The Oscars of the Food World or a Complete Schmozzle?
The annual dining awards now known officially as "The S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants" have been announced for 2015. The No. 1 winner? The same place that won in 2013: the Roca brothers' admirable El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, in Spain's Catalonia region. (For other top winners, click here.)
Meanwhile, Occupy 50 Best, an ad hoc French organization set up to criticize the S.Pellegrino rankings, is encouraging corporate sponsors to "stop financing and supporting 50 Best if it doesn't changes its methods." Or, as Occupy 50's Facebook page puts it, to "stop supporting the opaque and complacent ranking…" But Occupy 50 is hardly the only critic of the rankings now being called by some "the Oscars of the food world [or of fine dining]."
The idea for a list of the world's best restaurants was hatched in 2002 in the suburban London offices of Restaurant Magazine, a British trade publication. The inspiration was apparently the list of best albums published annually by the U.K. music magazine Mojo. The beginnings of the rankings might well be called humble, and also a little, well, curious (sure, El Bulli was No. 1 on the first-ever list — but No. 5 was Alain Ducasse's now defunct Spoon des Îles in Mauritius; La Coupole (a reconstituted chain-owned tourist-trodden Parisian brasserie) was No. 8; No. 25 was a hotel restaurant in Barbados called The Lone Star). For some reason, though, the awards captured the attention of the gastronomic world, and eventually of a good many corporate sponsors.
Today, while Restaurant Magazine's parent company, William Reed Business Media, still organizes the awards, participation by the magazine itself has apparently ceased, and the Nestlé Waters brands S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna are now the marquee names attached to the proceedings. And many other sponsors are associated with various aspects of the awards, among them Veuve Clicquot, Lavazza, Gaggenau, Estrella Damm, and Daily Meal Kitchen co-sponsor Silestone.
The process by which winners are chosen has evolved, too. The rankings are the work of (here comes another sponsor) "The Diners Club® World's 50 Best Restaurants Academy," an assemblage of not quite 1,000 members "each selected for their [sic] expert opinion of the international restaurant scene." (Perhaps the official awards website, from which this line was taken, was written by someone whose first language is not English; or perhaps the Academy members really are selected based on their opinion, singular, of the entire restaurant world — as opposed to their opinions, plural, on international restaurants.)
For voting purposes, the world is divided into 27 geographical regions, each with a chairperson; each of these dignitaries votes and selects a panel of 35 additional participants — "a balanced selection of chefs, restaurateurs, food/restaurant journalists and gourmands." Each Academy member votes for seven restaurants, at least three of which must be outside his or her assigned region. Choices are ranked in order of preference. What that preference is based on, however, is anybody's guess. Amusingly enough, the Academy's "Manifesto" states "There are no criteria that a restaurant has to meet." Er, not even quality?"They have the sponsorship money, they have the world's ear, they have the power. All we ask is that they recognize that responsibility, and change the system accordingly."
Well, maybe not. A recent statement signed by such prominent French chefs as Joël Robuchon, Thierry Marx, Georges Blanc, and Gille Epié calls the awards "a sexist and complacent ranking where culinary nationalism takes precedence over the quality of the food." In addition, The New York Times reported that it had received an email from Robuchon — arguably the most respected French chef of his generation — specifically complaining about the fact that there was no way to prove that voters had actually eaten in any of the restaurants they chose (the organizers have been repeatedly asked to require Academy members to show receipts from the restaurants they vote for, but have steadfastly refused). Robuchon notes that this opens the door to "cronyism, 'flip a coin' voting, geopolitical influence and lobbying."
Even first-place winner Joan Roca seems to have some question about the validity of the voting. "It's absurd," he told journalist Simon Thomsen in an article published last year by Business Insider Australia. "It's not something to take seriously. It's so subjective."
Thomsen concluded his article on the awards by positing that "If this annual event is to graduate beyond picking a prom queen, then The World's 50 Best Restaurants needs to start taking itself seriously and have a more transparent, logical and clearly defined process."
Echoing this thought, one of the founders of Occupy 50 Best, Zoé Reyners, told The New York Times, "They have the sponsorship money, they have the world's ear, they have the power. All we ask is that they recognize that responsibility, and change the system accordingly."
Or, as New Zealand Listener food columnist Lauraine Jacobs tweeted a few minutes after this year's awards were over, "The whole thing is a complete schmozzle if you ask me."
French officialdom, meanwhile, has a different problem with the 50 Best: Considering it unthinkable that only four representatives of France appeared in the 2014 50 Best (there are five this year), the French Counsel for the Promotion of Tourism, created last fall by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, plans to devise its own ranking of the world's best restaurants, based on the S.Pellegrino awards but also on the Guide Michelin and on social media review sites. "You will see," Counsel president Philippe Faure assures us, "that there will not be merely four or five French restaurants in the top 50."