MELBOURNE | On Wednesday night, 5 April 2017, over 900 people descended on Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building for the 15th edition of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Amongst the attendees were local and international media, sponsors, hospitality folk, and most importantly, almost 50 of the best chefs in the world.
The food scene in Melbourne is fantastic – our fresh produce is diverse and abundant, and its quality high. The food, drinks, and level of service offered in this city’s restaurants, cafes, and bars is at a standard that rivals the best anywhere in the world, and the city’s multicultural melting pot means that good examples of many of the world’s cuisines can be found here. Melbourne has a reputation within Australia, and amongst those who have visited, as a ‘food city’, but to most people outside of Australia, no such reputation exists. It would be nice to think that the reason the World’s 50 Best Restaurants came to Melbourne (only the second time in 15 years it’s been outside its London home) was for its aforementioned qualities, and certainly this played a part, but there can be no doubt that the USD$600,000 that Tourism Australia spent on the awards, along with more than a week’s worth of events, meals and trips for international attendees, was instrumental.
Regardless, the awards were held in Melbourne, and I think it was money well spent. Food publications around the world were talking about Melbourne over the past week, and many influential people in the world of food have returned to their home countries, inspired by things they have seen here, and are spreading the word about what Melbourne has to offer food lovers. Surely, the reputation of Melbourne as a ‘food city’ to those overseas, has been enhanced.
Walking along the red carpet and into Carlton’s Royal Exhibition Building, it was hard not to be impressed by the job that organisers had done in setting things up. The grand interior of this UNESCO list building was bathed in soft blue and purple light, and there was ample space in which to mingle. Food was catered by Neil Perry and Rockpool Group, and consisted of a raw bar featuring a bounty of fresh seafood, along with an assortment of delicious canapes showcasing Australian produce. Several fantastic Australian wines were being handed around, along with Estrella Damm for beer drinkers and cocktails featuring either gin from Melbourne Gin Company or Lavazza coffee. Of course, there was also champagne and caviar.
The chefs weren’t hard to spot, their red scarves giving them away as they chatted with friends, and posed for photos with eager fans. Something that was evident throughout the night was just how much of an equaliser this event was. Members of traditional and non-traditional media put aside any petty differences, and most of the chefs were happy to hang out and mingle with the crowd. As the clock approached 8:30pm, guests were advised to move to the rear of the venue, behind a curtain where the stage and seating were set up.
The awards ceremony itself was pleasingly fast paced. William Drew, Group Editor of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, gave a focused introduction before handing the reigns over to emcee Mark Durden-Smith, best known as a presenter on British TV network ITV. Durden-Smith was witty and funny, and kept the crowd suitably entertained. The countdown was paced well, with chefs walking to the stage to collect their awards, and only giving a speech if they won a special award – for example Best Female Chef (Ana Roš, Hiša Franko, Kobarid, Slovenia), World’s Best Pastry Chef (Dominique Ansel, New York City), or Diners Club® Lifetime Achievement Award (Heston Blumenthal). If I had to give out an award for best speech, it would have to go to Heston, for a speech that was equally philosophical, rambling, and confusing. Watch this clip from panel show “The Project” the night before and you’ll get a good idea of it.
The loudest cheers were reserved for the hometown representatives on the list. Brae made the top 50 for the first time at number 44 while Attica moved up one spot to 32. As we reached the top 10, the anticipation of the crowd heightened. Winner of the Chef’s Choice award, Virgilio Martínez, saw his restaurant Central, drop from number 4 to 5, while last year’s number 2, El Celler de Can Roca, dropped to 3. Last year’s number 1, Osteria Francescana, dropped to 2, which left Eleven Madison Park as the winner, the number 1 restaurant in the world. Co-owners Will Guidara and Swiss-born chef Daniel Humm are known for blurring the line between the kitchen and the dining room, and focusing on every aspect of the dining experience to create something personalised for each guest. They even Google and do research on diners to help tailor the experience. They gave a heartfelt speech, and with that, the formalities of the night were over.
The chefs all got onto the stage for a group photo and everyone returned to the main space, which saw the raw bar converted into a two sided kitchen, featuring even more quality Australian produce, this time with a focus on meat. Perfectly cooked aged beef, lamb and pork were on offer, along with delicious kangaroo, which would have been a first for many of the guests. Before I knew it, the clock struck 12 and the main event was done. The night, however, was far from over. Rockpool Group was hosting the after party at 7 Alfred Place, and to say that it was a lot of fun would be an understatment. Wood fired pizzas and an assortment of Italian canapes, cheese, and bread were being served downstairs, drinks were flowing in the side bars, and grand hall upstairs was transformed into a party room full of great tunes and more drinks.
