Irish restaurants 'not on the radar' as we miss out yet again on Top 50 list
Last Monday, at a ceremony in the Cipriani ballroom on Wall Street in New York, Massimo Bottura's Osteria Francescana in Modena was declared the best restaurant in the world.
Bottura's schtick is that he deconstructs classic Italian dishes to create food that is both unexpected and fiercely contemporary. Amongst the plates that you might find on the menu (if you are ever fortunate enough to secure a reservation) are 'Memory of a mortadella sandwich', 'The crunchy part of the lasagna' and 'Five ages of Parmigiana Reggiano in different textures and temperatures'.
The World's 50 Best Restaurants list is controversial, in part because no one seems to know quite how the list is put together, or the criteria by which the restaurants are judged.
The fact that there's no restaurant on the list where a woman is in sole charge doesn't help. (There's a side category of World's Best Female Chef, but let's not go there right now, other than to say that Dominique Crenn's two restaurants, Atelier Crenn and Petit Crenn in San Francisco, do not feature on the list, nor in the Top 100, despite Crenn having two Michelin stars.)
The anonymous judges of the Academy - 972 in total - are made up of one-third each of chefs and restaurateurs, food writers, and 'well-travelled gourmets'. The world is divided into 27 regions, and there are 36 judges per region, 30pc of whom must be new each year. Each judge has seven votes, three of which must be applied to restaurants outside of their home region. The judge must have visited each restaurant for which he or she casts a vote within the past 18 months.
According to the World's Best website, "what constitutes 'best' is left to the judgement of these trusted and well-travelled gourmets. There is no pre-determined check-list of criteria…but the voting process and results are subject to independent adjudication."
Whatever one thinks of the list, there's no denying that a place in the top 50 or top 100 is good for business. The younger breed of gastro-tourist uses the World's 50 Best, rather than the stuffier Michelin Guide, as a checklist when travelling.
But there have been no Irish restaurants on the list since Thornton's was ranked 25th in 2003.
Ireland is linked with the UK as one geographical region, of which food writer Xanthe Clay is the chair, but the identity of the judges is not made public.
"I am scrupulous about ensuring that the number of Irish votes is proportionate in terms of the region as a whole," she says. "And if it was up to me, there would be several Irish restaurants on the list. But there are almost a thousand judges…I think Irish food is superb and the quality of the cooking improving all the time. You've got stunning ingredients, a tradition of honest cookery that respects those ingredients, and exciting chefs. I'd better not name names as I'll get in trouble for leaving someone out!"
So, at a time when the restaurant scene in Ireland has never been more vibrant, why do none of our restaurants make the cut?
"It's a good list," says JP McMahon, the Michelin-starred chef-patron of Aniar in Galway, "and a measure of what's going on in the world, but I think it would have more credibility if it were more transparent. To the best of my knowledge, Ireland is not on the judges' radar. They don't come here. I look at restaurants on the list, particularly in the second half, the restaurants ranked 51 to 100, and I look at Aniar and it's definitely at that level, so it's frustrating."
What does McMahon think Ireland needs to do to ensure that its restaurants feature on the list in the future?
"We have to keep on pushing our agenda out there. A lot of the votes come out of invitations to judges to visit countries and their restaurants. We need people to come here so that we can show them: this is who we are and this is what we do."
John Mulcahy of Failte Ireland is confident that Irish restaurants will feature on the list within a few years.
"It's all about getting on the radar and we've done that, between Mark Moriarty being the World's Best Young Chef of the Year last year, and JP's Food on the Edge symposium, which brought chefs and influencers from all around the world to Galway. Anecdotally, Spain spent €5m bringing people to eat in their restaurants and get on the list. We just don't have that kind of money, so we'll have to do it in other ways. But we won't get there by apeing the food from other countries; it has to be about Irish food, done our way."