The Society of the Illusionists: The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List
Secondo: What’s the matter with you, are you sick?
Primo: People should come just for the food.
Secondo: I know. Primo, I need your help here, okay? Louis Prima is coming! He’s not just some guy, he’s famous!
Primo: Famous? Is he good?
Secondo: He’s great.
Primo: People should come just for the food!
Secondo: I know that, I know. But they don’t.
- Big Night, 1996
An ever-increasing number of food enthusiasts do not frequent restaurants “just for the food”. They are no longer out to enjoy a good dinner with friends. Their primary aim is to “tick a cultural box and have bragging rights to some rare effete spirit”. (1) Some critics deem the Michelin Guide responsible for perpetuating the growth of this type of customer. Leaving aside the debate whether this phenomenon is good or bad, the Michelin Guide for several years has not been alone in creating such symptoms.
Once a year in the early spring, the restaurant world holds the equivalent of a beauty contest for restaurants and their chefs called the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (“W50B”). In 2002, the then-independent British trade magazine Restaurant conceived the W50B as something of a lark. As with the founding of Le Fooding guide two years earlier and the coining of the word bistronomie by the culinary critic Sébastien Demorand, the W50B was a reaction against the Michelin Guide’s “best” or three-star restaurants as elitist, expensive and often pretentious. Chris Maillard—founder and editor of the W50B—and his friends deliberately chose restaurants where one could simply enjoy dishes instead of “having to tackle daunting cheffy masterpieces in near-silent rooms with stuffed-shirt service”. (2) For Maillard, the “initial concept [of the W50B] was nothing to do with juries and international voting panels. It was a quirky, individual list put together by ourselves and a small list of trusted freelancers and outside experts”. (3) Indeed, the first W50B featured restaurants in 25 countries, including several that the general public at the time would not typically associate with fine dining such as Mauritius, Barbados, Iceland, and Kenya.
In 2005 William Reed Business Media, a small-to-medium sized privately-held company, bought Restaurant magazine. The company continued to develop the W50B, adapting it to make it a viable and high-profile, if not lucrative, part of its business. The W50B’s metamorphosis from a modest initiative aiming to “provoke discussion and spark debate” into a supposed “absolutist food-first ranking” conceals certain flawed and disheartening aspects to the undertaking.
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“A man who wants the truth becomes a scientist; a man who wants to give free play to his subjectivity may become a writer; but what should a man do who wants something in between?”
- Robert Musil
An Act of Defiance
For most people, the W50B is the face of modern gastronomy. It sets food trends; it creates demand; and it alters preferences. We rarely hear anything negative about this initiative from those in “the industry”. Nevertheless, in recent years certain eminent chefs and restaurateurs have expressed discontentment with the W50B because of what they believe to be arbitrary and non-credible judging that is “susceptible to corruption”. (4) For example, Parisian chef Guy Savoy denounced the W50B for being unethical and open to manipulation by industrial actors. (5) The harshest criticism has actually came from within, from former W50B voters. As expressed by international chef-restaurateur Joël Robuchon, the system is prone to “cronyism, ‘flip of a coin’ voting and geopolitical influence and lobbying”. (6) Similarly, the Argentinian chef and restaurant owner Francis Mallmann criticized the list for creating a bubble and subsequently filling that bubble with lobbying and politics: “Chefs must work to belong in this awards bubble more than they work for anything else”. (7) There are also reports that Arnaud Tillon (brand director of Nestlé Waters that owns the W50B’s former name sponsor San Pellegrino) has warned the initiative that the lack of transparency associated with the W50B’s methodology could cause problems in France. (8) More importantly, Rogério Fasano, a Brazilian restaurateur, asks rhetorically “even if we can agree that the list is only a collection of opinions, … what about the moral element?” (9) These criticisms of Savoy, Robuchon, Mallmann, Tillon, and Fasano are valid unto themselves and to a certain extent collectively present a strong argument against using the W50B as an access point to, or a reflection of, the best in modern gastronomy.
