When it comes to restaurant awards, there are few events that cause the dining community to froth quite like The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. As the title suggests, it’s an annual list of 50 fine dining restaurants, as voted by over 1,000 food professionals across the globe.
The list, which has grown to dominate the world stage since its 2002 inception, was originally released by a UK trade publication, Restaurant. In the early years, it was a London-based event, where the world’s hospitality elite would gather to celebrate. Pre-social media, it was a rare opportunity for chefs to gather and share ideas.
That’s what made it so special.
Over the years the event grew, with award ceremonies held in New York, Melbourne, the Basque country, Singapore and Flanders. It’s big business for 50 Best now – the brand rolls off the tongues of fine dining fans with as much ease as “Michelin star”.
For the chefs and restaurateurs who make it on the list, the experience becomes almost mythic, a place in restaurant history. Never mind the publicity if that restaurant is at the single digit end of the 50 – the culinary equivalent of a secret handshake.
The voting system and final list always enjoys mixed reviews from those in the restaurant industry, swinging from “irrelevant, arbitrary and Eurocentric” to “an essential culinary temperature check”.
Not to mention the media. This year US food publications Bon Appétit and Grub Street called the list “out of touch” and “more ridiculous than ever”. Both still published the rankings.
Call it out of touch, call it wrong, call it arbitrary and irrelevant. There’s no arguing that the World’s 50 Best is influential.
Which is why Australia’s placement on this list has long been a sore point. Rarely has the nation broken the top 50 with more than a single restaurant. The only venue to consistently place was Ben Shewry’s high concept Ripponlea restaurant Attica, which dropped off the list completely in 2019. Elsewhere, Brae at Birregurra came in at 44 in 2017, and Quay enjoyed a place two years running in 2012 and 2013.
This year, as it was in 2019 and 2021, Australia has no restaurants in the top 50. In the long list, which goes from 51 to 100, there is only one Australian restaurant – Melbourne’s Gimlet at number 84. It is Australia’s worst performance in a decade.
Is it the tyranny of distance from Europe, where the majority of the voters are based? The numbers would certainly suggest it, with 40 voters of the 1,080 based in Australia and Oceania.
“It’s not a matter of Australia’s restaurants not being able to compete on the world stage, they absolutely do,” says Peter Gilmore, executive chef at Bennelong and Quay. “We just don’t get visited by enough international voters to then have the presence our culinary community deserves within these awards.
“A London-based reviewer could far more easily experience a restaurant in Spain, France and in Germany in the last 18 months than they could a restaurant in Perth or Sydney. Australia has the talent but is missing out on a lot of international votes.”
And let’s not forget Covid-19.
Pat Nourse, 50 Best academy chair for Australia and Oceania, says this year was particularly challenging for Australia because it was very hard for anyone to travel here during the voting period (the 18 months to the beginning of 2022). “If you can’t get to Australia to eat in our restaurants, you can’t vote for them,” he says. “That wasn’t the same situation for a lot of Europe, the US and other parts of the world.”
On the severe lack of Australian representation on the list, William Drew, director of content for 50 Best, agrees with Nourse. “Australia has undoubtedly suffered in terms of representation as a result of the pandemic,” he says.
“The list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants is an annual snapshot of opinions and reflects the state of the world during the voting period. While we adjusted the voting rules to mitigate the fact that fewer people had been able to travel, the length and severity of lockdowns in different countries also affected voting patterns.”
There’s also that slightly uncomfortable idea that we, as Australian restaurant lovers, might be overestimating our talents on a world stage. That thought is very quickly shut down by Gilmore. “Australia’s best restaurants are comparable in every way to the restaurants on the World’s 50 Best list. As a country, it’s a great shame for our international culinary reputation that not many people understand, or are privy to, how the voting system works.”
Monica Brown, director and founder of chef and restaurant management agency Lotus International, says Australians just don’t back themselves as thoroughly as they should. Brown, who currently represents chefs Josh Niland and Tetsuya Wakuda, says it’s time for Australians to learn to be comfortable with being world leaders in the food sphere. To say how excellent we are, not just think it.
“We have a population that loves the produce of the country and celebrates it, we have a magnificent array of young skilled talent and we have legacy restaurants and restaurateurs. There is an energy in Australia the likes of which I have never felt elsewhere. Time we shouted about it a bit louder.”
Perhaps it’s simply cultural. Grand, starched European dining experiences are few and far between here. Australian restaurants are very much geared towards less formal and more fun. Maybe it’s time we simply stopped caring about what the rest of the world thinks.
“I think our restaurants, even our best or at least most well-regarded/awarded, are generally geared for Australians,” says Dan Hunter, chef and restaurateur behind multi-award-winning regional Victorian restaurant Brae.
“Maybe that’s not always in step with what’s happening in more visited parts of the world. I think that’s good – for some time now we’ve been looking in rather than out. We just are who we are – mixed and independent.”