ANTWERP: When the number two restaurant was announced in the Flanders Meeting and Convention Centre in Antwerp last week René Redzepi, chef and face of restaurant Noma knew that this would be a special moment, one that had to be savoured because it would be the last time he would step on the podium of the World’s 50 Best as number one restaurant in the world.
Rasmus Kofoed, chef of restaurant Geranium, also in Copenhagen had just been called as the second restaurant in the world meaning the top spot would end up going to the 79-strong team at Noma.
Redzepi admitted to being anxious because of COVID-19 when he entered the auditorium and saw all those present. He came prepared with a speech. “I promise I didn’t have a clue we would come first. But finishing second last time, there was always going to be the possibility that we would be number one,” he said.
The title has a special meaning because Noma will become the only restaurant in the world to equal el Bulli’s feat of topping the list five times. Some may question the special treatment given by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants to Noma given previous winners have all been moved to Best of the Best but René Redzepi insisted the new Noma was a new restaurant in all but its name.
Few if any had doubts that René and his team would leave Antwerp without the coveted top spot. Even Michelin a few weeks before had bowed down and awarded the restaurant three stars. The talk of the town since Sunday had been Noma. One person told me that what was evident is that many had eaten at Noma at one point or other since it reopened.
For all intents and purposes this was a 2020 list with maybe a few changes here and there to reflect the more local dining that took place during the pandemic. There were a new entrants and casualties given a number of restaurants had closed during the pandemic but the main interest of the list was to see whether there had been any real tectonic changes since 2019.
The changes, if we have to be honest, were few and far between.
When Noma won the title the first time in 2010, it was the start of what we now call the Nordic wave. Today, with two Copenhagen restaurants in the top two positions, it could well be the start of another, even more successful decade for Denmark’s capital.
Because while Redzepi and Noma put Copenhagen on the scene, today the country is setting trends and tastes that end up being followed elsewhere. It is hard to estimate the impact that Redzepi and Noma have had on the Nordic culinary world. Few went to the Nordics for the food until just over a decade ago. That has changed and it is no just Copenhagen.
When people travel to Copenhagen, they have a cornucopia of choices from fine dining to trendy pizzerias, natural wine bars and much more. If natural wine bars are all the rage today, it is also due to this wave. If many of today’s ‘trend setters’ love natural wines it is because they have been accustomed to the trend that was set there.
Today, top restaurants and their sommeliers who stick to traditional and more classic wines are sometimes taken to task (at least on the gossip mill) for not being more adventurous in their wine lists or for even opting for the classics. Sometimes, I have to ask what’s wrong with enjoying a well made Barolo, Bordeaux or Burgundy wine which does not fit the bill of a natural wine or one without the barn-like smells?
The Belgian scene
The food world descended on Antwerp, Belgium in large numbers over the past days. Imagining such an event until a few months ago would not have been possible. The organisers of the World’s 50 Best restaurants emphasised more than once that it was great to have the ‘community’ back saying that this was the first such meeting since the start of the pandemic.
And while the events that took place in Antwerp where indeed a huge success, it was this sense of community and also ‘normality’ that were the most obvious throughout the days in which chefs, restaurant staff, food writers and food lovers spent in the Flemish city.
Antwerp welcomed the world’s greatest chefs with their entourage and many of the voters that make the World’s 50 Best possible from food writers to ‘foodies’. A few places in Antwerp (and elsewhere) served as the headquarters for the few days. Nick Bril’s The Jane in particular hosted lunches, dinners and an after-party with Billy Wagner and the team of Nobelhart & Schmutzig (rising fast in the list).
Flip Dejaeghere, more commonly known as Flip World Foodie played master of ceremonies organising many of the lunches and dinners for the visiting chefs and guests. That work is likely to pay off in next year’s list as the feedback from many of the people I spoke to was more than positive. They were positively surprised by the Belgian scene, albeit a bit baffled about the messaging given this was an event organised by Visit Flanders and one which put Flanders in the spotlight.
