An Interview with William Drew, Group Editor of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List

William Drew

The historic Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne was the venue for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards for the year on 5th April, 2017. The glitterati of the food world were welcomed to the world’s biggest culinary event with a sweeping expanse of red carpet lined with champagne toting servers. The List’s prominence in the international culinary world was evidenced when the country of Australia came courting for the privilege of hosting the awards this year. With gastrotourism on the rise, Tourism Australia and Visit Victoria (the host sponsors) bankrolled the gala and events around it in Melbourne.

Every year since 2002, William Reed Business Media (based in the UK) has published this list of the top 50 restaurants of the world by tallying votes cast by over 1000 members of an international panel comprised of chefs, restaurateurs, journalists, food critics, well-traveled food lovers, and influencers. These members of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy voice their preferences over an eighteen-month period of restaurant experiences with ten votes each, of which four are cast for a restaurant outside their own region. The list has attracted the most flak on the ambiguous “rules” that govern the voting process by its academy members which is overseen by 26 regional Academy Chairs and two Vice-Chairs chosen by the media group. These Academy Chairs, most of whom belong to the journalistic world, oversee their assigned regions and are also responsible for putting forth a list of 40 voters from their neck of the woods. How comprehensive the selection of restaurants is questionable at best. Glaring omissions, such as the entire metropolis of LA from the Western US region, is unfathomable given the fact that people intimately connected to the industry are part of the voting panel.

There is no defined criteria that restaurants need to meet in order to be on the list, though the voting rules have become somewhat more specific, most likely in response to its critics. In order to authenticate the voting process, the collation is adjudicated by the independent Deloitte consultancy firm. The annual Best Female Chef of the Year award is surrounded by gender based controversies while the freebies permissible for voters on the panel (who are expected to remain anonymous) cast aspersions on the integrity of their votes. Social media as a marketing tool has undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of both the list and chefs on the list. The marketing machine of the awards has capitalized on this phenomenon and a crop of 50 Best Tastemakers with sizable social media followings have been added to the mix.

In the days preceding the awards this year, Chef Talks were held at the iconic Opera House in Sydney and the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne attracting huge audiences super charging the media blitz around the events. The awards also integrated with the Melbourne Food & Wine festival to present eight Master Classes over two days with an impressive lineup of celebrity chefs. The gala was moved up in the calendar from June to April to coincide with Melbourne’s annual Food & Wine festival. In the process, last year’s 50 Best List awardees including number one restaurant Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Franscescana of Modena were somewhat shortchanged, holding their reigning titles for only ten months instead of a full year. The expected shuffle in the top ten was conspicuously missing Rene Redzepi’s Noma of Denmark since it closed earlier this year. Eleven Madison of New York claimed the top spot in 2017 making it the second US restaurant to be in that position since the French Laundry in 2004. The distance and travel time to Oz involved may have had some bearing on attendance since not all of the top 50 restaurants and chefs showed up to accept their awards though few have conspicuously stayed away in the last few years.

Top 10 Restaurants of 2017

  1. Eleven Madison Park (New York City)
  2. Osteria Francescana (Modena, Italy)
  3. El Celler de Can Roca (Girona, Spain)
  4. Mirazur (Menton, France)
  5. Central (Lima)
  6. Asador Etxebarri (Axpe, Spain)
  7. Gaggan (Bangkok)
  8. Maido (Lima)
  9. Mugaritz (Errenteria, Spain)
  10. Steirereck (Vienna, Austria)

The lobbying for a spot on the list is serious business and begins the moment the list is released since there are huge financial rewards to be reaped. Reports of crashing reservation systems and the frenzied international media attention on the chef’s and restaurants are any PR companies dream and they leave no stone unturned in its pursuit. Chefs have taken to the road crisscrossing continents, drumming up votes, with pop ups, collaborations and food congresses, probably racking up impressive air miles in the process. This year two Australian restaurants Attica and Brae made it into the top 50 but next year’s list will fully reflect the influence of this new form of lobbying. There may be even be potential to match lobbying for the International Olympics!

