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In the colonnaded courtyard of the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, a former Jesuit boarding school in Mexico City, under a grove of magnolia trees hung with punched-tin stars, more than five hundred people had gathered to learn which restaurants would be proclaimed the fifty best in Latin America. The party was meant to be attended with a drink in one hand, a phone in the other. There were a multitude of bars: wine by Robert Mondavi, tequila by Casa Dragones, rum by Zacapa, champagne by Veuve Clicquot. The Modelo stand was manned by a team of studs in suspenders. Water sommeliers—white tie, white gloves, wearing tasting cups on silver chains—circulated with magnums of San Pellegrino. Inside the program, the event’s organizers, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, had enclosed a card. It listed Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram information and a hashtag, #LatAm50Best.The password for the 50 Best Wi-Fi network was Mexico2015, which had the advantage of being both dryly factual and sounding like a tourist-board come-on.
The guests were drawn mainly from three constituencies: chefs, journalists, and businesspeople—a triad that thrived as interdependently as corn, beans, and squash. The chefs ran the restaurants, which the journalists wrote about, promoting the businesspeople’s interests, so that they plowed more money into the chefs’ projects, which yielded fodder for the journalists. Onstage, the host was announcing the winners in descending order. (Seeking to extend the brand, in 2013 the World’s 50 Best Restaurants launched separate lists for Asia and Latin America.) Everyone talked through the presentation, but the furious networking only heightened the excitement.
“It’s very difficult to get on the list, and it’s very difficult to get off,” an event planner said to a restaurant consultant.
“You have to work like crazy,” a chef told a reporter. “You have to do new things all the time, you have to focus on the food, you have to talk to the press.”
The lights went down, and a video extolling the gastronomy of Mexico began.
“We believe that Peru has made more efforts,” a government official at one of the tables remarked, of the P.R. offensive. “Now, in Mexico, we have a policy for culinary diplomacy.”
Rodolfo Guzmán, a chef from Chile, ascended the stage to collect the Chefs’ Choice Award. At Boragó, his restaurant in Santiago, he uses mostly indigenous ingredients, relying on more than two hundred foragers and small producers to supply the raw materials for dishes such as venison tartare with maqui berries and a soup of Patagonian rainwater served on a bed of moss. Guzmán had the dreamy, doomed look of a duellist (or, as more than one woman in the audience pointed out, of Johnny Depp). Unlike his peers, who pumped fists and garlanded themselves in saffron-colored raw-silk scarves furnished by LesConcierges, “the premier provider of global lifestyle services and solutions,” he seemed abashed to be standing on a podium, under a giant projection of his own head shot.
“Fantastic!” Jeffrey Merrihue, a marketing expert and “semi-pro” epicure, who had eaten in forty-one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, yelled to his wife, who had been to twenty-eight. “Where I was having lunch today, he was eating by himself, so I sent him the most expensive fucking glass of red wine in the whole restaurant and went over and had dessert with him!” He posted a picture to his social-media feeds, which also featured a shot of his young son “in a hotel bathrobe after falling into a fish pond at a 1 Michelin star restaurant in Warwick, England.”
Juan Pablo Ballesteros Canales was teetering on a stool. Ballesteros is the great-grandson of Dionisio Mollinedo Hernández, who, in 1912, founded Café de Tacuba, one of Mexico City’s classic restaurants. In 2013, Ballesteros opened Limosneros, a high-end but straightforwardly Mexican restaurant in a colonial building in the city’s centro histórico. He had poured everything into making Limosneros worthy of his heritage, restoring the building’s stone walls and brick ceilings, seeking out Huichol embroideries to hang on the walls, designing light fixtures that resembled guacamole pestles.
He drank a single malt from a snifter, grimacing. “We plan to be open for a hundred years!” he said, and looked around. “Is this real? No, it’s not real. It’s gossip.”
He scythed a hand through the air—as if to say, “And I mean all of it”—and continued, “Mexico’s got such richness that nobody ever expresses. What amount of subjectivity should you put on that tortilla?”