What the “Magic” Number Reveals
At the core of the W50B is the voting Academy, which is split into 26 regions around the world with each region having its own voting panel of 40 members, including a chairperson to head that particular voting panel. Each voter selects 10 restaurants that they have supposedly visited in the past 18 months. A maximum of six should be in the voter’s own region, close to where he or she lives, and at least four restaurants should be from elsewhere.
Even a cursory investigation reveals that the voting system and ranking methodology of the W50B has significant statistical flaws. In statistics the “magic” number or rule of thumb is 30. One should obtain at least 30 samples of what you want to measure in order to populate enough data points and obtain a distribution that has a meaningful average, a standard deviation, and that shows any outliers. Let us assume that there are approximately 2000 restaurants in Bogotá, Columbia and that the local populace agrees that 0.1% of these restaurants are worthy of consideration for the W50B. Of course it would be logistically impossible to require that all 1040 voters travel to Bogotá and dine at the top two restaurants, but 30 voters might be enough to constitute a fair sample. However, what is the basis of comparison that those 30 voters should keep in mind when dining out in Bogotá?
For statistical significance, the two restaurants in Bogotá should be compared to all restaurants everywhere that are under consideration. To come up with a list of 50 best restaurants, one would assume that as many as 1000 restaurants or more might be considered. Thus you would need 30 people at a minimum to dine at all 1000+ restaurants so that you could claim an acceptable level of sample size. Choosing 30 people and sending them to 1000 restaurants is infinitely harder than relying on locals or conveniently working with a much smaller sample size. You can find many food-savvy travelers and writers (certainly over 30) in cities known for their fine dining (e.g., New York, Paris) who can compare local restaurants against each other, and so come up with a relatively reasonable, or at least less-controversial, ranking of the 50 best restaurants in a particular location. But what happens if a food authority figure from New York travels to Vietnam and discovers the most incredible dinner of his/her life in a restaurant serving an unforgettable phở? Would this person’s opinion be counted as an outlier? If this person is a trend-setter and knows a lot of people in the industry, does the outlier become a heavily-weighted data point by his influence on other voters? Similarly, a French food expert might be well-traveled, but how much travel and how much sampling equates to “well” in reality? Would he have enough experience cultivated over the years to really understand a cuisine, to appreciate its layers of complexity and to objectively, and to fairly compare it to the cuisine of France? (10)
Challenges Posed by Subjectivity
The conventional aim of any ranking is to form a list by ideally employing certain objective criteria. As illustrated, such an aim faces two challenges: The first challenge arises from intra-subjectivity, or the complications and differences in an individual’s experience of the same phenomenon at different times. It is questionable whether one or even a few visits to a restaurant will suffice because restaurants have an almost-organic quality about them. On any given day they can hum along in flawless fashion or be moody and temperamental. The W50B—or any other ranking—can only overcome the challenge of subjectivity or a restaurant’s changeability with voters who can bend time and space to experience every single restaurant in the world at a particular time.
Another concern is inter-subjectivity: How should we derive objectivity from different food critics’ or voters’ subjective judgments? This refers to the problems inherent in finding common reference points that would enable us to measure each person’s experiences. Each voter attaches significance in different degrees to taste, technique, ingredients, conception and execution. Unfortunately, there is no meta-theory to tell us what hierarchical ranking exists among them. Is the supreme value taste? Or technique? What about finesse? Novelty? Innovation? Aesthetics? No one does or can know.
A Retreat and the Chaotic Void
In the strict sense, achieving a worldwide gastronomic ranking system is a Sisyphean task. A retreat to a more modest task—or, a restatement of the mission—is inevitable. The W50B’s modest task is to provide “an annual snapshot of the opinions and experiences of over 1,000 international dining experts” comprised of chef and restaurateurs (34%), food writers (33%), and well-traveled gourmets (33%). (11) Interestingly, “there is no predetermined check-list of criteria”, and “what constitutes ‘best’ is left to the judgment of these trusted and well-travelled gourmets”. (12) The free reign granted to the voters in determining what factors constitute an excellent gastronomic experience, as well as the deferral to consensus, may appear to represent an ideal practice. In reality, it merely creates a chaotic void.
