The week that was (16 June 2016)

The World's 50 Best Restaurants awards were held this week in NYC. You will all have seen the list, you will also know we (ok, Melbourne), will be hosting next year, so what else do you need to know?

The awards, now in their 15th year, are considered by many to have surpassed Michelin as culinary guide of choice - in part because of their global reach and in part due to their judging criteria (or lack thereof). This is also the very reason people find them controversial. I have talked a lot about this recently through the prism of the wine world, and the way they are incorporating new judging systems that are not about seeking faults, but instead about seeking the delicious. For some reason, this seems to really piss people off.

Let’s start with the voting system (read 1- 5 below, or simply check out their new, snazzy little graphic here):

  1. It’s an academy made up of just under 1000 members.
  2. The academy is comprised of 27 chairpersons/chairpeople (both horrid words!), each chair represents a different geographical region (the geographical delineation is revised each year to ensure balance). GT's Pat Nourse is chairperson for our region (Oceania, Australia and NZ).
  3. These chairpeople choose 35 buddies to further represent the region. The group must be chosen with a balance of 1/3 chefs and restaurateurs, 1/3 food writers and 1/3 gourmands. (Note the group also must change by 30% each year).
  4. These chosen ones cast seven votes. What constitutes ‘best’ is left to the judgment of these "trusted and well-travelled gourmets". There is no pre-determined checklist of criteria.
  5. There are rules: they must have dined at the restaurant in the past 18 months. They must also cast three of their four votes outside their own region.

This last point is clearly where Australia comes unstuck. Given the Euro/US focus of the geo regions, how many of the 936 members out of our region will have been to Australia in the past 18 months? And, to be clear, we’re not talking about a fair dispersal by population (there are only 5 chairs across all Asia), instead the regions are determined by the location of cool restaurants - it's a vicious cycle. 

Enter Tourism Australia. Enter the Invite the World to Dinner campaign. Enter Rene Redzepi and Noma Australia. Enter the cash we are now spending to host 800 international guests for the 2017 awards.
So, has it worked? Well, not so far … Attica dropped one place to 33 and Sepia fell off the 100 altogether. Brae climbed, but Quay took a significant tumble. 

That said, looking at the example of Latin America, it may be too soon to tell. The Latin American 50 Best off-shoot is in its 4th year and, this year, eight of their restaurants made the top 50. It’s taken a few years to hit peak (are we at peak?) Latin America. Thus it appears the gestational period for results may be greater than the 18 month voting period. (For contrast, there were only six north American restaurants in the top 50, the UK only had threeItaly had four and the Frenchies, are absolutely furious with only two).  
Perhaps the bigger question is, is it morally correct?? I love the fluidity of the awards and the judging, but does it all mean nothing if the votes are garnered by local tourism bodies flying these lucky 1000 around the world? Are we just buying votes??
In comparison to the Michelin Guide (which is, perhaps not incidentally, one of the greatest examples of content marketing - they created a food guide so people would use their tires to get there), a steady home and sponsor for these awards has never been apparent. Restaurant Magazine (where it began) is no longer involved, San Pellegrino no longer hold the naming rights. It now seems to be a wrestling match among tourism bodies, and next year, for better or worse, it's our turn. And, if content marketing has been ok for the past 115 years for Michelin, why should we take issue now? 
Ok, enough with the controversy, because I love these awards. Why? Take a look at the diversity in the top ten…
10 – Asador Etxebarri, Axpe – run by a former lumberjack, the focus on wood means it is the elusive ingredient in all his dishes. I ate there a couple of years back and loved every smoke-kissed dish. This is perhaps the most traditional in the top 10.
9 – Steirereck, Austria – A hotel that’s been in the family for generations and has been synonymous with fine dining over the years, and yet now you dine in a massive, modernist glass cube, with food created to match. I only know what I’ve read here. Anyone??
8 – Narisawa, Tokyo – the cuisine is based on 'innovative satoyama', the space where arable meets the forest, a small-scale style of agriculture and forestry that is in danger of disappearing – it’s all about living in harmony with nature. Interesting to note this was not number one in the Asian top 50.
7 – Mugaritz, San Sebastian – the only restaurant to have stayed in the top 10 for the past eleven years. I had the great pleasure of meeting and subsequently interviewing Dani Lasa, head of research and development. These guys devote months each year to the creative process, closing their doors to do it.
6 – Mirazur, Menton – Perched on a hill where Italy meets France. Personally, I loved the little anchovy and lemon scenario, but found the rest lacking, the famed vegetable garden severely so.
5 – Noma, Copenhagen – a pretty significant slip for a restaurant that has flirted with the number one position for the past seven years. Of course, they have been in Japan and Australia for a significant chunk of the 18 month judging period, so have in some respects may have expected the slip.
4 – Central Restaurante, Lima – As I mentioned, it was a big year for the South Americans (they also had restaurants 11, 12 and 13). 
3 – Eleven Madison Park, NYC – a big city restaurant, also the winners of the inaugural Art of Hospitality award.
2 – El Cellar de Can Roca, Girona – the three Roca brothers were last year’s numero uno.
1 – Osteria Francescana, Modena – Oh, Massimo! I love the collaboration between art and food that has been forged with his wife, Lara, and “cooking is a call to act” was one of my favourite catch cries of MAD Syd. During his acceptance speech in NYC he stated: “The most important ingredient for the future is culture.” In my eyes, this man can do no wrong. If you haven’t yet, I implore you to watch to Massimo on Chef’s Table.
The one thing that does appear to tie all these restaurants together is their ability to polarise diners. For every glowing report from a friend, I can counter with an equally scathing report from another. But isn’t that taste? Isn’t that art?

And, perhaps that's the question, is this more about art than about taste?? This photo essay, looking at one dish from each of the 50 best, makes it clear art plays a huge role in all of them. (You will need to ignore the atrocious first pic (sadly of Septime, one of my Parisian faves) and their incessant ads.)

Andre Chiang suggests that is exactly the point “… (it’s) not about rank or who’s on top of the other, but it is an indication of trend and direction, because these 50 chefs who choose to step out from their comfort zone are pushing the boundaries and leading the culinary scene of tomorrow.”

For Massimo, the way the awards have guided the evolution of gastronomy is only one part of it: “Everything changed in the last 15 years in gastronomy. There’s a community — a community that has been created around 50 Best, we are not here as competitors. But we are here as friends.”
Food, art, debate, community and a little controversy for good measure. I love it.