The location of next year’s awards will be announced on 9th May 2017 and there is conjecture of it moving back to Europe where 27 restaurants in the top 50 this year are based. There are conflicting opinions on the significance and validity of the list and its categories. Chef Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca referred to it as the new world order while some others consider it to be an elitist club. Opinions tend to change as restaurants move up or down the list and controversies continue to abound adding to the notoriety and allure of the list. It is an undeniable fact that the list has positively impacted regional gastronomy by spotlighting many restaurants flying under the radar in far off and exotic locales around the world. The much-critiqued list deserves credit for restaurants such as Borago in Santiago, Chile, Asador Extebarri in the Basque countryside of Spain, or the remote Faviken in Sweden landing on itineraries of traveling gastronomes and global culinary explorers.

The emergence of Latin America’s and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Lists has further contributed to its global influence in recent years. The list is lambasted every year for being heavily euro-centric and male dominated and there are only three restaurants with women at the pass in the top 50 this year. The controversial Best Female Chef of the Year award has drawn fire from critics but it is the individual chef’s prerogative to accept or decline the award. It’s also up to the female culinary professionals to take a stand against this token award so it can be phased out in the future.

The term “best” itself is subjective and obviously not all-encompassing as stated on the 50 Best website, which defines the list as an honorable survey of current tastes and a credible indicator of the best places to eat around the globe.

I spoke with William Drew, the group editor of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Restaurant Magazine, on the morning of the awards in Melbourne, Australia:

What is the most unfair critique of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list?

I think it’s unfair that most people don’t realize the rigor of the voting process and the work we do with Deloitte to ensure that process is super credible and as robust as we can make it. We are just trying to reflect the present state of the restaurant industry.

Does the list make the chefs or do the chefs make the list?

Chefs make the list more though of course now we are in the position that if you make the list it’s great for the restaurants more than for the chefs. That’s an important point that we are a list which is essentially a celebration of restaurants and of course within that context chefs are extremely important but they are not the only factor, since we look at restaurants as a whole. That means everything from wines, to the room, to the location to the atmosphere, to the service style and especially the food and its presentation. All these elements are taken into account and of course the food must be really interesting or delicious and worth making the list. If a restaurant makes the list of course it’s good for their business but that is a byproduct and not the purpose. What these restaurants are doing is trying to be the best they can be and if they manage to attract enough votes because people are loving what they do then they deserve the business success that comes with being on the list.

Since its inception in 2002 the whole idea and the organization has evolved and expanded internationally, so has the purpose of the list changed?

I personally was not involved at the inception in 2002 and only came in in 2007. The initial idea was more to do something fun and interesting journalistically that had not been done before. It was not necessarily about being a super serious or powerful list because we had no idea it would grow into this. Over the years we have tried to take on more responsibility and make it more significant. That is why we have introduced all these systems to make the list, clear and fair. The fundamental philosophy has actually stayed the same which is about celebrating and promoting great restaurants and great chefs.

The voting appears to be geared more towards the chefs than the restaurants. Is it a PR generated list since there is a massive amount of lobbying for votes?

People can say that it’s more about the chefs but we don’t necessarily have evidence of that. If the list is PR generated you still have to get votes. People have to go to the restaurants, eat the food and say it’s the best experience they have had in the previous eighteen months. All the PR or lobbying in the world is futile if you cannot deliver that. Then why would anyone vote for that restaurant. Of course the votes are anonymous, secure and private so there is no reason to make that choice. Lobbying happens everywhere, it’s a normal part of marketing.

Regional academy chairs have long terms. Why are they not rotated to bring in fresh perspectives and new voters?

We do change the academy chairs but more important for us is changing the voters. I take your point about academy chairs and we feel we do try to change them. However, if we have someone we think is well respected and is doing an amazing job we don’t automatically have them out after three years. That would be counterproductive.