Belgium’s star, if one had to be honest has been waning in recent years and the event will certainly give the country a much needed culinary boost. With the closure of two favourites among voters, specifically Hertog Jan and In de Wulf in the past years, the country had lost some of its appeal.
This year, Belgium had Hof van Cleve in the top 50. The restaurant by Peter Goossens has been a staple figure in the list since 2006. There was also The Jane and new entry Willem Hiele in the 51-100 list. But the scene, despite a devastating 9 months of restaurant closures is more active than ever. This year for example, sees the opening of Hertog Jan at the Botanic, a restaurant that is likely to become one of the most sought-after tables in the world. There are other places making noise elsewhere. Sergio Herman’s Le Pristine in Antwerp as well as three Brussels spots clearly caught the attention of visitors (Bon Bon, Bozar and the vegetable centric Humus & Hortense). One could also add L’Air du Temps in Liernu by San Degeimbre, a place that is constantly evolving and going from strength to strength. It will not be possible for all to figure in the list but the race is clearly on in the coming months.
A look at the list
Despite 18 months that changed the world, looking at the list today not much has really changed. The list, at least for the top 50 positions is still dominated by Spain and the United States with six restaurants each. Italy has four restaurants (all rising) led by the ascent of Lido 84, the restaurant owned by the Camanini brothers that has become the darling of the food world for its accessible cuisine in an idyllic setting.
France continues to disappoint. True, this was the year that Alain Ducasse lost the Plaza Athenee restaurant but there are just three restaurants in the top 50 positions. Could it be politics? Could it be competition with Michelin and La Liste or is there something that does not attract this particular crowd of voters?
Despite a more gender-diverse voting system (the World’s 50 Best Restaurants say that the voting panel is 50-50) and more emphasis on regions (and regional lists), the list is still European and also very fine-dining centric. Also in this regard, not much has changed.
One could also see the impact of the previous edition of the list held in Singapore. Odette placed 8th and Burnt Ends placed in 34th place.
What may have gone unnoticed is the success of Virgilio Martinez and Pia Leon from Peru. Pia was voted the female chef of 2021. The couple have been at the helm of Central in Lima and this restaurant has been consistently in the top 10 positions for many years. The power couple also operate other restaurants most importantly Kjolle run by Pia and Mil in Moray, Peru. I may stand to be corrected but this is the first time ever that three restaurants figure in the wider top 100 list. Except Virgilio and Pia’s star to continue to shine in the coming years.
In third place is Asador Etxebarri, the famous restaurant in Atxondo, Spain where chef Victor Arguinzoniz is famous for being able to grill practically everything. It is a restaurant that’s loved by chefs and nearly impossible to get a booking.
Pay attention to Disfrutar and Frantzen in 5th and 6th place respectively. They both are destined for great things. Another noticeable riser is Diverxo in Madrid Spain which went into 20th place directly.
Ana Ros continues to slowly but surely climb the list with Hisa Franko in Kobarid, Slovenia. This self-taught chef is today the highest-ranked woman in the list and the current menu is reported to be her best ever.
The UK may have paid the price for politics as only two restaurants figure in the top 50. The Clove Club is in 32nd position followed closely by Lyle’s in 33rd position.
Things have changed during the pandemic but they have also stayed the same. The World’s 50 Best wants to open up and be more diverse. That was the aim of removing the previous winners from the list. Figures like Massimo Bottura, Daniel Humm, Mauro Colagreco, the Roca brothers, Heston Blumenthal and even René Redzepi remain as influential if not more influential than ever.
But it will take a few years for change to really happen when the other ‘usual suspects’ also make it to the Best of the Best. Will the list become more or less exciting? And what happens to some of these chefs who might also end up again in competition with their other restaurants eligible for the top spots?
What happens next year is another big question mark. Unless everywhere opens up for travel very soon, it is highly unlikely that voters will be able to visit the restaurants they would like to. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants has not announced where or when the 2022 list will take place. That might well be the reason.