The cream of the culinary crème was in London to attend the annual San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards and find out whether Chef René Redzepi’s Noma could retain its title as world’s best restaurant for a fourth year (it couldn’t: the three Roca brothers, of El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, knocked him off the throne into second place, while Italian chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana moved up to take third place).
Several special prizes were given out during the April awards ceremony, held in London’s magnificent medieval Guildhall, which rocked with loud music and pink lighting for the occasion. The prizes included the Sustainable Restaurant and Best Asian Chef awards to Tokyo’s Yoshihiro Narisawa; the Highest New Entry to Australian restaurant Attica; and the coveted Chef’s Choice Award to Grant Achatz.
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“Cooking is like art, it stirs the emotions,” she said as she smiled out across the sea of chefs and food professionals. “Like poetry and music, it creates a harmony of soul and mind. Food is the best way to meet and enjoy the world.” She also mentioned cooking’s need for team spirit: Since her marriage in 1974, Nadia Santini has cooked in her husband’s family’s restaurant alongside her mother-in-law, Bruna, who at 84 still helps with the daily food preparations. Antonio Santini, Nadia’s husband, runs the dining room and its outstanding wine cellar. Nadia Santini was first awarded three Michelin stars in 1996 and has retained them ever since, a record in Italy.
A few hours before the 50 Best dénouement, an intimate champagne lunch was hosted in Belgravia by Veuve Clicquot to honor Nadia Santini. It was held at Ametsa restaurant in the Halkin Hotel, across the street from Buckingham Palace. The clean-lined dining room overlooks a leafy garden and was a fitting setting for the meal’s modernist food. The restaurant, whose full name is Ametsa with Arzak Instruction, is under the guidance of Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter, Elena, of the award-winning Arzak restaurant in San Sebastián, Spain. They have entrusted the London kitchen to three chefs who worked at Arzak in San Sebastián.
Elena Arzak won the Best Female Chef award in 2012. I asked her whether we really need a separate award for female chefs today.
“There are two things,” she explained as we were served a signature Arzak dish of langoustines with crisp rice noodles and corn salsa that went beautifully with Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2004 — part of a flight of five rare Champagnes. “Madame Clicquot, who lived 200 years ago, was a pioneering business woman and innovative visionary before her time. So it’s an honor to receive an award in her name.” (The Champagne house also honors women in other fields of achievement: Their Business Woman Award this year went to architect Zaha Hadid).
“I’m Basque, and we live in a matriarchy where women have always been the mainstay of our families and society,” Elena Arzak continued. “Our restaurant, which opened in 1897, was in the hands of women cooks until my father took over in his generation. Most of our chefs are women, too.” Her father asked her advice about food and created dishes with her from an early age.
“I’ve been lucky to grow up in an environment in which women are respected even if they are sometimes behind the scenes, working as well as bringing up children. I cooked alongside my parents and never felt discriminated against because of my sex. I wish it could be the same for all women,” she said. “However, I am sure it’s just a question of time before there will be more young women in lists such as these.”
She was sitting across the table from just such a woman. Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava is a young Thai chef whose restaurant, Bo.lan is in Bangkok. She recently won the Veuve Clicquot Best Female Chef in Asia award, when the 50 Best produced its first all-Asian list. Songvisava works with her husband, Dylan Jones, and features only locally sourced, seasonal produce in their menu.
“In Thailand, women are known to be great cooks, so it’s not hard for us to be accepted,” she said. “Perhaps the biggest difference between men and women is not their imagination but their strength, as professional kitchens can be very physically demanding.”
Nadia Santini agrees. “Cooking is hard work, but I’ve always been very happy to be in this profession. It’s important for women to express their own sensibilities and bring these differences to what is, after all, a universal love of food.”
Top photo: Chefs Elena Arzak (left), Nadia Santini and Bo Songvisava celebrate. Credit: Carla Capalbo