The World’s 50 Best list, an annual advertisement for $1,000-meals largely served by European-leaning fine dining palaces, promised change this year. But the list itself, announced at an awards ceremony in a $6 billion luxury casino in Singapore, a development teeming with venues like Lavo, Cut, DB Bistro, and Spago, showed little change.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise from an organization that has effectively said: “You should trust our decisions about which restaurants are the best even though our judges don’t have to pay for their meals at those same restaurants and we don’t claim any editorial control over the end product.”
To recap things more specifically: After years of biting criticism, the 50 Best list said it would achieve gender parity in its voting ranks and that it would remove restaurants that have already hit the coveted No.1 slot. And yet the 2019 list wasn’t entirely different from those of years past. Yet another fancy European restaurant — Mirazur — received top honors, an accolade that has never gone to Latin America, Asia, or Africa. Just five female chefs made the list, the same number as last year. And yet again, no one seemed capable of finding a restaurant in mainland China or Africa that wasn’t run by a white guy.
That all said, here are a few observations about the awards, as well as about the ceremony itself.
The annual unveiling was less cringeworthy.
The 50 Best awards, in the past, have served as a hotbed for off-color, British-accented humor, false empowerment, and straight up idiocy. Much of this came courtesy of announcer Mark Durden-Smith, who liked to champion “girl power,” who regularly mispronounced the names of chefs, and who joked that a young culinary scholarship recipient from Taiwan would probably go into accounting. Well, guess what? This year there was no Mark Durden-Smith. New announcer Annabel Crabb kept things simple and plain, notwithstanding an odd remark about wanting a particular female chef to have her babies.
Jose Andres, the chef and disaster relief expert, could be counted on as usual for a few eloquent remarks; he spoke out in support of the “women who feed the world,’” particularly in destitute parts of the globe. Daniela Soto-Innes, the chef at Cosme, also gave a rousing speech calling for better kitchen culture. And on that note...
Mexico made a good showing this year!
In an era when a racist U.S. president speaks of Mexicans in terms that don’t deserve to be repeated, there’s something encouraging about seeing an expensive (and excellent) Mexican spot, Cosme, run by the Mexican-born Soto-Innes and Enrique Olvera, earn the highest spot of any U.S. venue on the list. And there’s something even more satisfying about seeing the top venue in North America go to Olvera’s Pujol in Mexico City.
But, the list is still heavily biased to Europe.
European restaurants make up half the list, or more than half, if one includes Russia. Add on the European-inclined venues in the U.S. and Thailand (see below), and well, you see where things are going.
Then again, the North American-South America split isn’t too bad, at 8 and 6, respectively. That’s roughly the same as last year, though South American spots generally performed better in 2019, with two Peruvian venues cracking the top 10. By comparison, not a single U.S. spot made it into the top 20.
On the subject of Thailand, India, and Pakistan...
It’s nice to see the two-Michelin-starred Gaggan in Bangkok move up in the list; the progressive menu deserves credit for playing a small but important role in challenging false notions of authenticity surrounding Indian food — as well as raising the limit on what we pay for it. But would it not be unthinkable to find a single South Asian restaurant in South Asia — India or Pakistan — that’s worthy of inclusion? Surely there are a few good places to eat in a subcontinent of 1.5 billion people? And maybe, just maybe, the World’s 50 Best judges could have found a single Thai restaurant in Thailand (or heck, anywhere). Instead, Pim Techamuanvivit’s heralded Nahm has been replaced by a German restaurant in Bangkok.
Remember institutions serve to serve themselves.
Time magazine’s Lisa Abend, in a smart piece on the 50 Best organizational changes, reported last week that some of the reforms were driven primarily not by an effort to “unclog the top,” but rather by an attempt to “avoid the decline in reputation that some notable chefs have suffered once they fell from first place.” Those chefs, according to that narrative, feared ego bruising, irrelevancy, “depression,” and likely financial harm.
This was an illuminating anecdote. And it was a believable one since the chefs calling for these overhauls haven’t really spoken out against the list for excluding so many non-Western and female colleagues. But again, it all drives home the point: With so much money at stake, and with the chefs themselves influencing the process, should anyone really have expected major changes to the list?
But ultimately, the No. 1 rule change is a good thing.
It will take a few years for the rule disqualifying No. 1 venues to weed out the older players. But here it’s worth noting that some folks don’t think that’s a helpful phenomenon. Here’s Noma’s Rene Redzepi, who has topped the list four times, from that same Time piece: “If a chef manages to create a restaurant that defines the zeitgeist for more than one year, shouldn’t the list reflect that?”
That’s one approach. But food media, be it the listicle-industrial complex or actual journalists, shouldn’t busy itself reviewing the same restaurants every year. Or even every other year. Not when there are so many compelling restaurants to champion and important stories to tell. In an era where too many legacy voices are drowning out newer ones, the last thing we need is for someone to assess the worth of Masa every year — even after a bad review. Yes, there are folks who think otherwise. They work for a French tire company. And as their recent trolling of Los Angeles proved, they don’t represent the future of what we do.
50 Best made some big changes. They yielded very small results. The organization should ask itself whether it wants to play a meaningful role in the larger culinary world — and there’s every inclination it does — or whether it simply wants the Western restaurant luxury economy to keep fueling itself.