The Battle of the Tasting Menus

This month, San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list was released to excitement and wide spread cautioning. It’s the only real competition to the famous Michelin Guide and its star system, but several flaws in the voting system have made the results suspect. The anonymous voters don’t have to prove they ate at any of the restaurants and there are no rules about getting free meals. In fact, Sweden (2 spots), Spain (7 spots), Peru (3 spots) and others have been openly inviting food journalists and 50 Best Restaurant voters to their country (expenses paid) in order to expose them to their cuisine. Does this have an impact? It’s impossible to know, which is part of the problem.

The system is also susceptible to an opposite problem: no one is visiting all of these restaurants. While tourism boards and government initiatives can lobby for votes, if a restaurant isn’t visited enough by a secret and unknown voting body then it doesn’t have a chance of breaking the top 50. Each 50 Best voter gets seven votes and since it’s so subjective the judgment of one restaurant as superb doesn’t mean that another is not. Take El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain — is it really the number one best restaurant in the world, if the reviewers who voted for it have never been to the The Test Kitchen in Cape Town (#28) or Borago in Santiago, Chile (#42)? Even if these things wash out to some extent because of the large number of votes cast, there is still an opportunity for accessible regions (like Western Europe) to be over represented, while more far-flung locales or restaurants without a celebrity chef to rank slightly lower, perhaps not making the list at all. In 2011, Nathan Garnett, the former event director for the awards told The New York Times, “There’s a clear gap between the top 10 and the rest,” Mr. Garnett said. “But between 31 and 80, one or two votes makes all the difference.”

Trends

In the top 50 spots this year, all but three offered a tasting menu. For most, this was the only option. The average price point, before taxes, tip or beverages was $185 per person. In our << Visual Guide to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants >>, we show the Google image search results of the top 50 spots. There are outliers, but taken together the way the food is presented, both with the tasting menu format and the trend towards so-called modernist cuisine, the effect is surprisingly similar. When the first list came out in 2002, elBulli in Spain was number one and French Laundry in California was number three (both were known for their tasting menus and experimental cooking techniques) but the rest of the top ten varied from traditional French cuisine to modern Cantonese. On this year’s list, there is just one from the top ten that doesn’t do a tasting menu as its main offering (Dinner by Heston Blumenthal).

Not just tasting menus… but the same tasting menus we’ve seen before. The three restaurants in New York City that made the top 50 are the same three restaurants you’d find if you searched Yelp for “best reviewed” at the highest price point ($$$$). Roser Torras, who joined the World’s 50 Best Restaurant’s academy as the chairperson for the Spain and Portugal region last year, was quoted in Time Out (in Catalan) as saying that getting El Celler de Can Roca to the top spot was her goal. But La Roca (famous for its tasting menu) was not an underdog; the restaurant was voted the “World’s Best” in 2013 until it was pushed down the list by Noma in 2014. Torras is the head of Grup GSR, and she runs the “most successful gastronomic events” in her region (according to her online bio) including the San Sebastian Gastronomika, Mercat de Mercats and BCN Vanguardia. Is her dedication to Spanish and Catalan cuisine influencing who she picks as voters for the Spain – Portugal region? It’s worth noting that while she secured seven spots for Spain in the Top 50, there were none for her other region, Portugal.

Why we still need it

In defense of the list, it has increased the awareness of the cuisine in Latin America, with this year’s top 50 winners including Mexico City, Mexico (Pujol at $85, Quintonil at $64, and Biko at $65), Sao Paulo, Brazil (Mani at $175, and D.O.M. at $250), Lima, Peru (Central at $50 for a three-course meal, Astrid y Gaston at $107 and Maido at $100) and Santiago, Chile (Borago at $60). The Michelin Guide only launched a Latin American guide in March 2015 (it only covers Brazil and issued no three stars, only giving one restaurant two stars: D.O.M.) so until the 50 Best list there was no global recognition for the food coming out of the region. Even for areas it does cover, Michelin is strangely Latino-adverse, only starring two Latin American restaurants in the United States: Casa Enrique, located in Long Island City, New York and Topolobampo in Chicago, Illinois. Compare that to the 607 starred restaurants in its France guide. In a similar fashion, restaurants in Asia broke into the top 50 in cities where there is no Michelin-starred presence including, Bangkok, Thailand (Gaggan at $75, and Nahm at $68), Shanghai, China (Ultraviolet at $645 including wine), and Singapore (Restaurant Andre at $220). In South Africa, The Test Kitchen in Cape Town represented with the lowest priced tasting menu in the top 50 ($48 per person). However, both lists, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and the Michelin Guides, ignore vast swaths of the world, including the Middle East, Central Asia (including India), and the Caucasus — who have never had a restaurant recognized by either list, ever.

Take it with a pinch of salt…

What should a traveler do if they want to sample the best, most innovative or most interesting twist on a cuisine that a region has to offer? Until there are major changes in both the Michelin Guide’s scope and the World’s Best Restaurant’s voting practices, it seems the best option is to check with the local food critics and writers from that region for their recommendation.

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About Christine Gilbert

Christine Gilbert is the co-founder of Cultures & Cuisines. She's also a writer, photographer, and filmmaker based in Barcelona, Spain. In 2014, she was recognized by National Geographic as Traveler of the Year for her work on the documentary, "The Wireless Generation". Her work has been published in Esquire, Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, British Airways magazine, Mothering, Brain, Child magazine and others. She has a forthcoming book with Penguin Random House in 2016. She can be found on Twitter as @cb_gilbert

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