He took another sip. “They’re businessmen. They blow-jobbed their way through this. Pseudo critics—are they allowed to judge?
“I know the fisherman, I know the guy who killed the pig, I know the cow-slayer who tastes every dish before it’s on any menu. What I’m saying is, there are really great restaurants, but it’s all el dedazo,” he continued, using a Spanish word that refers, in Mexico, to “the big finger” that manipulates the political system.
The first World’s 50 Best Restaurants list appeared in 2002, in Restaurant, a British trade magazine. (William Reed Business Media, its parent company, also publishes such titles as Convenience Store and The Grocer.) “We were a bunch of youngish, stroppy food fans,” Chris Maillard, an editor at the time, recalled. “We played terrible indie music loudly in the office, which was on Carnaby Street, lunched anywhere from the local pub to the occasional more upmarket restaurant that would grudgingly give us a free meal, and we were very much not members of the traditional culinary establishment.”
The idea, Maillard thinks, was hashed out in the Shaston Arms, a London pub that does not serve food.
“Why are all restaurant guides awful?” somebody said.
“How difficult can it be?”
“Why don’t we do our own?”
“I know, let’s do one for the entire world!”
The project was intended as a onetime stunt. It nonetheless had some feeling behind it. At a moment when low-cost airlines had rendered Portugal as accessible as Portsmouth, Maillard and his colleagues considered the idea of restricting the conversation to a single geographical area (in the manner of the Michelin guide) an anachronism. They were also put off by Michelin’s gray-faced sensibility, its predilection for “daunting cheffy masterpieces in near-silent rooms,” as Maillard has said. Where would you want to go, they asked themselves, if you weren’t French, rich, or old? “We put the list together by calling contacts and friends all over the world and eliciting recommendations, then added in our own suggestions, and ordered it in a rather slapdash manner,” Maillard recalled. “Which all sounds a bit loose and random, but, in its first year, the list wasn’t intended to be at all definitive.”
ElBulli, a three-Michelin-star restaurant, came in first. But many of the winners—a Canadian B.Y.O.B. farmhouse, an open-air meat buffet in Kenya—embodied a more capacious notion of merit. Some of them had average food in an exceptional setting. Or they were flaky but did one great dish. In the guise of authoritativeness, the editors were making an argument: that fun mattered; that apricot-colored napkins folded into bishops’ hats didn’t; that inspiration could trump technique; that pleasure was as worthwhile a pursuit as perfection; that the Ambrosia Burger at Nepenthe (No. 34), a café on a cliff in Big Sur, could hold its own—at least, as an experience—with the gargouillou at Michel Bras (No. 40). Their selection was provocative, if not totally persuasive. Their twelfth-favorite restaurant in the world was Tangerine, a Casbah-themed Philadelphia restaurant that closed in 2009.
The editors figured the list was a good excuse for a party. They sent out invitations, anticipating a tepid response; almost all of the honorees accepted. The first World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony was held at a Mayfair restaurant called Hush, started by the actor Roger Moore’s son Geoffrey. The chefs had to buy their own drinks. But the event presented them with an opportunity to let loose in the company of peers, a rarity in a profession whose working hours coincide precisely with those during which most people like to go out. Maillard told me, “Roger himself—James Bond!—turned up to m.c., and the evening went surprisingly well. The highlight was when Albert Adrià, of elBulli, made an acceptance speech entirely in Catalan. Roger translated it as ‘Actually, I preferred Sean Connery.’ ”
The party became, for the chefs, a treasured annual debauch. “They’d move around London in packs,” Jay Rayner, the restaurant critic of the Observer, recalled. “They’d eat at each other’s restaurants. There would be a lunch after, where everyone was very hung over.” The awards—and the pre-parties and after parties that surrounded them, like inaugural balls—were an early stop on the symposium circuit to which modern chefs devote so much effort. (Next year, the awards will be held outside of London for the first time, in New York.)They were an incubator of alliances, the war where the stories formed. The food writer Andrea Petrini remembers the Italian chef Davide Scabin going missing in action one night and resurfacing the next afternoon, having attended a party in “a huge country house, like the one in ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’ ” The Danish prodigy René Redzepi passed his phone around, pressing his wife’s sonogram on anyone who would look.