The symptoms of its lack of normalcy are everywhere. As Daniel Boulud expressed when asked about his Restaurant Daniel’s drop in the rankings: “Last year we were number 32, now we are 41. I don’t know what we have done wrong”? (13) Daniel’s drop is not necessarily related to something that they did wrong. For example, this could be due to an increase in other restaurants’ performances. Yet, Daniel’s precipitous drop probably had more to do with his inability to play the “game” right, as opposed to any real difference in the quality of his food.
The Loss of Innocence
In theory, the W50B’s voters’ responsibilities are supposed to be more burdensome than those participating in a political election. They must be independent, impartial, and judge restaurants as objectively as possible. In this respect, their task is akin to a food critic who should remain anonymous, pay in full for every meal and refuse any personal gifts. How does the W50B fare in relation to these elements?
Unlike the Michelin Guide, William Reed Business Media does not pay for its voters’ meals or travel. In fact, it does not even require documentation that its voters dined at a particular restaurant in the last 18 months as they are “required” to do. According to Chicago television restaurant reviewer Steve Dolinsky, in a classic example of two wrongs making a right, it is fine that the W50B does not require proof of dining at a particular restaurant because this ‘no receipt’ policy is the same for the James Beard Awards. (14)
This major flaw is further worsened by other practices. The W50B allows parties with direct interest in the ranking to sponsor its events. These parties include “many government tourism boards, like those of Sweden, Peru, Mexico, Singapore and Australia, [that] have begun, or increased, their sponsorship of gastro-tourism for those in the food industry since the advent of the list”. (15) The most effective way to appear high on the list is to own “a certain kind of restaurant” in a country that hosts the awards ceremony, as the aim is to bring as many voters as possible to dine at the national restaurants. In 2016 New York City hosted the awards event. The four local restaurants that year claimed spots 3, 24, 44, and 48; this year the numbers jumped to 1, 11, 17 and 40. This is why Australian restaurants will surely be ranked higher on the list next year as Melbourne was this year’s host city. Tourism Australia, the official host sponsor of the W50B, donated over 600,000 US dollars to the organizers. (16) Several voters dined at Ben Shewry’s Attica Restaurant, so one can expect a significant jump in its position on the 2018 list.
Clearly, anonymity of the voters is overrated by the W50B. In fact, it celebrates instead the lack of anonymity during their awards ceremony where those who attend it socialize with chefs and other industry people. It is therefore not surprising that the voters include two subsets of people who vouch for and create buzz for certain restaurants. These are the so called “influencers” and “ambassadors”. The former are mostly journalists, the latter mostly bloggers. Officially nobody is paid for their service as a voter, although there are rumors that some journalists and bloggers do in fact receive some monetary compensation. What is certain is that the so-called ambassadors receive benefits in exchange for their views. The noted El Pais restaurant critic Ignacio Medina is a case in point. Medina was a member of the jury for the first two years of the endeavor, but ultimately left when he realized how the system worked. As Medina noted in an interview, “The coordinators carried out the public relations of the restaurants and there were restaurants that invited their voters with everything paid for to visit them, and a long, long etcetera”.
The W50B is prone to the national bias as well. Food writers and gastronomic travelers from the countries with fewer restaurants on the list may act strategically in order to vote for a specific restaurant to guarantee representation. This is similar to the theory of public choice: that if individuals are rational actors, there is no reason why they would not like to maximize their own interests instead of that of the organization to which they belong. Indeed, voters act against the interests or objectives of W50B and pursue their own interests—in this case the promotion of their countries. This is exactly what one of us (Vedat Milor) experienced when he was asked how he would cast his votes for the Turkish restaurants two years ago. The voter did not like his selections because he would not vote for the restaurants that would have the best chance to appear on the list. As a result, Milor declined to participate. According to Milor’s sources, French jury members were encouraged to select Alléno Paris au Pavillon Ledoyen backed by billionaire luxury-business entrepreneur Francois Pinault. This is all fine, if not a very expensive restaurant, but the criteria for selection are political and not gastronomic. There are now many strong national lobbies in the W50B, and the argument of sticking together to get as many restaurants from a given country as possible is compelling. The recently-named chairman for France Nicolas Chatenier is a PR specialist and represented Anne-Sophie Pic. It will be surprising if Restaurant Pic in Valence does not appear on next year’s list.
