A Conversation With William Drew, Group Editor of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List
The historic Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne was the venue for this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards on April 5, 2017. The glitterati of the food world were welcomed to the world’s biggest culinary event with a sweeping expanse of red carpet lined with champagne-toting servers. The list’s prominence in the international culinary world was evidenced when the country of Australia came courting for the privilege of hosting the awards this year. With gastrotourism on the rise, host sponsors Tourism Australia and Visit Victoria bankrolled the gala and surrounding events in Melbourne.
Every year since 2002, the U.K.-based William Reed Business Media has published this list of the top 50 restaurants in the world by tallying votes cast by more than 1,000 members of an international panel comprised of chefs, restaurateurs, journalists, food critics, well-traveled food lovers, and influencers. These members of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy submit 10 votes, four of which need to be cast outside their own region, during an 18-month period of restaurant experiences. The list has attracted flak over the ambiguous “rules” that govern the voting process, which is overseen by 26 regional academy chairs and two vice-chairs chosen by the media group. These academy chairs, most of whom belong to the journalistic world, oversee their assigned regions and are also responsible for putting forth a list of 40 voters from their neck of the woods. The comprehensiveness of the selection of restaurants is questionable at best. Certain glaring omissions — such as the entire metropolis of LA from the Western U.S. region — are unfathomable given the fact that people intimately connected to the industry are part of the voting panel.
There are no defined criteria that restaurants need to meet to be on the list, though the voting rules have become somewhat more specific, most likely in response to critics. In order to authenticate the voting process, the coalition is adjudicated by the independent Deloitte consultancy firm. The annual Best Female Chef of the Year award is surrounded by gender-based controversies while the freebies permissible for voters (who are expected to remain anonymous) cast aspersions on the integrity of their votes. Social media marketing has undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of both the list and the ranking chefs. The marketing machine of the awards has capitalized on this phenomenon, and a crop of 50 Best Tastemakers with sizable social media followings have been added to the mix.
In the days preceding the awards this year, the iconic Opera House in Sydney and the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne hosted chef talks, which attracted huge audiences and supercharged the media blitz. The awards were also integrated with the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival to present eight master classes over two days with an impressive lineup of celebrity chefs. The gala was also moved up in the calendar (from June to April) to coincide with the event. In the process, last year’s 50 Best awardees, including Massimo Bottura’s top-ranking Osteria Franscescana of Modena, were somewhat shortchanged, holding their reigning titles for only 10 months instead of a full year. The expected shuffle of the top 10 was conspicuously missing Rene Redzepi’s Noma of Denmark, since it closed earlier this year. New York City’s Eleven Madison Park claimed the top spot this year, making it the first U.S. restaurant to be in that position since the French Laundry in 2004. The distance and travel time to Oz involved may have had some bearing on attendance — not all of the top 50 restaurants and chefs showed up to accept their awards, though few have conspicuously stayed away in the last few years.
Lobbying for a spot on the list is serious business and begins the moment the list is released, since there are huge financial rewards to be reaped. Reservation systems can crash, and the frenzied international media attention on the chefs and restaurants is any PR company’s dream. Chefs have taken to the road, crisscrossing continents, drumming up votes with pop ups, collaborations, and food congresses, and probably racking up impressive air miles in the process. This year only two Australian restaurants, Attica and Brae, made it into the top 50, but next year’s list will fully reflect the influence of this new form of lobbying.
The location of next year’s awards will be announced on May 9, 2017, and there is conjecture it will return to Europe, where 27 of this year’s top 50 restaurants are based. There are conflicting opinions on the significance and validity of the list and its categories. Chef Joan Roca, of El Celler de Can Roca, referred to it as the new world order, while others consider it to be an elitist club. Opinions tend to change as restaurants move up or down the list and controversies continue to abound adding to the notoriety and allure of the list. It is an undeniable fact that the list has positively impacted regional gastronomy by spotlighting many restaurants flying under the radar in far-off and exotic locales around the world. The much-critiqued list deserves credit for some out-of-the-way restaurants — such as Borago in Santiago, Chile; Asador Extebarri in the Basque countryside of Spain; or Sweden’s remote Faviken — landing on the itineraries of traveling gastronomes and global culinary explorers.
The emergence of Latin America’s and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Lists has further contributed to the brand’s global influence. The original list is lambasted every year for being heavily Eurocentric and male dominated, and there are only three restaurants with women at the pass in the top 50 this year. The controversial Best Female Chef of the Year award has drawn fire from critics, but it is the individual chef’s prerogative to accept or decline the award. It’s also up to the female culinary professionals to take a stand against this token award so it can be phased out in the future.
The term “best” is subjective and obviously not all-encompassing as stated on the 50 Best website, which defines the list as an honorable survey of current tastes and a credible indicator of the best places to eat around the globe.
I spoke with William Drew, the group editor of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Restaurant Magazine, on the morning of the awards in Melbourne, Australia.
The Daily Meal: Does the list make the chefs or do the chefs make the list?
William Drew: Chefs make the list more. Though, of course, now we are in the position that if you make the list it’s great for the restaurants more than for the chefs. That’s an important point that we are a list which is essentially a celebration of restaurants and of course within that context chefs are extremely important, but they are not the only factor since we look at restaurants as a whole. That means everything from wines to the room to the location to the atmosphere, to the service style and especially the food and its presentation. All these elements are taken into account, and the food must be really interesting or delicious and worth making the list. If a restaurant makes the list, of course it’s good for their business, but that is a byproduct and not the purpose. What these restaurants are doing is trying to be the best they can be and if they manage to attract enough votes because people love what they do, then they deserve the business success that comes with being on the list.