Worlds 50 Best, The culinary version of Eurovision. 14


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.

The wooden bench, which is dragged around the restaurant at The Fat Duck.

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

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14 thoughts on “Worlds 50 Best, The culinary version of Eurovision.

  • nick

    AA Gill in his review of the Ledbury yesterday made comments about 50 Best which,as usual with Gill, were sharp, perspicacious, waspish and above all bang on correct.

    Bigoted foodies don’t like him because he says the things they least wish to hear, but someone has to say it and the fact that he can say it in such beautiful English makes him, for my money, the best critic of his generation.

  • Andy Hayler

    Excellent post. All the points you make are well made. The very notion that a place is 17th best rather than 18th suggests a degree of precision that is anyhow absurd. The dismal lack of restaurants from countries that do not invest in PR jollies tells you all you need to know about the credibility of the list. The lack of representation from, amongst others, Japan and Germany, is laughable. The fact that classical restaurants appear ruled out entirely says more about PR-driven fashion than true quality e.g, restaurants like Louis XV, Waldhotel Sonnora or Michel Guerad’s Pres de l’Eugenie would knock virtually all the places on that list into a cocked hat. The same is true of restaurants like Mizai in Kyoto. Well done for pointing out the many issues that the joournalists seem to ignore.

    • chefhermes Post author

      Many thanks for your comment Mr Hayler.
      They’ll carry even more weight when my readers discover that you’ve eaten in every 3Michelin star in the world, a feat likely to be unrivalled by the vast majority of judges one would assume.

      • Fergus Miller

        Yes that is some feat Mr Hayler! I would love to try it when all my kids have moved out.
        I use all of the main guides when I am traveling and I feel that the “Top 100” is a bit of fun and one to watch, which is what “we” all do. The Michelin Guide can get it wrong too.

  • frank fforde

    Great post. Especially with comments. Every year I am baffled and appalled by the world’s 50 best list. It is good to get some understanding on how these things are formed. Utterly frustrating though when people take the list as gospel.

  • Mr Noodles

    I also think that World’s 50 Best is flawed. As well as the excellent points you raise, I’m pretty hacked off at the very small world that the voting panel inhabit. Their world consists largely of Europe, New York and California with vast tracts of the globe totally ignored.

    I had a bit of a rant about this in my blog last year, and very little has changed. For the love of God, how can the top-ranked restaurant in Japan only be in at No.26? In general, I think this list criminally neglects the food of Asia from the Levant through the Indian sub-continent, SE Asia, China, Korea and Japan.

    • chefhermes Post author

      I think that they’ve tried to address being Europe-centric by launching next month, Asia’s 50Best in Singapore.
      Surely this implies that Asia isn’t part of the world?!?

      What does make me wonder is that with such a growing tide of cynicism about the 50Best, that they would say something. After all, they’re only too quick to turn into media whores on Monday night.

      Worlds 50Best, if you’re reading this, the silence is deafening

  • Cara @ Gourmet Chick

    Great post (especially the title!). Has Jay written about the reasons for his resignation at all? Interesting that you got unfollowed on Twitter – seems a little petty, you would think the awards would be interested in what can be seen as constructive criticism.

    • chefhermes Post author

      Sorry, did mean to include the ‘Jay Rayner throwing his toys out of the pram’ link, now updated & here it is as well:
      He also commented on this very blog (back in the early days) when I leaked, days before the awards that NoMa had toppled El bulli:
      I don’t think that the Restaurant magazine really like me to be honest, principally because they are too slow off the mark in what they report.

      • nick

        Personally I couldn’t give a flying F for Fay Jayner’s opinions. He sucks the joy out of food and its consumption with his pompousness, aggression and self-serving sanctimony. Of course he has only ever written for Observer and Guardian where such attitudes are all but mandatory.

        Forget him and leave him to the 6 o’clock show where he belongs, trying desperately to amuse chris evans. The new guy, Richard, has his feet on the ground and his head out of his arse and I am sure the reason the list had some surprises is down to his influence.

        Restaurant mag like any other business don’t want criticism of any kind that might upset the advertisers and you can’t really blame them for that. ‘I want constructive criticism’ is what people say when they don’t like being criticised. The cry of bad art down the centuries.

  • nick

    When I first started going to 50 Best award some years ago it was fun. We sat at tables – chefs and journos all mixed up, we had a bit of nosebag and it got noisy and a bit messy. Like any decent awards ceremony

    Now it’s gone up it’s own arse. It’s fun for the foreign journos – what’s not to like about being sent to London on a jolly? Same for chefs and their teams. The tweeters and bloggers wet their knickers days before and faint like Justin Bieber fans on the day. But they are just getting off like birdwatchers get off. Some even wear anoraks, many are borderline nervous breakdowns and most think burgers are a culinary triumph.

    Anyone else goes mmmmmeeeh. After all if a film gets best film, anyone with a tenner can go see it. Best book? Get it free from the library. The majority of top 50 restaurants remain out of reach. Even if you could afford the travel and the bill, you wont get a table until your kids are shoving you in a retirement home. And then you wont have any teeth ( at this point burgers may finally seem attractive).

    Its a night to meet old friends and have a bit of a drink. That’ll have to do.

  • John Ferris

    Great post Chef. The problem boils down to this, no matter how much we can all wish to have a definitive list of the best restaurants in a city, country or worldwide, it’s impossible to do.

    How can anyone ever get 837 people to have eaten in enough of the world’s best restaurants every year (or even if we accept the 18-month ‘rule) to have a proper, informed decision on which one is the best? How do we even get to the point where there’s a list of restaurants for them to try?

    Many of us will understand this and take it with a pinch of salt, and posts like this help because it makes it clearer to people who may not know better that, for example, there’s a clear reason why Dinner by Heston is well up on the menu.

    • chefhermes Post author

      Funnily enough Worlds 50 Best stopped following me on Twitter yesterday.
      So the defence they use instead of engaging with bloggers, journos & cynics is the ‘head in the sand’ approach.