In meeting the significant challenges to its ratings methods, the W50B head William Drew argues that “every effort is made to ensure its rules are followed”. (17) Yet, rules cannot be followed when there are no rules. The W50B’s approach produces anomie and falls short of achieving reliable results. In fact, in such measures as hiring Deloitte to ensure the integrity of its voting system, the W50B’s efforts may appear as a PR stunt tantamount to “putting lipstick on a pig … to ensure that the guest never notices the pig, only the lipstick”. (18)
Economic Realities and Selective Ethicism
Restaurants cannot operate, and survive only with ideals and principles: They are subject to economic realities. And the conditions of the food industry can be brutal. For example, even successful restaurateurs such as David Chang complain that “restaurants are at the mercy of weather, acts of God, a sluggish economy — and if you have just one bad week, it can sink your ship”. (19)
This is where the outsize role of the W50B comes into play: As the founder of the W50B put it, “the awards have now become a massive international revenue-generating machine”. (20) Finding a place on the list may be a restaurant’s salvation and its continued economic success. This is confirmed in some accounts such as “the day after Noma captured the No. 1 slot, in 2010, a hundred thousand people tried to book a table. Three years later, when El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona, Spain, outranked Noma for the first time, its Web site received two and a half million hits in twenty-four hours. The waiting list ballooned to a year”. (21) Similarly, after Central in Lima took the fourth spot in the W50B, the restaurant could not cope with reservation requests. Owner-chef Virgilio Martinez confirmed that they had four people to answer phones as they got “almost 1,000 reservation requests in three days”. (22)
Considering restaurants’ struggles for survival, it is not surprising that chefs adapt a logic of consequences, which is to maximize their utility by calculating expected returns from being included in the W50B. However, an absolute deferral to rationality can never be the ultimate answer. It can constitute a disregard for the real problems that we face. This is particularly important considering the increasing trend in the gastronomy world that chefs are not simply chefs, and gastronomy is never simply about gastronomy. For instance, chefs pursue admirable causes and adopt philanthropic and ethical stances. Massimo Bottura’s charity “Food for Soul”, which provides good food in pleasant surroundings to the homeless, constitutes a good example. Donating time and money per se to worthwhile causes is beyond reproach. However, some may question whether those chefs always act altruistically, as it is puzzling to see the contrast between chefs’ admirable ethical stances and their disregard for the problems arising from the W50B. Furthermore, chefs’ selective ethicism can be excused up to the point that the dynamics of the W50B start to harm other chefs that cannot appear on the list. Are not the problems embedded in the W50B simply unjust and unfair to those left out?
Symptoms of Degeneration I: The Reign of Narrative
In a letter dated 1862, Gustave Flaubert linked the increasing popularities of newspapers in the 1800s with the situation in his country where “the banal, the facile, and the foolish are invariably applauded, adopted, and adored”. (23) The increasing popularity of social media has had a somewhat similar effect on the world of gastronomy. However, we are now applauding not the banal, but the modern chefs who are innovative and “tell a story” with a dish; a dramatic tale of woe, if not a downright tragic one (see the episodes of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table”) or through his multiple course tasting menu. A good example is taken from Osteria Francescana, the W50B’s number one restaurant in 2016, below:
“Then they bring an oyster shell on a bed of salt…This is Bottura’s attempt to capture a memory of his childhood holiday in Normandy. He drank cider, and ate oysters and lamb. The dish is adequate … but – and this is the problem with philosophical food – it cannot bear the burden of the expectation set upon it; no food could. I cannot see Bottura’s Normandy, so what is the point? … These are Bottura’s memories, not mine, and so—I am sure this is not his intention—the eating of them feels like something of an imposition”. (24)
In this era of narrative, chefs attempt to reinforce their dishes with extra-culinary elements. Innovation is a major element in this story-telling and may appear in various forms ranging from the reinterpretation of the traditional elements of one’s native cuisine—such as the New Nordic Cuisine or New Anatolian Cuisine—to the discovery of modernist techniques; or it may be defined by expressions such as “philosophical food” to “gastronomic theatre”. If you do not follow the story line or find it artificial or superficial or outright stupid, then the problem is with you! If you complain about the performance of a “top” whatever chef, you get an automatic response of not “getting it”, “not being cerebral enough” to understand the concept of the dish.
