Culinary wild geese cook at world's best
While Irish restaurants may not have made the world's Top 50, our top chefs did us proud, says Lucinda O'Sullivan
Last week saw the announcement of the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants 2011. What is quite extraordinary is not the fact that Rene Redzepi's Noma, the much- lauded restaurant in Copenhagen, has been voted No 1 Restaurant in the World for the second year running, but the success of the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurant concept, which started out as a feature in the UK's Restaurant magazine in 2002. It has become the real Oscars of the food world and must have those at Michelin HQ sharpening their knives.
Chefs who for years desired nothing more than the coveted Michelin star outside their door, of which there are thousands and thousands worldwide, are now vying to be on the select list of 50 -- even the bottom of it will suffice -- as they hope to see people flying in from all over the world to dine in their restaurant.
In its early years, the World's 50 Best list was dominated by European restaurants, many in the UK. But now the organisers say "the way in which the list is created has changed to reflect shifting trends and make it as fair and globally representative as possible".
There are no stifling criteria for the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best. Those on the list are voted there by the World's 50 Best Restaurants Academy, an influential group of more than 800 international leaders in the restaurant industry made up of food critics, chefs, restaurateurs and gastronomes. There are 27 regions around the world, each having a panel of 31 members. The members each have seven votes, of which at least three must be used to recognise restaurants outside of their region, and at least 10 panellists from each region change each year.
Voters must also have eaten in the restaurant they nominate within the past 18 months -- clearly a very important factor and not always the case as I have seen on occasion on judging panels.
Between 2002 and 2009, first and second places on the SP World's 50 Best alternated between Ferran Adria's El Bulli Restaurant in Spain and Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire. You can only imagine not just the success, but the pressures too of being labelled No 1 restaurant in the world. El Bulli had something like close to one million people looking for seats each year -- the restaurant only seated 50 and opened for six months of the year.
However, having achieved the pinnacle of his career, and having reputedly said that "you could only go so far with new ideas", Adria announced he was closing El Bulli restaurant this July, and setting up an educational foundation on the site. He travels a lot now, promotes his books and gives lectures, and will be concentrating on enjoying himself a bit more. He has also opened Inopia Classic Bar, a cocktail bar with adjoining tapas bar, in Barcelona with his younger brother, Albert, who was pastry chef with him in El Bulli.
Perhaps too it is not nice to feel the wolves snapping at your feet and it is difficult to be No 1 forever -- he was deposed in 2010 by Noma while The Fat Duck slipped to No 3.
This year Noma is again at the top of the pile with two Spanish high-flyers, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, and Mugaritz near San Sebastian, in 2nd and 3rd. Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, is 4th while Blumenthal's Fat Duck has slipped to 5th.
Osteria Francescana was also winner of the Chefs' Choice Award. An interesting one is L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon which is up 15 places to No 14 -- it had slipped 11 places in 2010. The Ledbury --a small restaurant run by Brett Graham in Notting Hill, London -- is a new entry at No 34 whilst Thomas Keller's much-revered French Laundry in California slid from No 32 last year out of the top 50 radar to No 56 this year.
Interestingly, San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world, attributed to the influences of Juan Mari Arzak of the eponymous Arzak restaurant (No 8), who also trained Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz. I know where I am taking a trip to this year!
The inaugural Veuve Clicquot World's Best Female Chef was awarded to three-Michelin-star French chef Anne Sophie Pic of Maison Pic in Valence, south of Lyon (No 67 on the continuation 51-to-100 list which kind of emphasises it is a very male dominated world).
No mention of Michelin-starred Angela Hartnett, the well-known chef and long-time professional sidekick of Gordon Ramsay, who ran the restaurant in the Connaught Hotel before opening her own Murano Restaurant in Mayfair. Those of you watching Masterchef recently will have seen the contestants experimenting with molecular gastronomy in the kitchens of Casino de Madrid in what looked like a mad scientist's laboratory.
This is the style of cookery that is rocketing these restaurants to the top of the list -- it's all about art and creation on a plate -- you might get what looks like a mandarin orange on a plate but, hey ho, in an almost Paul Daniels world you will discover it is in fact pate, or a pig's head or some such.
We have some very talented people here even though many of the younger chefs have had to leave Ireland. But on the other hand they are getting mind-blowing experiences abroad. In fact, we have two young Irish people working in Noma -- Trevor Moran from Stillorgan and Louise Bannon from Greystones -- about whom I wrote more than a year ago.
Louise is the pastry chef at Noma and a hugely talented girl but also has a very impressive pedigree behind her, including time with Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, Tom Aiken's in London, Thornton's in Dublin and latterly, before joining Noma, at the erstwhile Mint.
We are not at the races. We are bundled together with the UK in the assessments. Jay Rayner, restaurant critic of the Observer newspaper, is chair of the UK & Irish panel and I contacted Restaurant magazine to see who was on the panel voicing opinions for us Paddies, who would be familiar with the Irish dining scene.
William Drew, editor of Restaurant magazine, told me that Rachel Allen was on the panel, which, with respect to Rachel, is a very small percentage vote out of a panel of 31 people -- the rest are all UK-based. Hopefully we will have a higher representation next year.