An online petition and website, started to protest the World's 50 Best Restaurants culinary award, has been reinstated after a legal challenge over the weekend that accused the protesters of violating copyright licensing. The awards are being criticized for having an opaque voting and nominating process that has rubbed some in the culinary world the wrong way.
The petition, called Occupy 50 Best, says the anonymous voting rules mean the awards sponsored by San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna and published by Restaurant Magazine are often partial, chauvinistic, and self-promotional. But the fight is about more than just bragging rights. Past winners have said the recognition can have substantial impact on the economics of the restaurants that make the cut.
René Redzepi, a Danish chef whose restaurant Noma has also been the recipient of Michelin stars, told thedailymeal.com in November that losing the top place on the 50 restaurants list in 2013 was an "avalanche of disaster." “It felt like standing outside on a perfect, clear day and suddenly being beaten to the ground by hoodlums,” Redzepi said. "People were acting like it was the end of Noma.”
In the world of chef ratings systems, making a list like the Best 50, getting a Michelin star, or receiving the James Beard award is a high honor. The awards are the sort of thing, according to Alon Shaya, who won the James Beard award last month for his work at his New Orleans restaurant Domenica, that a chef can't prepare for by simply tweaking a menu.
"What [winning] does do is it puts a spotlight on us and gives the opportunity for the staff to feel like their hard work is paying off," Shaya told International Business Times on Monday. "I would say that the biggest positive from the award isn’t necessarily more business from the restaurant, but the employee moral and their knowing that the hard work that they've put in over the last six years has been recognized at a level that we never really truly expected that we would actually win."
Shaya said he is honored to have people in his industry honor his work. He's also seen noticeably more business at his restaurant since the award was announced. "We've seen people that have never dined with us before that heard about the award, read about it and decided to give us a shot," he said. "We’re seeing a lot of our regular customers coming back to celebrate with the staff."
Other chefs also recognize the weight of famous culinary awards. Dave Beran, the executive chef at Next in Chicago and the winner of the 2014 James Beard award for Best Chef, told eater.com that there are a couple ways of thinking about the awards. On the one hand, they're a celebration among peers for accomplishments within a competitive industry. But the awards also matter because they can have an impact on a restaurant's visibility.
"You can look at it from the business perspective and say the better you do on the list, the more people that are aware, the more they're going to fly in," he said. "If you get 20 on the top 50 list and then all of a sudden you jump up to 10, the momentum hits you."
That can mean big changes in the number of people wanting to travel and eat in your restaurant. "The day after Noma won in 2010, about 100,000 people tried to book online, enough to fill the Copenhagen restaurant for years," Richard Vines wrote in Bloomberg last year.
The Best 50 awards, which will be announced Monday in London, has become a go-to guide for world travelers looking to grab a bite to eat. The listing was started in 2002 and has grown immensely since. But it has also come under increased scrutiny as world class chefs have spoken out against the voting process, some questioning whether the rules for voting eligibility are even met by all of the judges, or whether some nations unfairly tip the scales by paying for trips to restaurants and meals for the judges.
The process voting includes 26 panels around the world, and for each one 35 judges are chosen by a chairman who decides among food writers, restaurateurs, chefs and gourmets. The list of judges is kept confidential to cut the risk of lobbying.
The restaurants that make their way onto the list tend to be more avant-garde than traditional culinary titans that have had the same recipes and tradition for years. Past qualifiers for the list have included Eleven Madison Park in New York, El Celler De Can Roca in Girona, Spain, Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, and D.A.O in Saul Palo, Brazil.
Organizers behind the World's 50 Best Restaurants list have responded to the criticism this year by hiring an outside agency, Deloitte, to count the votes. They also added a Best Female Chef award to address the allegations of sexism in the voting process. But critics have remained skeptical, wondering why the new category was added in place of a system that is more inclusive of women. In 2014, just one in 50 winners was a woman.
"There are no established criteria behind the “50 Best” rating system, and no consistent and objective gastronomical or even sanitary requirements," the Occupy 50 Best petition reads.
The people behind the list disagree. “We take our responsibility very seriously and strive to make the voting system as robust as possible.” said William Drew, the head of 50 Best. “The list is created from the votes of almost 1,000 independent experts from across the world. Neither the organizers, nor any of the sponsors, can vote or influence the voting or the results.”