rumination 28: what goes up, must come down…

We are on the eve of the annual announcement of the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list (published by the British magazine Restaurant and sponsored by San Pellegrino & Acqua Panna).  As chefs from all over the world gather in London to find out how high or low their restaurants have climbed or fallen in this past year, I wish to share a few thoughts on this event, and that for which it stands.

I have been, heretofore, open but not terribly vocal about my opinion of this list.  And that’s because I am loathe to bring it any more attention than it already receives.  My issues with the list are long and varied.  But I’ll spare you a detailed accounting of my complaints, partly because I feel insufficiently qualified to criticize this list,* but mostly because it is not the subject I wish to explore in this post.  However, by the very nature of this address, some of my complaints about this list will naturally follow.

I would like to think that most people who read the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list are smart enough to know that it is neither an objective nor authoritative source for determining the world’s best restaurants.  No one, however qualified, could make that list.**

At best, these are the fifty trendiest (or most-publicized) restaurants in the world, as determined by a rather insular group of voters that includes chefs and restaurateurs (many of whom work in restaurants that appear on the list), food journalists, and bloggers (some of whom are not shy about announcing their position as a “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” voter to chefs and restaurateurs upon their arrival). And let’s not forget the sponsor of this list is San Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, a company that has much to gain on the tables and in the tumblers of the high-end restaurants that this list seems to favor.

And yet, this list drives so much business to the restaurants that it features that you’d think it were the gospel guide to dining.

I know that restaurants are businesses.  And businesses need to make money.  So, from a bottom-line standpoint, I get it.  To put it bluntly, getting your restaurant on this list puts asses in seats (mind the pun).

But here is what upsets me about about the whole thing (and what prompted me to write this post): In a conversation about the upcoming announcement, a chef admitted to me that his primary motivation for wanting to appear on the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list wasn’t to gain more business, or even to accumulate more publicity for himself. Instead, he hoped that his restaurant would make it onto the list as a morale boost for his staff.

Well, I don’t know what world we’re living in when cooks weigh the worth of their work by silly rankings like this one.

Have they been led astray by the press, which, without much vetting, sensationalize rankings like this one, passing them along, as if in a spirited game of telephone, until their importance becomes grossly inflated?

Or, maybe they’re aspiring after the success achieved by the chefs they admire, some of whom clamber up these media-driven ladders with such fervor and frenzy that it’s both comical and pathetic. Because of lists like this one, I see a growing number of chefs and restaurateurs becoming professional politicians, devoting more of their time to campaigning for their cause than cooking in their kitchens.  And this troubles me.

You chefs and restaurateurs – all of you, both the ones on the list and the ones who aspire to be on the list: good for you for exploiting San Pellegrino, because San Pellegrino is exploiting you.  But make no mistake: by supporting this list (or any other ranking like it), you are ensuring your own expiration.  For, what goes up, must come down.  The legitimacy you lend to this list will make the weight of your irrelevancy that much greater when you fall off the list, as you inevitably will.

But haul in your dollars now. If you can travel, campaign, and keep your house in order, who am I to throw stones?  Good business is good business.

I am more concerned with the rising generation of cooks, who would be fooled and foiled by the promise of glamor and fame.  Theirs may not be good business one day.

To all you cooks out there: don’t mind the list.  Not this one, or any one. It’s all just fluff.  Focus, instead, on being the best cook you can be.  I assure you, in the long run, that kind of personal investment will bring you far more respect and fulfillment than any ranking or star.  I offer this advice, of course, not as a chef, or someone who has walked (or ever will walk) in your shoes.  Rather, I offer it as one whose opinion of you is just as important – a diner, whose happiness you’re trying to elicit, whose trust you’re trying to earn, and whose dollar you’re trying to win.  And we are many, those of us who can think and eat for ourselves. We don’t need lists or rankings to tell us whether food is good or bad (and now, with the internet, we don’t even need lists or rankings to tell us where to find good food).  We are not lemmings.  We’re informed individuals, sophisticated enough to notice your precision and taste your passion. Don’t try to fool us with your rankings and stars.  It’s insulting.  If your food is good, we’ll know it, and we’ll tell others about it.

Whose opinion matters to you?  Whose respect do you wish to gain?  Whose favor do you seek?  If you’re in it for something more than just money or fame, who do you want eating in your restaurant?

