If Belarus won the Eurovision Song Contest every year, there would be an outcry. If Kofi Annan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for a decade on the trot, there'd be an inquiry. If Peter Carey took the Man Booker five times running, there would be blood in the streets. So when Ferran Adria took to the stage at Restaurant magazine's World's 50 Best restaurants 2008 ceremony on Monday to pick up the best restaurant in the world gong for the third year in a row, people started to mutter.
Adria's restaurant, El Bulli, wasn't the only one successfully completing a hat-trick. Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck was officially found to be the second best for the third year running. And France's restaurant Pierre Gagnaire once again came third. An ebullient Adria even made the same "proud to be Spanish/humble to be a chef" speech as last time, calling on his Spanish compatriots to join him on stage.
In fact, the entire World's 50 Best list differed only by two completely new entries and four re-entries (those who have been in the top 50 earlier, and scraped back in again). The murmurs of discontent among the assembled chefs, critics, and general restaurant industry followers and hangers-on grew louder – and haven't died down yet.
There's not a hint of rigged juries, no money has changed hands, and nobody has suggested any foul play. Nor do I want to take anything away from El Bulli, which is, no doubt, brilliant. But its win is still surprising, given that the judging panel (682 chefs, restaurateurs, food writers and critics in 23 world regions) were supposed to vote only for restaurants they had visited during the previous 18 months.
As El Bulli only opens for only six months of the year, and all seats are booked on the day they are released, I'm amazed that so many judges were able to get in. I was a judge, and I couldn't. So I suspect that some judges found it easier to go along with their peers' existing endorsement of El Bulli rather than actually get out there and find a challenger. If so, that casts serious doubt on the validity of the awards.
"Most people I know had to sleep with someone to get a table at El Bulli, and have only ever been once," notes Maureen Mills of Network London, one of London's most connected restaurant PR companies. "There is a cynicism about that element of the judging. Organisers should require more rigorous attention to the rules, like having to produce a receipt as proof of dining."
What are these awards, anyway? They started life as a cheeky little feature in the hospitality trade magazine, Restaurant, in 2002, when staff rang around a number of mainly local chefs, food-lovers and critics.
"It was never intended to become a list of haute cuisine restaurants in Europe and North America", says a former Restaurant editor, Joe Warwick. "It was just meant to be favourite places, big and small, around the world."
But "The World's 50 Best" took on a life of its own. Today, it has grown to become a brand in its own right, with headline sponsorship now owned by Italy's S.Pellegrino water company.
The awards have also always had a bit of a British leaning, for obvious reasons. There were 14 British entries in the 2005 World's 50 Best awards, which was being overly kind. Certainly there are some great restaurants in Britain, but the idea that we could boast almost a third of the best restaurants in the world was absurd.
Since then, the organisers have gone to great pains to institute a fairer and more equitable voting system, with Warwick introducing the idea of regional juries in 2006, in an attempt to widen the entries. This year, there are just six British restaurants in the final 50: Fat Duck at two; Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at 13; St John at 16; Hakkasan at 19; Le Gavroche at 22; and Nobu at 30.
But, and it's a big but, there is still a ludicrous absence of any restaurant from Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore or Bangkok. Even the Michelin Guide conceded in 2007 that Tokyo was one of the world's great food cities, awarding it more Michelin stars than any other city – even if it was partly because the publishers scented a great commercial opportunity.
"It is ridiculous that Tokyo is not represented," says Warwick, now a freelance journalist. "Without spending more money to improve the juries and create more regions in Asia, there will be an increasing credibility problem."
The mutterers have also noted that both Hakkasan and Nobu managed to get in. Is this because the European panellists don't know anything about the restaurants of Asia, yet the Asian panellists know as much about the restaurants of Europe as they do about their own? Or is it because there are too many judges based in London who can get to Hakkasan twice a week but would not know that Hutong in Hong Kong or Hamadaya in Tokyo even existed?
The restaurant critic Jay Rayner, the chairman of the UK judging panel, also questions the lack of Asian entries. "Both Hakkasan and Nobu are great restaurants," he writes, "but the notion that the best Chinese and Japanese restaurants in the world are in the British capital is ludicrous."
