On the night of June 25, the lights at the Marina Bay Sands Theatre in Singapore shone brightly, casting an illuminating glow on the faces of chef Mauro Colagreco and his team from Mirazur, a restaurant in Menton, France.
Mirazur had just nabbed the title of the best restaurant in the world in the prestigious annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019 list, the first time a French restaurant made it to the top spot in the list’s 18-year history.
“It’s incredible, I don’t have words to explain. I own the sky!” said a joyous Colagreco.
But to understand how Mirazur edged its way to the zenith of the global restaurant scene, you first have to understand how the various cogs of the behemoth World’s 50 Best Restaurants machine work.
The inner workings
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants was initiated in 2002 by the staff of Restaurant magazine in London, designed as an alternative to regular restaurant guides. The magazine is owned by William Reed Business Media, which still organises the annual event (although Restaurant itself is no longer involved in compiling the list).
Over the years, it has evolved into an illustrious global restaurant ranking list imbued with power, repute and prestige. In recent years, the list has started attracting a stronger pull than that starriest of guides – the Michelin Guide. But to compile a list that calls itself the “world’s best” is a mammoth undertaking that is not without its faults.
To begin with, the list is put together by 1,040 voters from 26 regions across the world (and yes, Malaysia is included under the South-East Asian region). What defines a region though still seems to be rooted in traditionally accepted culinary strongholds – China and Korea for instance, are clumped under one region while Italy and France have a region each to themselves. Given the vastness of China compared to France and Italy, this inequity sets the tone for gross imbalance in some regions.
In terms of the voting, each region has an appointed chairperson charged with selecting 40 voters (including themselves) for their region. The voters are split equally into three categories – chefs and restaurateurs; food writers; and well-travelled gourmets who have to vote for their 10 favourite restaurants in the past 18 months (including four that must be outside their own region). Every year, a minimum of 25% of the panel is renewed and all the suggested voters have to go through a strict selection process.
“We liaise with the academy chair in each voting region on who they propose to be their voters, so they nominate them but with very strict guidelines from us. Then they put forth the panel and we say ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” said William Drew, director of content for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
This year, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy also instituted a 50-50 gender split on the voting panel, following complaints that there were not enough female voters and very few female-led restaurants on the overall top 50.
“The thing we can control is who’s voting, not who they’re voting for. Where it is within our control, we can control it,” said Drew.
The new voting split does seem to offer a way to try and initiate some positive changes in the restaurant scene.
“I think the diversity and the balance should come from the voters. I agree that if 100% of the voters are men, then they will have very masculine opinions. Whereas if you have a 50-50 voter split, I think that’s a fairer assessment and I think that’s where the gender balance should be,” said Benjamin Yong, CEO of the Big Group, who attended the World’s 50 Best Restaurants event and has eaten at over 20 of the restaurants in this year’s top 50 list.
Others had slightly different views. Famed French chef Eric Ripert of New York’s Le Bernadin (ranked #26 on the 2019 list) said he believes the voter demographic should mirror the realities in restaurants.
“I think ultimately at the end of the day, it has to be reflective of what the industry is – if the industry has 50% of women chefs who are excellent, they should be in the list,” he said.
If that’s true, then either female chefs are far behind their peers or the industry itself is still struggling to shrug off old-school perceptions because despite the changes to the panel, this year’s 50 Best still only has five restaurants led by female chefs on the list.
So in spite of the academy’s best efforts, nothing’s really changed – yet.
Contending with controversy
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants has generated controversy from the time of its inception and continues to attract contention – unsurprising, given the power it wields.
Unlike the Michelin Guide, whose inspectors are anonymous and fund their own meals at restaurants, voters in the World’s 50 Best are not required to pay for their own meals (although they are meant to remain anonymous). This in turn, has had the effect of tourism bodies and individual restaurants with deep pockets courting people they believe are voters.
Drew, however, says that although restaurants might actively lobby people to come to their restaurants, they cannot possibly know whether the people they are inviting are voters or not.
“What they do is they lobby people to come to their tables, because that’s their job, to get people into their restaurants. The country’s tourism bodies, they don’t know if those people are voters or not. There are millions of people in the world. Of course they may make a guess – they may be right, they may be wrong,” he said.
If their guesses are right – there is the very tangible possibility that voters can be bought with free meals and in some instances, free trips. Add to that the fact that there is no scoring criteria required when submitting votes and you have all the workings of a potentially biased global panel.
Yong says these overt PR and marketing gimmicks sometimes mean that restaurants that blow their own trumpets can trump others that prefer to remain low-key.
“I was surprised that Ibai in San Sebastian wasn’t on the list – it’s got some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. But I think they are averse to awards, so maybe they shy away and don’t get involved.
“So I agree 150% that good PR goes a very long, long way. There are so many restaurants in the world so at some stage, somebody has to do something loud enough to be noticed for people to say, ‘I should check it out’,” Yong says.
Another award that has drawn criticism is the World’s Best Female Chef, an annual subsidiary title bestowed by the academy since 2011 that has been accused of being counter-productive to the concept of equality and inclusivity.
