William Drew, Group Editor of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List: “We Are Looking To Make Positive Changes”

William Drew

Controversy continue to swirl around The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List, yet the glittering nomadic awards event, held this year in Bilbao, Spain continues to impact the itineraries of food travelers around the world. Chefs and their publicists lobby, vie, or otherwise pull no punches to snag a spot for their restaurants on the list. Meanwhile, chefs travel a gazillion miles to events around the world to pull in votes. New lists continue to emerge attesting to the continued popularity of what is perceived as a flawed model; one that has not evolved since its lighthearted inception by former journalists of the Restaurant Magazine.

This year’s event was co-hosted by the Government of Bizcaya, and while not as grandiose as last year’s when the elitist list was funded by Tourism Australia and Visit Victoria, it seemed to have attracted a larger audience. It remains to be seen if it impacted the Basque region’s hospitality industry as all this attention will soon move to the next year’s location as soon as it is announced. Word is South Africa, Las Vegas, and the Pacific Northwest are in contention.

Gastrotourism is undoubtedly big business since the Asian version of the awards was welcomed with open arms in splashy Macau this Spring, while the 2018 Latin American 50 Best Awards will be held once again in Columbia. When we sat down to speak last year, William Drew, Group Editor of the list since 2010, referred to the list as brand in of itself that is all about celebrating and promoting great restaurants and their chefs. In response to whether the chefs make the list or the other way around, he said it was the chefs, though now the list seems to add more to the restaurant’s acclaim than the chef’s.

There is much ado in the media every year after the list comes out about its Eurocentric picks of restaurants, lack of diversity, male domination, and particularly The World’s Best Female Chef award. This year the omission from the top 100 of Dominique Crenn, a former the recipient of the much-maligned award, added more fuel to the fire in the #metoo movement climate. It is up to the female chefs to accept or decline this award, yet the media somehow never reports on the ones who have chosen to pass on it despite many influential ones who have declined. It is the chef’s prerogative to accept or decline this award, but the business this list or award brings in is simply too lucrative to pass up on. In a perfect world nothing stops the women from returning it as token of their solidarity, so refusing to accept it will be a huge step to phasing it out. As a woman in the industry and a chef I feel that standing on stage with an award in hand while trying to justify their position is ludicrous, as is speaking out after the fact. Maybe the balance will be achieved next time around with a Best Male Chef of the Year award!

The list, for all its flaws and criticisms, has had an undeniable impact on spotlighting distant regions cuisines and chefs, spawning a new breed of food travelers from all walks of life. 50 Best Chef Talks, supported by one of several major sponsors over the past few years, puts the stars of the list on stage during the event schedule preceding the awards. This year it’s changing things up a bit with the next sponsored talks to be held in San Francisco on the 12th of September way ahead of next year’s awards. Previous talks have not addressed the issues of diversity, gender imbalance, regional disparities, transparency of the voting process, or any of the debates surrounding the list in recent years. Next week some of the usual suspects will be under the spotlight once again for 50 Best Chef Talks in San Francisco, though this time there is a 50/50 gender split, an indication that changes are coming. Evidently the brand is repositioning itself as is evident in its social media feed. Term limits for regional Academy chairs and compilation of the voting panels is another integral part of the organization that needs to be addressed.

I recently spoke with William Drew after the 2018 50 Best Awards about various issues and if there were any clear changes in the making.

Are there any major changes to coming to the voting process or the awards format?

It’s a little early to say because we are still in the process of reviewing the events and the feedback. We look every year at how we might adjust and improve our voting system or the academy and that is something we are looking at right now. I don’t think we are going to see a radical overhaul however we are very aware of the issues that have arisen and especially being focused on this year and we need to take stock and see amongst us how we might encourage more female led restaurants to make it onto the list. We cannot dictate that but we might be able to put in place certain elements which might make that easier. We want to provide opportunities and are looking to make positive changes.

When women are left off the list, not only do they not get their share of the recognition but they are also shut out of business opportunities. Is this because the voters or the voting panels are not reviewing or visiting female-run restaurants?

It’s difficult to tell to be honest because we don’t dictate where they go and know about all the restaurants they go to. We only hear about the restaurants that are voted for or that they vote for and they have a free reign to choose them. We don’t affect that with the thousand voters across the world. I don’t think the list is a representation of the industry since the list is far from perfect. We can use the profile and the platform that we have or the organization of the brand in gender representation change in the industry and that will hopefully contribute to the list. It’s not an instant fix and it’s not going to change things overnight but we hope to provide a positive voter change in our reviewers. It’s not an easy process to change existing restaurant culture though great steps towards this have been taken in the last few years.

In the last year there has been so much focus on this aspect of the industry because of the #metoo movement and things have changed radically even in James Beard and other organizations and lists associated with the culinary industry. Has the subject of racism or sexism been discussed by the members of the 50 Best academy? Has the issue been raised in your meetings?