~

* I am sure there are many who have a far more comprehensive basis by which to judge the worthiness of this list than I.  But, for the sake of transparency, from the 2013 San Pellegrino “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list, I have, as of today, April 29, 2013, eaten at seven of the top ten restaurants on the list (Noma, El Cellar de Can Roca, Mugaritz, Osteria Francescana, Per Se, Alinea and Eleven Madison Park).  I have been to twenty-seven of the top fifty on the list (The Fat Duck, l’Arpege, l’Astrance, le Bernardin, Oud Sluis, Aqua, Mirazur, Daniel, Schloss Schauenstein, Asador Extebarri, De Librije, Pujol, Momofuku Ssam Bar, Biko, Quique Dacosta, Hof van Cleve, The French Laundry, Il Canto, Manresa, and Geranium).  And I have eaten at forty-one of the top one-hundred restaurants on the list (Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Guy Savoy, Viajante, Coi, Septime, Sant Pau, Masa, Jean-Georges, Martin Berasategui, Lung King Heen, Hibiscus, La Vie, Chez Panisse, and Restaurant Relae). Of these forty-one restaurants I have visited, I have eaten at fourteen of them more than once.  I have eaten Matthias Dahlgren’s food at his former restaurant, Bon Lloc, but not at his current, eponymous restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden, which appears at number 41 on the list.  And I have also eaten Joel Robuchon’s food, in Las Vegas at The Mansion, in New York at the former l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon at The Four Seasons, and in Monte-Carlo at Joel Robuchon at the Metropôle, but I have not eaten at l’Atelier Saint-Germain de Joel Robuchon in Paris, which ranks 12th on the list.  And, I have eaten twice at the now-closed elBulli, which topped the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list for five of the past eleven years.

** Lists and rankings aren’t harmful, per se.  It’s what chefs, the media, and the general public do with them that make them misleading.

~ by ulterior epicure on April 29, 2013.

24 Responses to “rumination 28: what goes up, must come down…”

  1. …well written, and while I don’t particularly disagree, I find your championing and photographing of the Beard Awards to be quite perplexing. Are those (obviously political) awards any more meaningful?

  2. @Mike: Certainly, the JBF is a political animal, as are all entities that hand out awards. And I cannot disagree with you on this point. Not to justify my interactions with the JBFA, but one difference that makes the JBF more palatable to me is that it is, primarily, a nonprofit organization, with a large, charitable arm that promotes the culinary arts in the United States. Disregard the awards if you like. But what remains of the JBF is of much more value to me than what remains of the promoters of the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list.

  3. I think I see what you are saying but I can’t say I agree. It sounds a lot like a fan of “indie” music chastising (literal) garage bans from selling out but as struggling bands (in this case: restaurants) hone their craft and get better and better, they land record contracts. Isn’t that the goal? Noma might claim they were just trying to further their local cuisine. Well whoopsie daisy, now they are the number one restaurant in the world. I don’t think they are complaining.

    So you want chefs to cook from the heart, with passion and deliver good food and either act like they don’t, or genuinely not care about being on the list?

  4. I like your point of view on this list (although I must admit I got to eat at EMP for my 30th bday because of their ranking) particularly the idea of what goes up must come down. In college I stopped looking at my grades because if I got an A I was worried that I would get a B the following quarter, but if I got a B I was furious I didn’t receive an A (I went to theatre school…so grading is a bit different). I finally realized I needed to focus on my work, I knew I was a hard worker, and I shouldn’t get hung up on a grade (or a list position in this case). What you are trying to push is the idea of cook with your soul because you love it and want diners to love your food. Not cook because you want to land on someone’s list. I like that idea. Very well done.

  5. “some of whom are not shy about announcing their position as a “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” voter to chefs and restaurateurs upon their arrival”
    Don’t you make Yourself known when you dine all around the world and get exceptionally great service and bonus dishes sent to you?
    “Well, I don’t know what world we’re living in when cooks weigh the worth of their work by silly rankings like this one.” Is it weight or validation for a job well done? Come on, you really don’t understand this? Isn’t this kind of what You do when you dine and write about the experience? You communicate your feelings on the cuisine, service and experience for people to read. You are a small version of this list.

  6. Worlds 50 Best, Michelin, James Beard, NYTs, Blog attention, all the way down to the local newspaper, internet forum, and even Yelp. Every rating matters or doesn’t matter at all. You’re absolutely right that it’s how the reader (whether diner, cook or chef) uses it. But depending on how much skin you have in the game…your ability to be “above the fray” diminishes. I too long for pure “cooking from the heart” and there are examples of chefs out there cooking their asses off with their heads down…but I’ve also seen the sacrifice that that entails.

