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 want to avoid giving 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 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.
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.