In Melbourne, global chefs gather for an awards ceremony that’s fast becoming the Oscars of gastronomy
“I don’t think of it as a competition,” says Yannick Alléno, dubbed ‘prince of the palaces’ by the press for his uncontested leadership in contemporary French haute cuisine. “For me, the [World’s 50 Best Restaurants] list demonstrates a global perspective on cuisine, how the whole world is open and interested in what’s going on outside their own cuisines. It drives chefs to do the best they can with their own terroir. You’re competing with yourself, ultimately.”
Alléno is one of a handful of elite chefs I interview while attending the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017 list announcement and awards ceremony, held for the first time this year in Melbourne. After 14 years in London, the World’s 50 Best is now on what the organizers call a “global tour” that started last year with a move from London to New York.
Tourism Australia and Visit Victoria spare virtually no expense in hosting the event, providing flights and lodging for 47 of the 50 main awardees who have accepted invitations to attend. Local bars, bistros, and restaurants pitch in to host chef pop-ups and after-parties, not to mention the after-after parties.
Billed by some media as the Olympics of food, an arena where global gastronomy gods battle to see who dons the No. 1 crown, the event is better compared to Oscars night. As with the Academy Awards, industry members gather to congratulate themselves on their shared artistry, and to recognize their peers—both veterans and up-and-comers—with awards.
The list kicked off in 2002 as a one-off stunt for Restaurant magazine, whose London staff came up with the idea while drinking at the Shaston Arms in Carnaby Street. The World’s 50 Best list—abbreviated by insiders to W50B nowadays—proved to be more popular than expected, and has since grown to become a major event in the culinary world.
For William Reed Business Media, owners of Restaurant and other food industry mags such as British Baker and Meat Trades Journal, the awards list and regional variations, such as Asia’s 50 Best and Latin America’s 50 Best, are now a substantial part of their business operations.
The top 50 restaurants list, as well as associated awards for best female chef, highest list climber, and so on, is decided each year by votes cast by more than 1,000 members of an international academy. This elite voting group is comprised of chefs/restaurateurs (34 percent), food writers (33 percent), and well-traveled gourmets and influencers (33 percent). Each member submits 10 restaurant choices, four of which need to be from outside their own region. Restaurant visits must be anonymous, and take place no more than 18 months prior to voting.
I attended the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards events for 2016 and 2017—both held with lavish attention to detail at the W Bangkok—but I’m not quite prepared for the scale of the global counterpart in Melbourne.
As I stroll the long, sweeping red carpet lined with champagne-pouring servers and enter the World Heritage Site-listed 1880 Royal Exhibition Building for the awards ceremony, I’m briefly stunned. Practically every sculpted nook of the structure’s massive dome, elegantly modeled after that of the famed Florence Cathedral, is illuminated by sophisticated, multi-coloured lighting set-ups. Not even Oscars night in Hollywood compares, visually.
Pop-up lounge bars in the center of the hall are thronging with food-world glitterati, and while making the rounds between Ferrari Trento DOC champagne, top Aussie reds, and hand-crafted gin, I bump into a few folks from Bangkok. David Thompson, chef/owner of Bangkok’s own Nahm, cuts a striking figure in a brocade jacket, while Sid Sehgal, owner of Indus and other restaurants in our capital, sports a 007-inspired tux.
Mason Florence, owner and editorial director of this magazine moves through the crowd like a hip college professor. Or judging by the number of elite chefs who greet him with great enthusiasm, like a rockstar. Mason’s fame in this circle arises from his function as the academy chair for Southeast Asia, but it’s easy to see that he’s equally at home among chefs from Slovenia, Spain, France, Japan, and more.
As the well-dressed audience settles into seats facing a formal stage and massive LCD monitor, British TV presenter Mark Durden-Smith opens the show with a vivacity and sharp humour that sets the tone for the awards countdown. Durden-Smith calls one William Reed suit who presents an award a “bit of executive crumpet”, and jokes about a Belgian restaurant where the knives are made of walrus penis bones, “where you’re advised to eat slowly so the knives don’t get too excited”.
Announcing each restaurant on the top 50 list, starting at the bottom and moving towards number one, along with the handing out of separate awards for individual chefs, takes well over an hour. Durden-Smith’s brisk, cutting pace, along with the chefs’ natural bonhomie, means it’s anything but boring, especially when almost everyone in the hall has downed a few glasses of champagne in advance.
Bangkok nails two spots in the coveted World’s Top 50, starting with Nahm at 28 and Gaggan at 7. Because Gaggan also hit number one on Asia’s Top 50 (for the third year in a row), it earns the Best Restaurant in Asia 2017 award, which means chef owner Gaggan Anand is soon climbing onto the stage to receive his plexiglass trophy and pose for photos.
Over the course of the evening, France, Spain, and the USA each score six restaurants on the 2017 list. New York City’s Eleven Madison Park claims the top spot this year, making it the first US restaurant to do so since the French Laundry in 2004. Nine new restaurants appear in the top 50 this year, much to the delight of their cheering teams in the audience. Only six of these are making their list debut, while three return as re-entries. Highest Climber Award 2017 goes to New York State’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which skipped ahead 37 places to settle at No. 11. I had a successful interview with Blue Hill’s extremely articulate executive chef Dan Barber the previous day, so I put in an extra cheer for him as he mounts the stage. Yannick Alléno’s Pavillon Ledoyen earns Highest New Entry Award 2017 for its debut at No. 37. France does well this year, doubling its presence on the list from three to six restaurants. Half of these make the list’s top 20, no mean feat.
The post-ceremony parties pass by in a hangover-inducing blur. One party debate topic that pops up frequently is how the World’s 50 Best Restaurants stacks up against the Michelin guidebook series’ venerable star system, as a judgement of culinary value. Whatever you think about the relative merits of each—and of course they’re apples and oranges, in the end—the 50 Best lists are much more globally accessible and thus more influential from a marketing perspective. The night Noma hit No. 1 in 2010, over 100,000 people tried to book a table. This kind of attention can enrich restaurant owners but, as with Michelin stars, it also dumps a considerable amount of pressure on a chef’s back.
During my interview with Gaggan Anand, the visionary Kolkata-born chef behind Gaggan, he talks about some of the negatives of being No. 1 on Asia’s 50 Best.
“I wanted to be at the Coldplay concert tonight in Bangkok,” says the bearded rock fan, “But I had to be here. I don’t have a personal life anymore.”
Anand has famously stated that he will close his Bangkok flagship in 2020, and here he reaffirms the promise. “My expiry date is being reached. I’m like an opened bottle of soda… I’m steadily losing the fizz.”
As for what he’ll do after that, Anand says “I’d like to become a monk, but I have a wife and children. So instead I’ll be a food monk, going back to myself as a cook, not as a celebrity. I’ll move to Japan, where I’m not so well known. They have really good ingredients there, and some brilliant chefs who I’d like to work with.”
Next year the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list announcement and awards ceremony will be held in Bilbao, Spain. Nos vemos allá!