Because the chefs came, the list mattered, and because the list mattered the chefs came. It was a question of reputation, but also of profit. Even if the majority of the world’s restaurants have no interest in—or chance of—getting on the list, for the most ambitious ones inclusion can be the difference between obscurity and renown. Joannès Rivière, the chef and owner of Cuisine Wat Damnak, which is situated in a traditional Khmer house in Siem Reap, Cambodia, appeared on the Asia list for the first time this year, at No. 50. Rivière told me that his low-season turnover had increased by fifty per cent since the announcement. “June is our slowest month, and, on the slowest nights, we usually do fifteen guests,” he said. “This year, we never had fewer than thirty.” Redzepi, of Noma—which, to this day, has only two Michelin stars—has been open about the fact that the 50 Best helped to turn around his business. According to Bloomberg, the day after Noma captured the No. 1 slot, in 2010, a hundred thousand people tried to book a table. Three years later, when El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona, Spain, outranked Noma for the first time, its Web site received two and a half million hits in twenty-four hours. The waiting list ballooned to a year.
“The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards are the dish du jour, leaving the French culinary guides looking like cold potatoes,” the London Sunday Times proclaimed last year, asserting that the 50 Best had become the food industry’s mightiest arbiter. Even accounting for national chauvinism, there is no doubt that the 50 Best has gone from a lark to a behemoth. Its main sponsors are San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. Chefs play to the list, mindful of its aesthetic preferences and its methodological weaknesses.
At Eleven Madison Park, as John Colapinto wrote in this magazine, Daniel Humm and Will Guidara devised an entire program of changes motivated in part by the perception that “the San Pellegrino voters reward restaurants with a strong sense of place, and of theatre.” They included a three-card-monte dessert and—further belaboring the locavore trend—a cheese-and-beer course that emerged from an old-fashioned Central Park picnic basket. Ned Frame, who worked as a captain there, told me that employees were encouraged to participate in something called the Ownership Program, under which they were made responsible for a certain aspect—say, silverware or coffee—of the restaurant’s experience. Part of the program was a series of talks called “Notes from the Kitchen,” some installments of which covered the 50 Best list. Frame and several colleagues were assigned to research each of the top ten winners and to present their findings to the entire staff.
“I have friends who are smart, interesting guys who lose their shit over getting No. 1,” the chef David Chang told me. Last year, he recalled, he balked at attending the awards ceremony, in London. “Eric Ripert”—of Le Bernardin—“told me, ‘I think you should go.’ ” Chang said, “I can criticize it all I want, but it’s so powerful.”
The Web site Daily Meal recently ran an article that, citing a debate on Twitter, questioned the credibility of the 50 Best awards: “The Oscars of the Food World or a Complete Schmozzle?” They are probably both, in that they are indispensable to the industry—in terms of both its bottom line and its self-regard—even as they command less respect than attention. “It’s a silly, silly list,” Frank Bruni, the former Times restaurant critic, said. “But you need someone to collapse the universe for you. As surely as the nineteen-fifties housewife turned to Consumer Reports to figure out whether to get a Maytag or an Electrolux, the 2015 gourmand is turning to San Pellegrino.” The 50 Best, which is as much about a sort of competitive hedonism as it is about connoisseurship, is the restaurant guide its era demands—edible clickbait, a Baedeker’s for bucket-listers. If the wine industry has become Parkerized, then the restaurant world might be said to have been Pellegrinoed.