Certainly it has and we have discussed the issues around diversity and gender imbalance and representation globally. Bear in mind, and this is an important distinction, let’s be clear in how the list is created. It’s not created by the 26 Academy chairs of each region that head the voting panels with thousand voters around the world. Those voters never meet because they are anonymous and don’t know each other. Of course one person may know another person or may affect their votes. As a collective group however, that group never interacts with each other but vote independently. Each one votes, independently and anonymously and no one sees who they voted for except the 50 Best organization that I am involved with and Deloitte who do the adjudication to ensure that the votes marry with the list and the list is a true reflection of the choices. There are no changes made by us for whatever purpose.

So yes, of course we have looked at those issues but we don’t have a direct way of changing the list itself unless we change the fundamental DNA of the World’s 50 Best List and it’s voting procedures. There may be a way to change the list gradually by encouraging the voters to look at a wider scope of restaurants. Let’s also be clear the voters vote for restaurants and not chefs. They are going into a restaurant and having a restaurant experience and that experience may be irrespective of the gender of the chef. The chef may not even be there and the gender of the chef, male or female is irrelevant to the experience they may have had. We ask them to vote based on just their experience in a certain restaurant.

Last year we spoke about how much the lobbying and restaurants flying in voters from other parts of the world impacts the voting process and the list. Should there be a limit to this blatant lobbying for votes?

We don’t encourage lobbying and any overt lobbying for votes is not something we support. We want restaurants to do their thing and be focused on customers experience. But most restaurants are going to have an element of marketing and that element may be bringing in people from different parts of the world. The restaurants don’t know who the voters are, they think they do or just guess. Sometimes they may be right while at other times can certainly be wrong. They don’t have access to the list of voters so it’s a very inexact science if they are trying to do that. Take the example of Australia, where you were with us last year, there were a lot of people from the food world who traveled internationally for the awards and by and large had a good experience there. That didn’t translate into Australian restaurants being featured prominently on the list as in last year there were two on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and one on the 51-100. This year in Bilbao there is only one in the top 50 and one in the 51-100, so there was actually a decline in Australian restaurants on the list after having all those people there.

I don’t think any of those people, except may be a few, who would say that they didn’t really enjoy the Australian culinary scene. Most came away saying it was fantastic and they learnt so much about it and experienced lots of new and interesting stuff. Media wise there were some great stories about the culture but it didn’t translate into the list and that is an important point. So as an individual restaurant you can try bringing in lots of people but in the end the voters are very independent people, think independently and make their own choices. Even if they are wined and dined they are smart enough to judge if the experience is actually worth their vote or not. No one knows who they voted for so there is no comeback on that. Since no one is going to know if they voted or not so lobbying as some people think plays a more significant role than we believe and our experience suggests in reality.

How do new restaurants enter the list? Is it on the recommendation of the voters?

It’s simply based on the number of votes they receive. If X number of voters have voted for a restaurant then it appears on the list. There is no filter process on our side to decide if we want a certain restaurant on the list or not. The way that it works is that it is a reflection of the votes that restaurant receives. It’s simple as that though of course there are voting rules such as when you are voting you have to vote for at least four restaurants outside your region. You have to have visited the restaurant, or not have a financial interest in the restaurant and other fairly obvious things like that. You also cannot vote for the same restaurant twice and just follow the guidelines to vote for your best restaurant experiences. We then just add up the votes.

Why the eighteen-month rule for voters having visited a restaurant in that period since the voting takes place every year? It’s a very long period for an experience to be valid since things are changing so rapidly, not only in the industry but also in restaurants. The life span of restaurants is very limited these days. Can one experience be a true representation of a restaurant over such a long period of time?

Not every diner or voter is so dedicated as to visit more frequently or as often especially globally. Many people feel that if they went to a great restaurant fifteen months ago and had a fantastic experience they want to include it. In fact we have people lobbying to go the other way and extend the time period to two years. We feel that the eighteen-month period is a valid time. Of course restaurants may change within that time but it does take the pressure off people to squeeze in so many restaurants especially those involving international travel in one year. This gives them more leeway but of course the system is open to criticism and discussion. We think that the present system provides a good balance, at least according to us.

The same restaurants for the most part get shuffled around in the top ten. Is it because the voting panels remain stagnant?

I think it’s because the restaurants maintain their standard and continue to be very good. The voting panel changes by minimum of 25% every year. In reality in the last couple of years it’s been around 30% beyond the stipulation of minimum 25%. In the last year or two we have changed around almost a third of the voting panel so that is testament to the fact that different people continue to believe that the same restaurants are the very best in the world. If the list changed completely each year that will lack credibility because those restaurants like El Celler de Can Roca or Eleven Madison don’t suddenly turn into unworthy restaurants. Obviously when they have a big change like Eleven Madison it creates new interest and some people may love it more while others not. It’s the same with Noma it ultimately these restaurants continue to remain very strong. It doesn’t last forever and they may be more or less relevant but it’s a snapshot of opinion each year, and at the very top of the restaurant industry things don’t change super fast. In the list overall there have been changes in the top ten. In this year’s list Peruvian and Mexican restaurants featured prominently in the list as opposed to say four years ago so changes do happen.

