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Did World’s 50 Best Change Its Ranking System to Protect Chef Egos?

A new report suggests top chefs lobbied for a change the organization then passed off as a diversity initiative

Massimo Bottura and Juan Mari Arzak and the 2018 World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards
Massimo Bottura and Juan Mari Arzak and the 2018 World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards
Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

The World’s 50 Best list — the highly imperfect, unnecessarily Eurocentric ranking of the “best” fine dining restaurants in the world — announced back in January it was making a concerted attempt to change that reputation by precluding all previous No. 1 winners from entering the list again. At the time of the rule change, organizers championed the move as one way to create “a more diverse and inclusive list in the long-term,” part of the organization’s larger mission to “champion excellence, but also to promote humanity, inclusivity, and opportunity.”

But according to a story by Lisa Abend today in Time, the rule changes did not come direct from the list organizers, but instead “some would say [it was] imposed by half a dozen or so highly ranked chefs, some of them former #1s, some of them close to the top.” And at least some of those influential chefs were motivated not entirely with inclusivity in mind:

According to a source with knowledge of the process who asked for anonymity because he did not have permission to speak publicly on the subject, the core group that began pressing in earnest for the change last year was driven not only or even primarily by an attempt to unclog the top, but also by an effort to avoid the decline in reputation that some notable chefs have suffered once they fell from first place.

Daniel Humm of NYC’s Eleven Madison Park, the 2017 World’s Best Restaurant, confirmed “the impact of a drop” was a factor in the rule change, noting how some chefs would feel “pissed off and mistreated” as their restaurants would fall in the ranking.

Taking formerly No. 1 restaurants out of the mix — a rule that only affects seven restaurants at the end of the day, and actually five when you consider elBulli is closed and Noma relocated so still gets to compete — is certainly one way for the organization to cushion chef’s egos when literally only one restaurant can be named to the top each year. (This, gentlemen — and I say gentlemen very pointedly — is how lists work.)

That a “half dozen or so” formerly top-ranked chefs could push for such a fundamental change driven in part by feelings is particularly noteworthy given that World’s 50 Best has previously brushed aside other attempts at inclusivity, arguing the sanctity of its voting body means it simply doesn’t have to do anything. The list being the List, untouchable and largely unedited by the organization who produces it, was why organizers claimed that it was not actually their fault that so few women, and so few non-Western restaurants, were represented on it.

Back in 2016, the guide’s editor, William Drew, told Eater that he didn’t believe diversifying the judging pool would result in a more diverse list. “We don’t believe a female critic is going to vote for a female chef just as we don’t believe a male critic is going to vote for a male chef.” (The organization has backtracked there, too: In late 2018, before the latest rule change, the World’s 50 Best announced it would gender-balance its voting academy.) Drew also said in 2016 that “the lack of female chefs heading up restaurants on the 50 Best list is a reflection of the state of the industry rather than an endorsement of it... the voters aren’t voting for chefs, they’re voting for restaurants.”

This isn’t the first time chefs have expressed displeasure with the list. Dominique Crenn has been notably outspoken about the absurdity of the Best Female Chef award she won, and criticized the sexism she saw within the list quite publicly. But now, the list-determined best restaurants aren’t even going to be in the game anymore because a handful of the world’s most acclaimed chefs don’t want them to be. These chefs reportedly lobbied the organization, out of sight from readers and their fellow competitors — and actually got their way.

If the World’s 50 Best is willing to say that top performers will get taken out of the running by ~rules~ so that more chefs can have a chance at the spotlight, why not also demand by ~rules~ that voters must meet quotas in who they vote for?

Diversifying the top echelon is a possible side effect of removing the past winners — emphasis on possible. But the World’s 50 Best sold it as a move towards inclusion, which proves that at some level they know something must change in the way they make the list. It’s just not logical to let the people who have benefited most from the list dictate how those changes should be made.

Why The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 List Is More Controversial Than Ever [Time]