Unlike Michelin, which employs a brigade of full-time inspectors, the 50 Best relies on volunteers, a group of “restaurant-industry experts.” The members of the Diners Club World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy, as it is called, are divided into twenty-seven regions. Each region has a chairperson, who appoints thirty-six voters (he or she being one of them), of whom roughly a third are chefs and restaurateurs, a third food journalists, and a third “well-travelled gastronomes.” Each voter has seven votes, submitted in order of preference for restaurants at which he has eaten in the previous eighteen months. At least three of the votes must go to restaurants outside his region. There are not too many other rules, but voters can’t select restaurants in which they have a financial stake, and, with the exception of the regional chairs, they are supposed to remain anonymous.
“Given that this list is based on personal experiences it can never be definitive,” the 50 Best Web site declares. “But we believe it is an honorable survey of current tastes and a credible indicator of the best places to eat around the globe.” (For some years, the 50 Best list has actually included a hundred restaurants.) Still, the voting system creates confusion. The organizers decline to release the numbers on which they base the ranking, but, curiously, until this year there had never been a tie. Various rankings contradict one another: according to Asia’s 50 Best, Bangkok’s Gaggan is the best restaurant in Asia, but the World’s 50 Best considers it less good than Tokyo’s Narisawa. The regions are intended to insure that the most populous countries don’t overwhelm the vote, but they are apportioned according to no particular formula. (William Drew, the group editor of the World’s 50 Best, said that the regions are redrawn every year, according to such factors as culinary history, population size, G.D.P., and standard of living, but he admitted that “ultimately it’s a qualitative judgment.”) After Lima hosted the Latin America’s 50 Best awards, in 2013 and 2014, with the Peruvian tourism commission as a sponsor, South America was split from two regions into three, leading to accusations of gerrymandering and FIFA-like favoritism. (Drew denies them.) Last year, the 50 Best hired Deloitte to certify the voting results. But, despite the administrators’ recent efforts, their reluctance, or inability, to close some notorious loopholes has given the voting process the reputation of, as the Australian recently wrote, “a lobbying exercise worthy of a House of Cards plot.” Allan Jenkins, the editor of the Observer Food Monthly, said, “I don’t think it’s anything nefarious. I think they’ve been ambushed by their success. They’re basically driving a juggernaut now and the brakes are a bit shit.”
On one level, the suspicion surrounding the 50 Best is conceptual. People simply find its premise to be flawed. Helen Rosner, of the Web site Eater, told me, “Even if you set out to do this with absolutely impeccable integrity, it is astonishingly unrealistic, given the scale of humanity and our life span and our gastronomic limitations, for anyone to make any kind of informed objective linear ranking in a certain time frame of the best restaurants in the world.” This is, in some ways, a problem of nomenclature. The list might more accurately be called The World’s Hottest 50 Restaurants, or 50 Restaurants We Enjoyed During the Past Eighteen Months. The presence of a superlative strikes literalists as either dishonest or deluded—a beauty pageant masquerading as a spelling bee. Even if you could assess all the restaurants in the world, other critics ask, how could you presume to compare a bistro, a tapas bar, an izakaya, a crêperie?
The organization does not reimburse jurors for their meals. (The simple brilliance of the 50 Best business model is that, in the manner of a news aggregator, it monetizes things for which other people bear the cost.) Nor does it insist that the jurors themselves pay. Freebies are O.K. “We trust our voters to make a judgment call as to whether a restaurant is fantastic, whether or not they paid,” William Drew told me. We were sitting in a bakery in Mexico City. Drew, an affable Englishman in a blazer and jeans, was drinking an Americano. I had a cookie. He was calmly insistent that special treatment didn’t influence the list’s results. It is true that the food world is, by nature, hospitable. In some cases, the rejection of an extra course or a topped-off wineglass might cause more offense than it would be worth, and could also prompt the loss of anonymity for a voter. I asked Drew if he had ever thought about giving the jurors a budget, if only to eliminate the impression that they were susceptible to being bought. “It doesn’t make economic sense,” he said. “We’re not about sending a small group of élite inspectors around the world. It’s about people’s existing views.” Besides, he continued, even if 50 Best voters were comped meals, no one knew that they were 50 Best voters. “Freebies are allowed because you have to remain anonymous,” he said.
