From list-maker to fund-raiser: 50 Best’s past, present and future in 10 milestones

William Drew - 24/06/2020

With The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and awards on hold for 2020 as it pivots towards fundraising for the hospitality industry, the organisation’s Director of Content William Drew provides an eclectic and personal review of its backstory. Amid the ongoing fallout from novel coronavirus, he also sketches out its current – and possible future – role in the restaurant scene

Earlier this month, on 2nd June, we had planned to be together in Antwerp, Flanders for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2020 awards ceremony, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna.

Under better circumstances, it would have been the moment when food-lovers across the globe discovered which delicious dining destinations to add to their bucket list; the time when the international media reported on the restaurant newly rated as the very best in the world; a period when social media channels were abuzz with discussion and debate around chefs and cuisines, inclusivity and authenticity, rankings and awards; an evening where red scarves were draped over nervous chefs in the historic and design-oriented city of Antwerp; when perennial favourites were honoured and rising stars identified.
The chefs of The World's 50 Best Restaurants community in 2019

Unfortunately, an innocuous-sounding, but far from harmless, virus put paid to all of the above – and much much more besides, including the considerably more significant matters of restaurants’ livelihoods and the devasting loss of human life.

Indeed, the cancellation of an awards ceremony or non-publication of a list isn’t high on many people’s list of regrets resulting from this unprecedented pandemic. What is important is that we use some of the elements that (usually) help make The World’s 50 Best Restaurants the biggest night of the year in gastronomy to fight back against this pernicious blight. Hence the team behind The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Bars is using its network and reach to drive the 50 Best for Recovery campaign forward with all its collective might.
Like any individual, just as with any smart-thinking business, this period has given me cause to reflect on the past – and necessitated considered thinking about the future. The pause in regular proceedings has also coincided with the killing of George Floyd, the subsequent repercussions of that tragedy, and the uncomfortable self-recognition of the part 50 Best inadvertently plays in perpetuating racism in the food world.

Here’s an occasionally nostalgic and always personal look at some of the most significant moments over my time involved with 50 Best, as well as some predictions on the role of our organisation going forward, and how it must change.

1/ April 2003: Reading about The French Laundry on the Tube

Commuting to my then-job as editor-in-chief of a lifestyle magazine in London, I discovered that Thomas Keller’s off-the-beaten track restaurant in Napa Valley had been named ‘The World’s Best Restaurant’. This intrigued me: who had decided this? What was so special about it? Who else was on this list? And how could I find an excuse (and the funds) to get out to California to taste what all the fuss was about?

It seems I wasn’t the only one. A full seven years before I joined the 50 Best team, I was just another nascent food lover hooked in by the idea of a global restaurant ranking. Over the years following, the imagination and aspirations of millions of others were captured in a similar fashion. The list had been born a year before – in 2002 El Bulli was the inaugural No.1 in Restaurant magazine’s debut ranking – but in 2003 the first awards ceremony took place, hosted by a certain 007 Londoner (the name’s 50 Best – The World’s 50 Best…)
The French Laundry, Yountville, USA (image: Michael Grimm)

2/ April 2011: Conceiving The World’s Best Female Chef award

Fast forward eight years, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants is an established barometer of the world’s shifting culinary tastes and I’m debating the launch of a new award. This special recognition was designed to counter the lack of female chefs heading restaurants featured in the rankings – voted for by hundreds of experts from across the world. The title was controversial from the outset, which saw Anne-Sophie Pic take the prize in 2011, but our belief then and now is that this award shines a spotlight on a key issue in the food world and beyond, promoting discussion and dynamic debate around inclusivity and gender.