The pathological consequence of the pursuit of pure innovation and narrative-oriented approach is a shift from a substantive value as taste to some extra-gastronomic elements such as a chef passing himself off as an artiste or philosophical genius. Surely, food presentation is part of the gastronomic experience, but certain values are disproportionately of greater importance than others. It is quasi-tragic to think that the age of globalization and the prominence of social media made it possible to put a premium on a “show” rather than “substance” in so-called high-end dining.
Symptoms of Degeneration II: Transformation of Culinary Profession
The direct effect of creating the buzz around certain restaurants is that prices increase dramatically, even exponentially. One may accept paying for very high-level products cooked to perfection. Yet the new trend is that a certain number of the W50B restaurants use mediocre products, shortcuts in the kitchen, and never seek out the best of the seasonal ingredients. The emphasis of the W50B list on “creativity” and “avant-garde” cooking actually translates into the use of chemicals produced by big business for use in modern kitchens.
With all their narratives, the rapid rise of celebrity chefs creates perverse incentives. It is not surprising that rising young chefs are deeply influenced and enchanted by these “sexy and cool” narratives. They look at the highly-touted chefs whose kitchens turn into a factory for assemblage. Our personal experience indicates that at least six of the W50B’s top 10 are actually crystal-clean kitchens because each is a point of assemblage for the ingredients cooked sous-vide. The transformation happened after these chefs rose to the top or that some well-known restaurants changed their style, in order to rise to the top in the hierarchy. It is depressing to think that they had to compromise so much. The chefs who care to play the “top” game are trapped in a system that turns them into lobbyist, a PR specialist and traveling salesman rolled into one. Gone are the days of the chef as the purveyor of great ingredients and the master of his one and only kitchen.
This is the new era of the chef as a network builder: in-country networks to get themselves placed on the W50B and control the votes; and international networks through international “pop-ups” and other gastronomic events to gain new recruits who will vote for them. This is hard and tiresome work, but the most basic tenet of capitalism applies here: You grow or you die! Success for any chef in this business of seeking and expanding influence around the globe entails qualities akin to a top salesman of a multinational corporation. It takes a certain personality, outside investment and constant spin-doctoring through social media to reach the top. We have no objection to all of this except the virtual loss of the relationship between the chef and the regular or serious customer in favor of an inchoate rapport between the “star chef” and the ever-changing privileged few including those who often do not pay their checks because they cast votes. The overall result is the disappearance of the truly great restaurants like Alain Chapel, Robuchon’s Jamin and several others that attained the highest gastronomic level.
The Absurdity of “The Best”
In gastronomy, we seem to love using superlatives and comparing distinct items with each other. The W50B pretends to know way too many restaurants around the world; in fact, it wants us to think it knows all the potentially “best” restaurants in the world. Yet, its Trumpesque confidence does not suffice to eliminate the absurdity in its claim. Of course, this issue is not peculiar to the W50B: any task to establish a worldwide gastronomic ranking in the strict sense is not humanly possible.