“What happens if voters violate the rules?” I asked.
“Their votes are discounted or they’re taken off the voting panel.”
“Has that ever happened?”
“How many times?”
“I wouldn’t like to say.”
The World’s 50 Best isn’t the Illuminati—a restaurateur who wanted to find out the identities of its members could get a decent idea, with a little effort. (Many of the people quoted in this story are former or current judges.) Some jurors are more guarded than others. In Singapore, one had “Panelist for SP World 50 Best” printed on her business card. Leisa Tyler, who was the chairman for Southeast Asia (South), asked the juror, Evelyn Chen, to delete the reference. According to Tyler, Chen continued handing out the cards at restaurants, and Tyler removed her from the panel. (Chen says that she used the business card during a period when the 50 Best made the jurors’ identities public. Both she and Drew maintain that she changed the card as soon as she was asked to.) In 2014, when Tyler stepped down from the 50 Best, Chen was tapped to replace her as regional chairman.
The French food critic François Simon has described the 50 Best as a sort of childlike racket—“a world order of Care Bears, and this under the cynical gaze of a sparkling water.” The organization is cuddly enough with its sponsors, particularly San Pellegrino, so that, in the popular imagination, they are indistinguishable. (Imagine if the Lakers were known simply as the Staples.) Drew assured me that “there is no conspiracy with the sponsors.” Yet the belief persists. The chef Thierry Marx told French GQ, “The 50 Best, I don’t care. The one time I talked to them, they told me, ‘You, you support Badoit, you don’t have a chance of getting on the list.’ ” Intrigued by the idea of rival water gangs, I called around to many of the 50 Best. Some serve Pellegrino; some don’t. The idea that the aquatic-industrial complex controls the list was easily disproved. Yet I sensed, even among restaurants that have benefitted handsomely from the 50 Best’s attentions, an embarrassment about the relationship between the organization and its sponsors. Noma’s representative replied seventeen minutes after I wrote to him: “I can confirm we do not serve Pellegrino water at Noma—nor have we ever done.”
It’s not actually that easy to eat enough world-class meals to make a meaningful assessment of them. According to several voters, just coming up with seven names to put on the ballot can be a stretch: even if you go to one exceptional restaurant a month for eighteen months, you wind up having to vote, by default, for nearly half of them. “It’s more like an attendance report,” Frank Bruni said. “The judges invariably vote for places they’ve gone, because, whatever they happened to think of those places, they can’t vote for places they haven’t been.” Both chefs and journalists feel obliged to say yes when they’re asked to join the academy, worrying that if they don’t they won’t make the list or get access. But jurors who don’t have the time or money to dine widely in a given period can find themselves in an awkward position. William Drew said that, starting this year, the 50 Best has required voters to click on an attestation—“Can you guarantee that you’ve been to this restaurant in the past eighteen months?”—and to specify the date of their visit, but, as a fraud-busting measure, this seems only slightly more effective than exacting a birthdate from visitors to liquor Web sites.
Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet appeared on the 2015 list at No. 24. Billing itself as “the first restaurant of its kind attempting to unite food with multi-sensorial technologies in order to create a fully immersive dining experience,” it opened in Shanghai, in May of 2012, to tremendous buzz. It is a spectacular-sounding place: “Mr. Pairet’s play on fish and chips (a single, battered caper berry stuffed with anchovy paste and paired with a Scottish beer),” the Times wrote, “emerges in a dreary storm with images of raindrops on the walls and the sounds of thunder, before a British flag is illuminated on the table and the Beatles’ ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ begins to play.” The caper berry is one of twenty courses. The restaurant serves dinner five days a week to a single table of ten diners. In eighteen months, then, it has entertained at most thirty-six hundred people. In order to appear on the list at No. 24, Ultraviolet would have to have garnered at least seventy-five votes, meaning that a 50 Best judge would have had to eat there practically one night out of every five.