The programme has since expanded across our regional awards, recognising and celebrating 23 individual chefs in the process and generating reams of media commentary. 50 Best’s accompanying ‘Igniting Passion’ content series developed into the ’50/50 is the new 50’ campaign aimed at promoting greater equality in the gastronomic world and beyond, which extended to ensuring our voting panels are populated on a strict gender-balance basis.
Anne-Sophie Pic takes a selfie with other leading female chefs in Singapore

3/ March 2013: Shining a spotlight on different culinary regions

For the first decade of its existence, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants was a once-a-year extravaganza only – an annual blowout for the industry and an exciting reveal for hungry travellers and an equally ravenous media. Then we all went back to our day jobs for the rest of the year. In March 2013, all that changed – albeit the change had been in the offing for years as the team researched the potential for 50 Best to expand – with the launch of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, held in Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands.

The reaction across Asia was hugely positive – from chefs, restaurateurs, food critics, travel writers, brand partners and diners – as the awards shone a global spotlight on a wider variety of restaurants and cuisines. In a tightly packed auditorium, Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa’s eponymous Tokyo restaurant took the No.1 crown while the list featured restaurants spanning the continent. Its success accelerated the birth of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in Lima, Peru in September of the same year – and much more beyond, as international recognition accelerated interest in regional culinary scenes around the world.
Iconic moments from the first events in Asia and Latin America

4/ April 2016: Exploring beyond restaurants…

Joan Roca, one of the world’s most acclaimed cooks, is sitting on the floor of a village hut in a remote part of northern Thailand while a local village matriarch teaches him how to cook  a curry dish over charcoal. Meanwhile Ashley Palmer-Watts, the chef who co-created Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, is thigh-deep in a river trying to catch (slippery) sturgeon with his bare hands.

This was the first edition of the 50 Best Explores initiative, which saw leading chefs discover first-hand how farmers in the Chiang Mai region were combating poverty, deforestation and opium production by developing specialist produce specifically for the fast-developing restaurant sector in Thailand. The series has since explored Peru, Macau and Ontario, Canada with chefs including Ana Roš, Hiroyasu Kawate, Ignacio Mattos and Daniela Soto-Innes experiencing each region’s culinary traditions, tasting indigenous ingredients, meeting artisanal producers – with the travels and learnings covered across a variety of media channels to shine a light on under-the-radar culinary cultures.

5/ June 2016: Taking to the road with The World’s 50 Best Restaurants

At Cipriani Wall Street in downtown Manhattan, Massimo Bottura unveils an enormous Italian flag on stage as his Modena restaurant Osteria Francescana is named No.1 in the annual ranking for the first time. Hours later, he is spraying champagne atop one of the soft-leather banquettes at Eleven Madison Park – alongside EMP’s Daniel Humm and legendary French chef Alain Ducasse – at one of 50 Best’s most legendary after-parties.

After 13 editions in London, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants was on the move, bringing the gastronomic circus to town in New York City and welcoming in a new era in the process, before moving on to Melbourne, Bilbao and Singapore respectively in the years to follow. Once touted as a ‘British list’, 50 Best is a genuinely international organisation, with a global outlook and a much-travelled, multi-national and polyglot team behind it – and we have the passports to prove it (even if they have been temporarily immobilised).
Massimo Bottura, award in hand and Italian flag around the neck, celebrates Osteria Francescana's win in 2016

6/ April 2017: Doubling as security and photographer for food celebs

Dominique Crenn, Brett Graham, Peter Gilmore and Massimo Bottura have just come off stage, having taken part in a live edition of our thought-leadership series, #50BestTalks. When we launched #50BestTalks in 2014, it took the form of a small, private round-table discussion. Now it had sold out the Sydney Opera House to 2,500 paying guests – all of them there to hear chefs talking about the most relevant and timely issues of the day for the food world and beyond. Now, at the post-show reception, several hundred people who’d paid for VIP access were, literally, mobbing the star attractions – heroes and inspirations to many of them – while I tried to maintain order (“one at a time”; “just one question, please!”) and simultaneously took the obligatory hugging shot with each guest’s phone. A couple of conclusions: first, the phenomenon of chefs as celebrities (as opposed to celebrity chefs, driven by TV) and trailblazers had very much arrived; second, Australians are not shy
Moments from the Sydney Opera House edition of #50BestTalks

7/ September 2019: Hitting the magic million mark on Instagram

On 7th September last year, the number of followers of @TheWorlds50Best, which focuses on recognising and promoting leading restaurants across the world as well as acting as a platform for dynamic culinary debates, passed one million for the first time. It now stands at more than 1.1 million, while 50 Best’s combined social audience across Insta, Facebook and Twitter surpassed 2 million. This is simply empirical evidence of the explosion in interest in restaurants, food and chefs in recent years, as measured by the most effective channels of communication and interaction embraced by contemporary society: social media. The conversation continues apace.

