SINGAPORE — At a news conference on the eve of this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards announcement, chef Daniel Humm sat up in his seat and leveled with the audience: “I think none of us have ever believed that there is truly a best restaurant in the world. I think we all understand that there are many chefs doing amazing things.”
If he’s right, no one on the inside at 50 Best believes Mirazur, in Menton, France, is the best restaurant in the world. And yet, when the awards were announced here Tuesday, there it was at No. 1, with chef Mauro Colagreco getting emotional on stage as he accepted the honor.
In the almost 18 years since the awards began, they have grown from a British trade publication’s pet project into a global phenomenon that can alter the fortunes of chefs and restaurateurs at the highest end of the fine-dining spectrum. Reservations at Mirazur were hard to get Monday, but they’re about to get a lot harder.
How Mirazur got to the top spot this year is partly the result of at least one of two big changes the awards made in early 2019. First, Colagreco and the rest of his team did not have to compete with Humm’s own restaurant, Eleven Madison Park in New York City, because it was permanently removed from consideration and placed into a separate best of the best category alongside fellow previous winners El Bulli, El Celler de Can Roca, the Fat Duck, the French Laundry, Osteria Francescana and (the original) Noma. Second, and maybe less influential in Mirazur’s win, 50 Best says the voting academy of 1,040 chefs, restaurateurs, food writers and “well-traveled gourmets” is now split 50-50 between men and women.
While the move toward gender parity regarding voting members has been seen generally as a positive development, not everyone is on board with the removal of former No. 1’s from competition. A recent Time magazine article reported not only that such chefs as René Redzepi of Noma and Ana Ros of Hisa Franko in Slovenia were opposed to the change but also that the motive behind the new best of the best category was not to keep the list dynamic or add fresh faces at the top, but “to avoid the decline in reputation that some notable chefs have suffered once they fell from first place.” In an interview, William Drew, director of content at 50 Best, called that story false. “Of course we listen to chefs,” he said, “but that wasn’t our motivation for making the change.” Drew insisted that discussions on the move began years ago.
Whatever the reasons behind the new system, Redzepi himself needn’t have worried about ineligibility this year. Though his restaurant in Copenhagen has previously held the list’s top spot, he has since moved Noma to a new location and changed the concept enough to satisfy a list of criteria that Drew and his team will now use to determine what counts as a “new” restaurant. “We looked at whether it had a new name; Noma doesn’t. Whether it had a new chef; this one doesn’t. Whether it had a new concept, and whether it had been closed for a significant period between the two.” He said simply moving a restaurant wouldn’t work, but, “with Noma, it was such a fundamental reinvention. The whole idea is completely different.”
Noma 2.0, as many call it, “debuted” at No. 2 on the list this year.
Also notable this year are the changes that haven’t been made. 50 Best still gives a best female chef award, separate from the world’s best chef award and with no equivalent for male chefs.
Past winner Dominique Crenn has called the award “stupid,” while last year’s honoree, Clare Smyth, said, “Sometimes you have to go over the top by recognizing women and giving them a platform so that we can really start to change things and re-correct the balance.”
This year, the winner of the Asia’s best female chef award (a subcategory without a European counterpart), Garima Arora of Gaa in Bangkok, told the media: “There were people who had strong opinions about me taking it, and people who had strong opinions about me not taking it also. I think as women we just need to stop apologizing for our choices, first of all.” Many in the audience applauded.
In her acceptance speech for the global version this year, Daniela Soto-Innes of New York’s Cosme (at No. 23, the highest-ranking restaurant in the United States) discussed the importance of positive leadership in the kitchen and pointedly thanked her peers for the opportunity to use the new platform for her thoughts “not only as a chef, but as a human.”
In terms of geographic diversity, little has changed in a voting system in which Italy, Germany, France and Brazil each constitute their own region, with 40 voters per country, while at the same time China and Korea share a total of 40 voters, as do the members of the region known as “India, Central Asia and Subcontinent,” and the grouping of Mexico and Central America. The entire continent of Africa also has 40 voters.
There are also questions surrounding free meals and travel, which 50 Best allows but has tried to handle through a kind of integrity honor system. That arrangement may not hold up forever. Lists and awards always generate talk of bribery and gaming the system from outsiders, but in Singapore, members of the media who plausibly identified themselves as voters (they are supposed to remain anonymous, so this is impossible to verify without being given an official list or exposing them), traded rumors about paid junkets for other voters, and chefs comping meals just before voting dates.
It was not that they necessarily doubted the integrity of their fellow voters, but that with the limited amount of time (50 Best expects voters to have visited restaurants within the past 18 months) and money available to dedicate to fine dining, who can get the voters in the seats matters. When asked about how they could possibly visit enough restaurants worldwide to populate the list of 10 they were required to turn in on voting day, one self-identified voter said: “It’s absurd. The math doesn’t add up.”
It certainly doesn’t add up to diversity. There was some welcome news for Crenn, as her San Francisco restaurant, Atelier Crenn, made the top 50 for the first time this year (coming in at 35). But despite all the changes, very few women-led kitchens were voted into a spot. Nearly 1 in 2 restaurants on the list are in Europe, while there is still only one restaurant each from mainland China and all of Africa on the list. India and many other countries were left off.
And yet, despite the criticism — or maybe in part because of the continued media attention it continues to bring the awards — the party goes on.
With few exceptions, the chefs still show up. Around 1 a.m. at a private party in Singapore the night before the awards, Gaggan Anand of Gaggan in Bangkok, which was named No. 4 on this year’s list, led a small crowd of journalists, Instagrammers, food fans and fellow restaurant industry people in a chant against one of 50 Best’s rating rivals. “F— Michelin!” the chef shouted again and again, using an expletive and trying to coax some of his contemporaries into joining in.
How long the party lasts is a different question. New awards and lists have popped up as competitors recently, directly targeting 50 Best and trying to grab for bits of its spotlight and influence among fine-dining fans. Changes may help the list stay fresh, and make much larger strides on diversity, but ultimately, 50 Best, like so many other entities fighting for relevance in the world of marketing, news and entertainment, may find its biggest challenge will be keeping up with the times in other ways.
Asked about a recent tweet in which he downplayed the importance of Michelin, traditional media and 50 Best, restaurateur Nick Kokonas of Chicago’s Alinea (No. 37 on this year’s list), said, “I’ll put Instagram as No. 1 on my list of most important drivers of restaurant business and reputation.”
Genung is a writer based in Hong Kong and the creator of the Family Meal newsletter about the restaurant industry.