Where Are Our ‘Best’ Restaurants?
With swift, natural movements, control and finesse, he was nothing short of a master. Gazing in total awe, I watched as he transformed small white spheres into perfectly round discs of roomali roti, perfectly blistered, light and chewy. Like a machine, with perfect timing, a fresh piece materialised every ten seconds, as if out of thin air. It was clear he had perfected his craft. Of course, the roti was destined for even greater things as I followed its journey towards another man who’d fill it with silky bheja fry, roll it up and hand it to me. With the giddiness of a schoolgirl, I quickly unwrapped the parchment casing stamped with Bademiya’s logo and began devouring the roll.
The totality of that experience—everything from watching the creation of the roti and wrapping of the roll, to the lively atmosphere and my enjoyment of the final product—has left a great impression on me. In fact, I have such strong emotional ties to the establishment that, of all restaurant experiences I’ve had, it ranks among the best. But what does that really mean?
In light of the recent unveiling of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, I’ve been thinking a lot about the factors that allow us to define a restaurant as “best”. Restaurant magazine, the UK based publication that compiles the list, determines who makes the cut through the combined effort of an international panel of industry “leaders”. This panel of over 800 “experts” is divided into 27 regions, each with its own chairperson and 31 voting members. Who the hell are these people? According to Restaurant magazine, they are “food critics, chefs, restaurateurs and highly regarded ‘gastronomes’”. These people determine the 50 best restaurants in the world and also compile a venerable “B Team” that is honoured in the top 100.
The methodology by which these votes are cast is also spelled out. Each panelist is given seven votes, three of which must recognise a restaurant in their region. For each vote, the panelist must have eaten at the establishment within the last 18 months, must not have any interest in it, and must actually vote for the restaurant not the owner or chef. Of course, they make a point to acknowledge that voting is “strictly confidential” prior to the awards ceremony and there are otherwise no rules, making this a particularly unique ranking of restaurants. Most interestingly, they go on to recognise that, “These criteria are designed to allow our panelists to vote far and wide. They could vote for a small, unknown restaurant in a secluded region, or select the best-known restaurants in the world—it is their opinion and the experiences they have had that matters.” In essence, neither the price of the meal nor the reputation of the restaurant shall influence the final decision. Bullshit!
At first glance of the list, for anyone remotely tuned into the international food scene, it’s obvious that the whole bit about the “unknown restaurant in a secluded region” has gone straight out the window. I’ve followed the work of the majority of the chefs represented on the list, and agree that their influence on cuisine is substantial. But does that make their restaurant the best, let alone the best in the world? Furthermore, should it concern us that 68 per cent of the restaurants on the list are in Europe?
This year’s list is certainly telling of the times. Restaurants with new, forward-thinking philosophies, like Denmark’s Noma (that single-handedly brought the world’s attention and respect to Nordic cuisine) have pushed over restaurants that have historically dominated the list, like Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and Ferran Adria’s El Bulli. I consider this a positive step, a changing of the guards if you will. Still, the overwhelming majority of the list comprises high-priced, fine-dining restaurants, completely inaccessible to most people. With the exception of the No.9 spot, Le Chateaubriand in France, each restaurant in the top ten will cost well over Rs8,000 just to sit down and say hello. In this light, the list appears elitist and defunct.
Throughout history, we see the cuisine of nobility receiving the most recognition. Consider Soterides in the third century B.C, personal chef to King Nicomedes as recorded by Greek writer Euphron, who was noted for having satisfied his majesty’s craving for anchovies by simulating the fish with perfectly carved turnips seasoned with oil and salt. Or consider the influence of the Persian polymath Abu I-Hasan, who decreed that meals should be eaten in three courses. And of course, how Catherine de Medici introduced France and the Western world to the fork and the use of fine silverware. I could also go on about the cuisine of the Victorian period, the great feasts of Rome, and the influence of Auguste Escoffier (chef to Queen Victoria and King Edward VII), but I digress.
By acknowledging the blatant connection between “popular” cuisine and aristocracy throughout the ages, it should come as no surprise that this list is simply a continuation of such ideals. But with so many educated people on the international panel of voters, I would think someone would have noticed the inconsistencies. Why would David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar, a New York City restaurant inspired by Korean street food and ranked at No.40, outrank the authentic ssäm of Korea? I love David but he knows as well as I that there are countless amazing restaurants in the not so far-reaching corners of the world unrepresented on the list. To a certain extent, I think it’s fair to attribute that to ignorance, prejudice and arrogance.
What shocked me most about the list, now that I’m a resident of Mumbai, was the disheartening lack of Indian representation. That there isn’t one restaurant, among the 1.21 billion people in India, worthy of such distinction, astonishes me. But what really gets me going, what really pisses me off, is the fact that, sitting in its cushy spot at No.92 is Wasabi. Do I admire and respect chef Morimoto? Undoubtedly. I’ve followed his work since he was a mere tyke on the original Japanese Iron Chef. But don’t you find it a little insulting that the only restaurant in India to make it onto the list isn’t Indian? In fact, it’s Japanese, a cuisine already well represented in the rankings. As an Indian, how does this make you feel? Do Indian restaurants deserve more recognition? Is Indian food a cuisine of the modern era? Where were our panelists? Where were the 31 people and the chairman of our region? Why were we left out?Tags: Alex Sanchez, Special Top Story, The Chopping Block, The Table, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list