If even the Academy Awards doles out awards based on the best male and female actors – why should the restaurant industry single out female chefs for special recognition?
But others have chosen to view it differently, positing that perhaps the status quo needs to be shaken up and maybe momentum needs to be created where none existed before.
This year’s recipient, 28-year-old Mexican chef Daniela Soto-Innes said, “It’s about a platform and when you are given the opportunity to have a voice so people can hear you, it doesn’t matter what the title is, it’s about the opportunity that you are given so be grateful about it and take it in with all the grace. And if people want to think bad things about the opportunity that I am given, it’s not on me,” she said.
The issue that perhaps ignited the most debate at this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants award is the fact that previous restaurants that attained the #1 spot are no longer eligible to compete. This means restaurants like Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park, Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Fransescana and the Roca brothers’ El Celler de Can Roca are no longer in contention (all were the prime contenders for the #1 spot).
Instead, all these restaurants get shunted to a Best of the Best list, sort of like a hall of fame for restaurants. This automatically applies to Mirazur now, which means that although he’s only 42, Colagreco will never be able to compete again unless he opens a new restaurant.
Still, most of the chefs on the Best of the Best list – at least on the face of it – seem to have accepted their exclusion from the race with good grace.
“The amazing part of this list is how it’s so global and shines a light on so many areas of the world which no other list has done. And I think the one part about the list we all know is, it’s not so much about your performance, it’s more about the moment.
“It’s sort of like being the restaurant for the moment. Like I know our restaurant is better than it’s ever been but I also understand that it can’t be our moment forever. There has to be moments for others,” says Humm.
Pulse on what’s current
In many ways, Humm’s words echo everything that is good about the list: 1) it has a more global reach and; 2)it’s got a pulse on what’s trending.
This far surpasses the more classic century-old Michelin Guide, which holds court in North America, Europe and a few Asian countries, with notable country omissions like Peru, Australia, Mexico and the entire African continent proving that it doesn’t quite reach the crooks and crevices around the planet that the World’s 50 Best is able to cover.
Just a quick look at this year’s 50 Best list shows a diverse range of entries from countries as far-ranging as Peru, China, Germany, Thailand, Brazil and Slovenia. While there are still gaps to fill (25 of the 50 restaurants are from Europe, India only has one entry in the top 100, there is only one restaurant from Africa in the top 50), there is now an obviously over-arching emphasis on inclusivity and diversity, something the academy is actively trying to ingrain into its voting system moving forward.
“We want to continue to spread the spotlight to different parts of the world. So if we go back 10 years, the spotlight would have very much been on Europe and US and now we see restaurants in Latin America and South America popping up, and different parts of Asia – Singapore, Thailand and in the future, maybe Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines,” said Drew.
The list is also very current in the sense that it is able to capture the culinary zeitgeists sweeping through the globe, from the new Nordic cuisine sparked by Denmark’s Noma and Geranium to the Latin American revival popularised by Central, to Bangkok’s sudden surge in culinary popularity epitomised by restaurants like Gaggan, Nahm, Suhring and Gaa to the currently-trending Mexican cooking encapsulated by Innes’ New York cause celebre Cosme and her mentor Enrique Olvera’s indomitable Mexican eatery Pujol.
This makes it transient, fluid and highly adaptable to the times, providing vivid insights into what’s trending in the culinary world year-on-year.
The world’s #1 restaurant, Mirazur feeds into this theory that the list is increasingly becoming adept at championing interesting people and food concepts. Colagreco for instance, is an Argentinian who works in France and recently became the first non-French person in France to earn three Michelin stars – which fits in nicely with the diversity trope that the academy is trying to espouse.
His food also defies definition – he sources his ingredients from his terroir-driven playground which includes a vegetable garden, orchard and herb garden (where he has access to 150 different herbs). Everything on his plates pays tribute to the season’s freshest produce, like the local lemon Citron de Menton.
Colagreco’s story of mixing-and-matching ingredients based on what nature has to offer is one that is being played out all over the world in high-end restaurants putting local ingredients at the forefront – from Russian twins’ Ivan and Sergey Berezutskiy’s Twins Garden (#19 on the list) which sources 70% of its produce from the brothers’ garden outside Moscow, to Central’s (#6 on the list) Virgilio Martinez who forages all across Peru for native ingredients.
If it’s a trend, it’s one the academy has clearly paid heed to.
“To be fair, trends will always play a part, you can’t ignore that. It’s what’s the flavour of the year is and people are always in search of new flavours.
“And I think the winner they picked was appropriate – from an observation perspective, it delivered the message they were talking about in terms of diversity. An Argentinian guy with a Brazilian wife cooking in France – it can’t get more diverse than that,” said Yong, laughing.
Ultimately though, seasoned chefs who have been on the list know that it’s just that – a list. It might help drive traffic to restaurants but it isn’t worth getting obsessed over.
“What I say to my cooks is ‘When you come to work, think about your passion – what is it?’ It is to be in the 50 Best or is it about cooking? It’s like an actor who’s on the stage and he’s thinking about the Oscar while he’s acting. If you want the Oscar, you’re not gonna get it, because you forget to act,” concluded the eloquent Ripert.