When superstar chef Ferran Adria’s restaurant, El Bulli, was dethroned after four years at the top of the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants classification on April 26 in London, the invited audience of professional foodies gasped. The annual award is based on the votes of an 806-strong international jury of food critics, chefs, restaurateurs and food enthusiasts called the Academy. This year the prize-giving was held in the magnificent medieval Guildhall in the city’s historic center.
The upset was caused by a spare 42-seat restaurant in a warehouse on the docks of Copenhagen run by Rene Redzepi, a 32-year old chef whose idea of a spring salad includes beech leaves, axel berry shoots, pine shoots and unripe white strawberries in a dressing made from grill-charred cucumber skins.
The cuisine at Redzepi’s Noma focuses on a continuously researched range of Scandinavian foods. “As soon as they named Ferran as No. 2 in the countdown, I knew the winner had to be Noma,” said Alessandro Porcelli, a longtime collaborator with Redzepi on the concept of Nordic cuisine.
“That sends a really strong message that high gastronomy is going in a new direction, toward place-specific, seasonal ingredients, including wild and forgotten ones, cooked in more natural yet highly creative ways.”
“This will be a great inspiration for cooks all over the world to look for interesting ingredients in their own backyards and use them in new ways. It’s no longer all about technique and technology,” Porcelli added.
The news of Noma’s victory spread like wildfire via the Internet, Twitter and the traditional press. Within 24 hours, the restaurant received a staggering 140,000 requests for dining reservations, more than enough to fill the 45-seater at lunch and dinner for six years. As Redzepi took the stage to get his award, he and four of his sous chefs donned white T-shirts with a photograph of a smiling black man printed on them. “This is a team prize, the result of seven years of working together,” Redzepi said. “It’s a testament to what you can do working with people you love, with whom you can develop yourself,” he added, before explaining the T-shirts pictured their dishwasher, Ali, who had been refused a 24-hour visa to be at the award show.
Adria, who is closing El Bulli at the end of next year, gave an emotional speech as he accepted Restaurant Magazine’s prize for Chef of the Decade. “El Bulli will never be a restaurant again, so it won’t be able to get a prize as one again,” he said, as the audience rose to its feet to applaud him. “But this prize is in my heart, and my career is linked to this prize.”
Now in its ninth edition, the World’s 50 Best classification has been steadily gaining importance. “For the most ambitious chefs, this list has become the key to who’s who in the food world,” says chef-patron Davide Scabin, of Combal.Zero in Turin, listed at number 35, up seven places from 2009. “The 50 Best fills a gap in the evaluations of the world’s best restaurants.” There’s also an element of national team competition: This year, five Italian restaurants are in the top 50, and that’s exciting. It’s a stimulus to keep improving.” The Americans have eight in the 2010 top 50, the French six, the Spanish five, the British three. The remaining restaurants come from countries that include Finland, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Sweden, Singapore, Australia and South Africa.
The highest scorer for the U.S., and receiver of the special Acqua Panna Best Restaurant in North America award, is Alinea, at number 7, up three places from last year. Its brilliant chef, Grant Achatz, was visibly moved at the success and warm reception he received. Other high-flying Americans present included Thomas Keller for Per Se (at number 10) and the French Laundry (32), David Chang, for Momofuku Ssam Bar (26), and Daniel Boulud, for Daniel (8). Boulud also hosted the chef’s lunch the next day at his elegant, soon-to-be-opened, Bar Boulud in Knightsbridge.
The Michelin system, with its legions of faceless inspectors and penchant for the pompous and the prissy, is not always in tune with the direction today’s most innovative restaurants are taking. Its rating structure is often too cumbersome and its criteria too rigid to follow the thrust of the ground breakers.
Le Chateaubriand, an unstuffy 1930s bistro in an outer arrondissement in Paris, is a case in point.
Chef Inaki Aizpitarte is self-taught and hugely inventive. His food is imaginative, improvisational, and instinctive — adjectives more often used for a jazz musician than a cook. From his tiny, chaotic kitchen he prepares just one multi-course meal a day, take it or leave it. He has no Michelin stars, but came in 11th in the World’s 50 Best this year – after jumping in at number 40 in 2009.
It’s not just for the chefs’ egos that the listing matters; the World’s 50 Best is proving a winner in terms of business, too. “Many of our new customers come thanks to the list, and they’re arriving from all over the world,” said chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, whose Tokyo restaurant Les Créations de Narisawa was awarded Best Restaurant in Asia for the second consecutive year.
If most reactions to the new order have been positive, the World’s 50 Best has its detractors. Comments on Le Figaro website and in French blogs suggest some French diners just can’t accept a non-Michelin, non-French-starring list, especially one that comes out of Britain. Despite being classified in the 50 Best, several of France’s senior chefs, including Pierre Gagnaire, Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, were noticeably absent from the awards ceremony. Grunts and jeers were also heard from some in Italy and other Old World countries whose traditional food is often considered a sacred – and untouchable – part of their cultural heritage
Chef David Chang expressed another point of view: “I think Noma’s win shows that the days are over when a chef’s image will be constructed around a single person’s ego, when it was all about me, me, me, me! Redzepi’s acceptance speech proves you need to keep your team together to create a top restaurant. And that’s a great lesson.”
Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer, as well as a photographer, based in Italy for more than 20 years. She writes regularly for magazines and newspapers, including Decanter, BBC Olive, The Independent, World of Fine Wine, Bon Appétit, Departures, Food & Wine. She is a long-time member of Slow Food, the Guild of Food Writers and the Circle of Wine Writers and has won Italy’s Luigi Veronelli prize for best foreign food writer. Her articles have been included in anthologies Best Food Writing 2011 and How the British Fell in Love with Food. Carla is a co-organizer of Cook it Raw, an itinerant think tank featuring top international chefs. In 2006, she and designer Robert Myers were awarded a gold medal at the London Chelsea Flower Show for the Costiera dei Fiori garden she produced for the Campania region.
Carla was born in New York City to a theatrical family and brought up in Paris and London. After getting a degree in art history, she made sculpture in London, wrote about design, and later worked in Manhattan as a food and interiors stylist for photography, for clients that included the New York Times. She moved to Italy in 1989 and worked as the Milan correspondent for Vogue Décoration before writing her first cookbooks on Italian food. Her spirit of adventure led her to undertake three personal and detailed guides to the food and wine culture of Italy. The first was The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany which took three years to research and write (Chronicle Books, 1998, shortlisted for Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers).
It was followed by another three-year project: The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, 2005) which was illustrated with her photos. To write it, Carla lived in fishing villages and mountain communities in diverse parts of the large region to meet and write about the many restaurants and small food artisans of Campania. Her most recent book, Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-east (Pallas Athene, 2009-10) is also richly illustrated; it won the coveted André Simon Award for Best Wine Book 2009. Her other books include Cheeses of the Amalfi Coast and The Ultimate Italian Cookbook. Carla divides her time between Italy, Bordeaux, London and further afield. When she has time, she leads food and wine tours in Italy and France.
Her travelog, Assaggi, has just begun on her newly launched website: www.carlacapalbo.com.
Photos, from top:
Rene Redzepi of Noma accepts Best Restaurant Award with his team.
Chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli.
Credits: Carla Capalbo