When the World Restaurant Awards came into existence last May, they were going to be different. People have, for years, complained that the Michelin Guide was too out of touch and that the World’s 50 Best Restaurants was too white, too male, too European — and too insulting with its best female chef consolation prize. The James Beard Awards, after years of criticism, last year drastically increased the number of winners who are women and people of color.
So when events company IMG announced it was creating a new set of awards, led by culinary journalists Joe Warwick and Andrea Petrini, both the award-hungry and the award-weary public was intrigued. The judging would be “conducted with complete integrity, total transparency and a real sense of inclusivity,” said Warwick in a news release. A panel of 100 judges was assembled, with such award-winning chefs as Massimo Bottura, David Chang, Daniel Humm, Dan Barber, René Redzepi, Ana Ros, Yotam Ottolenghi and Clare Smyth. And a subsequent news release touted a 50-50 gender split for the judging panel — the first restaurant awards with a “pioneering commitment to equal gender representation.”
You might think that would lead to a collection that is more diverse than its competitors’. But that isn’t the case. The awards shortlist, released Thursday, is still heavily male and — despite a number of interesting and offbeat categories — still rewards many of the same people who show up on other prestigious lists. Several categories, such as original thinking, no reservations required and forward drinking, have exclusively male nominees.
When asked by The Washington Post about the disparity, the awards provided two statements.
“We knew from the beginning that having gender parity on the judging panel was no guarantee that there would be an equal number of female fronted restaurants nominated. We wanted to give women in the industry an equal say in the awards but the fact of the matter is for years women in the restaurant business have not been given the same backing and support as men. That’s not something we can change overnight,” Warwick said.
“We are giving women in the industry an equal voice in these awards, and are hoping that the successful female judges coupled with those who are breaking through (we have two female fronted restaurants on the shortlist for ‘Arrival of the Year’), will inspire and ignite this change. Also by addressing ethical thinking / staff welfare, we are hoping to contribute to improving the work environment for all and that it will attract more female talent to the industry,” said Cécile Rebbot, event director.
Some categories are more diverse than others. Of the five shortlisted nominees for arrival of the year, or best new restaurant, there is one husband-and-wife team (Chiho Kanzaki and Marcelo di Giacomo’s Virtus, in Paris) and one female chef (Pía León’s Kjolle, in Peru). There’s an amusing swap in the enduring classic category for long-lasting restaurants: One restaurant named after a man is now owned by two women (Peter Luger’s in New York), and another founded by and named for a woman is now owned and run by a man (La Mere Brazier in France). More women are shortlisted in categories designated as small plates — awards for such zeitgeisty things as Instagram accounts, tweezer-free kitchen of the year and tattoo-free chef — than in the major categories that reward innovation.
When it comes to being Eurocentric and white, the World Restaurant Awards doesn’t seem to be too different from the World’s 50 Best. Of the 73 shortlist nominees, 42 are European. Only three are in South America, and no restaurants in Mexico, a culinary powerhouse, were shortlisted. The only restaurant on the entire continent of Africa that was shortlisted for any award was Wolfgat, a remote South African restaurant, in the category off-map destination. (On Wednesday, World’s 50 Best announced that former No. 1 placeholders will be ineligible for the list, potentially increasing its diversity.)
There are other problems. Noma earned two shortlist nominations — for original thinking and ethical thinking — even though Redzepi is on the judging panel. Smyth, a fellow judge, is shortlisted for tattoo-free chef of the year. A spokeswoman for the awards said that judges submitted their longlist selections via a portal, and that judges who are nominated are excluded from voting within their category, according to a conflict-of-interest policy. But many other restaurant awards programs do not rely on chefs as judges at all, to avoid conflicts of interest from chefs nominating their friends. For example, the judging panel for the 2019 James Beard Awards for chefs and restaurants are exclusively journalists. While writers and editors serve as the judges for journalism awards too, they are ineligible for awards in any category they judge.
The awards categories are interesting and quirky. Sometimes, that’s good — as in the case of ethical thinking, an award for restaurants with an environmental or humanitarian bent. And some of them are a way of rewarding restaurants that might otherwise not make global awards lists — such as house special, for which a Portuguese hot dog and an Indian soft-shell crab are nominated. But other categories are confusing or just meaningless. What is the point of naming the best red-wine-serving restaurant? Why give an award to a chef’s Instagram? What makes a tattoo-free chef more worthy of recognition than a tattooed one? And while the three stories in the sole journalistic category are excellent, how is Jonathan Gold’s obituary of Anthony Bourdain — which is less than 900 words long — considered a piece of long-form journalism? (The Beards consider anything less than 1,000 words to be short-form.)
So, will an award that purports to be about “celebrating the diversity of the international restaurant scene” give a few more trophies to Noma? We’ll find out Feb. 18, when the ceremony takes place in Paris. The full list of nominees can be found on the World Restaurant Awards’ website.
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