What is good? What is tasty? And after we've managed to answer these questions, how about asking how good and how tasty a thing is? If we wish to rank something we cannot leave it just with "Yes" and "No" but we have to compare between the "Yes"-s and the "No"-s. Not like the Michelin stars or Gault Millau toques, where the answers are subjective but refer to a certain objective rate – more or less, the list of the media company William Reed Business Media ranks the best restaurants in the world as a chart so there is at least a potentially good answer to the question – what is the best restaurant in the world?
In an annual posh event held for the 15th time last week, this time in Melbourne, the members of the world's elite gastronomic scene enjoyed a stardusted aura, glazed in evening gowns and served on top of a red carpet. Besides giant screens all around town the ceremony was transmitted on the company's and sponsors' websites and of course on many Facebook, Instagram and any other social media platforms accounts, including photos from the participating restaurants' kitchens where the service stopped for a while before reading the restaurant's name. Those super-chefs don't really need any of this to know who and what they are, but hey, who would mind going to Australia and get his name read on stage in front of his applauding colleagues?
Red carpet, champagne and expectations
So far the facts, and from here on some of my thoughts regarding the matter, in no specific order (and thanks to my dear friend Y. who joined me for the live coverage from both sides of the Mediterranean).
Let me start by saying that I really like this list. It gives an exciting adrenaline shot to the foodies community which I believe I'm part of. And why not having a nice contest that is a substitute for who have had enough with traditional sports?
Beyond this general sentence I really like the fact that this is a list of restaurants rather than of chefs, hence fore not the quality of the food alone is considered but a complete view of the venue: the service, the wine menu, the comfort of the patron or any other parameter which is relevant for the surveyors (to whom I will get in a while). From this point of view this is a more accurate reflection of "gastronomy" over "culinary".
"Everything is politics" (Thomas Mann)
Well, maybe not everything is politics, but when you start evaluating one thing or another it is very difficult – on the verge of impossible, to stick to the original plan and not sliding into out-of-the context matters. In order to set the list the world was divided into 26 zones and in each of them 40 surveyors ("academy members") were selected from the members of the gastronomy scene of the area: chefs, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs, food writers and others. Along 18 months the secret 40 men-on-a-mission – 10 of them will be replaced each year in order to refresh the views – should pick and rank their 10 favorite restaurants, in two conditions: 4 of them will be out of their "home zone" and none of them can be commercially related in any way to the surveyor.
Simple, isn't it?
And here are the problems… The list is "accused" of being Eurocentric with no names from Africa or the Middle East, almost none from Asia and a fair amount of North and South America - combined. Looking at the list you can see that the "accusation" is right, which is a part of the rating system: a European restaurant can easily get votes from the different 11 European zones plus some of the near Africa and the Middle East, while Japanese or Australian restaurants should wait for visitors from these zones to fly thousands of kilometers in order to visit them. Is it by chance (it's not) that this year's title was awarded to the non-European New Yorker Eleven Madison Park of Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, for the first time since 2004, a year after the event took place in hmmm… New York? Should we see next year a huge advance to the Australian restaurants and especially Attica of Melbourne?
The inherent political deviation in lists as such is evident when you examine others around the world, like the one of the French magazine Le Chef. The magazine composed the votes of more than 500 2- and 3-stars Michelin chefs on who they consider the best chef in the world. Out of the 100 chefs on the 2016 list there are 38 - that's right - French, followed by 11 Japanese while Massimo Bottura of Modena with his Osteria Francescana who came first in the equivalent list of William Reed is located somewhere around the 30th place.
Some more politics, but this time gender issues: alongside the general list there are some individual awards which are given to restaurants and chefs like "The Sustainable Restaurant" that went to the Parisian Septime - 35th place and a jump of 15 places from last year, or a Lifetime Achievement Award that was given to the great Heston Blumenthal after his The Fat Duck came last year back to the 3-stars home.
The award that made me feel uncomfortable - regardless who won it - is "The World’s Best Female Chef" which named Ana Roš from the Slovenian Hiša Franko, right on the Italian border and also on the 69th place on the list. It's true - the list is composed almost completely by white men (Eurocentric, remember?) with a minimal representation of joint kitchens of women and men, and it's even more surprising since 13 of the zone chairpersons - exactly a half - are women. But still, the wrong message of this award is that there's a difference between masculine and feminine cuisine (no), that women should be treated differently than men (no no) and that cooking is no more than sport and for sure not art (definitely not!).
Ana Roš, photo: Hiša Franko
OK, OK, so maybe everything is politics.
(Have a little break of politics and join me on my visit at Septime)
As the list editors underlining, a restaurant which went down or even out of the list didn't turn into a bad one, but can represent a change of culinary currents, geographical or conceptual, which I think it's almost the same or at least onterwoven.
A quick analysis I've made to the previous 5 years' lists indicates at least two of these currents, that unfortunately I can only guess their origins:
The decline of the Scandinavian cuisine - The big hype (Noma) of the beginning of the decade (Noma) which put each year on the list (Noma) at least four restaurant from Denmark and Sweden and was led by a restaurant from Copenhagen whose name I forgot and will be no more, turned this year into only two Danish restaurants on the 19th and 39th places.
And on the other side of the world -
The rise of the Latin cuisine - The subcontinent had a respected representation also in the previous years, especially Peru with three restaurants, two of them came this year to the top 10: Central, a prominent member of the list, was joined by Maido which creates a Nikkei kitchen that combines the two parts of the Peruvian nationality - the South American and the Japanese. Alongside it one can spot the continuous slow decline of D.O.M from São Paulo, the only Brazilian restaurant on the list and my wrong bet for entering the top 10.
Maybe it's just another sign of the global warming?
The Mediterranean anomaly - Almost all the restaurants on the list reside in capital cities. Where it doesn't happen? In Italy where the best restaurant are scattered all around the country, in Spain where they are all located along the North-Eastern belt between Bilbao and Barcelona, and we can add also the French Mirazur, on the Mediterranean coastline right on the Italian border. More than the strength of the "regional" cuisine - don't forget that these restaurants menus don't depict definite borders, I see it as a dismantle and surrender of the capital cities in these countries - and it's very clear in Rome - to the tourists restaurants concept. Which is a shame.
The southern border
Something about hype
There are more than 1000 surveyors around the world, but in a matter of fact there only little more than 1000 surveyors around the whole world. When the rules include visiting the premises (makes sense) the restaurant needs to find ways making them arrive, so important factors are how many times along these 18 months the restaurant and the chef were mentioned on the media, what's their part in the obscure "gastronomic current" and how much hype they created. The chefs find themselves touring the world, going from one event to the other, appearing on TV shows and dealing less and less with cooking, not to mention chefs with more than one restaurant around the globe. If there's something I'd like to ask Massimo Bottura for example, and who knows when I have the chance of meeting him (…), is if he misses cooking.
One more thing: the rules allow voting for any restaurant whatsoever, but voting for small and non-hyped restaurants wouldn't give the surveyor an impact on the results. More than that, the surveyor might be considered as almost irrelevant and from there it's a short way out of the elite groups of voters. Therefore, voting for big and famous restaurants feeds itself.
Having said that, I started with a question and I'll finish with one: does someone know how to join the team?