Savvy restaurateurs might try to find a way around the geography problem: if voters can’t get to their restaurants, why not bring their restaurants to voters? Chefs cook for judges on their home turf during conventions and pop-ups and guest residencies; they swing through city after city when they have a cookbook to promote. Over the years, a plugged-in food person will have eaten a cumulative meal of even the most far-flung restaurant’s food.
Voting based on hearsay or hype or “a dining experience that does not take place at the restaurant itself,” which the 50 Best prohibits, is not exactly hanging chads. But the effect of cronyism—both individual and institutional—is homogenizing. The restaurants in the upper reaches of the list tend to fall into a certain mode. They are all the same place, Giles Coren once conjectured in the London Times, “only the face changes, like Doctor Who.” Just as there is Oscar bait, there is 50 Best bait. “It’s opening up in Beijing,” David Chang said, imagining the archetypal 50 Best restaurant. “It’s a Chinese restaurant by a guy who worked for Adrià, Redzepi, and Keller. He cooks over fire. Everything is a story of his terroir. He has his own farm and hand-dives for his own sea urchins.” Hearing about 50 Best winners, and having eaten at a few of them, I started to think of them as icebreaker restaurants—places that create moments, that give you prompts. This can be exhilarating, or it can be infantilizing. It is the dining experience as Cards Against Humanity.
June 24, 2013Buy the print »
This year’s list includes three restaurants with female chefs—Helena Rizzo, who shares the kitchen at Maní, in São Paulo, with her husband; Pía León, who also works with her husband, at Central, in Lima; and Elena Arzak, who runs Arzak, in San Sebastián, with her father. There’s Thomas Keller, but no Alice Waters (she did get a lifetime-achievement award, in 2007); Inaki Aizpitarte is represented, but April Bloomfield is not. To remedy the perpetual gender imbalance, the 50 Best in 2011 introduced the Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef Award, which, this year, went to Hélène Darroze. “Darroze is so well known in the restaurant world that she inspired the character of Colette in the 2007 film Ratatouille,” the citation read. “Although the character’s aggressive kitchen style is far from a reflection of Darroze, the big heart she reveals towards the end of the movie is more fitting.” At the 2014 ceremony, where the British chef Fergus Henderson received a lifetime-achievement award, his wife, Margot, also a chef, told the Financial Times that the 50 Best tended to reward a type of cooking that is “very male.”
The 50 Best aims to be the anti-Michelin, but it can be equally Eurocentric. Only eighteen restaurants in the top fifty are not in Europe or America, and, of those, all but a handful of the chefs have worked in Europe. “Fine, you’re using local ingredients, but you’re still French-trained, doing service à la russe, referring to things as ‘a riff on panna cotta,’ ” Helen Rosner said. “It erases the culinary traditions that are inherent to other places. The food of China and of South Africa has value, and it doesn’t need to be shoved into the extremely restrictive corsetry of a European-style tasting menu.” The entire continent of Africa warrants one entry, and it is run by a British-born white man.
In 2013, Tourism Australia was looking for ways to publicize the country’s gastronomy. “What consistently came up in the surveys we did was that when people had been to Australia they rated our food and wine as good as anywhere in the world,” John O’Sullivan, the agency’s managing director, recalled. “But if they hadn’t been they rated it only seventh or eighth.” O’Sullivan and his colleagues batted around ideas. Eventually, they came up with an ambitious project: Invite the World to Dinner.
At first, they intended the event to be for consumers. “Then we sort of realized that if we really wanted to spread the word the best way was to get the people who could address that issue and actually write and tell the story of Australia’s food and wine offering,” O’Sullivan recalled. (Countries such as Sweden, Mexico, and Peru have had success with similar initiatives.) So the tourist board invited eighty-six international “cultural influencers” to Australia. When I asked how many of them had been 50 Best voters, O’Sullivan’s office replied, “There was likely quite a high number of judges in our midst,” adding that the heads of France, the U.K. and Ireland, Japan, India, Brazil, Southeast Asia, and Australia and New Zealand—a quarter of the regional chairs—had attended. The tourist board, with partner airlines, flew the guests business class. It put them up in the best hotels. “What we also said to them was, ‘Tell us what you want to do when you get here,’ ” O’Sullivan said. “A. A. Gill wanted to go kangaroo shooting—obviously, we couldn’t do that, but there were all types of requests.”
