Hungry foodies of the world unite to choose the Top 50
Spain bags the prized No 1 spot, knocking Denmark's Noma off its perch, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
From Peru to Dubai, Brazil to Shanghai, an army of worldwide chefs gleamed and preened as they rubbed shoulders in London's prestigious Guildhall for the announcement of the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants 2013.
The annual awards list was started in 2002 by Restaurant Magazine, a William Reed Business Media industry publication for chefs and restaurants. Most of the winners back then were UK and European restaurants with the leaders being Ferran Adria's El Bulli in Spain, Thomas Keller's French Laundry in California, and Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck in Berkshire.
The idea has become a global foodie phenomenon and it is interesting to note that with this massive expansion, Blumenthal's Fat Duck has been weighed down from No 14 last year to No 33 on the list this year, whilst the much revered Keller's French Laundry is now a mere No 48 in the reckonings, as contenders from what sounded like a world tour swept the boards.
Adria closed his famous El Bulli a couple of years ago, and Blumenthal was probably slightly mollified by the fact that his London-based 'Dinner by Heston' crept up three places from No 10 last year to No 7 this year. Personally, on my experience of an illusionary orange pate, followed by 'chicken oysters' – the bit your granny pulled off the chicken to eat before she served it up – it wouldn't be on the radar at all. I remain fascinated like the child in the emperor's new clothes story. Likewise too, Keller might also be mollified to see his New York-based Per Se feature at No 11 this year.
The list is created from the votes of the World's 50 Best Restaurants Academy, derived from people in the restaurant industry and food media. There are some 900 people involved across 26 separate regions around the world, each of which has 36 members, including a chairperson, and each member can cast seven votes, of which three must recognise restaurants outside of their own region.
There is no Michelin-style criteria laid down when voting for restaurants, it is based on your dining experiences over the previous 18 months. It looks for restaurants that are inspirational and different – they can be small or big – which is good. Along with, I understand, two other people here, I am a member of the panel for the UK & Ireland. Overall we are a very small 'voice' out of 33 other esteemed panellists in the UK, an issue I raised with William Drew, editor of Restaurant Magazine, a couple of years ago.
The biggest happening this year was that the much speculated on No 1 position in the rankings came to pass, with the charismatic Rene Redzepi's Noma Restaurant in Copenhagen giving way to El Celler de Can Roca in Girona.
El Celler has been waiting in the wings for seven years for this moment, being No 2 for the past two years, and it was very refreshing to see the three Roca brothers bound onto the stage with a Latin ebullience that reminded me more of Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras – more The Three Tenors than The Three Chefs – one almost expected them to burst into song as they beamed with delight.
The Roca brothers' restaurant has gained global acclaim for its combination of Catalan dishes and cutting edge techniques coupled with a passion for hospitality.
Joan heads up the kitchen, Jordi is head pastry chef, and Josep is head sommelier in charge of front of house. Together they make a formidable team and no doubt the "of course I've been there" brigade of enthusiastic foodies will have been booking their table and their Ryanair flights to Girona this week!
El Celler believes in free-style cooking, with a commitment to the avant-garde, but remaining faithful to the memory of different generations of the family's ancestors, all dedicated to feeding people. Its philosophy is one of "emotional cuisine" with different ingredients chosen to take diners back to childhood memories and a specific place in their past.
Noma held the No 1 position for three years with its Nordic food and foraging ethos – including the use of insects – and the kitchen team also serving the food to the diners.
Noma has seen a blooming of new eateries based on this concept adapted to local produce of the region in which they open. There is no doubt now that aspiring chefs will also be heading to El Celler to experience what has brought the Roca brothers to the top of the pile.
Supported by El Celler de Can Roca's rise to the top spot on the list, Spain continues to dominate the top 10 with San Sebastian's Mugaritz at No 4 and Arzak at No 8, and five restaurants on the World's 50 Best in total.
Spain's counterparts in South America are also rising to the top with the continent having six restaurants on the list including Peru's Astrid Y Gaston rising 21 places to be crowned the 'Highest Climber' on the list and following the launch this spring of the inaugural Asia's 50 Best Restaurant Awards in Singapore, the organisers are now coming up with Latin America's 50 Best Restaurant Awards in Peru this September.
The Lifetime Achievement Award went to Alain Ducasse and, in a mainly male dominated industry, the nod to feminism, the World's Best Female Chef 2013 went deservedly to Nadia Santini of Dal Pescatore in Mantova, Italy, the first female chef to win three Michelin Stars.
The one to watch now is No 3 on the list, and a great excuse to visit Italy. It is Massimo Bottura's Osteria Francescana in Modena, Pavarotti's hometown, which has crept up from No 5 last year – watch this space!
You'll have to brush up your pots here, guys or – even though we are only across the Irish Sea – it seems we are going to be beating on the doors of the World's 50 Best Restaurants for a long time to come.