The three brothers behind El Celler de Can Roca are certainly still popping the champagne, or whichever libation pairs well with mackerel with pickles and mullet roe, the standout dish that earned the “holy trinity” of Joan, Jordi, and Josep Roca the No. 1 spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants on Monday night.
“A meal in the tranquil glass-walled dining space is at once comforting and yet gastronomically challenging, the food simultaneously artisanal and technical, with references to both the traditional and the avant-garde,” the World’s 50 Best declared in its explanation for naming the restaurant to the coveted spot.
But behind the lavish praise, a growing number of foodies are claiming something is fishy with the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list—and it’s not mackerel-related.
There is small but fiery backlash against the annual global ranking, which began in 2002 through Restaurant magazine, but it is now run through William Reed Media.
Critics decry a voting system that is shrouded in mystery, rife with conflicts of interest, and, above all, inept at actually selecting the best restaurants.
“It’s a little mafia,” said Zoe Reyners, one of the founders of Occupy 50 Best.
That’s right, the foodie elite are so outraged that they have formed their own “Occupy” movement in the vein of the failed but memorable Wall Street protests in 2012.
Instead of camping out in Zuccotti Park to unite against the one percent, they want diners—or at least the diners who can afford to drops hundreds of dollars on a single meal in Sweden, Peru, or France—to raise up their forks and knives against the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
The group alleges that the list is an “opaque, obsequious ranking, where nationalism trumps quality, sexism trumps diversity and the spotlight is on the Celebrity Chef instead of the health and satisfaction of the customer.”
Lest you think the Occupy 50 Best movement is a little too merry on Bordeaux to look beyond the current events of caviar, they are not the only critics who have complained about the World’s Best 50 list.
Even the founder, Chris Maillard, told The Telegraph that “It’s all about the money. The awards have now become a massive international revenue-generating machine.”
The Daily Beast reached out to the World’s 50 Best for comment but did not receive a response by press time.
Reyners said some chefs have already been pressured to take their name off the Occupy 50 Best petition, though she refused to reveal their names.
Burned by this hot plate of criticism, the World’s 50 Best has apparently launched its own attack against the protest.
“The World’s 50 Best shut down our website this weekend. We received letters from their lawyers that our logo is too similar to theirs. They’re putting fake names of chefs as signers on the website,” Reyners said.
As The New York Times reported, the group changed its logo, and the website has been back up and running.
To a certain degree, the Occupy 50 Best movement—and the attacks against it—embody the insularity and elitism that has come to characterize the catty, fame-hungry (pun intended) community of foodies.
But the complaints raised by Occupy 50 Best and other critics who have not formally joined the movement suggest that there is potential for a restaurateur, or even a country, to possibly buy a spot or two on the World’s 50 Best List.
“Many government tourism boards, like those of Sweden, Peru, Mexico and Singapore, have begun or increased their sponsorship of gastro-tourism for those in the food industry since the advent of the list,” The New York Times noted in a recent report on the list.
Reyners said she did not personally have evidence that countries have directly courted votes for the World’s 50 Best list, but pointed The Daily Beast to a French GQ report this week that indicated Mexico had spent money to host a World’s 50 Best Restaurants event in exchange for getting some of the country’s restaurants in the rankings.
William Drew, group editor of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, denied that claim.
“It is so untidy in so many ways,” Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann told The Daily Beast. Mallmann’s 1884 restaurant in Mendoza, Argentina, has been on the list, and he served as a member of the jury before publicly resigning in 2013.
He believes countries do lobby for influence. “South America is one region [Editor’s note: the 50 Best Restaurants actually counts it as two voting regions, north and south], but Brazil gets a lobby and becomes a region on its own.”
It is true that Brazil is the only country in South America that is considered its own region, which Mallmann says means that “all the other countries in South America are voted on by x amount of locals, and then Brazil has the same amount of voters for itself.”