    It’s noble to call for purity…but I’d have to say that the current culture (in the USA in particular), just doesn’t support it enough. A culture gets the cuisine that it deserves…

  7. good point!

  8. @Jennifer: You clearly don’t know anything about me, and haven’t read my blog before. If I was in it for the freebies and the special treatment, I wouldn’t have spent my first seven years writing this blog anonymously. I don’t know on what basis you find it appropriate to suggest that I now go around telling chefs who I am for extra attention. While it is true that I no longer hide my identity, I don’t solicit favors in exchange for press here, or anywhere else.

  9. So, you receive no special attention? None? I never suggested that you tell chefs who you are FOR special attention, only that you receive it based on telling them who you are. Bravo for 7 years of anonymity, which I don’t even care about, it is now that you dog out a “top 50 restaurant list” and pretend to not understand chef’s desire to be on it that baffles me.

  10. @Jennifer: The premise of your accusation is that I receive special treatment because I tell people who I am. I’m not going to deny that I have received special treatment – I’ve disclosed it all on this blog. And yes, often times, it happens when I become know to the restaurant/chef. But NO, I do not go around telling chefs and restaurateurs who I am, or that I write this blog. If they find out, it’s because someone else has told them, or they’ve Googled my name, or any number of other ways.

    As for insisting that I don’t understand why chefs would want to be on the W50BR list: read my post again. I DO understand why they’d want to be on it. I just think it’s short-sighted of them to support it.

  11. I disagree with you and wish you continued success. You are an amazing photographer and a well versed diner.

  12. @Jennifer: Thank you.

  13. i support u Bonjwing! didnt one guy commit suicide cuz one Michelin star was taken away from the restaurant? im sure he was still an awesome chef, why care that much about the rating. i think u made a good point by saying “To all you cooks out there: don’t mind the list. Not this one, or any one. It’s all just fluff. Focus, instead, on being the best cook you can be. ” food is pure preference and personal. people need to go back to the basics and like u said ‘cook good food and be the best cook u can be’. but hey in reality we cant avoid it cuz everyone loves money and fame. its part of being human. keep up with the awesome work :)

  14. and at the end of the day, it’s that bowl of hot noodles u crave and remember not that something something truffle on that tasting menu.

  15. I agree 300%. As much as it pains me that no restaurants in Canada ever make the list, part of me is proud that the chefs in our country don’t get caught up in all of the political bs.

  16. Mallory – I think it’s a little naive to think that restaurants in Canada don’t make the list because the chef’s don’t care or “get caught up” in it.

  17. @jennifer I don’t understand your logic at all. So it’s not ok to criticize the methodology or say that one particular reviewer is better than another?

    Also, of course everyone loves validation or being told that they are great or their hard work has paid off. But if you think well-known reviewers are at all anonymous, then I’m pretty sure you’ve never spent much time in a professional kitchen (I’ve even seen photos of prominent critics posted on the wall).

    I’m nobody, and I’ve been given extra courses and special attention—hell, twice just last week—seemingly just for asking informed questions and having been to other good local and international restaurants.

  18. @W42: Thank you. :)

  19. Respect!

    Seriously, I red word by word of this post, and I’m completely agree on this. But in my opinion, I think that W50B is a kind of lguidr where you can use it as a travel guide. I have to admit that I use this guide wherever I go. Because when you are living in a country like indonesia for example (I’m indonesian :)) where top notch dining is not our thing, we don’t have enough information as much as you about these kind of places in the country that you’re lived in, so that this kind of guide is something that I will look at first because it LOOKS promising. I still do look at some blogs, but just to check whether the restaurant that I interested in is really good. I’m impressed and envied at the same time. I wished I could travel and dine as much as you did. Haha. Sorry for my broken english.

    Cheers from Indonesia.
    Yogi.