The centerpiece of the junket was a six-hour dinner party, prepared by the Australian chefs Neil Perry, Peter Gilmore, and Ben Shewry (of Attica, at No. 32, the only Australian restaurant in the top fifty). On November 14, 2014, the guests were instructed to meet at Franklin Wharf, in Hobart, where they were greeted with wild angasi oysters and sparkling wine. They were loaded onto jet boats and spirited up the Derwent River to the Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park. There, on a pavilion that jutted over the water, they huddled around fire pits constructed from river pebbles. The chefs barbecued lobsters; Aboriginal musicians played didgeridoos. There was more: charcoal-grilled Tasmanian abalone, whiting in paperbark, wallaby consommé. The party then proceeded by ferry to the Museum of Old and New Art, where, around long tables, the guests sat down to a six-course meal.
“It was surreal, because it was kind of like your wedding day, when you get that advice to stand back in a corner of a room and just watch what’s going on around you for a few minutes,” O’Sullivan said. “I think the estimated reach of this room—when you put in all the followers, viewers, digital subscribers—was around five hundred million people.” When the 2015 World’s 50 Best awards were announced, the following June, Australia’s presence on the full list doubled, with Attica remaining at No. 32 and Quay (Gilmore’s restaurant, previously No. 60), Sepia (Martin Benn), and Brae (Dan Hunter), holding, respectively, the No. 58, No. 84, and No. 87 positions. Sepia received the One to Watch Award, according to O’Sullivan, “as a direct result of Invite the World to Dinner.” (William Drew told me, “I can categorically state that Sepia did not win the One to Watch Award as a direct result of Invite the World to Dinner.”) The press release noted, “Eric Ripert was so taken with the restaurant on a recent visit to Australia that he was moved to invite Benn and his team to Le Bernardin to do their thing, thereby sharing the excitement of his discovery with New York.”
In May, before this year’s list was to be unveiled, in London, a Web site went live. “We, the culinary connoisseurs of all countries and creeds: cooks, critics or simply lovers of Good Food, urge you to stop giving your sponsorship and support to this opaque, obsequious ranking, where nationalism trumps quality, sexism trumps diversity and the spotlight is on the Celebrity Chef instead of the health and satisfaction of the customer,” a petition, available in six languages, declared. The founders of the site were three Frenchwomen—a journalist, a P.R. consultant, and a food blogger. They had enlisted an impressive roster of food-world figures as signatories, including the chefs Georges Blanc, Francis Mallmann (then No. 40 in Latin America), and Joël Robuchon (then No. 31 in the world). They were calling themselves Occupy 50 Best.
Two weeks later, they received an e-mailed letter from a lawyer, ordering them to cease and desist from using the 50 Best logo. “The e-mail also said that the site’s Internet server in France, OVH, had been notified that Occupy 50 Best was using the 50 Best logo without permission,” the Times reported. “OVH took down the site, but restored it about an hour later, after Occupy 50 Best changed the logos and took to Facebook and Twitter, asserting that its rights to free speech were being violated.” (William Drew told me, “We respect the right of Occupy 50 Best to express its free opinions, even if we don’t agree with its aims or views.”)
May 30, 2005Buy the print »
“We just wanted to mess with them a little bit,” Zoé Reyners, the P.R. consultant, told me, when I met with her recently in Paris. “I was annoyed by this group of the food world. It’s like a little mafia.”
Reyners and I were eating dinner at Jaja, a laid-back restaurant in the Marais: “free seating,” open kitchen, urns full of pussy willows. We talked for hours, but I was never able to get a solid grip on the genesis of the movement. Reyners said that she and her friends had dreamed it up in a bar. Later, she said that the idea had originated with some journalists and chefs she knew, who didn’t want their names used for fear of professional retaliation. She told awesome tales of travelling to Georgia on a whim, meeting the President, and later becoming a counsellor at the country’s U.S. Embassy at the age of twenty-four, which sounded far-fetched until she reached into her handbag and pulled out a Georgian diplomatic passport.
