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Why Does the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List Still Get It So Wrong?

In a time of change, one of the industry’s most prominent awards remains painfully regressive

Massimo Bottura faced the press after Osteria Francescana won the title of “World’s Best Restaurant” at the 2018 World’s 50 Best Awards
Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, which purports to reflect the “diversity of the world’s culinary landscape,” dropped its annual ode to expensive European-esque tasting-menu restaurants run by men last night. If that characterization doesn’t come across as an axiomatic argument against the list itself, against giving the rankings any type of credulity, consider the following:

This past year saw the rise of the #MeToo movement, which shined a light on sexual harassment at top American restaurants and put the abuse endemic to restaurants front and center. In its wake, critics and reporters have also debated which restaurants deserve attention and praise, and why. The James Beard Foundation voters, acknowledging that America’s restaurant community is far more diverse than its previous honorees would suggest, awarded 11 out of 16 culinary accolades to women, people of color, or both at its gala just over a month ago.

Yet while so much of the food world is coming to grips with entrenched sexism and racism in the industry, its awards, and its adjacent media, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list isn’t really changing much at all. The list, in 2018, remains over 50 percent European, shockingly expensive, inexcusably male, and with strong neo-colonialist overtones.

The top Spanish restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca, doesn’t publish its menu online, doesn’t publish its prices online, and makes you book your table a year ahead. The only restaurant from mainland China, the most populous nation in the world, is again a $600-per-person spot run by a French guy (Paul Pairet). The only restaurant in Singapore is run by, you guessed it, a French guy (Julien Royer). The only African restaurant restaurant on the list is, as it has been so many times, a globally minded spot run by a British-born chef (Luke Dale-Roberts).

And once again, no restaurants from the South Asian subcontinent, a landmass that makes up about a quarter of the earth’s population, made the list.

Eleven Madison Park, the top U.S. restaurant, managed to rank No. 4, even though it was closed for four months last year, while Atelier Crenn, an award-winning avant-garde restaurant that was open the entire year, was kicked off the long list entirely (it ranked 87th last year). The ejection of Crenn was particularly curious since it came in the wake of the 2016 World’s 50 Best “Best Female Chef” winner criticizing the organization for gender imbalance and for treating women like sport. The San Francisco tasting-menu spot was one of just two U.S. restaurants that dropped from the longer list this year, and the only one to drop from the list after a single year on it.

Also not great: Only five of the restaurants on the list are run by female chefs. That’s up from three last year, with the addition of Hiša Franko and a changing of the guard at Nahm (the new chef, Pim Techamuanvivit, joined this spring, after voting had ended). And only two of those five venues are run without male co-head chefs.

The awards ceremony, as usual, felt less like an evening of self-reflection with calls to action (one remembers Annabella Sciorra, Ashley Judd, and Salma Hayek taking the stage at the Oscars), and more like a party — to be preceded and followed by actual parties, of course. The only real mention of gender disparities or kitchen culture was given by Clare Smyth, who was awarded the unnecessary “Best Female Chef” award. Smyth was, of course, left off the actual list.

The male announcers breezed through the program with an attitude that could generously be described as jocular. How could 50 Best editor William Drew’s tribute to Anthony Bourdain (who called the list “bullshit”) make no reference to mental health, self-harm, or suicide prevention?

Why would announcer Mark Durden-Smith once again say, “Tonight’s all about girl power,” when so few women made the list?

What would prompt a male announcer, after presenting a young chef from Taiwan with a scholarship award, to suggest that she might go into accounting one day?

Why can’t Durden-Smith properly pronounce names of restaurants and people who have been on the list for years?

While the list does focus attention on cities Michelin has avoided (or since expanded to) — Lima, Mexico City, Brazil, Bangkok, and this year, Istanbul — it doesn’t come close to the global scope its title proclaims.

That the organization isn’t willing to adapt in the face of the myriad criticisms it has so roundly earned suggests that creating a better, more inclusive culinary world is simply a choice it doesn’t want to make, a priority it does not share. And so, inasmuch as the list doesn’t appear poised for a change, chefs, diners, and industry insiders should seriously ask themselves: Is this a party you want to be a part of?