The London-based magazine Restaurant is generating headlines this morning for its ranking of the world’s supposedly 100 best restaurants.
Boy, is the list controversial.
For the well traveled, America’s showing – 13 top restaurants – looks on the high side, and so does the United Kingdom’s five. (If Restaurant’s ranking is to be credited, the American contingent is headed by Eleven Madison Park in New York — ranked fifth in the world – followed by Le Bernardin in New York, Alinea in Chicago, Per Se in New York, and Blue Hill in Stone Barns.) Another anomaly is the contrasting treatments of Spain and Italy. Although Italy boasts a famously sophisticated tradition and a considerably larger population, it scores a mere four restaurants in the Restaurant list versus nine for Spain.
Then there is East Asia. For me, as someone who has lived nearly 27 years in Tokyo, the hardest thing to credit is the lowly treatment of Japan, which scored a mere four. This was just one more than nations like Mexico and Australia. Yet Japan boasts a larger population and a much more sophisticated culinary tradition. Not only do Japanese chefs achieve superlative standards in a wide range of indigenous cuisines but they are global champions in various foreign culinary traditions, most notably Italian and French but also Chinese and Korean. Hence the fact that for many years Tokyo has been hailed by the Michelin Guide as one of the world’s ultimate culinary capitals.
The rankings also seem inexplicable in the case of mainland China. With one-fifth of the world’s population, China might have been expected to score more than just three restaurants – the same as tiny Hong Kong and even tinier Singapore. (Yes, a few restaurants on the Chinese mainland make headlines for terrible standards but China now has a vast wealthy business class whose culinary needs support a huge range of sophisticated restaurants).
Why such skewed results? Frankly Restaurant’s selection process is so flawed it would hardly look out of place at FIFA. Certainly it has been described by the Spanish chef Martín Berasategui as ”rigged.” He alleges it is manipulated by an unidentified “important international food company.” What is clear is that the magazine polls chefs, restaurateurs, food critics, and gourmands. Although no restaurateur is allowed to vote for his own restaurant, it is easy to see how mutual back-scratching might enter into the process. Basically this is the culinary equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest, a cheesy pan-European television annual event that chooses Europe’s best song. The voting is characterized by friendly neighboring nations such those of Scandinavia voting for one another’s songs. Sometimes this process identifies the next ABBA – but more likely not.
For a full listing of the winning restaurants click here.