The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards returned this year and took place in the Flanders region of Belgium, famous for its chocolate, diamonds and beer.
There are only a couple of days each year when you will find the world’s top restaurants bereft of their star chefs. Last Tuesday was one such day as chefs from across the world abandoned their kitchen duties and traveled to Antwerp to attend the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards, better known in the culinary world as the Food Oscars.
The annual awards ceremony rotates around global gastronomic hotspots and cities such as London, New York, Bilbao and Singapore have played host in the past. After the pandemic-induced hiatus last year, the awards returned this year and took place in the Flanders region of Belgium, famous for its chocolate, diamonds and beer.
Each year at the awards function a new ranking of the fifty ‘best’ restaurants is declared based on the votes of almost 1000 anonymous global foodies. And at the week-long festivities, chefs meet up with their contemporaries, take part in collaborative dinners, organize marathon media interview sessions, eat, drink and celebrate gastronomy as they gear up for the reveal of the prestigious restaurant ranking that has the power to propel or suppress their careers.
But this year was different. The pandemic and lockdowns across the world had left the restaurant industry facing an existential crisis. Most restaurants had made no money in the past year and many famous restaurants such as Tickets (the Michelin starred circus-themed restaurant in Barcelona run by famous chef Albert Adria) had shuttered, shocking the food world. Most chefs I spoke with in Antwerp said that survival had been their only goal in the past year and stressed on how difficult it was each month to ensure they can pay staff salaries.
“I feel almost guilty to be so happy right now. But honestly it feels amazing” said Chef Rene Redzepi, the Scandinavian chef from Noma in Copenhagen, minutes after his restaurant was declared ‘The World’s Best’ for the year at the black-tie ceremony held in a large opera theater in Antwerp earlier this week. The distinction of being the ‘No.1 restaurant in the world’ is not unfamiliar for Noma, which in its previous avatar (in a different location) won the same award on four occasions (2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014) catapulting its founder-chef Redzepi to legendary status in the food world.
In his acceptance speech Redzepi echoed the sentiments of most other chefs and those associated with the global restaurant sector, “To be here and see everybody out again is surreal, at first I was really anxious to see so many people. We have gone through a period of so many incredible ups and downs in the last year and now we are being celebrated, it’s really something”. Just a couple of weeks ago, Noma was awarded its third star by the Michelin guide and now after winning the No.1 title for the 5th time, Redzepi has won everything there is to win for a chef.
“Noma has arguably been the most influential restaurants of its generation, setting new standards in terms of research and ingredient sourcing, dish development and presentation. It has become one of the most sought-after dining destinations by consumers from all over the world and we are delighted to announce it as this year’s No.1”, announced William Drew, Director of Content for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants at the post awards press conference.
“Good luck getting into Noma this year”, joked Redzepi when we spoke at the awards after-party, alluding to the powerful business impact rankings and awards such as these can have on restaurants. Booking a table at Noma is no easy feat; its online reservation platform opens only for a couple of days each year and slots are typically sold out within minutes. Noma’s waiting list often goes into the thousands and foodies from across the globe, plan almost a year in advance to bag the much coveted $400 a seat reservation.
This year’s ranking of restaurants saw Europe take home the top places (with five spots in the top ten) and the No.2 ranking went to Geranium (also based in Copenhagen). The Asian restaurant contingent was represented by the likes of Odette from Singapore, The Chairman from Hong Kong and Den from Japan, though due to the strict Covid-19 measures in many Asian countries, some of the Asia based chefs were unable travel to Europe and attend the awards ceremony.
“We go up and received the award but there is a full team back home that deserves equal or more credit. This is for my amazing team in Singapore”, said the Three Michelin starred French Chef Julien Royer of Odette, who placed No.8 on the list, making him the highest rated restaurant from Asia in the world. Royer had placed No.1 on two previous occasions of the regional list known as ‘Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants’, but to be top 10 in the world was a “dream come true”, he shared.
Also in attendance during the festivities in Antwerp were previous World No.1 winners such as Massimo Bottura from Osteria Francescana in Italy, Daniel Humm from Eleven Madison Park in New York, Heston Blumenthal from The Fat Duck in The UK and Joan Roca from El Celler De Can Roca in Spain. None of these chefs featured in the rating this year due to a change in the eligibility rules that permanently retired them from the list, but they had traveled to Antwerp in any case to support their friends and the global chefs’ fraternity. “I’m just so happy to be here, I haven’t seen my friends for almost two years!” said Bottura, who stationed himself on the red carpet and welcomed chefs with a fist bump as they walked in.
I spoke with Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur in France, voted in 2019 as the World No.1, “Because there was no event last year, I got to be No.1 for two years, so I think it’s time someone else takes on the responsibility”, he said minutes before the event began. Spurred on by his achievement in 2019, Colagreco has since been on an expansion spree with upcoming restaurant projects in cities such as Singapore, Bangkok, Macao and London.
India was under-represented in this edition of the global restaurant ranking and the conspicuous absence of Gaggan Anand from the event, surprised many chefs. Anand, a four-time topper of the regional Asia list, had performed exceptionally well in the previous edition, ranking No.4 globally, yet didn’t feature in the top 50 this time around. Anand’s omission can be explained due to the change in professional circumstances that saw him close his former eponymous restaurant in Bangkok after a fall-out with his former partners. When Anand finally re-opened his restaurant in a new location, it only lasted a couple of months before the pandemic forced him to close once again.
While no restaurants from India featured in the top 50 this year, two Indian chefs were honored at the awards ceremony: The first, Floyd Cardoz, the legendary New York based Indian chef who lost his battle to Covid-19 in March last year and died unexpectedly. A round of applause went around the hall when Cardoz’s photo was broadcast on the large screen as chefs and restauranteurs acknowledged his immense influence on Indian cuisine and global gastronomy.
The other Indian who received an ovation was Deepanker Khosla, the 31-year-old Thailand based chef who runs Haoma, a popular modern Indian restaurant in Bangkok. Khosla was honored as part of the ‘Champions of Change’, a new award instituted to recognize chefs that take on philanthropic initiatives and work for the betterment of their communities. In the initial months of the pandemic, Khosla had converted his restaurant into a soup kitchen and prepared free meals for thousands of people affected by the pandemic. But Covid-19 travel restrictions meant he was not able to travel to Belgium and accept his award in person.
As the event ceremony ended, the chefs moved towards the after-party held at the two Michelin starred The Jane restaurant located in a former Belgian church. I watched on as Humm and Colgareco pulled a shy Redzepi onto the dance-floor and the trio shared a warm embrace. Other chefs joined the group and after months of hardship and despair, the chef community finally had something to celebrate. They finally looked happy and it seemed like the world was normal again, even if it was for one night only.