The first edition of the brand new ‘World Restaurant Awards’ is going to be taking place on the 18th of February in Paris. We talked to its creative director Joe Warwick and head of the judging panel Andrea Petrini, who happen to be two of the most prominent food journalists in the industry, leading this initiative, to get to grips with what the World Restaurant Awards promises to deliver. What started as an interview about an upcoming industry event, quickly transformed into an over-arching commentary on the global cultural food-scape. Read on.
How did you two decide to team up to make a new awards happen?
Joe Warwick: Andrea and I have known each other for almost fifteen years now. Back then I was working for Restaurant magazine; and on another now well-known restaurant awards (the World’s 50 Best Restaurants), which I left in 2008. Andrea was doing Cook It Raw, and then Gelinaz’, while I then published Where Chefs Eat.
I always had this idea to do a different kind of awards; and to get away from one big list. Not that there’s anything wrong with one big list; but I don’t like repeating myself. I think there’s a lot of awards that have copied the 50 Best; and I wanted to go back to something a bit more traditional, looking at categories, and announcing all the people that were voting.
Before I talked to Andrea, I went to IMG to meet with Justin Clarke; who is now the senior vice president of IMG. We had talked about this idea for almost ten years, but it had basically gone dead; to the point where I didn’t even want to talk about it anymore. And Justin had said ‘no,no,no, it’s going to happen!’ And lo and behold; he presented me with a contract a couple years ago. When it looked like it was going to happen, I said the only way I would do it is if I could get Andrea involved. Apart from the fact that I love him as a crazy older brother; I couldn’t do this without him. Andrea and I had also been talking about these awards for almost six years. We also have Cecile Rebbot; a true Parisian who used to work with Alain Ducasse, who is a director at IMG; running the awards with us.
Andrea Petrini: When two years ago Joe said; ‘hey, this might really happen,’ I didn’t really believe it. And it was a big challenge; because the model obviously is not in the form of the list; but to do categorical awards; a bit like the Oscars.
JW: I remember the time when we were in Paris to sign the contract; Andrea and I sat down and worked up ideas for 57 different categories. Most restaurant awards are still tied to this idea of doing a ‘pop-chart’; but we didn’t want to do that. We want to do something a bit more curated, a bit more reactive, a bit more exciting.
Andrea Petrini (left) and Joe Warwick at the launch of World Restaurant Awards.
So what’s the difference between the big plate and the small plate categories, which is how you’ve divided up your final 18 awards categories?
JW: The small plates are more about riffing on the ideas of contemporary restaurant culture; and the big plates are perhaps the more ‘serious’ categories; the categories we are specifically inspecting. The small plates are still making a point; though I’d say the big plates are perhaps more serious categories in the traditional sense.
AP: We do have a mix of serious stuff; and other things which might look a bit more fun; but when you really look at it, they’re quite serious too.
Like the tweezer-free kitchen category that you have included in the ‘small-plates’?
AP: You can have a laugh when you hear the name of the category; but when you think about it, you might find yourself questioning ‘when did this idea of the tweezer actually come around?’ Until a few years ago, chefs were portrayed with a knife or a spoon in their pocket; but at some point, they started wearing tweezers like they were wearing ties. So, the awards provides an opportunity to react to changes in the lifestyle of those who represent the restaurant industry; in the way these people live and think.
JW: To be honest; some of the most delicious meals I’ve had are not necessarily with that kind of ‘tweezered’ food; it’s been something a bit more rustic, a bit more fun. It’s not thrown on the plate; but it’s certainly not with micro herbs tweezered onto the plate. Nor is it about food looking like a pretty picture. Just think of a really delicious risotto, or a stew.
There’s a tendency for food journalists that when we talk about restaurants; we only talk about the high-end places. We only talk about the famous places… Back in the day it was the French Laundry, then it was El Bulli, then Noma. When you look at Where Chefs Eat; there are two and a half thousand restaurants in there; and it’s everything from very simple, humble places to some that are very fancy. The restaurant awards that are out there, at least on an international level anyway, always tend to focus on all those high-end, inaccessible restaurant experiences that the average person doesn’t get to experience.
For me, there was something wrong with that. Because, when you’re talking about restaurants, and writing about restaurants; the average person that’s reading it at the end should be able to have the opportunity to go to some of those restaurants that you’re talking about.
Black Axe Mangal, in London, is shortlisted for the Tweezer Free Kitchen award.
