Does it matter how we choose The World’s 50 Best Restaurants?

by Richard Vines

Bloomberg

El Celler de Can Roca was overwhelmed after it won the World’s 50 Best Restaurants title for the first time in 2013.

The waiting list grew to one year and three people were employed to turn down requests for tables, said Josep Roca, one of three brothers who own the establishment in Girona, Spain.

The day after Noma won in 2010, about 100,000 people tried to book online, enough to fill the Copenhagen restaurant for years, according to chef Rene Redzepi.

“A few years ago, it was a very dark time for my restaurant,” said chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy. “When it was named best in Italy and the highest climber in the 50 Best, it made me determined to save the restaurant as I attempted to evolve Italian cuisine.

“All the gastronomic guides have now named us best in Italy for four years in a row. In any other country, that would settle the matter, but in Italy, people are still debating. We are just like that. The one thing you must remember in Italy is: Don’t mess with your grandmother’s recipe,” he said in an interview.

If you think the 50 Best is hype, I am part of it. I chair the U.K. and Ireland voting panel for the awards at which 47 of the Top 50 chefs attended.

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants is a quirky list and no one claims it is definitive. Avant-garde restaurants tend to place higher than traditional establishments whose gastronomy has stood the test of time. There’s an element of fashion as the chefs of the moment (many of whom are friends) win greater recognition than the grand old culinary masters.

In Paris, for example, most of the traditional gastronomic restaurants such as those of Alain Ducasse are missing from the Best 50, while there is room for less-elevated establishments such as Le Chateaubriand and Septime. (I am a fan of both.) Ducasse didn’t show up when he won for lifetime achievement last year.

The 50 Best list often comes under attack, and I can see why. The term “best restaurant” doesn’t mean a lot, and when you look at the rankings, they are confusing. You might go a long way to find anyone who thought in 2013 that Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London) was the seventh-best in the world when the chef’s Fat Duck (Berkshire, England) placed at 33.

What the list does is to provide a snapshot of the establishments that are in favor with restaurant-business insiders who dine out regularly. My panel included some of Britain’s finest chefs, for example. I’d like to tell you who they are but the list is kept confidential to cut the risk of lobbying.

The annual event is important in itself as an opportunity for chefs around the world to discuss food, ingredients, cooking techniques and restaurants. Chefs from as far away as Lima made the journey, for what is a gathering lasting several days.

I remember last year looking along the bar during an afterparty at Roka and seeing Blumenthal, Thomas Keller (Per se in New York) and several of the world’s leading chefs. An early-hours taxi ride to London’s Clove Club saw me dancing wildly with Bottura while Redzepi looked on.

That was an embarrassing memory in the morning.

The awards started in 2002 as a feature in Restaurant, a British trade magazine owned by William Reed Business Media. The list was a back-of-an-envelope idea to attract readers. The fact no one bothered to define “best” reflects this casual beginning.

The list is compiled from the votes of 26 panels around the world. Each panel has a chairman who picks 35 members, consisting of food writers, chefs, restaurateurs and gourmets. I have headed the U.K. and Ireland panel — unpaid — for three years.

Panelists must have dined at the restaurants for which they vote in the 18 months before voting. Members list seven establishments in order of preference, including at least three outside of their geographical region. The votes are collated in October (and announced in April), I don’t know the results before they are published.

El Bulli (Catalonia, Spain) won in the first year and triumphed four more times before Ferran Adria decided to close it. Other winners include the French Laundry in Napa Valley, California (2003, 2004), the Fat Duck (2005), Noma in Copenhagen (2010-12) and El Celler de Can Roca.

This year, the Lifetime Achievement award goes to Fergus Henderson of St. John, London and Best Female Chef to Helena Rizzo of Mani, Sao Paulo.

The awards are sponsored by San Pellegrino & Acqua Panna. Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.