Have chefs expressed concerns about guest claiming to be voters or influencers and being asked for complementary visits on that basis?

We do talk to the chefs about this and certainly encourage them to bring it to our attention. We have policed that as much as we can and try to discourage it from happening. Of course it’s not a perfect system and people will try and take advantage and exploit restaurants or the “50 Best” name even when they are not associated with it.

Can members of the voting panel or academy chairs be involved in the promotion of restaurants or have indirect financial dealings?

They are not allowed to be involved in PR or own any restaurants in the fine dining or premium dining sector.

There are some regions and cities that do not have a restaurant on the list (i.e. Los Angeles). Is that a result of the voting sample being too small, or that you don’t have well-informed voters on the 26 regional voting panels? There seem to be glaring omissions of restaurants that are well-qualified yet overlooked.

Every individual’s vote is subjective, but as a collective voice of those subjective opinions it always a matter of taste. To your original questions, to adjust the balance we increased the voting pool in number of votes. We have over 1,000 voters and they have 10 votes each so we receive over 10,000 votes which is a fairly healthy number of votes without going so far that we end up with a non-expert panel. We can go to 10,000 voters with 100,000 votes, if we added random voters, like in TripAdvisor style, that is an extreme example, but we would not have expert voters. Right now we have handpicked voters who we consider are experts in their field. So obviously we think the balance is right but of course it’s a matter of opinion. We analyze it very closely and with our lawyers as well and we do think the balance is right in the spread around the world and the number of voters and the votes they have.

Now with only 50 restaurants of course there will be cities, countries, and whole regions, and even many great restaurants, that are not on the list. Even when we extend to the 51-100 it’s still only 100 restaurants out of thousands of very good and great restaurants around the world that don’t appear on our ranking, just as many that have done great work and appear at the top of other rankings. There are many restaurants that have done extraordinarily well on the World’s 50 Best List that have not done well on others. Noma, the world’s most influential restaurant, was at the top of the World’s 50 Best and had only two Michelin stars. So it’s not necessarily one ranking is right and another is not. We think our system has stood the test of time and is trusted and credible and we stand by it. It’s a great list of restaurants to base your travels and worldwide dining experiences on.

Will more regions be added to the existing 26? There is talk of California becoming a separate region.

The West coast Or USA( West) and Canada ( West) are part of one region.It’s very unlikely that California will become a separate region on its own. It’s the dominant state on the west coast, taking LA and SF and everything in-between and around. So there is a high representation of voters on the West Coast of the US.

There is a spurt in restaurant openings in LA with many chefs currently on the list opening new ventures here. Why is there not a single restaurant from LA on the list?

The scene is changing very rapidly as you know and that may change in the near future. It will be exciting to have a restaurant from LA on the list and I agree with you that there has not been one.

Since I attended most of the Chef Talks in Melbourne, Sydney, Barcelona, and San Sebastián I am curious to know how the subjects and speakers for the Chef Talks are curated. Why are pertinent industry issues not addressed in these talks and panel discussions? Some of the social projects presented by chefs come off as self-promotion. After all, the list is a reflection, as you have said, of the restaurant industry. Why aren’t subjects like gender bias, lack of diversity, etc. raised at these forums?

They are of course and I don’t agree with that. At the recent Chef Talks in San Sebastián we did of course address industry issues, though social subjects were also discussed by chefs. Such projects are not necessarily self-serving since they are trying to address issues around food production, the cycle around poverty, around food waste which are important topics for the industry. At the next 50 Best Chef Talks event in San Francisco in September we will be talking about chefs changing and championing a diverse future that will look at all elements of diversity in the industry including gender, race, biodiversity, how we view the restaurant industry in different parts of the world, bias, and other the issues you have referred to. I think it will be a very stimulating discussion and debate on these subjects.

The Taste Hunter category is confusing for many. What is their role exactly?

A new policy is in place to explain what the Taste Hunters role is and what it is not. They cannot be paid or paid in kind to promote certain restaurants and if they do then they are out of the Taste Hunter program. Social media is hugely important in terms of getting the word out these days. They spread the word around about different restaurants in different parts of the world and they send our social media team the pictures to share. We cannot have employees globally in our infra structure so these are our social network affiliates. We do monitor them and we understand that it’s a new concept and created a bit of confusion initially and more understanding will come with time. If we see that it’s causing too much trouble we will step it down. At the moment we think the positives are more than the negatives.

Are events like the next chef talks taking place in San Francisco to maintain relevance in the industry?

Yes, they are motivated by keeping up the conversations around gastronomy and they are quite interesting outside of the awards event. The focus that we built in San Sebastián and Bilbao will in this way be to use our position as a platform to voicing change and debate We also have the Asia’s and Latin America’s 50 Best Awards along with the 50 Best Bars at different times of the year anyway. So yes, we do want to extend our reach beyond the list that we create and the awards.

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