As a student, I struggled at school because I had the attention span of a frog bouncing from lily pad to lily pad. It wasn’t until I got a job in Australia’s best restaurant, which was ranked in the world’s top 100, that I thought I’d found the right environment for me – the turbulent and exciting world of the high-end, fine-dining kitchen.
The life of a junior chef is akin to a rookie playing for a pro football team. Constantly jostling for a position in the starting line-up was part of the daily grind. It was a dog-eat-dog, testosterone-fuelled world. Sabotaging a fellow colleague was rife, and I was young, naive and an easy target. But I loved every minute because it felt like I was contributing to something the world would recognise.
In retrospect, I realise this culture broke careers and crushed dreams; it was non-inclusive and intimidating. Why do chefs persevere, you might ask. The answer is simple: to become number one. The quest for the perfect meal is built around self-righteous gratification, and the competition outside is a constant motivator.
A few years after grinding it out on Australia’s fine-dining scene, I set my sights on Europe – where the majority of eateries that have made it to the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants List are situated. I managed a stint at Arzak in San Sebastian, the seventh best restaurant at the time, and then found myself one email click away from a full-time job at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck. A part of my brain said: “Do it; it’s all you’ve ever wanted.” But the other side said: “Are you crazy, mate?”
Joining the number one restaurant (in 2009) would have put me back in that relentless environment. Was I crazy enough to endure the physical and mental challenges that may put my name on that prestigious list one day? At the time, not at all. I had other ideas. I came to Dubai instead and have never been happier. As the managing director of six cafes and restaurants, I focus on giving people world-class experiences in the casual-dining sector – not $300 tasting menus designed only for the elite 1 per cent. And I do whatever it takes to eliminate the competitive culture I witnessed as a junior chef.
Is the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List fair?
Now a little older and wiser, I found myself analysing the results of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List for 2019, which was revealed last week. After all, the trends set by the best trickle down to the most modest of menus worldwide. In recent years, the awards have not been without controversy, and many questions have been raised. Is the judging criteria fair? Why is it so male-centric? Why does Europe feature so heavily, considering the Michelin Guide also has a strong presence in Asia and North America?
The good news is that there have been improvements over the years. Notably, the male-dominated kitchen culture is dissipating thanks to a few brave change-makers. These include Clare Smyth (who was chef patron at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay), Elena Arzak (of Arzak), Jessica Prealpato, who won the Best Pastry Chef award this year, and Daniela Soto-Innes, who took home the Best Female Chef award; her restaurant Cosme is now the highest rated US restaurant.
At a time when the gender-equality agenda is at an all-time high, it seems undisputed that female talent is not only in large supply, but also massively in demand. These chefs have revolutionised techniques that are worthy of the highest accolades, which is a big win for the industry at large.
Being named the top restaurant
This year, Mirazur in France won top honours, which makes it feel like classic cooking techniques are making a comeback, and that the molecular cooking trend may become a thing of the past. Even Massiomo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana and Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park (previous years’ winners) champion classic, creative and perfectly executed cuisine.
As to what claiming the top position can do for a restaurant’s business, consider: when Noma came in at first place in 2010, it had more than 100,000 reservation requests for the next day alone. El Celler de Can Roca, the 2013 winner, had to employ three extra people with the specific responsibility of declining reservations.
Obviously, this translates into big bucks, helps boost the economy and can put any city on the map as a newfound dining destination. Tourism departments and the government get involved because who wouldn’t want to lay claim that their country houses the world's number one restaurant? And therein lies the dilemma because, since the list debuted 18 years ago, only seven restaurants (not counting Mirazur) have claimed the top position.
On the judging panel of the World’s 50 Best are 1,000 international restaurant industry experts, who each get seven votes, three of which need to be used outside the individual’s home region (which is painfully unspecific). The list also places no restrictions on how travel to and meals at various restaurants are funded. This opens the door for a shift in the voting, which can be swayed through strategic “food tours” organised by cashed-up tourist boards.
So if a governing body wanted to showcase its local cuisine in a bid to increase tourism revenue, all they have to do is focus on food publications, invite their critics to dine at select restaurants, champion the chef through strategic foraging and, voila, you have a damn good chance of rating highly. Oh, and buy a certain brand of water, of course!
So what's the solution?
This situation has been frustrating the fine-dining community for years, so a new rule was implemented for the 2019 list, which states that previous winners of the top spot cannot win again nor be included in future lists. They instead get “best of the best” status.
While this seems to be a much-lauded solution, there is another loophole that can effectively continue the trend, and be unfair for any worthy but less-resourced new entrant. This year, four-time winner Rene Redzepi and his restaurant Noma in Copenhagen picked up and moved down the road.
Noma 2.0 has a new interior, but pretty much the same food. Instead of placing the eatery in the best of the best category, the list looked upon Noma as a new entrant and placed it at number two in its very first year. This hardly seems fair, and was likely achieved with the right amount of PR, marketing and funding.
Closer to home Al Mahara in Burj Al Arab is the only UAE restaurant to ever feature in the top 50 list, all the way back in 2003. It begs the question, when will it happen again? Without more local talent rising from the ranks, I don’t see any restaurants from our region cracking the list – which still seems to be obsessed with European restaurants – anytime soon. It’s going to take a chef who doesn’t just have his, or indeed her, name on the door, but is also deeply invested in the business, where he or she must put it all on the line in the name of the perfect restaurant. One thing’s for sure, it won’t be me – well, not next year at least.
Tom Arnel is the founder and managing director of Bull & Roo Hospitality, which oversees operations at Tom&Serg, The Sum of Us, Common Grounds, Encounter Coffee Roastery, Rise&Dawn Bakehouse, Brunswick Eatery Bar and Terrace and Muchachas Mexican Cantina