This year, Brazil actually didn’t have the most restaurants on the list for South America; Peru beat it out, three to two, so that argument is not airtight. Still, the allocation of the same set of voters just to Brazil is curious.
Mallmann said he enjoyed being a voter, but he noticed a change when his restaurant was named to the list. “I started feeling this awkwardness when I went to conferences. When the voting comes, all the chefs come to you and say, ‘Support this, support that.’ There was so much lobbying.”
“Lobbying” is one degree of concern, but other critics allege the conflicts of interest are more blatant.
“The obvious conflict of interest is having a third of the [voting] academy made up of chefs and restaurateurs who will all vote for each other. It’s a ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ situation,” Andrew Lynes, a food and wine journalist and former voting member of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, told The Daily Beast.
While the entire jury is not revealed publicly—one of the flaws in the ranking system, according to Occupy 50 Best—the chairs for each region are.
Reyners pointed out to me that the chairwoman for Spain and Portugal, Roser Torras, works for a PR company, Grup GSR, that has organized events featuring a number of restaurants on the list, including No. 6, Mugaritz.
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants hired accounting firm Deloitte to track the votes this year, but Reyners does not think that rectifies any of the flaws.
“Even if they have certification from Deloitte, they’re hiding behind it,” she said. “We still don’t know how members of the jury are chosen. There’s not a grading grid. They don’t have to give comments on their votes.”
Other critics care less that the jurors are unknown than that they are not qualified to vote in a global ranking. The jurors are only asked that they have visited the restaurants they submit to be put on the list in the previous 18 months; they are not given a budget, and they do not need to provide any proof that they actually ate there.
“There’s no process or underlying criteria,” said Lynes. “It’s impossible for them to say this restaurant in Spain is better than 100 in Africa because they won’t have done that work.”
There are also charges of sexism. Bloomberg estimates only about 4 percent of winners are women. There’s a separate award for female chefs, but that doesn’t exactly solve the problem of what Reyners calls disproportionately low representation. “The fact that they created a separate ranking for women is the most sexist thing. It shouldn’t be necessary,” she said.
And then, at the most philosophical level, there are critics who simply believe the ranking promotes the wrong culinary ethos.
The World’s Best 50 list is “pushing our craft only in innovation. I don’t believe it is an intellectual thing where I’m going to eat 42 dishes alone by this specific chef. Maybe in a few years a cat will come flying out and deliver food to your table. I don’t know what else they can do?,” lamented Mallmann.
“We’re not giving the right message to the young generation. It’s not only about innovation.”
But can a battle be fought against some very concrete allegations of impropriety when the foodie ideals are so lofty? Can one stir the masses with the rallying cry that an eight-course tasting menu isn’t what it used to be, or that not enough restaurants in South Africa or New Zealand are being internationally recognized by a tiny, elite group?
“We’re not fighting world hunger,” Reyners admits. “It’s only food.”
Editor's Note: On Wednesday, William Drew, group editor of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, contacted The Daily Beast and delivered a series of responses to some of the issues raised raised in the article. His statements are below: The key areas I wanted to come back to is the speculation or the suggestion that other organizations might be able to buy a spot on the list. I want to go on the record refuting it categorically. None of our sponsors and none of our host country sponsors, like Mexico, which is sponsoring the upcoming 2015 Latin America World's 50 Best Restaurants event, had an influence on the creation of the list. None of them can vote. They don't know the ranking until it is announced on the night of the event.
You say the voting process is shrouded in mystery. We're very clear with how our voting process works. While we don't say who is on the voting panel, there are 972 panelists from around the world. If you knew who those voters were, they might be much more open to lobbying. The system is clearly articulated on numerous occasions on our website.
We didn't shut down the occupy website. We pointed out that there was a possible copyright issue.
The assertion of Zoe Reyners that we've submitted chefs with fake names, that is fundamentally not the case. Her claim that chefs are being pressured to take their names off, that's certainly not been coming from anyone from within our organization. We have not been in contact with those chefs in regards to that.