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8/ November 2019: Opening up with 50 Best Discovery

We have long discussed the idea of expanding the number of restaurants and bars recommended every year by our unparalleled network of experts across the world. Inevitably, it can be challenging for diners to secure reservations at those fabled establishments that feature in the elite rankings – so we launched 50 Best Discovery. It’s a (free) database presenting a much larger and more diverse range of expert-approved places to eat and drink – not ranked in any order but via their location. Discover more here to plan your post-pandemic excursions.

9/ May 2020: Morphing into a fund-raiser

As it started to dawn on me and my colleagues that the coronavirus is not going to be confined, and that international events, travel and the hospitality sector are among many businesses that will suffer severely in its relentless wake, we had a key decision to make. Do we postpone our flagship event – possibly again and again? Do we publish a list of restaurants that, quite possibly, no one can go to? Do we celebrate talent and creativity when both individuals and businesses are fighting – and in some cases sadly succumbing – to Covid-19?

Instead, we chose to park the publication of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and its attendant awards for this year and utilise the very fact that 50 Best has become much more just than a list or a list-maker: it is also a community, a network, a platform for ideas, learnings and change, and a promoter of recovery. So please support 50 Best for Recovery in any way you can: download the Home Comforts e-cookbook for a small donation from 1st July; take part in the ‘Bid for Recovery’ auction from 3rd July – details on the site and via our social media channels.

10/ The Future: Staying relevant in a fast-changing world

The original role of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants was to provide an annual snapshot of the global restaurant scene: a relatively simple-sounding task, but one that had never been done before. That role has expanded considerably (see all nine points above), but the original principle still holds. 50 Best reflects the gastronomic world, while simultaneously being an influential voice within that world – and I’ve witnessed this evolution first-hand over the last decade.

That means that our organisation cannot excuse the lack of Black chefs, or the lack of women, whose restaurants are featured on our lists by saying we merely reflect the sector as it is, rather than as it should be. We have to take active steps to engender systemic change; we have to use our soft power to better effect.

With that realisation, I have confidence that 50 Best has a positive ongoing part to play in both mirroring and influencing what’s going on in the food and restaurant sphere, while actively supporting restaurants in the months and years ahead. While predictions swirl on what the post-pandemic hospitality world looks like, it certainly has to be is more inclusive.

Overall, we can remind ourselves that the reaction of chefs and restaurateurs to this crisis has been agile, fast thinking, caring, entrepreneurial, creative and generous. The independent restaurant sector is made up of hundreds of thousands of small businesses, nearly all fuelled by a passion for food, hospitality and for making others happy.

While individual restaurants will suffer – and many will sadly cease trading – the above qualities will undoubtedly ensure recovery and revival in the long-term. While society’s eating and travel habits may change, their desire for hospitable human interaction and new experiences will endure.

Rankings and awards are designed to inform diners and travellers, as well as to help elevate, celebrate and unite great restaurants, great chefs and great food. The shape of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list – its focus, the manner of delivery, the diversity of its make-up, its scope, its guidelines – will always be open to change. No doubt the coming years will witness significant adjustments as a new restaurant era emerges.

I look forward to seeing you in 2030 to check back on the previous decade. In the meantime, raise a glass to mark this month’s non-event – and to a brighter dawn tomorrow.

Visit the Restaurant Recovery Hub and the Bar Recovery Hub to explore useful resources during the coronavirus pandemic and read the stories of chefs and bartenders around the world. Follow 50 Best on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for the latest news and videos.