Last month, the 2018 edition of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants was released. Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana regained the top spot it last held in 2016. While usually met with hype and positive media coverage, this year’s release received muted response and even some criticism. The lack of diversity – most of the chefs are white men – in particular attracted quite a lot of attention. Clare Smyth of Core, who won Female Chef of the Year, was not represented in the main Top 50 list, leading some to accuse the list’s organisers of sexism. At the risk of jumping on the bandwagon of hate, I will attempt to break down what this is all about.
First there is the list itself – an arbitrary ranking produced by an opaque adjudicating panel with nebulous scoring criteria. More infuriating is the fact that these lists cater to the wealthy Instagram foodie who treat these restaurants like some sort of Grand Prix; an excuse to travel the world to take #aesthetic shots for their drooling followers. These have enough of a reach such that these trendy restaurants adorned with modern art build up a global reputation; they become temples for foodie pilgrims who come from all around the world. It doesn’t matter where these restaurants are located, people will go there at any cost. Being named the best restaurant in the world transforms a restaurant into The Flying Scotsman, with hundreds of anoraks descending on whichever station the train happened to pull in to.
if food is sacrificed for presentation or theatre, what is the point?
I say this knowing full well that I nearly became one of them. Chasing fancy restaurants around the world? Consider me guilty as charged. Fäviken, which holds two Michelin stars, is situated in Jarpen, or about eight hours from Stockholm. Hiša Franko (48 on this year’s list) is in a barn on the Slovenian border with Italy, three hours from the capital of Ljubljana. Make no mistake, the meals I had there were enjoyable. Fäviken’s scallop in dashi is as good as the Tokyo sushi bars. That aside, I am not arguing against the utility of this World’s 50 Best list because of the lack of diversity in the types of food, or even the people that this list attracts to these restaurants. It is just that, without a doubt, these are not the 50 best in the world if food is all that matters. This could be a list of popular restaurants, or innovative restaurants but most certainly not the best restaurants. René Redzepi of Noma (the winner of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014, pictured above) said in a documentary that he doubted his restaurant was the best in the world, if that moniker should even exist. Ironic really, since I have become less impressed with his restaurant as time goes by; my meal there was exciting (ants on langoustine!) but not superb, most of the dishes having an unbalanced tilt towards acidity and lightness.
Generally speaking, diversity of cuisine is a big issue – the list is unabashedly modernist. Nothing against modernist cuisine per se, but if food is sacrificed for presentation or theatre, what is the point? Even if these restaurants come from different countries, with different ingredients and different inspirations, at El Celler de can Roca (World’s Best in 2015 and this year back at no.2) the tasting menu was 20 dishes long with almost as many different wine pairings and truth be told I cannot remember most of them. Keep in mind this restaurant has an 11-month waiting list. The next day in a neighbouring seaside town I had the best dessert of my life in Carme Ruscadella’s Sant Pau, a dish named “seawater sorbet”. It was a mysterious blue savoury dessert that to this day boggles my mind. Sant Pau had an innovative tasting menu organised by colour. It was a better restaurant too, and one that you can book for next week rather than next year.
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants are not the world’s 50 best restaurants because food is inherently subjective
Osteria Francescana was a rollercoaster of a meal, at least in terms of consistency. The Five Stages of Parmesan with cheese of different ages cooked in different ways, was a masterclass in texture and temperature. Recycled pizza dough in a tomato consommé however, not so much. My favourite dish was ordered off-menu, and was a tagliatelle al ragu, proving once and for all that the old ways are the best. In Modena, you could do better at Hosteria Giusti, a secret restaurant tucked behind a delicatessen. Le Calandre in Padua was an objectively better meal an hour’s train ride away, and remains the restaurant in Italy I would definitely recommend.
My experience with the World’s 50 Best list has continued to be mixed. Only through it could I have discovered White Rabbit and Twins Kitchen in Moscow, both of which are solid restaurants but alas, neither were worth a special journey. In any case, I chose not to write about these restaurants in Palate because they are not in line with what we do, introducing exceptional restaurants to people who want a good night out.
And this brings me to my final point: The World’s 50 Best Restaurants are not the world’s 50 best restaurants because food is inherently subjective. Who knows, there might be someone out there who disagrees with our crusade against torched mackerel. Subjectivity implies restaurant rankings cannot be absolutely ordinal. We can take comfort in the possibility that this list is living on borrowed time. In a totally different context, Simon Crompton of Permanent Style said that the era of paid influencers is coming to an end, and that authenticity would be the name of the game in fashion branding. People who buy upmarket clothes are most concerned with originality and personal storytelling rather than paid-post Instagram advertisements. I maintain a glimmer of hope this is the same with the fine dining scene today, amidst the global media circus that constantly seeks out the next big thing in gastronomy. With authenticity and transparency, we can seek out our own best restaurants.