Katy McGuinness: Why Ireland hasn't a hope of featuring on the World's 50 Best Restaurant list
A couple of weeks ago, at Stevie Toman and Alain Kerloc’h’s one-Michelin-star Ox restaurant in Belfast, I ate the best meal that I’ve had anywhere in the past year.
A dish of raw scallop, dill, buttermilk and pickled mussels was outstanding, as were turbot with coral butter, white sprouting broccoli and lemongrass, and Mourne Mountain lamb with miso, salsify and sea herbs. Baked brown sugar cream with ginger, coconut and lime was thrillingly beautiful to look at, and gorgeous to eat.
In February, I ate at the Clove Club in London and had an excellent meal. Yesterday, at the announcement of the World’s 50 Best restaurants at a ceremony in Melbourne (the city is said to have stumped up €800,000 to host the event), The Clove Club retained the 26th spot, and Lyle’s, also in London, where I ate last year, came 54th. The meal at Ox was the equal of both, if not better.
But since Thornton’s appeared on the list in at no 25 in 2003, no Irish restaurant has featured. Why not? And should we care?
The World’s 50 Best judging process is famously opaque, and each year accusations fly that judges don’t pay for their meals, and that the results are driven by a restaurant or a country’s ability to spend on PR and publicity. Some restaurants that have dropped off the list are known to have said that they aren’t prepared to pay the game any longer. John McKenna, of McKenna’s Guides, who was an Irish judge for some years, says that he withdrew from the judging process because he did not feel that he had the requisite international dining experience.
"I think the list is important," says JP McMahon of the Michelin-starred Aniar restaurant in Galway. "Inclusion brings a lot of traction, both for the restaurant itself and the city and country in which it’s located, and can help to boost a food culture. Of course, it is subject to trends and fashion, but if you’re not on the list, you want to be. This year Massimo [Bottura, of Osteria Francescana near Modena in Italy] has been knocked off his perch by Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park in New York, and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck, which won fifteen years ago, isn’t even on the list any more, even though I doubt that it has changed that much.
"I think that we need to beat the drum more here. I don’t think that Ireland is even considered, I hear that it’s not even judged. There are no Irish judges and the judges don’t even come here. That makes sense to me because, if they were coming here, why would there not be an Irish restaurant on the list? The people who judge are influential, as are the chefs whose restaurants are on the list, and part of what we are doing with Food on The Edge [the chefs’ symposium that McMahon runs in Galway each year] is trying to get those influential people to Ireland, to get Ireland on their radar. Aniar and Ox and Loam are just as good as Lyles and The Clove Club; we are all doing the same kind of thing, using good produce in a contemporary way."
McMahon says that he would love to see an Irish restaurant in the top 50.
"The PR machine is important – it’s down to individual connections, but it all takes a long time. Denmark put years of effort into getting Noma to the top of the list to the top of the list; it’s a game and you have to work on it. The important thing is not to get beaten down, and to keep working at it."
McMahon feels that in the way that there is an Asian list and a South American list, there should be a European list, on which Ireland would stand a chance of featuring, alongside other countries such as Poland, which currently don’t get a look-in either despite being home to many great restaurants.
"I’m always happy to be on a list," he says. "But they are a double-edged sword. People give out but everyone wants to be on it, it’s a nicely curated list, and everyone likes winning awards.
It’s the same with Michelin – it brings great joy and great pain. In some ways, I’m glad that there’s no Irish restaurant on the list because if Ox was on it and we weren’t then it would be bad. It’s still my ambition to get a restaurant on the list, and it would be a great marker for Irish food.”
Mickael Viljanen of the Michelin-starred Greenhouse in Dublin says that he doesn’t find it strange that there are no Irish restaurants on the list, given that there is no budget to put Ireland on the map as a food destination.
"The world is quite big after all,” he says. “There are no Swedish restaurants on the list either and Sweden has better restaurants than we do in Ireland. That said, it’s great for a country when its restaurants get on the list. It brings people in. Just look at Copenhagen. I mean, Copenhagen is a lovely city but what did they have before Noma? Hans Christian Anderson and the Little Mermaid. Now it’s full of tourists, and the gastro-tourists are real hard core, they are like fans following a band around. I have 100% respect for any restaurant that makes the list.
"It’s great to be patriotic, but look at Germany, which is not the first place that anyone thinks of when it comes to great restaurants: if you eat there you realise that it has fantastic restaurants right across the country, not just in the cities. In rural Ireland, you would still struggle to find somewhere decent to eat. People don’t want that kind of dining and, until there is that culture of eating well here, and the demand for that kind of eating, then we are not really at the races. It takes time.”
Does Viljanen think that an independently-judged Irish Best list is something that could get the ball rolling in terms of promoting Irish food culture?
"For what benefit?" he asks. "There are already too many awards in Ireland, to the point that their value is so diluted as to be meaningless. I’ve never seen anywhere with so many awards. It would be better if there was just one. I think that the only way that an Irish list would have credibility was if it was judged by people from outside the country who don’t live here or have any connection with Ireland. Nobody could quibble then. But someone would have to be willing to pay for that, it would need sponsorship.
"Every year as I get older the less I worry, the less I care about awards. The biggest illness amongst chefs is insecurity. That's human and natural but chefs are a special breed; it’s one of the only careers in which your daily work gets ripped apart in the national newspapers.
"Since I came to Ireland, the food has come on in leaps and bounds, it’s a million times better than it was. We should be proud of that and not worry about these lists. Over the next decade or so one of the young guns who is working abroad now will come back and get us on the list; we’ll get there in the end."