The project was intended as a onetime stunt. It nonetheless had some feeling behind it. At a moment when low-cost airlines had rendered Portugal as accessible as Portsmouth, Maillard and his colleagues considered the idea of restricting the conversation to a single geographical area (in the manner of the Michelin guide) an anachronism. They were also put off by Michelin’s gray-faced sensibility, its predilection for “daunting cheffy masterpieces in near-silent rooms,” as Maillard has said. Where would you want to go, they asked themselves, if you weren’t French, rich, or old? “We put the list together by calling contacts and friends all over the world and eliciting recommendations, then added in our own suggestions, and ordered it in a rather slapdash manner,” Maillard recalled. “Which all sounds a bit loose and random, but, in its first year, the list wasn’t intended to be at all definitive.”
ElBulli, a three-Michelin-star restaurant, came in first. But many of the winners—a Canadian B.Y.O.B. farmhouse, an open-air meat buffet in Kenya—embodied a more capacious notion of merit. Some of them had average food in an exceptional setting. Or they were flaky but did one great dish. In the guise of authoritativeness, the editors were making an argument: that fun mattered; that apricot-colored napkins folded into bishops’ hats didn’t; that inspiration could trump technique; that pleasure was as worthwhile a pursuit as perfection; that the Ambrosia Burger at Nepenthe (No. 34), a café on a cliff in Big Sur, could hold its own—at least, as an experience—with the gargouillou at Michel Bras (No. 40). Their selection was provocative, if not totally persuasive. Their twelfth-favorite restaurant in the world was Tangerine, a Casbah-themed Philadelphia restaurant that closed in 2009.
The editors figured the list was a good excuse for a party. They sent out invitations, anticipating a tepid response; almost all of the honorees accepted. The first World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony was held at a Mayfair restaurant called Hush, started by the actor Roger Moore’s son Geoffrey. The chefs had to buy their own drinks. But the event presented them with an opportunity to let loose in the company of peers, a rarity in a profession whose working hours coincide precisely with those during which most people like to go out. Maillard told me, “Roger himself—James Bond!—turned up to m.c., and the evening went surprisingly well. The highlight was when Albert Adrià, of elBulli, made an acceptance speech entirely in Catalan. Roger translated it as ‘Actually, I preferred Sean Connery.’ ”
The party became, for the chefs, a treasured annual debauch. “They’d move around London in packs,” Jay Rayner, the restaurant critic of the Observer, recalled. “They’d eat at each other’s restaurants. There would be a lunch after, where everyone was very hung over.” The awards—and the pre-parties and after parties that surrounded them, like inaugural balls—were an early stop on the symposium circuit to which modern chefs devote so much effort. (Next year, the awards will be held outside of London for the first time, in New York.)They were an incubator of alliances, the war where the stories formed. The food writer Andrea Petrini remembers the Italian chef Davide Scabin going missing in action one night and resurfacing the next afternoon, having attended a party in “a huge country house, like the one in ‘Eyes Wide Shut.’ ” The Danish prodigy René Redzepi passed his phone around, pressing his wife’s sonogram on anyone who would look.
Because the chefs came, the list mattered, and because the list mattered the chefs came. It was a question of reputation, but also of profit. Even if the majority of the world’s restaurants have no interest in—or chance of—getting on the list, for the most ambitious ones inclusion can be the difference between obscurity and renown. Joannès Rivière, the chef and owner of Cuisine Wat Damnak, which is situated in a traditional Khmer house in Siem Reap, Cambodia, appeared on the Asia list for the first time this year, at No. 50. Rivière told me that his low-season turnover had increased by fifty per cent since the announcement. “June is our slowest month, and, on the slowest nights, we usually do fifteen guests,” he said. “This year, we never had fewer than thirty.” Redzepi, of Noma—which, to this day, has only two Michelin stars—has been open about the fact that the 50 Best helped to turn around his business. According to Bloomberg, the day after Noma captured the No. 1 slot, in 2010, a hundred thousand people tried to book a table. Three years later, when El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona, Spain, outranked Noma for the first time, its Web site received two and a half million hits in twenty-four hours. The waiting list ballooned to a year.
“The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards are the dish du jour, leaving the French culinary guides looking like cold potatoes,” the London Sunday Times proclaimed last year, asserting that the 50 Best had become the food industry’s mightiest arbiter. Even accounting for national chauvinism, there is no doubt that the 50 Best has gone from a lark to a behemoth. Its main sponsors are San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. Chefs play to the list, mindful of its aesthetic preferences and its methodological weaknesses.
At Eleven Madison Park, as John Colapinto wrote in this magazine, Daniel Humm and Will Guidara devised an entire program of changes motivated in part by the perception that “the San Pellegrino voters reward restaurants with a strong sense of place, and of theatre.” They included a three-card-monte dessert and—further belaboring the locavore trend—a cheese-and-beer course that emerged from an old-fashioned Central Park picnic basket. Ned Frame, who worked as a captain there, told me that employees were encouraged to participate in something called the Ownership Program, under which they were made responsible for a certain aspect—say, silverware or coffee—of the restaurant’s experience. Part of the program was a series of talks called “Notes from the Kitchen,” some installments of which covered the 50 Best list. Frame and several colleagues were assigned to research each of the top ten winners and to present their findings to the entire staff.
“I have friends who are smart, interesting guys who lose their shit over getting No. 1,” the chef David Chang told me. Last year, he recalled, he balked at attending the awards ceremony, in London. “Eric Ripert”—of Le Bernardin—“told me, ‘I think you should go.’ ” Chang said, “I can criticize it all I want, but it’s so powerful.”
“What do you have that justifies its calories?”
The Web site Daily Meal recently ran an article that, citing a debate on Twitter, questioned the credibility of the 50 Best awards: “The Oscars of the Food World or a Complete Schmozzle?” They are probably both, in that they are indispensable to the industry—in terms of both its bottom line and its self-regard—even as they command less respect than attention. “It’s a silly, silly list,” Frank Bruni, the former Times restaurant critic, said. “But you need someone to collapse the universe for you. As surely as the nineteen-fifties housewife turned to Consumer Reports to figure out whether to get a Maytag or an Electrolux, the 2015 gourmand is turning to San Pellegrino.” The 50 Best, which is as much about a sort of competitive hedonism as it is about connoisseurship, is the restaurant guide its era demands—edible clickbait, a Baedeker’s for bucket-listers. If the wine industry has become Parkerized, then the restaurant world might be said to have been Pellegrinoed.