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Some of the year’s honored chefs gather onstage at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants gala.

Image: Scott Vogel

Around the world last week, many people were no doubt asking themselves, just as they do every year at this time, whether the eateries named to this year’s list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants really were the 50 best, even as many others questioned how the list was created and still others wondered why anyone would embark on such an impossible quest in the first place. And while the W50B has its detractors, you wouldn’t have known it from the crowd in Melbourne, Australia that attended the ceremony announcing this year’s rankings on April 5—an evening filled with pomp, circumstance, and a torrent of gin-and-tonics.

As it happens, I was in the back of the room as the crowd of nearly 1,000—a bevy of A-list restaurateurs, assorted media from the far corners of the planet, and 47 of the 50 chefs of the honored restaurants—assembled at Melbourne’s exquisite Victorian-era Royal Exhibition Hall for what has become known as the restaurant world’s biggest night. The atmosphere was abuzz, as they say. People were manic, even loopy at times, shouting and gushing and too-long-embracing. There were requisite jokes about the ceremony running long, and I overheard a few bitter food writers carping about some of the choices, even as they obsessively live-blogged the whole spectacle. Overall, though, there was a surprising dignity to the evening, one that paired well with the honorees’ passion and sense of duty. Having been told by a few hyperventilating foodie types to expect a bonfire of the vanities, a deadly mix of testosterone and terroir, I felt misled. Whatever else it might be, the W50B is not the Oscars of food, not really.

Still, the comparison isn’t completely inapt. Like filmmaking before it, cooking’s final acceptance as an art form in its own right has been a long time in coming. And just as the food industry, like Hollywood, is not immune to the seductions of crass mass production, it does on occasion achieve—also like Hollywood—a measure of transcendence, beauty, power, even profundity. Whatever its proprietors’ original aims and values, the W50B has evolved into a reliable guide to culinary profundity, a tribute to cooking’s dazzling powers of transcendence, a champion of food-making as art.

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New York’s Eleven Madison Park was named the World’s Best Restaurant for 2017.

Image: Scott Vogel

That’s a remarkable development when you consider that the W50B is far younger than Michelin and other champions of competitive dining. It didn’t even exist until 2002, when the whole thing was hatched by a few magazine editors in London, the city from which the list was announced for over a decade. (It wasn’t until 2016 and ’17 that the group took its show on the road—first to New York, then to Melbourne. In May, it’s expected to announce which food-mad city will host next year’s event.) The list—or lists, for there are now 50-best tallies on most every continent—are culled from votes cast by 1,000+ semi-anonymous figures worldwide, among them food journalists, restaurateurs and other industry folks. And the rankings are inevitably objects of suspicion, given the prestige conferred on the winning establishments, and the economic windfall that typically results. (The full list appears below.)

But the individual rankings are really a poached red herring here. What really matters are the guiding principles the W50B list reflects: that some cooking is more artful than others, some chefs are more artful at holding up a mirror (or rather a plate) to the times in which we live, some restaurants are better at artfully challenging our deepest notions of the eating-out experience, and some even take diners on artful journeys that engage the senses and the mind. The ethos in brief: fine food is an art, those who cook and prepare it are artists, and restaurants are the canvases on which they paint.

 Which is not to say that prettiness and deliciousness are the only things on these chefs’ minds. On the contrary, their aims and methods are as diverse as the practitioners of every other art form. There are the escape artists, for instance, chefs and restaurateurs who skillfully lead diners out of humdrum-ness and into the fantastic. These include Will Guidara and Daniel Humm, co-owners of Eleven Madison Park, the Manhattan restaurant selected by the W50B judges as the world’s number one restaurant of 2017. The New Yorkers’ goal, as Guidara put it in his acceptance speech, is simply “to create these magical worlds where people can escape from a world that increasingly needs a little more magic.” Hence the 3-hour, 11-course journey that Eleven Madison Park has become famous for taking diners on, one in which, say, honey-lavender roasted duck can “help people celebrate some of the most important events in their lives, or maybe just give them the grace to forget about something for a moment.”

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The crowd at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony.

Image: Scott Vogel

And then there are the revolutionists from within, chefs like Yannick Alléno, whose groundbreaking work with sauces—the soul of French cuisine—has somehow led to mindboggling creations like a millefeuille composed of so-called 18-month avocados (named for the extraordinarily long fermentation period), chia seeds and a coconut extraction. “If you want to change French food, you have to change the sauces,” as Alléno put it in an interview. The changes mightily impressed the W50B judges. His restaurant, Alléno Paris at Pavillon Ledoyen, was this year’s highest-ranked new entry, at number 31.

Just above it, at number 30, stands Arzak, where another quiet revolution of sorts has been going on for some time. Along with her father, chef Elena Arzak commands the restaurant, which has been operating since 1897 from its perch atop a hill in the town of San Sebastian, in Spain’s Basque Country. She is one of very few female chefs to make the W50B list, a perennial source of consternation among the list’s critics, although Arzak herself told me she was “sure this will change. The mentality [among chefs and restaurateurs] is changing a lot.” One thing that hasn’t changed is Arzak’s passion for raw materials and local ingredients, or her decided preference for the delicious over the “sophisticated and looks nice.” At Arzak, she said, “we sacrifice the view of the plate for the taste,” although dishes like her signature pigeon with potato feathers allegedly succeed on both counts.