  20. Sorry but, to me, this post is extremely childish. First of all, once you’ve said that the list is neither authoritative nor objective – without giving any particular reason why THIS list is more problematic than any other – you’ve called into question ALL lists that are based on subjective evaluations of “product”, from the Pulitzer Prize to America’s Next Top Model. Okay … no echelon is authoritative or objective. It follows then that your comment that Restaurant’s list is, “at best”, a list of the 50 “trendiest” restaurants, is nasty, unnecessary and, by your own criterion, meaningless. “Trendy” is as subjective a judgement as “best food”. So, on the one hand you’re asserting that subjective lists are meaningless on the other you’re asserting that these lists are not meaningless per se but rather mis-catagorized. This is, to be polite, petty. Your complaint seems actually to be about “trendiness” (whatever that might be. You haven’t defined it).

    There then follows some of the most blatant concern trollery I’ve seen outside of a birther website. Oh, it “troubles” you that chefs MAY use extra-culinary ways to get themselves on lists like Restaurant’s. Does that really trouble you, son? Because competition for James Beard Awards is as fraught, troubling, and petty as the competition for ANY award. If chefs neglecting their cooking in order to trawl for awards is the problem, you’re being a 100% prime hypocrite for making an exception for the Beard Awards just because you happen to like the ends the Beard Foundation has. (Are you sure, by the way, that San Pellegrino doesn’t use any of its funds for charitable ends? How about the work they do for the Make-A-Wish Foundation to help sick children? Does my approval of San Pellegrino’s charitable work have any bearing on whether or not the list of 50 Best Restaurants is legitimate, objective or acceptable? I’ll leave you to answer that one. By the way: as you well know, San Pellegrino and Aqua Panna are in so many restaurants – “trendy” or not – that your assertion that there’s something noteworthy (or shady) in these companies’ support of the 50 Best list is just … stupid, to be frank. It’s far far from certain that the restaurants on the 50 Best list are the ones that bring San Pellegrino the most dosh. El Bulli, for instance, went out of business two years ago. Guy Fieri’s top BBQ joint in Buttfuque, Tennessee likely makes more money for Aqua Panna than Noma does. No doubt, sponsoring the 50 Best list brings San Pellegrino and Aqua Panna prestige, but that prestige doesn’t necessarily translate to more money. The readers of the 50 Best list are industry insiders and foodies. A small group.)

    There then follows even more concern trolling. Pity the poor chefs who support lists like these! How dire their fates will be once they fall off the lists they strive so underhandedly to get on! And they will fall off the list, just you wait! O the humanity! But if a chef cares more about being on lists like the 50 best, his/her restaurant will DESERVEDLY suffer. What would you have us do? Eliminate lists – which at least bring attention to food and cooking – for the sake of misguided chefs who care more about status than food? You want the industry to be ruled by concern for a handful of narcissists who MAY suffer when they fall off these lists? Fine, then ditch the Beard Awards as well, whatever the noble ends of the Beard Foundation. More: let’s get rid of anything that might disappoint social climbers. We’ll have a better society, won’t we? After all, falling off the Michelin list or the 50 Best list or whatever list you name is the chief killer of restaurants and chefs, no?

    After the concern trolling comes your falsely avuncular and toe-curlingly smug condescension. “Don’t mind these lists! If you make good food, you will be rewarded!” How block-headed do you have to be NOT to know that some of the best restaurants – restaurants with great cooking – fail? They fail for all sorts of reasons: location, untimely negative reviews, bad staffing decisions, economic downturns. The plight of chefs and restaurant owners the world over is how to get people to know their food is good, how to REMIND people their food is good, how to bring new diners in. This takes publicity – which Beard Awards bring – and ingenuity, good food, good atmosphere, etc. A restaurant is a business that succeeds or fails based on much more than just its food. Awards are part of the potentially useful publicity machine. They get your restaurant noticed which, in turn, brings in diners. All chefs and restauranteurs have to make their peace with this relatively small aspect of the industry: awards and award ceremonies.

    By the way: the restauranteur who wanted his restaurant on a 50 Best-type list was simply saying he needed something to boost staff morale. Within the industry, you get more respect for having worked at Alinea than at the Buttfuque BBQ. Alinea gets to keep its best staff. BF BBQ? Not so much. The man was thinking like a business owner, not someone with stars in his eyes. For my money, your post is naive, condescending, hypocritical and just plain ignorant.

  21. @frederick Moussade Those who support the list and those who are on it will support it to the death with selective logic. UE’s point was just to share his thoughts not solicit concurrence or elicit childish condescending responses. Did you really have to refer to him as “SON”, Comparing his well written post to a “birther” website however is absurd, offensive and is in itself the “trolling” you are complaining about.