Further criticism comes from the fact that restaurants which scrape in from the other side of the world are generally either French, or branches of European and American restaurants.
Richard Vines, the restaurant critic for the Bloomberg business and financial news network, points out that in the top 100: "China figures only with Pierre, a French restaurant in Hong Kong; Robuchon à Galera, a Macau outpost of chef Joël Robuchon; and an offshoot of London's Zuma in Hong Kong ... It would be wrong to take it too seriously."
Yes, it would be wrong to take it too seriously. But people do, and will, because we all need heroes, and because the industry is now such a huge global business. As the dynamic New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent said on the night: "This industry used to be about passion and food and lifestyle. The lines are blurring. Now it's all about business."
Some observers question the whole idea of compiling a list. The veteran American critic Mimi Sheraton, formerly of The New York Times, commented: "Can we assume then that all who voted for the 50 Best have been to all the restaurants in the world. Else how would they know?"
On the upside, it was good to see Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver's St John leap up a massive 18 places to number 16, and I applaud the brilliant René Redzepi of Copenhagen's Noma move into the top 10. At this rate, Heston "Bridesmaid" Blumenthal had better watch out, or he will be beaten to the altar by Noma. And might we just see St John hailed as Best Restaurant In The World? Hallelujah!
But only if Ferran Adria swallows one too many of his "tangerine flower paté with pumpkin oil" and carks it. Or (a more pleasant alternative) he gets shifted into a Hall of Fame and no longer becomes eligible. That would liven things up a bit – because his is not the best restaurant in the world. There isn't a best restaurant in the world. I agree with Pierre Gagnaire, who, in spite of consistently being in the top five, asks: "How can any one restaurant be best in the world, when we are all so different?"
Yes, everyone loves a list. And it's fun to go through and see how many of the top 50 you have eaten at yourself. It helps stimulate debate and comment, and focus on the broader global restaurant scene rather than just on our own little patch. But judging by this year's results, Restaurant needs to stop and take a serious look at how it divvies up the world.
The whole thing needs a good shake-up – otherwise it will be henceforth known as "The S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants As Seen From Way Over This Side Of The World".
A fair top 50? Four other judges' verdicts
Perhaps a slightly different approach might be better in future. For example, I've always thought that if a restaurant like The Fat Duck wins one or two years in a row, it could step aside the next year – so we could see a mixture of places and new restaurants coming through. Winning it once is such a great achievement in itself it is not really fair that places like El Bulli or Heston's The Fat Duck dominate the top of the table year after year.
When that happens it takes a little bit of the shine off the whole thing and perhaps makes it feel less worthwhile.
The judging system all seems a bit random: they just grab you on the phone for a few minutes, so you can list off your five favourite restaurants. When they rang me I had been very busy so had forgotten about the whole thing. I'm sure that's the same for many other judges. I've never been to El Bulli, and I'm not sure how many of the people who voted for it have actually been there either. And of course the whole concept depends of what people mean by their "favourite" restaurant – because that isn't always the same thing as the "best" restaurant.
El Bulli and The Fat Duck really deserve their top places, as they offer a special range of food. Saying that, perhaps it would be nice to see the list broken up a little with some different groups. There is a massive spectrum of food, and a huge difference between say Heston's restaurant and Le Gavroche, for example.
Nonetheless the awards are much improved from when they first started. Then it was the "50 best restaurants in the world" as chosen by English chefs and journalists. The rest of the world's chefs were not very happy at the time.
A friend asked me if I could recommend a place in New York and my first instinct was not to name one of the "50 best," but an Asian restaurant called the Fatty Crab. It's a tiny joint of small tables, groovy music and waiters who look like skate punks, but they have crab in a thick chilli sauce and heritage farm pork ribs which are alone worth travelling to the US for. If I can summon the courage, I'd also say that whilst Restaurant Gordon Ramsay offered a stunning meal last time I was there, it was just too perfect, and managed to lose some of the soul of its dishes.
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