The service at what was, until last week, the “best restaurant in the world” is surprisingly relaxed. Maybe it’s because the staff at Catalonia’s Celler de Can Roca have had many months to get used to their title, but they don’t seem to be as stressed out as you or I might be knowing that everything about their restaurant is supposed to be, to all intents and purposes, perfect. Since they reached number one in the “world’s 50 best restaurants list” last year they’ve lived with the knowledge that it’s all downhill from here. What happens if they spill the “consommé of root vegetables” or the luxuriously sticky plate of eels in a diner’s lap?
Until 2002 there was no official “world’s best restaurant”. The closest thing was probably the 100 or so establishments that are given three Michelin stars each year. Then Joe Warwick, and other staff on the small-circulation British trade magazine Restaurant, decided to do a quick poll of mostly British chefs and critics, who collectively nominated another little-known Catalan place, elBulli, headed up by Ferran Adrià.
Twelve years later Ferran’s brother Albert, now co-owner of five restaurants in Barcelona, argues that even Michelin stars live in its shadow. “The 50 best has done a lot of damage to Michelin,” he says. “I’ve been to restaurants that have three Michelin stars and they’re not full. But the 20 first of the ’50 best’ are completely full.” Rene Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma can testify to the extraordinary power of the list. One minute his restaurant was almost unknown, except to restaurant obsessives; then, in 2010, Noma went to number one and the phone hasn’t stopped ringing (and now it is back at number one).
Current Restaurant magazine editor-in-chief William Drew admits that the awards have become much bigger than his publication. “It was a spin-off part of my job,” he says, “and now it has pretty much taken over as my whole job.” The organisers quickly realised it couldn’t continue to be as parochial as it was in its infancy and it’s now organised around 26 different regions of the world, with 936 voters, mainly chefs, food writers and other well-travelled food lovers. They have seven votes each, three of which they have to cast for restaurants outside their own region.
One voter, Trevor Gulliver, co-owner of the St John restaurant in London, thinks that at least part of the success of the winners depends on their supporters’ skill in attracting voters to eat at their restaurants. You can’t vote for a restaurant, after all, if you haven’t eaten there. “The Spanish, including their panel, have worked hard to make sure they’re represented,” he says. “They’re not silly. Countries know that this is a good thing to win. If you’ve won it once or you’ve got one or two restaurants in the top 10, or even the top 50, it means employment.”
The chair of the British panel, Bloomberg News critic Richard Vines, says that he has never witnessed any attempt to sway the judges. “All I can tell you is that I’ve never been approached,” he says. “I can’t recollect ever being invited to Spain to go to a restaurant and as it happens under Bloomberg rules I can’t accept anyway.”
The “50 best” has triumphed because it has the support of so many chefs, but even the winners are careful to take their victory with a considerable pinch of salt. “It’s absurd. When we received this we were the first to say: ‘This isn’t important!'” says Joan Roca. “But since then, travelling around the world and doing interviews, you realise that the only person who thinks that is you. We don’t want to take anything away from it or offend the people who put together the list, but it’s not something to take seriously. It’s so subjective.”
Is much-maligned Michelin, with its system of anonymous judges, still a better guide to great restaurants? Although they might complain about Michelin, chefs at least understand the reasons why a restaurant is given its stars, even if they don’t agree.
“Michelin has specific parameters, it values quality and says, ‘This deserves three stars, and this as well,'” continues Roca. “There are 109 restaurants in the world that have three stars.” It is still the case that, for most restaurants, a Michelin star has a measurable effect on business.
Virgilio Martínez of London’s Lima restaurant says reservations increased by about 20% after their first star. Rene Redzepi, whose Noma still “only” has two stars, would love a third. “For old-school-trained chefs,” he says, “Michelin has a very strong place. It’s a benchmark, and something that I genuinely believe most chefs really want. Even if they won’t admit it.”
The brilliant simplicity of Restaurant magazine’s idea is partly just in our addiction to lists but, more importantly, in the absurd but beguiling notion that you really can dine at the “official” best restaurant in the world. – © Guardian News & Media 2014