AP: We also wanted to think about how blurred the borders between fine-dining and casual-dining are. There are incredible, affordable places that deserve to be discovered; and there is also a new-age form of fine-dining restaurant that is extremely important; and at the same time, extremely interesting. The dining scene has changed drastically. If you look around, even the high-end restaurants have changed; they are shedding skins like snakes; going towards their clients. They are being more friendly, mutating bit by bit, changing their products; including foraged products in their menus. This is a great moment to start investigating the changes and mutations that are happening in the industry. Of course; we are hoping to start something relevant; but as someone once said; ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’.
What do you consider as the core values of the World Restaurant Awards?
JW: We’re talking mainly about diversity; which is a three-fold subject for us. To begin, I think we’re the first international awards system to have gender-parity in the judging panel. That was important for us. Now; I’ll add the caveat that at the time, we knew that gender-parity in the panel was no guarantee that there would be an equal number of nominations for female-fronted restaurants and male-fronted restaurants; because obviously there’s a great imbalance in the industry. And we’re trying to change that. We also publish our judging panel; so there’s complete transparency.
We also wanted to talk about diversity of the restaurant experience; from hot dogs to haute-cuisine, if that doesn’t sound too cheesy. We also wanted to steer away from the Euro-centricism that taint most awards; which was again a challenge. Japan to me, for example, is one of the most incredible countries to eat at; and in all honesty, I don’t think Japan gets the attention it deserves; nor does the rest of Asia. And to be properly international, to try and discover places in Africa would be wonderful.
In short, to be properly diverse in those three senses; geographically, in terms of gender and in terms of the restaurant experience would be my answer.
The judging panel of the World Restaurant Awards boasts chefs and restaurant industry professionals at the top of the gastronomy game; among them are Elena Arzak, Alex Atala, Massimo Bottura, David Chang, Hélène Darroze, René Redzepi, Ana Roš, Virgilio Martinez and Clare Smyth.
AP: Last May, we invited the whole of our judging panel to Paris to come together, and to spend the whole day discussing and trying to figure out what kind of an awards we wanted to create. We questioned ‘what would you like the awards to be?’, ‘what would you like to see change?’, and in the end we had a huge amount of answers. Some answers were fantastic; others a bit crazy; for instance, our friend Ana Roš even proposed an award for ‘chef with a family’! The fact is, we flew people from all over the world to Paris to have a democratic discussion on how to shape these awards. Some of the ideas and wishes expressed during that discussion were integrated into the categories as they stand now. The ‘Tweezer-free restaurant’, to give an example, was an idea suggested by journalist Georges Desrues.
JW: The idea of the ‘house special’ category, where we highlight the restaurants that specialize in one dish, or that offer a dish that the restaurant is renowned for; came from chef May Chow, from Hong Kong; who pointed out that this kind of a category would favour more casual places; Asian as well as others. I think the point is, we’re listening; I don’t think we’ve yet managed to achieve everything that we set out to achieve; but we’re trying very hard to do something new.
AP: The category that we call ‘no reservations’; meaning the restaurant that you can go without a booking, a restaurant that allows walk-ins; restaurants where you can go and you know that perhaps you’ll have to wait an hour outside; but where you’ll finally have a table; started with the idea of recognising and celebrating a category of more affordable, more available, not so high-end restaurants. So, it’s also been a process of formulating categories to make sure that these kinds of restaurants also find a place in the international awards system.
Chef Bertrand Grebaut’s Clamato, in Paris, is shortlisted for the ‘No-reservations’ award. Photo by Benjamin Schmuck.
JW: With regards to the ‘small plates’ categories; lots of people talk and laugh about the ‘tattoo-free chef’ category. The point of this category is really not about body art -although of course to be nominated, the chef need not to have a tattoo-; but it’s really about the kind of chefs who are not in pursuit of fashion, who are a bit more classic, who aren’t trying to be young and hip.
We are certainly looking at a lot of contradictory categories. There’s the ‘arrival of the year’; which is about the new restaurants that have opened in the past year; then we’re doing ‘enduring classics’, which feature restaurants that have been around for over fifty years. Because as much as we love new restaurants; we also love old restaurants.
