Danes make it three No 1s on trot
The world's best restaurant awards have taken place in London. Panel judge Lucinda O'Sullivan reports
The World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards 2012 took place last Monday night in the Guild Hall in London, following a lead-up hoopla to beat the band. It was an event which had restaurateurs, chefs and wannabe bloggers descending on London from all over the world, as though it were the Olympics itself.
Well in fact it is the Olympics to them -- all vying for gold -- to be the No 1 Restaurant in the World as voted by their peers and recognised foodies. This position had been held for the past two years by Rene Redzepi's Noma in Copenhagen, and the industry had been holding its collective global breath to see whether Rene Redzepi could make it a hat-trick for the coveted top spot. He did, narrowly beating Spain's El Celler de Can Roca into second place.
This is in fact the 10th anniversary of the 50 Best Restaurant List which was started in 2002 by Restaurant Magazine, a then fledgling industry publication for chefs and restaurateurs in the UK. Most of the initial winners were European restaurants, many being in the UK. The first eight years saw Ferran Adria's El Bulli, Thomas Keller's French Laundry and Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck jostling for first place, until Rene Redzepi's totally different style of cooking -- concentrating on local Scandinavian produce, foraged from the seashores and woods -- stormed ahead.
Scandinavian cuisine had not been fashionable up to that point but it is now the flavour of the decade. This has resulted in mini Nomas popping up around the world. That's OK once they don't totally plagiarise the Copenhagen mothership but use and develop their own local style, rather than trying to give us Nomaesques in the outer regions of Kandahar.
The dream of every chef with aspirations is the acquisition of a Michelin star. Michelin, however, has stifling criteria for awarding its precious star. The 50 Best Restaurants are voted more on individual style and innovation and, although many on the list do also have a Michelin star, there are those that don't. Michelin-style food is recognised as having a more formal style of cooking and presentation. Of course, to be featured on the 50 Best they have to be good all-rounders, but a little restaurant in a backwater that is doing something really startling could find itself breaking through and getting on the list.
While it is called the 50 Best Restaurants the list expands out to 100, and to have your name on it anywhere is now regarded as highly desirable. Michel Roux Jnr's Le Gavroche, for example, comes in at No 88.
Being on this list, particularly towards the top, has seen dedicated foodies, chefs and other restaurateurs, flying in for a 'destination dinner' to that restaurant, no matter where. It means restaurants have to pretty well set up a special new reservation system, which will see their restaurant booked solid -- usually in chunks of three months -- as desperate diners log on to try and get a table.
Getting on that World's 50 Best list is not just down to the word of one or two inspectors, it is down to being democratically selected by voting panels in each region. The Academy consists of over 800 international leaders in the restaurant industry, including chefs, food critics and restaurateurs. There are 27 separate regions around the world, with each region having its own panel of 31 members, every one of whom has seven votes. Of the seven votes, at least three must be used to recognise restaurants outside their region; and at least 10 panellists from each region change each year. Voters must also have eaten in the restaurants they nominate within the past 18 months.
Elena Arzak Espina of the top Spanish restaurant Arzak was named the Veuve Clicquot World's Best Female Chef 2012, while Thomas Keller of The French Laundry was awarded the Lifetime Achievement accolade. The hottest award after the No 1 Restaurant Award is recognised as the Chef's Choice Award, which this year went to Mugaritz in San Sebastian, coming in at No 3. Spain in fact has five restaurants on the list, with three in the top 10. The 2012 One to Watch accolade went to the ultra-cool and very green La Grenouillere, not far from Calais, where you can also stay in rustic modern rooms in an old farmhouse or in what they describe as self-contained 'huts' open to nature. Currently No 81, La Grenouillere won't be long galloping up the list, I reckon.
The UK had three restaurants in the top 50. Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck failed to float, sinking from No 5 to No 13, but he won't be crying as his new baby Dinner by Heston overtook it. From my experience at Dinner, I wouldn't reckon it as being No 9 -- more like 99 without the ice-cream. I loved Brett Graham's Notting Hill establishment, The Ledbury, which rose 20 places to No 14, taking the Highest Climber award. Lovely food, nice guys, and a great value lunch. This is where the staff literally came to the defence of the customers last year during the London riots. The World's 50 Best caravan is getting bigger too because they have just announced Asia's 50 Best Restaurant Awards to be launched in Singapore in February, 2013.
We are part of the UK Regional Panel in the assessments, of which Bloomberg chief critic Richard Vines is the chairman. Last year I queried as to Irish representation on the voting panel, which I felt was being overlooked. William Drew, editor of Restaurant magazine, took up the challenge and this year I was asked to join the voting panel for 2012, so at least I could get a spoke in for us Paddies, and nominate a few of our different and excellent restaurants. However, we are only a small cog in what is now a global phenomenon. William Drew now has an enormous baby on his hands -- it is amazing what he has done in 10 years.
Getting Ireland out there restaurant- and food-wise is all down to marketing, and Tourism Ireland needs to positively make Ireland a dining destination, sending experienced people out to promote us as such. People still do not come here for the food and we just don't seem to have yet shaken off the old Irish food image. We have amazing artisan producers and chefs -- as evidenced by the fact that two of our young chefs, Trevor Moran of Stillorgan and Louise Bannon from Greystones, are part of the Noma team. What we have to offer is purer and greener than anywhere else in the world.