Academy chairs put together the lists of voters for their regions, so essentially don’t they have the ability to steer voters?

The academy chair puts forth a list which we in our organization rigorously go through and check to make sure that it meets our criteria. It means that they have to have a minimum of 25% new voters for each term. There have to be 33% chefs or restaurateurs, 33% food writers and critics, 33% other well-traveled gastronomes so that it’s not just one group of people. We do check this all the time and that no people in PR are involved and no one votes for themselves. So, there are a lot of checks that go on both by us and by Deloitte to ensure that the voting panel keeps moving and changing to guard against any collusion between voters. We don’t suggest that the system is perfect but we do try and put in as many checks as we can and as many structures and stages to ensure that it’s as good a process as we can make it. We are always looking every year to see how we can improve it and we are open to ideas.

Speaking of lobbying, this year you have partnered with Tourism Australia. What prompted that choice?

We decided to start moving The World’s 50 Best Restaurants around the World around the world to initiate discovery and we thought the chefs would appreciate the opportunity to go to different parts of the world. We partnered with Tourism Australia because we thought tourism is interesting from country to country and if they get more tourism out of it by getting us out here then that’s their aim. Our aim is to bring the food world together in one place, to celebrate together with people like Massimo Bottura, the Roca brothers, or Virgilio Martinez. Then we hope that coverage of these top restaurants will be shared all around the world to promote the industry. Tourism Australia gave us a great platform to do that this year and the coverage we had in Australia has been pretty extraordinary. By moving here, we got more energy, more input, and more stories to talk about.

According to the voting rules, voters are free to accept free meals and other freebies, and some restaurants are even flying in guests from around the world. In context of the increasing financial rewards associated with being on the list, how do you respond to this critique?

We have looked a lot at this and whether if you have a free meal and then if you should be allowed to vote for that restaurant. It happens that if you are friends with a chef and you visit their restaurant they might want to give you a free meal or extra courses etc. but that is entirely their prerogative. Similarly, the guests have a right to accept that but that does not mean they are going to vote for that restaurant. It does not also mean that if you accept a free meal you should not be allowed to vote for that restaurant. The restaurants or chefs don’t know who the voters are though they might try. Maybe a few of these might be voters, or not, or maybe three of four people who haven’t been to the restaurant earlier may get a chance to visit and experience and the restaurant gets a couple of votes. It’s a very blunt instrument since the restaurants don’t know who the voters are. There are over a 1000 voters and the true majority stick to the rules and remain anonymous. If they don’t they are removed from the panel.

Have you dealt with this issue of collusion among judges or voters?

Over the years, it’s happened on occasion and we have been very quick to act and change things. As for the voting process, we are working with Deloitte to ensure that this process is super credible and as robust as we can make it. Sometimes people think that we as an organization favor a certain style of restaurants. We have no such favorites and we are just a reflection of what’s going on in the industry.

Is there a three-year formula for the top spots on the list?

(laughing) No there is no such rules or rhythm to the list. It just happens!

Since you now include 51-100 restaurants on the list besides the top 50, why is it referred to as The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List?

We are not going to change the name for obvious reasons because the name is the brand and is well established as that. We only went beyond the 50 simply because we want to celebrate more restaurants.

Who is the target audience for this list, the average diner or the elite luxury diner?

It is geared towards food lovers anywhere in the world. Some people can afford to travel to and dine at all 50 restaurants on the list while some will save up one year to go to one restaurant. Some might go once in three years’ time but they want to follow what we do on social media.

So it’s a reference guide for diners?

Yes, for diners all over the world.

Since the political situation keeps changing around the world and for some nationals it is difficult to get visas to travel, are you keeping that in mind while deciding the venue for next year?

We have to bear those things in mind of course and the next year’s location will be announced on 9th May, 2017.

 

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