AP: Nowadays, when a new restaurant opens, they just hire a good PR; make the loudest noise possible; and if it works, they’re sure to have full house in the first three months. But once the buzz has faded, they need to create something new; and that’s what forces most of these restaurants to start doing weird things; trying to create every opportunity ever possible to continue getting the media’s attention. And frankly this has become unbearable…
JW: The restaurant industry has become much more like the fashion industry. We’re recognising that with ‘the arrival of the year’ category; but we also want to talk about oldies but goldies. Because, at the end of the day, these awards are a way to talk about restaurants as cultural spaces.
When we first mentioned ‘the trolley of the year’ award, a lot of people didn’t really get it. The truth is, I love that style of service, which interestingly enough is coming back into fashion in New York, London and Paris. The trolley is part of restaurant history; just imagine the cheese trolley that trundles towards the table, or the dessert trolley. The World Restaurant Awards isn’t just about the no-reservations places where you’re sitting at the zinc bar, sipping natural wine. I do love those places; certainly; but I also love when someone approaches me with a cheese chariot. We’re trying to reflect the whole universe of restaurants, if that doesn’t sound too grand.
Chef Pia Leon’s Kjolle, in Lima, Peru, is among the shortlisted contenders for ‘Arrival of the Year’ award.
How about the aptly named category ‘the red-wine serving restaurant’?
AP: I love white wines; but when we came up with this category; we were seriously questioning ‘do restaurants still serve red wine?’ And our answer was; ‘almost not, not any more’. If you look back, you’ll see that since the big chefs took over the control of the room, since they started to produce long tasting menus, since the doctor said ‘eat more vegetables, eat more fish, eat more raw fish’, they started to serve more and more white wine. Then the fermentation phenomenon happened; and honestly, what can you drink with fermented food and kimchi? So nowadays, when you go to a fine-dining restaurant, and when you accept the idea of the wine-flight, out of the ten glasses of wine, eight are white! So we’re trying to highlight the restaurants who are resisting against this kind of dictatorship of just one taste.
JW: Andrea and I have actually been together at a dinner, where we had ten glasses of whites in a row in a wine-flight; I think that’s where we got the idea for this category. We were like, ‘but where’s the red wine?’ Red wine has become almost like an after-thought, you may or may not get it at the end, with the meat dish. This situation certainly is not culturally universal, but it’s definitely a fine-dining trend that the emphasis is now on white wine.
Would you then say that via World Restaurant Awards you’re shining the spotlight on to perhaps question and re-define normalised and internalised trends in the industry?
AP: These awards are a way of commenting on the actual situation, on the status, on the nature of the restaurant industry as it stands nowadays; in Europe and around the world. We are not moralising, but we are in a position to comment on the status-quo of the dining world.
Why do you really think restaurant awards matter, both for the industry and for the public in general?
JW: We love restaurants, and we love food, so we are in a bubble that matters to us. But if you were to look at a newspaper; politics, sports and celebrities are much more important in terms of news agenda. So, anything, any awards systems that can promote the restaurant industry, is a good thing. We have got to educate people about food; and actually a lot of this food education seems to have trickled down from restaurants onto the TV, and onto the public. But in the end, the awards are about promoting the restaurant industry. I also, having spent over a decade working in the restaurant industry, can attest that it’s actually a very hard industry to work in; where you have a lot of passionate, hard-working people that work an awful long hours; and to be honest, any kind of validation, or award, or recognition is wonderful for anyone in any industry. So, yes awards are kind of about being cheerleaders for the restaurant industry. However, it’s also about steering people towards better food and better restaurant experiences. For instance, we have an award for ‘ethical thinking’. We don’t want to be sanctimonious; but there are restaurants that are out there that are trying to do good beyond feeding people and make us think about the environment, make us think about sustainable seafood, or treating their staff better, or thinking about their staff welfare…
These are things we wanted to look at; which is another way we’re trying to kind of affect the industry, make it a better place to work, not just for women but for everyone.
In reality, being a chef is a bit like being a footballer. You have got a short career; by the time you’re thirty; you’re knackered; you don’t want to be standing behind the kitchen counter, because some of these guys and girls start working when they’re seventeen, eighteen; and it’s a very tough, physical job… But we want it to be an attractive industry for all to work in.
AP: All the problems that have been affecting the restaurant industry; they are reflections of how difficult our violent, inegalitarian society is. We are trying to accomplish almost the impossible; but we also know for sure that an award can only highlight some possible trajectories, and some possible ideas; while the real problem is the world we live in. How can we expect to shut the door of mistreatment in the restaurant industry, when violence keeps on happening all around us?
