste, a computer generated list of the 1000 best restaurants in the world, using an algorithm that combines rankings from Michelin, Gault & Millau, and Zagat guides, and consumer sites like TripAdvisor and OpenTable. But the first three pretty much only cover Europe and the US – sure, Michelin has a guide that covers Hong Kong and Macau in Asia, and a limited guide covering Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo in Brazil, but other than that, it’s a limited selection of cities in Europe and the US. Gault Millau covers fewer than a dozen countries. Zagat is limited to the US, as is OpenTable, and while TripAdvisor probably has the widest coverage, the people who are doing the ratings aren’t necessarily foodies – they’re more into the overall experience and how it contributes or not to their vacations. Hell, based on TA, we’d have gotten an award – after all, we’ve been open over a decade and rank higher in the ratings from TA than most of the restaurants on the top 100 list from San Pelegrino, or even the top 50 in Latin America list.
But, agree or disagree, these awards, these lists, these guides, get people talking. And they can vastly enhance a restaurant’s reputation, and bottom line. For the most part, not getting onto the lists doesn’t hurt a restaurant, and may even help, because they lead to diners being more interested in exploring new options, particularly when they can’t get a reservation at one of those coveted listees.