Whatever the origins of Occupy 50 Best, it embodies a fear that best-restaurantism is a game as unwinnable and rigged as the credit-default-swap market. In this view, the 50 Best is the food world’s great vampire squid. Its ascendance represents the triumph of free markets over protectionist systems, marketers over technocrats, England over France. Unsurprisingly, the French have been the 50 Best’s most vocal and furious critics. Feeling that their patrimony is being devalued, they’ve chosen to raise fists rather than to organize junkets. “Brussels for the economy, London for gastronomy,” Périco Légasse, the food and wine editor of Marianne, wrote, condemning the 50 Best as a globalizing force that threatens French sovereignty. “It’s all a little bit Madoff,” the French diplomat Philippe Faure told French GQ. “The Anglo-Saxons are showing that they’re willfully robbing us of laurels. We’re going to fight them, to show them that we’re not just a bunch of old geezers!”
Faure was the editor of “20 Measures for 2020,” a committee report that the French government published this spring. The rapporteurs were the chefs Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy. The paper was technically a blueprint for helping French food and wine to “re-enchant the world,” but really it was a war plan for combatting the World’s 50 Best, which, the authors asserted in the third paragraph, was “clearly influenced by the corporations that subsidize it.” They continued, “In the course of our discussions, the ranking ‘World’s 50 Best’ has been the object of controversy. For some, it was scarcely important; for others, biased; and for everyone, finally, like a public-relations operation. But if it solely concerns marketing, it is effective marketing. A growing proportion of the public refers to it, whether we like it or not.” The report suggested that France should invest in social networks and online promotion; it should encourage Michelin to cover more territories; it should throw a glitzy annual ceremony around the French guides’ publication. “Faced with ‘50 Best,’ ” the authors advised, “France should communicate in a keen and concerted manner the ethical and conceptual weaknesses of this ranking.”
Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, recently appointed Faure to be France’s “gastrodiplomat,” a new position. When I spoke to Faure in October, he had reined in his rhetoric, but he couldn’t help remarking, of the 50 Best, “There is absolutely no clarity at all—it’s bullshit.” He had recently met with Zoé Reyners. “I find it very interesting, but it’s not us,” he said, of Occupy 50 Best. Faure was working feverishly on a project called La Liste: a “serious and honest” international restaurant guide, compiled according to a complicated-sounding algorithm that he likened to tennis’s A.T.P. rankings. It will launch just before Christmas. “I think we have a better product,” Faure said. “Give us two or three years, and we should rather easily win this battle.”
The best restaurant I ever went to, anyway, was somewhere between Beirut and its northern suburbs. It was unprepossessing: a hut of a building on an unmarked road. We descended into its cool, darkened interior, where there wasn’t much happening, and past some stainless-steel coolers, from which we were told to choose a fish. There was mullet, pandora, grouper. We took a red snapper. We walked through the back door, which gave onto a terrace: canvas umbrellas, wooden chairs, cobalt-colored paper tablecloths cinched with metal clips. The restaurant overlooked a boulder-studded cove with a narrow-necked inlet that led to the Mediterranean. Someone had arrived in an inflatable boat. A group of a dozen or so men—bronzed, luxuriantly thickset, wearing pink trunks and gold chains—were in the midst of what appeared to be a marathon lunch at two plastic tables set ankle-deep in the sea, which was warm and green.
The snapper came raw, sliced open and cross-hatched. We pulled chunks from the grid, like puzzle pieces, and dipped them in soy sauce. A waiter wearing a marinière and a sailor’s cap brought Almaza beer in mugs with salt on the rim. We ate hummus, then we swam. We ate sabbidej mtabbal—squid cooked in its ink—and swam again. I have no idea what the restaurant was called, but I can taste it. ♦
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