If the awards can contribute in a humble but extremely determined way to change the ideas, the usual references in the minds of all the people in this industry; that could be a real accomplishment; but this is just the beginning of a long journey, a long commitment.
Chef Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in New York, is shortlisted for ‘Ethical Thinking’ award. Photographs by Ingrid Hofstra.
JW: We’re trying to create a platform, and a community as well; via our judging panel. On a basic level, I would like the restaurants mentioned by World Restaurant Awards to become reference points for consumers to think ‘so, where should I go?’ It’s another list I suppose; but a different kind of list; because it’s not just saying best; it’s saying ‘best for what.’ We want to drive people towards these restaurants that we think are excellent, have got integrity, and are places that we personally, and the judging panel would like to eat at.
And finally; what makes a restaurant ‘special’ for each one of you?
AP: I like almost all sorts of restaurants; but the ones that really get me are places where I don’t feel like I’m in a restaurant; where I feel like I am happily travelling along the sequences of a movie or going towards an exhibition; or flipping through the pages of a book…I like restaurants to be places of freedom, of creativity, where you don’t feel constrained as a diner; with all the rules that the restaurant has adopted. I like places that are always different; always on the move, that are always changing. I don’t like the routine, I don’t like the dogmas; I don’t like the predictability of certain restaurants; so for me a restaurant is a place where I can dream; and of course I need to eat; but it’s a place that nourishes my belly; but also my mind, my inspiration, my reflections, my memories.
The word restaurant comes from the French word ‘restorer’; to restore. So, a restaurant should feed people; but taking into account what these people want. They should understand what people are waiting for. They should pay attention to the inner desires; even to the unexpressed wishes of their clients.
The problem nowadays is that restaurants have become money-machines. Of course, they need to earn to keep living; but I think that over the last ten, fifteen years; the role and the power of the diner has slowly been marginalised, eroded. And I want the restaurants to exist almost like utopian places, where things you cannot predict in advance can happen. And some of this is actually happening; so I’m optimistic.
JW: The restaurants that I connect with, that feel special, that for me are memorable tend to be places that are not formulaic; that are driven by the personalities of the people that run them; that don’t make you feel like you’re on a conveyor belt; that are honest, that have integrity; that are sometimes a little bit random even. We have got a restaurant that has been shortlisted in the ‘Original Thinking’ category for instance, called Ikoyi; run by an English boarding-school and Princeton educated Chinese-Canadian guy, Jeremy Chan; who is cooking deconstructed West African food with his business partner Ire Hassan-Odukale. That kind of fusion and throwing together of things, at least on paper sounds insane; but it works. So those kinds of places are where something special is happening. But at the same time; unlike Andrea, I sometimes do like predictable; I like to eat for comfort. There’s a place I go for breakfast in London, where I know it’s going to be the same every time because sometimes I just want an eggs benedicte; or I want some kanji; or I want a hug; I want that comfort. And other times, I want to go out, and I want my mind blown, and I want to eat something I haven’t eaten before. So it’s hard to say; but in general; I think it’s places that don’t feel formulaic; and that also have atmosphere. I think atmosphere and service, the importance of these two things have become too understated.
So much with the rise of nouvelle cuisine and ‘chefs plating things’, the whole focus on restaurants became about the plate; but actually, service, atmosphere, how you’re treated, how you’re made to feel welcome, comfortable, all these things are incredibly important; and we don’t talk about it enough, because journalists like us tend to focus on chefs all the time.
Ikoyi, in London, is shortlisted for ‘Original Thinking’ award; a category which also sees Noma as one of its contenders.
AP: When you mention ‘non-formulaic’; let’s also look at how a trendy restaurant operates these days. Everybody’s doing the tasting menu, wine flights, and everybody’s pairing. Most of the experiences in the restaurants have become mechanical; with the same gestures…
JW: But I think it’s much harder to be original now, because of the internet; because of social media; it’s a circle jerk; everyone is copying everyone else. Remember when we had this terrible idea of international cuisine back in the day, when you’d go to hotels and you’d have the same menu with the same dishes? Now we’ve got that; but with Nordic influences, vegetable focus, natural wine flights… So it’s harder to get original, but those places that are original stick out even more now.
For us, our definition of a restaurant -which we have in our code of practice- is anywhere where you can sit down, get service and eat. So, it can be a few plastic tables and chairs; as long as you get service, and you can eat, to us, that’s a restaurant we’ll consider.