And deliciousness counts even among the renegades, chefs like Dan Barber, whose Blue Hill at Stone Barns—in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City—was the highest climber in this year’s list, at number 11. In 2015, Barber became something of a restaurant legend thanks to wastED, his pop-up restaurant devoted to minimizing “food waste by serving dinner made with ingredients others would consider garbage.” In an interview, Barber said that the idea grew out of some “sobering statistics,” namely that a third of everything produced in the world is wasted. “No one likes to hear that, especially in a world where a third of the population is undernourished or insecure about their next meal, and another third of the world is malnourished.”

Somewhat improbably, Barber believes that fine dining, which “gets blamed a lot for elitism and effete ideas and expensive luxury,” can actually “answer some of these problems,” in part by changing our expectations for a plate of food. As he put it, “the food culture is demanding that we eat a 7-ounce piece of steak or chicken breast that centers our plate…and we are demanding that twice a day, seven days a week. Chefs know that not only is that not sustainable, it isn’t very delicious.” Still, change will only come, he noted, “through a context of pleasure and delight.”

Needless to say, Barber’s mantra—“using restaurants not just as places of escape from our everyday world but as places of connections with these kinds of issues, and as places to be educated”—puts him somewhat at odds with his confreres at Eleven Madison Park. But its vigorous debates like this that bring an atmosphere of electricity to the W50B’s annual gatherings, and set it apart from other ranking bodies.    

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Chef Dan Barber’s Hudson Valley restaurant is honored as the highest climber in this year’s list.

Image: Scott Vogel

As for cooking itself, it has become the popular art of our age, a truly important one. It is, after all, deeply connected to the fate of our species and indeed the planet itself. Like the earth from which it springs, food has increasingly been problematized, implicated in everything from obesity to hunger, Big Food to junk food, the rise of celebrity chefs to the demise of the home cook. Ours is still a world in which food brings sustenance but not adoration, consumption but not reverence. All of which makes the great chef-artists of our time more important than ever. In their best moments, food becomes again something to revere, something fragile, evanescent, holy.  

And so, it would be a mistake to say that the great chefs and restaurateurs of the world gathered in Melbourne just to hear their names called out from the stage or to watch their fortunes rise and fall in the rankings. It was instead to participate in a culinary ideas festival of sorts, to share insights with fellow philosophes of the dining experience, to join panels devoted to maximizing sustainability and minimizing waste, to engage the public with lectures and talks on newly foraged foodstuffs and ways to prepare them.

“I think we are seeing a greater return to exploring indigenous and sometimes forgotten ingredients, mined from culinary traditions and reinvented in a contemporary setting,” said William Drew, the group editor and official spokesperson of the W50B, in an interview. The paradoxical abundance and scarcity of food in our world was also on many chefs’ minds this year, he noted, and not only Dan Barber’s. Although Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana, the World’s Best Restaurant of 2016, slipped to number two this year, Drew was effusive in his praise for the chef, calling Bottura’s “work on waste” and the future of food distribution “vitally important.”

That said, Drew emphasized that a great meal out is always defined, at least for him, by the joy of the “overall restaurant experience,” mentioning by way of example a terrific evening he spent at an unnamed American establishment last year. What stood out, Drew said, was “the relatively casual environment with great music; extraordinary plates featuring unusual but not outlandish ingredients, originally prepared; thoughtful wine pairings and engaging but never gushing service. If all that sounds a bit formulaic, this restaurant is far from that: it is singular, led by a very talented chef.” It also apparently possesses that special quality that all of us seek in a restaurant—a great atmosphere—as “intangible and sometimes elusive” as that might be.

Intangible and elusive are terms that apply equally to the W50B project itself, of course, and yet I don’t see the harm in the project that others do. The chosen few may not truly be the best 50 restaurants on earth, their chefs may perhaps be more mortal than deity, and more often male than seems reasonable. But all are unquestionably excellent cooks, and excellent cooking is perhaps the highest tribute one can pay to the millions upon millions of beings that give their lives for humanity every day—all the organisms in and of the soil, all the creatures of land, sea and sky. Our weary planet desperately needs such respect these days, and for that reason alone, the work of the W50B’s chefs is never less than moving.

The World's 50 Best Restaurants 2017

  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, Atxondo (Spain)
  7. Gaggan, Bangkok (Thailand)
  8. Maido, Lima (Peru)
  9. Mugaritz, San Sebastian (Spain)
  10. Steirereck, Vienna (Austria)
  11. Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Tarrytown (USA)
  12. Arpège, Paris (France)
  13. Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée, Paris (France)
  14. Restaurant André, Singapore (Singapore)
  15. Piazza Duomo, Alba (Italy)
  16. D.O.M., Sao 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 (Hong Kong)
  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 Sebastian (Spain)
  31. Alléno Paris at Pavillon Ledoyen, Paris (France)
  32. Attica, Melbourne (Australia)
  33. Astrid Y Gastón, Lima (Peru)
  34. De Librije, 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, Shanghai (China)
  42. Boragò, Santiago (Chile)
  43. Reale, Castel di Sangro (Italy)
  44. Brae, Birregurra (Australia)
  45. Den, Tokyo (Japan)
  46. L’Astrance, Paris (France)
  47. Vendôme, Bergisch Gladbach (Germany)
  48. Restaurant Tim Raue, Berlin (Germany)
  49. Tegui, Buenos Aires (Argentina)
  50. Hof Van Cleve, Kruishoutem (Belgium)
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