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Trash Talk and Underdelivering at the ‘Inclusive’ World Restaurant Awards

Despite grand intentions, the awards felt familiar and Eurocentric

Two white men with white hair, both named Alain, hold a plate-shaped trophy in front of a gray step-and-repeat.
Alain Passard and Alain Ducasse
Dominique Charriau

It’s cocktail hour at the World Restaurant Awards and Matty Matheson is nattily dressed in a three-piece plaid suit and cap, yet with tattoos still visible. The Toronto cookbook author and chef is trash-talking one of his competitors in the evening’s Best Instagram Account category. “Alain Passard is a loser,” he says jokingly of the laureled French chef. He then changes his tune. “I have 100 percent zero chance of winning. Alain Passard is one of the greatest chefs of all time. I’m a guy who takes naked selfies at Noma.” (Turns out, Matheson was right about his chances. Passard took the title.)

Amid criticism of restaurant awards as too insular, the newly minted World Restaurant Awards, held yesterday at the Palais Brongniart in Paris, fashioned itself as more inclusive than its brethren, such as the World’s 50 Best Restaurants or the Michelin Guide. It took conscious steps to increase the diversity of both its judging panel and its nominees. And indeed the resulting mashup of styles, nationalities and ages produces some interesting juxtapositions at the event, with oldsters and newsters elbow to elbow, jockeying to position themselves in group photos with one another. Alex Atala, Alain Ducasse, Dan Barber, and Hélène Darroze mingle with Instagrammers, little-known chefs, and influencers. The requested “cocktail dress” has been liberally interpreted, from long, formal gowns, worn by, for example, South African TV personality Lorna Maseko, to T-shirts and sneakers. Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco, who is a presenter, doesn’t think to doff his down jacket, even onstage (dude, haven’t you heard of coat check?).

Created by the international talent, media, and event agency IMG in cooperation with the food writer-broadcasters Joe Warwick (co-founder of the World’s 50 Best) and Andrea Petrini, the World Restaurant Awards convened an intentionally gender-balanced pool of 100 judges — 50 men and 50 women. The judging panel included food writers as well as renowned chefs like Massimo Bottura, David Chang, René Redzepi, Ana Roš, Yotam Ottolenghi, and Clare Smyth.

Petrini says last May, the majority of the judges gathered for a workshop in Paris to figure out what form these new awards would take. They created 18 categories, both of the expected variety (Restaurant of the Year, Arrival of the Year) and less so (Tattoo-Free Chef, Tweezer-Free Kitchen), with a long-list of some 300 contenders.

Twelve “inspectors” had the daunting task of traveling the world — by economy class, Petrini specifies — to winnow down the candidates to a short list of five per category for the more prestigious Big Plate awards (Restaurant of the Year, Enduring Classics, Ethical Thinking, for example) and three for the Small Plate awards (Trolley of the Year, Red Wine-Serving Restaurant, Tattoo-Free Chef of the Year). Warwick, Petrini, and the inspectors then chose the winners (see the full list below).

The organizers initially ballyhooed the event as being “the world’s first televised restaurant awards ceremony,” where the restaurant industry would be joined by “stars of stage and screen,” though neither really materialized. The awards, in the end, were not televised, though the organizers say they may be in the future. French entertainer Antoine de Caunes, tasked with emcee-ing the event, moved it along at a brisk clip with a sort of Gallic Borscht Belt humor that at times didn’t translate (he proposed a “toast” by pulling out a piece of toast; he made a joke about his wife). The 600-member audience reacted to his efforts with polite laughter and sometimes confused silence. Enthusiasm arose from the crowd as the nominees for each category are called out, and the corresponding restaurant’s contingent whoops with glee.

After the ceremony, a pastry chef in the audience says faintly that it was “fairly well done” and that it would probably take off in future years. A handsome, yet notably subdued couple, sitting at a table away from the main dining area, introduce themselves as two award nominees, Pia León, of the five-month old Kjolle (nominated as Arrival of the Year), and Virgilio Martínez, of Central and Mil (Mil was nominated in the Off-Map Destination category). Both of their categories went to other candidates. Understandably disappointed, Martínez says he is glad there was one South American winner (Brazil’s Mocoto, in the No Reservations Required category) but felt overall that the awards, despite their intentions, were “too Eurocentric.” For change to happen, he says, “it takes time.”

Despite what seems to be the organizers’ sincere efforts, the World Restaurant Awards’ first attempt has fallen short of its stated goal to make a better restaurant awards. To be sure, the event short-listed restaurants with no international awards to their name — like Tokyo’s Deli Fu Cious, famous for its fish burgers and conger eel hot dogs. Yet the event fell into many of the same traps as the international restaurant awards juggernauts it tried to subvert. Next time around, maybe the attempted revolution will succeed — and be televised.

2019 World Restaurant Award Winners

Big Plates

Restaurant of the Year – Wolfgat, Paternoster, South Africa

Arrival of the Year – Inua, Tokyo, Japan

Original Thinking – Le Clarence, Paris, France

Off-Map Destination – Wolfgat, Paternoster, South Africa

No Reservations Required – Mocoto, São Paulo, Brazil

House Special – Lido 84’s Cacio e Pepe “en vessie,” Lombardy, Italy

Forward Drinking – Mugaritz, San Sebastián, Spain

Event of the Year – Refugee Food Festival, worldwide, France

Ethical Thinking – Refettorio (Food For Soul), various locations, Italy

Enduring Classic – La Mère Brazier, Lyon, France

Collaboration of the Year – Paradiso x Gortnanain Farm, Cork, Ireland

Atmosphere – Vespertine, Los Angeles, United States

Small Plates

Tweezer-Free Kitchen of the Year – Bo.Lan, Bangkok, Thailand

Trolley of the Year – Ballymaloe House, Cork, Ireland

Long-Form Journalism – Lisa Abend, Fool Magazine “The Food Circus”

Red-Wine Serving Restaurant – Noble Rot, London, United Kingdom

Tattoo-Free Chef of the Year – Alain Ducasse, Paris, France

Instagram Account of the Year – @alain_passard, Paris, France

Sono Motoyama is a journalist who lives in the Paris area.
Editor: Monica Burton

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