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The World's 50 Best Restaurant List Is Really Just A Popularity Contest For The Cool Kids

Danish chef Rene Redzepi during a visit to the Flinders Ranges in 2010. Photo: Lisa Maree Williams /Getty

If you think the World’s 50 Best Restaurants is a definitive guide to the finest places to eat around the planet, then you probably think that the choice for Miss Universe influences world peace.

The list, announced in London overnight, put Rene Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen back in the top slot for the fourth time in the last five years. It’s a deserved choice. I ate there in 2012 and the meal was astonishing. Despite being braced against the hype, Redzepi and his team created an experience that pushed my boundaries and made me rethink what it means to dine out. I’d urge anyone who loves food to eat there.

Noma is a deserved recipient, although Redzepi himself has previously conceded the notion of “the best” is elusive. He’ll gratefully accept it on behalf of a team who works so hard.

“It’s absurd,” said Joan Roca, from last year’s winner El Cellar de Can Roca. “It’s not something to take seriously. It’s so subjective.”

But people are taking it very, very seriously now and an idea that began with a London trade mag, Restaurant, rounding up a bunch of industry types in 2002 and asking them where they thought was good, is now big business. It has turned into the Oscars for restaurants, the rankings released like Moses descending from the mountain with 50 annual commandments on Where Thou Shalt Eat.

In the past decade, The World’s 50 Best has made elBulli famous (after more than 20 years of toil in relative obscurity by Ferran Adria), and now Noma, among others.

On the upside, the recognition has saved quite a few chefs and some fine restaurants from insolvency.

Michelin and its three star system has been left in the wake of the 50 Best phenomenon, which is now the bible for food groupies eager to brag about the culinary experiences they’ve bagged.

But seriously, if you think Dinner By Heston Blumenthal, at No. 5 on the 2014 list, is a better dining experience than Blumenthal’s original restaurant, The Fat Duck, a former No. 1, now ranked at 33, then let me explain to you why American Pie 2 is a better movie than Citizen Kane.

The 50 Best really should be renamed the 50 Hottest. It’s more about the vibe thing and what’s hot in foodie circles than a serious critical assessment of the global dining scene.

And that’s why Australia will always be dudded in the deal. Ben Shewry at Attica is a remarkable chef who deserves as many accolades as can be heaped on him, but he’s not the only Australian chef who deserves global recognition.

Brae in regional Victoria is run by Dan Hunter, who was good enough to be head chef at Mugaritz in Spain, ranked No. 6, and used to be at the Royal Mail in Dunkeld, four hours drive from Melbourne. He’s never been anywhere near the list, yet Magnus Nilsson – “the poster-boy for the new wave of Scandinavian cooking that has captured the world’s imagination”, the World’s 50 Best says – whose Faviken is a 600km, eight-hour drive north of Stockholm, is at No. 19.

Magnus is a brilliant young chef, but really, no wonder it’s so hard to get a booking – this 16 seat restaurant must be permanently full of 50 Best voters to be that high in the rankings.

Yet while there’s much lauding of the region’s scrubbed-back Scandinavian “locavore” philosophy, in Hong Kong, one of the world’s truly great dining destinations, the city’s best restaurant is a luxurious French restaurant, Amber at The Landmark, Mandarin Oriental (No. 24).

Perhaps it is. I’ve never eaten there, preferring Cantonese options when I visit the epicentre of Cantonese food.

In the 50 Best’s early days, Neil Perry’s Rockpool and Tetsuya’s featured in the top 10, but have long since fallen from favour.

Quay in Sydney, which lays strong claim to being Australia’s finest restaurant, enjoyed the last five years on the list (Sydney’s Good Food Guide first named it Restaurant of the Year in 2003), but dropped down to 60 this year. Mark Best’s Marque, named the “breakthrough restaurant” in 2010 at 67, never actually cracked the top 50.

Other famous chefs have fallen out of favour in recent years and rapidly disappear from the list, including Gordon Ramsay. Even the legendary Alain Ducasse falls short of the cut, although his Le Louis XV in Monaco and Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athene in Paris, regarded as two of the world’s most beautiful restaurants, rank 56 and 75 in the top 100.

So let me explain how the voting works.

There are 26 “regions” comprising of 36 voters – 900-plus chefs, food writers and industry types all up, named The Academy – hand-picked by the regional chairs.

They nominate seven restaurants they’ve dined at in the last 18 months, and at least three must be from outside their region.

Otherwise the rules are simple: “There are no criteria that a restaurant has to meet”, the World’s 50 Best “Manifesto” declares.

Despite attempts to improve accountability, organisers have resisted a push for voters to show receipts for the places they’ve dined in.

France is a region, Italy too, along with Germany and Japan, which didn’t appear on the 50 Best list until a few years ago when it was hived off from the rest of Asia. Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan are a region, China and Korea are lumped together, India is in ‘Central Asia’, the rest of Asia divided into north and south. The USA and Canada are together but split into three regions, then there’s Brazil, and the rest is South America.

Australia and New Zealand are part of Oceania, run by Gourmet Traveller’s deputy editor, Pat Nourse. Like all the other regional chairs, he chooses who’s on his voting panel and is expected to change 10 of them annually.

Journalist Richard Vines, chair of the UK and Ireland panel, says the names of judges are confidential “to cut the risk of lobbying” although he says he’s never been approached.

But another critic and former chair, Jay Rayner, said the offers were rife and four years ago, The New York Times detailed how Swedish tourism officials paid for a group of journalists and jurors to visit in a bid to bolster the country’s standing on the 50 Best list.

Sweden has less than half Australia’s population and two restaurants in the top 25. Between them, Denmark, Norway and Sweden have a population roughly the same size as Australia and six restaurants in the top 100, compared to our two.

Is the difference between our talents that stark?

I’m not suggesting that the regional chairs are to blame for this predicament. It’s the system they are expected to operate within that invites questions.

Michelin pays its way, uses anonymous, trained judges and has strict criteria in awarding its famed and highly coveted rosettes (stars). Most restaurant guides handing out gongs operate in a similar fashion.

At the 50 Best, you just have to give a restaurant name. No justification needed. It’s a bit like the Vatican’s college of cardinals, but with cutlery instead of white smoke.

Australia has its distance stacked against it. Fly to London and you can go eat in Paris. Fly here and it’s New Zealand, which gave Australia Ben Shewry, but has yet to debut on the 50 Best. Unless members of the Academy are invited to Australia for a food festival, the chance of a local restaurant being noticed is remote.

Yes, it’s just a list, but The World’s 50 Best Restaurants is a big deal now. It’s a juggernaut, with major sponsors and a huge launch in London that the world notices. It now has the power to make or break a restaurant financially in the manner that had chefs so afraid of Michelin.

With that power comes responsibility. As a former restaurant guide book editor, I know how seriously the decisions we took were made and the anguish that followed some of them.

If they’re going present this as a list of the “Best” restaurants then the organisers need to properly define what that means and the jurors need to be held accountable.

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants is still just a bit of good onya mate, go for it, with a bit of adding up at the end, then some drinks and back-slapping before restaurant phones start ringing off the hook as chefs are just coming to terms with their hangovers.

The best chefs in the world know they can’t take it seriously, yet have to, because serious money flows when you make the cut.

If this annual event is to graduate beyond picking a prom queen, then The World’s 50 Best Restaurants needs to start taking itself seriously and have a more transparent, logical and clearly defined process. In jargon terms, it’s called World’s Best Practice.

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