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What’s Wrong With the 2017 World’s 50 Best Restaurants List

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There is so much more to know than just “who won”

Photo: Sam Tabone/Getty

Will Guidara and Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan was named the World’s Best Restaurant during a ceremony in Melbourne last night. This means that local New York radio anchors and television stations are eagerly spreading the glorious news. This means countless food writers across the globe are pitching Eleven Madison Park stories. “Is it really the world’s best restaurant? My buddy has a reservation maybe I should go find out if it’s any good?”

And this means Eleven Madison Park has, in less than a day, has filled up its books for the entire month of May for parties of two. That’s all the more impressive when you consider those reservations, like an Expedia hotel deal, require a non-refundable deposit of $642.

It’s all a vote of confidence for a venue that will completely overhaul its menu six days from now, close for renovations over the summer, reopen with an unknown menu at an unknown price, and revamp its entire area for walk-ins. But try not to think about that! It’s the World’s Best Restaurant! We should be celebrating, right?

This is precisely what the 50 Best folks want: Ample publicity for their own product and tales of financial windfalls for the victor distract from a larger and more troubling narrative. That narrative reveals itself very clearly when you spend literally half a second looking at the data: The World’s 50 Best List, routinely criticized for its lack of female-run restaurants, its European focus, and its abundance of exorbitant tasting menu spots, has produced yet another list of male-dominant, European-heavy, expensive tasting menu restaurants.

There were two female head chefs on last year’s list, and three in this year’s edition. Incredibly enough, all three of those chefs work in kitchens co-run by men. The list doesn’t include a single woman who’s the sole chef of a restaurant. This under-representation was true last year, and pending any major changes to the voting process, or the way so many media outlets cover the awards, it could very well be true next year as well.

The power of the press shouldn’t be underestimated here. In 2013, Time thought it would be a good idea to publish a cover story titled “The Gods of Food” that didn’t include a single woman in its list of 50-plus chefs. The reaction was swift and fierce, with Slate, Jezebel, and most of the food writing community chiming in with think pieces. Time itself even engaged in a bit of introspection, running a story that criticized the initial feature and that looked into deeper issues surrounding media biases and sexism in the kitchen.

Now imagine for a second that Time, instead of publishing a de facto mea culpa, instead offered a second “Gods of Food” cover story with no female chefs. And then a third. And a fourth. And then imagine those subsequent issues being embraced publicly by chefs — despite continued media pushback. This of course is no parallel universe hypothetical; it’s the very real case of the World’s 50 Best list, a culinary guide that has failed to find a way to respond to criticism and increase female representation on the list year after year. (One exception: It now hands out token “world’s best female chef” awards, usually to women chefs who don’t make the list — so, the world’s best female chef isn’t as good as any of the male chefs on the list?)

50 Best seems to be growing in popularity even as it refuses to meaningfully change. And legitimate news organizations, known for their otherwise responsible coverage, prefer to opt for breezy summaries of the winners rather than engage in substantive reporting on the list’s deficiencies.

How is it that the Los Angeles Times reporter covering the story fails to note the lack of woman chefs, and what does it say about locally-minded journalism that she doesn’t take note of the fact that there are no restaurants from Los Angeles, one of our nation’s culinary capitals, on the list?

How is it that CNN, famous for its dogged coverage of politics, seems to espouse an access journalism approach, touting an “exclusive” chat with Guidara and Humm after the awards, while relegating a sole comment about the lack of female representation to a subordinate clause in the final sentence of the story?

Publishing a list of 50 Best winners with little context and no critical thought isn’t journalism; it’s thinly veiled PR.

I wonder how many radio listeners and TV watchers would take the awards as seriously if they knew its omission of female chefs borders on systematic exclusion, and if they knew the only restaurant from mainland China, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people, a land with thousands of years of gastronomic history, is a $600-per-person spot run by a French guy specializing in “psycho taste” and “avant-garde figurative cuisine.”

I wonder how many prospective diners really want journalists interviewing the victorious chefs as if they were sports stars after a championship game. And I wonder why so many reporters didn’t think it was important to mention that dinner for two at Eleven Madison will cost more than $1,000 after wine?

It’s been great to see some of my colleagues at other publications push back against this nonsense. But I wish more news organizations would treat culinary awards like Michelin, Zagat, and 50 Best as an opportunity to think critically about the opaque organizations that influence where so many people spend their scarce disposable income, rather than a one-sided platform to promote the winners.

I wish the male chefs who financially benefit from these awards would use their bully pulpits a bit more to promote their female colleagues who are so often left out of the mix.

And I wish I looked at some aspects of 50 Best with a better eye for, let’s say, business context, in previous years. When I cover Michelin, I take note of the fact that the guides are produced by Europe’s largest tire maker. It’s a connection I note because when the Michelin brothers founded the guide in 1900, they intended it as a way to get people to drive more and [insert evil laugh] sell more tires! Michelin has, recently indicated that the guide still acts as a “halo brand” for all those tires.

Going forward, when I cover 50 Best, I should note that the rankings are a product of William Reed, a business-to-business media company that started with a grocery information service in 1862 (a subscription to The Grocer, as it’s called, now costs £355). William Reed, incidentally, is launching a new “food innovation service” that will apparently be a “must-have product for food innovators working across retail, manufacturing, restaurants, pubs, bars and the wider foodservice market,” according to a job posting. That job will involve “monitoring the online presence of key chefs, other food innovators and competitors, as well as all relevant websites and events.”

Oh, just one more thing. What did CNN learn from that exclusive interview with Eleven Madison Park? Here’s what Guidara had to say: “For us, any time you succeed in anything you need the ability to take stock of what got you there in the first place. For us it's this relationship, this trust, this dynamic.”

There you go. It’s all about as enlightening as a post-game interview, which isn’t what you’d want if the baseball player was personally charging you a cool grand to watch him play.

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