Everyone was having a great time chatting and dancing, and the atmosphere was just fantastic. As I waited at the bar in the main room for a drink, several bottles of champagne were being lined up by Neil Perry, and it was clear that something was going to happen. All of sudden Dominique Crenn, Neil Perry, Daniel Humm, and Massimo Boturra get up onto the bar and started spraying champagne onto everyone in the room in between bouts of generously gulping it down themselves. I was drenched, and I didn’t care one bit. At 3:00am I decided to head home, my alarm set for 6:30am for work that day. The party was still going, and several people I spoke to made the decision to simply not bother going to bed that day, but rather straight to the airport for their morning flights back home. As I headed home in an Uber, I reflected on what had just transpired and couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The main event and after party were both so well organised and so much fun, and the whole experience was surreal. I had the opportunity to chat and party as an equal with some of the chefs I respect most in the food world, and met many other interesting chefs, restaurant general managers, and kitchen and floor staff who had flown over from around the world to see what Melbourne, and the 2017 edition of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants was all about.
That would perhaps be a good place to finish this piece, but it would be remiss to not make any mention of the criticisms that have been leveled at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants over the years. The list is very Eurocentric, with no restaurants from India, or any African country featured. China, a nation of over a billion people, only has one entrant on the list, and it’s a place run by a French guy. The list is exclusively focused on expensive high end dining, and it is very male dominated – only three female head chefs made this year’s list, and all three of them work in kitchens co-run by men. Additionally, there is a lot of corporate sponsorship of the awards, and when it comes to voting, the 1,000 or so judges only need to have dined at the places they vote for in the past 18 months – whether the meal was an anonymous feast that was paid for by the judge or a free meal as part of, for example, a PR junket, is irrelevant. It should be noted, however, that while the voting process is secret, it is independently audited by Deloitte.
Some might argue that these criticisms, along with the fact that the allure of fine dining is being replaced in many cases with more casual, affordable experiences, indicates that the awards are outdated. Perhaps, but there’s no doubting that they are becoming increasingly influential. For a restaurateur, a spot on this list is publicity gold, and will almost overnight result in a restaurant being booked out for months. Indeed, several of the restaurants on the list require booking almost a year in advance, along with a hefty upfront deposit.
What does this all mean? It means that you should take the awards for what they are, and not take them too seriously. I haven’t met a single person who actually thinks this list represents the world’s 50 best restaurants. Literally speaking, it’s just not possible to do such a thing. What the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list does, is to provide an overview of some of the best fine dining restaurants around the world, which are setting trends, and doing things which haven’t been done before. Many of the people on this list come from humble beginnings, and struggled for years before achieving what they have achieved. The issues that exist with the World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards should be talked about, and people should push for change, but this shouldn’t detract from what those on this list have achieved, and continue to achieve, list or no list.
If you are privileged enough to be able to travel and to dine at any of the restaurants on the World’s 50 Best list, you’ll be treated to one of the best dining experiences that money can buy, but it’s equally true that many, if not most of the best dining experiences to be had in the world come from places that will never be in contention for a spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List.
The World’s Best 50 Restaurants 2017 – Full List of Winners
1. Eleven Madison Park, New York, USA
2. Osteria Francescana, Modena, Italy
3. El Celler de Can Roca, Girona, Spain
4. Mirazur, Menton, France
5. Central, Lima, Peru
6. Asador Etxebarri, Axpe, Spain
7. Gaggan, Bangkok, Thailand
8. Maido, Lima, Peru
9. Mugaritz, San Sebastián, Spain
10. Steirereck, Vienna, Austria
11. Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocatino Hills, New York, USA
12. Arpège, Paris, France
13. Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée, Paris, France
14. Restaurant André, Singapore
15. Piazza Duomo, Alba, Italy
16. D.O.M., São Paulo, Brazil
17. Le Bernardin, New York, USA
18. Narisawa, Tokyo, Japan
19. Geranium, Copenhagen, Denmark
20. Pujol, Mexico City, Mexico
21. Alinea, Chicago, USA
22. Quintonil, Mexico City, Mexico
23. White Rabbit, Moscow, Russia
24. Amber, Hong Kong, China
25. Tickets, Barcelona, Spain
26. The Clove Club, London, UK
27. The Ledbury, London, UK
28. Nahm, Bangkok, Thailand
29. Le Calandre, Rubano, Italy
30. Arzak, San Sebastián, Spain
31. Alléno Paris au Pavillon Ledoyen, Paris, France
32. Attica, Melbourne, Australia
33. Astrid y Gastón, Lima, Peru
34. De Librija, Zwolle, Netherlands
35. Septime, Paris, France
36. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, London, UK
37. Saison, San Francisco, USA
38. Azurmendi, Larrabetzu, Spain
39. Relae, Copenhagen, Denmark
40. Cosme, New York, USA
41. Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet, Shanghai, China
42. Boragó, Santiago, Chile
43. Reale, Castel Di Sangro, Italy
44. Brae, Birregurra, Victoria, Australia
45. Den, Tokyo, Japan
46. L’Astrance, Paris, France
47. Vendôme, Bergisch Gladback, Cologne, Germany
48. Restaurant Tim Raue, Berlin, Germany
49. Tegui, Buenos Aires, Argentina
50. Hof van Cleve, Kruishoutem, Belgium