lIn the world of food, the 50 Best Restaurant Awards in the world are just like the Oscars. It is the largest annual event celebrating the best of the best from around the world. And, like the Oscars, it’s not without its problems.
The first is what the awards actually stand for. In the beginning, it was meant to rival the Michelin guide, which is often criticized for being inaccessible, not diverse enough and preferring a classic French cooking style. Michelin can also make or break a restaurant. Winning a star is one thing, keeping it quite another.
Yet the 50 Best has hardly deviated from that formula in its 20th year. Instead, it practically imitated – three-quarters of the 50 Best are also Michelin-starred restaurants.
At the awards ceremonies, held in Old Billingsgate Market, one of London’s oldest fish markets, I clapped and applauded over and over for the same people. This year’s winner came from… Copenhagen, again. The restaurant, Geranium, serves a meat-free and seasonal Scandi-style menu. Haven’t we seen this in years? Where is the innovation? Yes, “meat-free” and “seasonal” are still important pillars for being more climate-conscious, but Scandi has certainly had its day, hasn’t it? It is also the country’s first restaurant to receive three Michelin stars.
Even people outside the food world have probably heard of Noma (also in Copenhagen), which, in addition to being the most famous restaurant in the world for the past two decades, has won the top spot in the 50 Best awards a whopping five times. The rules have since changed so that once a restaurant is crowned the best dog, it is moved to the “best of the best” and can no longer dominate. But how can a small city in a country of less than six million people have such an impact?
Denmark is only 0.07 percent of the world. Yet it has become the food capital of the world, if you will, enchanting judges and prize organizers.
The US has only three entrants in the top 50; two in New York and one in California. Perhaps the judges were too busy to visit the other 48 states, or Canada for that matter. The US is 288 times bigger than Denmark, but only has one more restaurant in the list. Elsewhere, South America is doing extremely well with eight restaurants in the top 50 alone, and another seven in the top 100. Lima comes in four times, including runner-up, Sao Paulo four with a top seven. That is diverse and welcome, but also feels like preferential treatment.
At the start of the awards ceremony, host Stanley Tucci tells us that the jury is made up of “180 gender-balanced voters.” This statement feels much more like a tick box defense exercise than an insightful explanation of how restaurants are chosen, but I imagine that’s the point.
There are huge areas of the world that aren’t included, which is bizarre considering it’s literally called the 50 best in the world. Much of Asia is overlooked, bursting cities like Singapore, Tokyo and Hong Kong, while India’s only entry is Delhi’s Indian Accent restaurant, which comes in at number 92.
Of course, because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Russia was nowhere on the list. The event was originally set to take place in Moscow, before being moved to London.
But the omission of other places cannot be explained away by politics – or at least not overtly.
Australia did not feature in the top 50 at all. Gimlet at Cavendish House in Melbourne was ranked No. 84 in the longer list of 100, which is his worst performance in ten years. There is nothing like little old New Zealand.
When it comes to Africa, there is only one restaurant from 54 countries in the list. To top it off, it’s a sushi restaurant run by white men in South Africa, barely representative of African culture. That choice speaks volumes, doesn’t it?
French cuisine still seems to be a favorite. High-end, and mostly inaccessible. For example, Noma costs over £340 per person, excluding drinks. That’s 5.6 times the average meal in London, which the most recent data says is just under £60. London isn’t exactly a cheap city to eat out either.
The other notable and unavoidable issue of the night is the lack of women. Before you get to me, of course, there are a lot of women involved in the whole restaurant operation in general. I’m talking specifically about female cooks. On the website, every restaurant item has a section called “On the Pass”, about the chef. Within the top 50, there are only restaurants headed by women. The first is Ana Roš’ Hiša Franko in Slovenia, which sits at No. 34, and was also on the Netflix series Chef’s Table in 2016. The second is Leo, based in Bogota, at number 48, with Laura Hernández Espinosa and Leonor Espinosa at the helm.
Women in the kitchen are the ultimate sexist joke, but professional cooking has long been seen as a man’s world. Even in 2022, after all that has happened in recent years, we have yet to shake these shackles. Until we do, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards will be a talking point for all the wrong reasons. It’s not as diverse or inclusive as it could be – the judges just aren’t looking hard enough to see it.