There is one thing that seems to be common in many restaurants I visit or in libraries of chefs that I have seen. They all seem to have the book Where Chefs Eat which is written by food, drink and restaurant writer Joe Warwick.
Who doesn’t want to go and eat in the places where chefs eat? He is of course an authority when it comes to food and restaurants. After all, he was involved in the birth of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list which today has become a household name in the world of gastronomy.
Taking inspiration from el Bulli, which used to provide customers with a list of places to eat in the area, the book reveals the places where chefs like to eat (though as he himself says, the breakfast places are not something chefs are good at recommending).
“The reality is that the fancier the chef or the fancier the restaurant is, they normally crave for something that is simple and delicious. Of course, when they travel they like to go and visit their peers but that is not where most of the dining takes place.”
Was the response a bit of a soul searching exercise after creation of the World’s 50 Best lists which is loved and hated at the same time by many? Today the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list is published with a lot of fanfare. It has become a travelling circus. But few remember its humble origins and that’s the reason I asked Joe while in Neufelden for GELINAZ! DOES UPPER AUSTRIA to tell me the story of how it originated and where things went wrong in his view.
“What the hell is best?” he tells me. “I like to use the analogy of having a bastard child that you are simultaneously proud of and also ashamed of. I was young and silly and if I had to do it all over again I would do it completely differently. I do not regret having created that list with others at the ‘Restaurant’ magazine but to be honest, I am surprised that it has endured so long, that so little has changed. But that is how it is today, people want things reduced down to lists. This is the way journalism has gone in general and it is slightly frustrating,” said Joe.
The World’s 50 Best list had to be a one-off and was actually aimed at generating publicity for the magazine. “At first we thought we would do the UK best restaurants but then somebody said why not a World’s best restaurants list. There were three editors at the time and they all claim it was their idea. Quite frankly I don’t know whose idea it was. I don’t know if they know whose idea it was. But whoever’s idea it was, I was the person who had to write it,” he tells me.
The memories are still vivid because the day he got the offer to go and work at the Restaurant magazine which had just launched in 2001 is a day that will be remembered for far more serious reasons. “I remember that I got the job offer while I was watching the second airplane hit the twin towers on TV in a pub.”
“The original idea of the World’s 50 Best list was to be an article and not to be too serious. We wanted to have a list like the best albums or the best whatever. I did not know about places in Canada, France, Germany, Japan but I asked a lot of restauranteurs to pick up their five favourite restaurants without any qualification of what best meant. We sent out the emails, put the results in a spreadsheet and the place which was mentioned the most came first. It was an eclectic first list and it was out.”
eGullet wrote about it saying that it was ridiculous to have such a list but the list made a bit of noise and was enough of a success to be repeated the following year. “We had someone in marketing who told us that we were also going to organise awards. I remember that Jeffrey Moore, the son of sir Roger Moore had a restaurant and we organised the awards there. Since his son owned the restaurant, we had ‘James Bond on stage’. That year the award was won by el Bulli. Maybe a bit curious, Ferran Adria turned up to pick up this award together with a decent number of chefs and from there it just snowballed into something that just got bigger and bigger.”
Joe took the editorship of the magazine in 2004. “It had become a huge pain in the arse and I was getting concerned about how seriously it was starting to be taken so I sat down and saw what I could do to try and sort it out. I needed people like me in other places outside the UK and it was here that the academy system started. Since then, it has practically remained the same other than for some fine-tuning.”
He tells me that the problems that existed then are still present today. “What the hell does best mean? You have the arbitrary way in which restaurants drop out from the list, the fact that it favours restaurants in capital cities and the lobbying that goes into the compilation of the list which is a whole can of worms. The reality, is that it has today become a big thing which will not go away.”
One of the fundamental problems of the list is that since then regional lists have also been launched and have shown the inconsistencies in the list. “If I could go back in time and had the money, the idea of having regional lists that feed into the main list would have made a lot of sense. But the way that its done and the fact that it has different juries means that the results are completely different. You have the best restaurant on the Asia list but its not the best Asian restaurant on the main list and that is something I fail to understand,” he says.
All guides have their weaknesses and the list originally tapped into Michelin’s weakness. “The original idea was to be a bit anti-Michelin, to try and find a little sea-food shack or a hole in the wall next to the grand palace. Today, the list has become a collection of two and three star restaurants. It has become a list of expensive luxury places where people cannot afford to go or else are impossible to get into once they are in the list. I think there is a lot more to the restaurant scene than that,” he tells me.
The list was meant to cover restaurants at different price points but the fundamental problem with the list was the fact that best has never been defined. “To compile such a list properly would take a budget that would make Michelin’s budget pale in comparison.”
He is mainly concerned about the lobbying that is involved though ‘you cannot argue that most restaurants and chefs in the list are excellent. The places which are maybe more interesting are further down the list.’
Joe acknowledges that the list in unique in that no one has attempted such a list before and it has also led to different things such as Michelin focusing their attention outside of Europe.
Things are changing slowly. He believes that guides will not lose their influence. A three Michelin star or being in the World’s 50 Best means you get the attention and the customers. But he is of the view that fine dining needs to evolve and change. “It needs to become more casual, more accessible. It is slowly changing and the fact that old fashioned restaurants are no longer being opened is a good sign.”