Tuesday 10 December 2019

Ireland hasn't got a chance at The 50 Best Restaurant Awards

Little countries get overlooked in the 50 Best Restaurant rankings, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

Rene Redzepi of Noma
Rene Redzepi of Noma
Heston Blumenthal is pictured at the entrance to his restaurant the Fat Duck in Berkshire.
Wexford Food & Wine Festival.

Lucinda O'Sullivan

Rene Redzepi recently saw his Noma restaurant in Copenhagen restored to the position of No 1 in the ranks of the World's 50 Best Restaurants, having been knocked off the pillar by Spain's El Celler de Can Roca last year. Now back in the top spot for 2014, Redzepi was at the Litfest at Ballymaloe last weekend talking about his particular style of Nordic cuisine, which has captured the imagination of foodies in the past few years.

So, who selects the list of the World's 50 "Best" Restaurants? The idea was dreamt up in 2002 by Restaurant magazine, a then fledgling industry publication for chefs and restaurateurs in the UK.

It jogged along for the first few years with most of the winners being in Britain and Continental Europe, but the idea took flight four or five years ago and the idea has now expanded with The Best 50 in Asia and the Best 50 in Latin America. There are of course vast economies and restaurants to be sated in these regions, but somehow I wonder if it dilutes the original idea too much.

Many of the top internationally acclaimed restaurants don't even get a look-in, including Michel Roux's two-star Michelin Le Gavroche in London. Indeed, French restaurants have not appeared in the top 10 of the 50 Best in a while – and Roux didn't sound impressed either by this when quoted in a recent interview as saying, "They never get a great showing and it is a shame. I can't really put my finger on why not. I was on the panel and I certainly voted for a couple of French restaurants. But listen, the World's 50 Best Restaurants has a place and it is a great event because it raises the profile of restaurants that would never otherwise get a mention in the media."


LEGEND: Rene Redzepi, head chef and co-owner of Noma

Getting on that World's 50 Best list is not just down to the word of one or two inspectors as it is with Michelin, it is down to being selected by voting panels in each region. The list is apparently "created from the Diners Club World's 50 Best Restaurants Academy, an influential group of over 900 international leaders in the restaurant industry, each selected for their expert opinion of the international restaurant scene.

"The Academy comprises 26 separate regions around the world. Each region has its own panel of 36 members including a chairperson to head it up. The panel is made up of food critics, chefs, restaurateurs and highly regarded 'foodies' each of whom has seven votes. Of the seven votes, at least three must be used to recognise restaurants outside of their region. At least 10 panellists from each region change each year."

The more I look at this event year after year, the more disillusioned I get. Ireland is lumped into the UK region, with little Irish representation on the voting panel. In 2011 I queried with the 50 Best as to Irish representation amongst the then 31-strong panel, which has UK-based food critic, Richard Vines, as chairman. There was a lot of humming and hawing, and it emerged there was but one Irish representative on the panel. Surprise surprise, the following year I was asked to become a voting panellist.

I ticked my little boxes on the voting papers knowing full well that it was like a flake of snow in a blizzard, but thinking maybe it was a start in fighting for Ireland's restaurants. Dream on.

NUMBER ONE: Noma head chef and part-0wner Rene Redzepi was at the Litfest at Ballymaloe last weekend talking about his particular style of Nordic cuisine

In 2013, I got a message from chairman Vines asking me why I hadn't voted. Guess what – the '50Best' had forgotten to send me my voting papers! I was then told by group editor William Drew that if I emailed my votes, he would see they were included.

This year I heard nothing at all. After the 50 Best list for 2014 was announced a couple of weeks ago, I contacted its PR company asking again who the Irish voting panellists were. I received in reply a pointless PR blurb on the history and career of chairman Richard Vines! I then contacted Vines asking the same question and was told 50 Best no longer identifies panel members – even afterwards.

I asked him then how many panellists were Irish or resident in Ireland. I was told simply, "Please contact Will Drew." Drew was equally uninformative, refusing to name names, and only after further querying said there were now four panellists based in Ireland. So, four amongst 36!

It is rather amusing to think that this year and last, a '50 Best' event was held in Dublin, with a lot of PR fuss, where foodies and members of the press were lined up eagerly anticipating a live streaming of the London event. Why they bother (apart from the free meal) beats me when, proportionately, there doesn't seem to be a chance in hell of an Irish restaurant being listed.

I am beginning to wonder now if, like the Eurovision Song Contest, regional continental block voting is affecting the results – and if other small countries feel neglected in this 'world' event. I have been to the two London restaurants in the Best 50 list and I can tell you we have better here; I certainly don't know how they got into the top 10.

I wonder too how impressed Heston Blumenthal is to have his famous Fat Duck at No 47 this year (No 1 in 2005 and 34 in 2013), whilst Thomas Keller's iconic Californian restaurant, The French Laundry, is No 44 (No 1 in 2004).

Heston Blumenthal is pictured at the entrance to his restaurant the Fat Duck in Berkshire. Photo: Getty Images

I am sure it makes a big difference, too, for the internationally acclaimed Alain Ducasse to be at a mere No 75 with his three-star Michelin Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenee in Paris! If you drop off the perch in the World's 50 Best, there seems to be only one direction you can take.

Until Ireland gets a fair representation on the voting panel for our 'region', it is hard to take the World's 50 'Best' seriously.

* * *

The sixth Wexford Food and Wine Festival, May 22-25, kicks off in Kelly's Cafe at 11am with a Summer Delights cookery demonstration by head chef Stephane Rochard. In the evening there is a 'Can't Cook, Won't Cook' evening of fun food and surprises at the Ferrycarrig Hotel.

Other events include a festival hog roast and BBQ in Wexford Harbour Boat and Tennis Club on Saturday. There will be lots of concerts and cookery demos and a food producers' market on Sunday in Selskar Square and South Main Street. Fun for all the family.


(Left to Right) Phelim Byrne, Rev. Arthur, George Lawlor, Fr. Jim Fegan & Tony Carty promoting the forthcoming Cooking Demonstration at Ferrycarrig Hotel on Wednesday 22nd May 2013 as part of Wexford Food & Wine Festival.

* * *

On the other side of the country, the eighth Burren Slow Food Festival in Lisdoonvarna serves up a taste of Clare, with seaweed being a common theme. It runs on Saturday and Sunday, May 24-25, and includes talks by Slow Food Ireland president Darina Allen.

The author of Irish Seaweed Kitchen, Prannie Rhatigan, is hosting a demonstration and talk on how the thousands of tonnes of seaweed washed up on the Irish coastline each day can be exploited as a foodstuff.

The festival also features sampling of local artisan foods and cookery demos from Jess Murphy of Kai Restaurant, Galway, and local chefs John Sheedy and Aidan McGrath. The main festival banquet is on Saturday night at the Roadside Tavern featuring Gleninagh lamb, Burren smoked Irish organic salmon, desserts from Fabiola's Patisserie and wines from Burren Fine Wine & Food.


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