At the same time, it is unfair to subject the W50B to standards which are impossible to attain. As shown, it therefore retreats to a more modest task of providing an annual snapshot of the opinions and experiences of selected dining experts. This task is in a great harmony with the zeitgeist in which dishes are cooked to look great on Instagram and Facebook rather than for culinary merits. With its ever-growing number of lists such as the 50 Best Asian Restaurants, 50 Best Latin-America Restaurants and several other awards categories, the W50B falls into the ever-growing realm of list-mania that has gripped both the realms of gastronomic establishments in particular and journalism and cultural “analysis” in general. Such exercises are a form of shorthand and lazy thinking, and the greater number of lists and rankings, the more this inflation dilutes the significance of the undertaking, even if the lists are of little validity in the first place. The W50B is a high-profile example, but regardless, it is essentially the exercise of putting a number to a name despite the brief hyped and simplistic thumbnail of each restaurant.
Actually the question should rather be why did it take so long for anybody to come up with the idea of a “top” list? We live in the global age of international competition. Daily pressures, and the search for maximum efficiency translates into the need to look for shortcuts in all areas of life. The increasing popularity of rankings in food and wine is a rational-and clever-response to this need. In the world of wine, Robert Parker’s phenomenal success, though now somewhat in decline, was due less to his good palate than his acumen in coming up with a 100-point scale and the breadth of his coverage. In the restaurant world, on the other hand, it was only Michelin that ranked restaurants on an increasing-scale and there are now more than 122 three-star establishments (currently), which, of course, are way too many! People want to know “who is the best”, or among “the best”. They do not have time to probe deeper into the matter and critically evaluate the knowledge, experience, and conflicts of interest of the evaluators or jury members. There are perceived informational asymmetries between the typical restaurant client and the opinion makers. Thus from the vantage point of a restaurant customer, it seems rational and safe to trust the authority.
Yet, this is an authority that does not act like an authority. The W50B is a hierarchical ranking system that refuses to provide any selection criteria or guidance to its voters. In fact, a more careful examination revealed that there was one criterion that stood out, and it was not only the merits of a restaurant, but rather the public and social relations skills of a chef, often through his PR agent, to attract as many voters as possible to dine at his restaurant. As Francis Mallmann reports, some go as far as asking for votes directly. (25)
At the end of the day, the W50B represents the reign of the narrative and the transformation of the culinary profession into a mutual admiration society. When all is said and done, the game revolves around money, favors, and influence changing hands for a sponsorship; inclusion and placement on the list; jiggering votes; becoming the host city for the awards gathering; paying journalists and bloggers to write puffery; intense lobbying; and misleading an unsuspecting and uninformed restaurant-going public. When all is said and done the W50B is essentially a meaningless artifice with many disheartening flaws. The realities and trends of modern gastronomy are quite sobering, but it is not necessary to praise the dumbing-down and degenerating of gastronomy as the triumph of progress. Now that the sun is setting and it is gastronomy’s Big Night, will we have more chefs like Primo?
This article has been published in collaboration with Engaging Food (http://www.engagingfood.com) and Mizanplas (http://www.mizanplas.com).
Acknowledgements: We would like to thank to Alexis Papazoglou, Christina Hatinoglu, Gokhan Atilgan, Chris Wheeler, Brandon Granier, Tan Morgul, Berk Demirkol, Eda Coşar Demirkol, Marc Sinan Winrow and Leonardo Casaleno for their invaluable comments on a draft of this article.
(1) For a penetrating and enlightened look at the recent evolution (and more) of the Michelin Guides, see the article that Vedat Milor published on Gastromondiale: http://www.gastromondiale.com/food1/2016/9/9/michelin-a-friendship-that-went-sour
(10) In a response to Steve Plotnicki of Opinionated About Dining (another restaurant ranking endeavor), Nate Silver of 538.com finds it strange to ask people to vote within their regions because the methodology used by the W50B makes it very difficult to compare restaurants from different parts of the world. We need to know “how do New York diners feel about the food scene in Japan, and vice versa”, since this is the point of a worldwide ranking.
(23) Stephen Miller, “A Note on the Banality of Evil”, Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1998.