So it’s that time of year again & the Worlds 50 Best Restaurant list has been release. After starting the day watching tweets of the many being over hyped because they were having breakfast with Ferran Adria amongst others. The former 3Michelin starred chef & record winner of the 50 Best Restaurant was in London to announce that he was looking to open an eatery in the UK capital. Note the use of the eatery rather than restaurant, as at the time of writing it was rumoured only to be serving tapas & cocktails.
From about 7.30am yesterday morning twitter went through the fits and starts of journalists jabbering on about how great it was that the 50 Best awards were being released today. To anybody with a passing interest in chefs & restaurants you would’ve thought that it was the second coming & that the messiah was opening up some kind of ground breaking foodie utopia.
As recent years have shown with journalists throwing their toys out of the pram, the 50 Best has a gapping chasm of a flaw. Transparency, it is somewhat of an open secret & now standing joke that the annual event has become more about journalists & PRs. It seems that the main rule for a judge to vote on an establishment is that they should have visited it with 18months. So had El Bulli not been removed from the list last year, technically it could still have won the converted title next year ie April 2013.
For those of you that missed it, last year Jay Rayner resigned his position as Chair of the UK judges, over what has started to over shadow the awards themselves. The Scandinavian governments & tourist boards have spent a fortune on press junkets, with various other countries cottoning on that PRs drive these awards.
To give you an example of this St John featured for a number of years on the 50 Best list, consistently being rated either close to or better than the stellar restaurants of Alain Ducasse in Monaco & Paris. The Louis XV restaurant in Monaco is widely regarded as the epitome of luxury & fine dining, yet there are no Ducasse restaurants in the top 100 let alone the Best 50. This year there was no St John or Bar Boulud (the connection will become apparent) which made a brief entry last year, yet Dinner by Heston Blumenthal was the highest new entry, why? The answer is simple. St. John & Bar Boulud have hosted the post event lunch the following day, so referring back to the judging criteria: Judges should have visited the restaurants in the past 18months. Thus a captive audience, and an almost guaranteed place on the list. So where do you reckon the post event lunch was held last year then?
Then there is the question of judges actually eating in the restaurants they’re meant to be critiquing. The problem was first highlighted by John Willoughby, a frequent contributor to the Dining section of The New York Times and a former regional chair for the awards. El Bulli syndrome is where judges couldn’t or didn’t get reservations to dine in potential list members, but instead relied on hearsay.
Speaking 12 months ago
“We devolve trust to the voters,”
said Willam Drew, the editor of Restaurant magazine and spokesman for the awards,
“If a few people pick restaurants they haven’t been to, it’s not the end of the world. There are 837 people voting.”
The rumour that did the rounds last year about the deletion of El Bulli, was the tongue in cheek suggestion that it was allegedly dropped because Mr Drew couldn’t get a reservation, which did make me laugh.
Whilst many food critics may deride the fact that a French tyre company has become the global currency for food standard, at least they are consistent year in year out unlike 50 Best.
For a number of years The Fat Duck was lodged near the summit of the 50 Best list. Now I have a lot of time for Heston Blumenthal, I’m in awe of his technical skill, imagination & creativity but The Fat Duck never featured that highly on my best restaurant list. There were a number of reasons: there is the incessant dragging of a wooden bench around the restaurant to perform the various dishes tableside; the fact that if anybody from a neighbouring table wishes to go to the toilet, they will bang into your chair due to lack of space; There is the serious lack of seasonality for which lesser restaurants are chastised; then there is the awful Salmon in liquorice gel dish; and the biggest complaint, that the menu rarely changes. The best meal I’ve ever had was at Alain Ducasse Plaza Athénée 10 years ago and quite frankly the only restaurant that has come marginally close in the UK was Oakroom, Marco Pierre White. It’s the food, opulence, comfort and being made to feel special, a complete dining experience. The Fat Duck just doesn’t do that and ultimately that is what this is all about. After all it’s the 50 Best Restaurants in the World not the 50 Best Chefs list.
A big thanks to restaurant critic & food writer Joanna Blythman for the inspiration towards the title of this post, who clearly holds the 50 Best in as much contempt as I do.
Footnote: Sadly I’ve only just become aware of this little out burst from The Times restaurant critic Giles Coren, it’s mildly amusing but you’d expect better from him: Via The Eater calling NoMa