    You logic is also flawed. YES you get more respect for having worked at Alinea than at the Buttfuque BBQ………however those who are seeking to work at Alinea probably exhibit a different sense of drive and ambition. Assuming Chef Achatz actually hires them, it would appear patently silly that the culture of that kitchen would need a list to negate some perceived inferiority complex that the cooks at Alinea seem to be suffering from. If you need a list to boost your staff morale there is a major systemic flaw somewhere else and that should concern you more than any list.

  22. @Studiokitchen I wrote that this post was filled with some of the worst “concern trolling” I’ve seen outside of a birther website because it is. It disguises its thoughtlessness and bias behind a supposed concern for the poor young chefs who are going to fall prey to the false promise/lure of making a prestigious list. This is condescending towards the young chefs – whoever they may be. There are reasons for desiring to make a list of top restaurants and they’re the same reasons for desiring a good review: you hope to get people in to try your food and to enjoy your restaurant. Lists, like Restaurants 50 Best, are part of the publicity and advertising that any business seeks. If you make the list, you get publicity. It is (potentially) helpful to the restaurant in that circumscribed and limited way. A restaurant is, first and foremost, a business even if, at its origin, there is a passionate chef who wants to share his cuisine.

    Second, I called him “son” because his post was so filled with condescension, especially towards the young chefs for whom it claims to have such concern. Calling him “son” was payment in kind.

    No my logic is not flawed. As I wrote, it is a morale booster for a restaurant to get on one of these lists. I used Alinea as an example of a restaurant that inevitably makes these lists. I imagine that those who work at Alinea don’t need their morale boosted. But it’s quite possible to imagine a very good restaurant – one with excellent food – that never makes the lists. Why wouldn’t the owner or chef of such a restaurant NOT want the publicity and prestige that goes with making Restaurant’s list – or getting James Beard Foundation notice? Wanting to make such a list only means one wants the publicity and prestige. It doesn’t mean that one would sacrifice the quality of the food for it. (For one thing, that would be the worst way to get on such a list.) Nor does wanting to make the list mean that there is some “major systemic flaw” somewhere. It’s simply good business, for the institution, to get the fairly limited publicity that these lists bring.

    Like the original poster, you seem to have some version of restaurants that separates the cooking (Art, potentially) from the business. If you think of food as Art then, yes, of course, these lists are vulgar and useless. (Pearl S Buck won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Leo Tolstoy didn’t.) But restaurants can’t be split in two like that. Without good business sense, the place fails, however wonderful the food actually is. Prizes, again, bring attention, publicity, prestige, and morale. That not every worthy restaurant gets on these lists is lousy and sad, but that’s no reason to do away with them. Nor does the original poster believe they should be done away with. He has his pet prizes – from the James Beard Foundation – and prizes that are a pet peeve. For me, the original post was ungenerous, hypocritical, and not at all well-written.

    Finally, you wrote “UE’s point was just to share his thoughts not solicit concurrence or elicit childish condescending responses.” Really? If so, comments should have been turned off.

  23. Hi ulterior epicure,
    I’m a cook working in small kaiseki restaurant in Singapore. I agree with you wholeheartedly, there is too much brouhaha fillowing these lists. The satisfaction and pride from getting better at my job everyday and delivering a great plate of food to the diners is all the motivation I need as a cook. This is an article written with wisdom, thank you and keep writing!

  24. I not only agree with you, UE, but I think you could have gone harder on this post, and in rebuttal to these comments. There are definitely some methodologies that are better than others. But simply using logic doesn’t get you anywhere on the internet. So, I think a good point to make is that, for example, any list where Momofuku Ssam is ranked higher than The French Laundry (2012 rankings) clearly must be flawed. David Chang would never agree with that statement. Or where Astrid Y Gaston (a restaurant I found quite excellent, but that would not stand out in New York, Tokyo, or many other cities) is better than Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee or Troisgros (2011 rankings). Or where Le Chateaubriand, a fun and interesting high-end bistro where the food is often “not quite there” is better than l’Astrance (2010 rankings). Or the fact that Chez Panisse was on this list until recently (Chez Panisse cannot possibly be one of the best restaurants in the world – it was ‘revolutionary’ when it opened, but it’s just a nice casual place). Etc. etc. Clearly, the list is about what’s popular in a diversity of countries, what’s making the rounds on the internet, and what’s new and exciting. And by the way, most chefs I know (I used to be one) couldn’t care less about this list.

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