It is 8.30am on Tuesday morning. 23 hours ago I landed in Brussels from New York via Dublin courtesy of a cancelled flight by Brussels Airlines. I am asleep in that zone between sleep and waking up when I faintly hear our youngest son, 19 months old chatting. I’m up with a jolt. Wide awake. And without prompting I know exactly what has happened.
I did not need to look at the watch to know it was late, very late. I had fallen asleep without remembering to switch on the alarm that normally rings automatically every weekday morning at 6.50am unless I switch it off.
The eldest 2 children should have been at school 10 minutes ago. A mad rush ensued as my wife and I try to get things ready as fast as possible. Within 30 minutes the children are at school but the week had gotten off to a bad start.
The trip to New York had been short and jet lag had barely kicked in or so I thought.
That pretty much sums the past 40 days that have been a bit of a roller coaster. Over the past 40 days, I have traveled to Getaria in Spain, to Lyon in France, New York in the United States and Kyoto in Japan (with Christmas holidays in Barcelona in between) to eat at five different restaurants that have been short-listed for the upcoming World Restaurant Awards.
The awards, brainchild of Joe Warwick and Andrea Petrini and organised together with IMG will be unveiled at the award winning ceremony in Paris on 18 February.
And while that might sound exotic enough, fellow comrades and travellers of the ring have experienced more ambitious itineraries which have seen them change timezones like there was no tomorrow. How they managed is mind boggling to say the least.
Maybe no category was more excruciating than the off-map destination. As the category implies, these are restaurants that are all worth a special trip to get to them. Writers Marie-Claude Lortie and Melinda Joe, who are the ones selected to ‘inspect’ these restaurants had to travel to a fish shack in Newcastle, to Lake Transee in Austria followed by an around the world in a few days trip that took them to South Africa, Peru and Japan. As Melinda put it on Twitter: “My journey around the world in 12 days has ended. I am destroyed but it was a good run”.
dIt was indeed a good run for a number of teams that have travelled around the globe in search of the winners in different categories of the first World Restaurant Awards.
The visits have been incognito and given the short-lists were only announced in mid-January most of the restaurant visited had no clue that they would be visited by a team of judges. Maybe the most hilarious incident came from Marie-Claude Lortie who sent Andrea a message which he tweeted: Just intercepted coded message from behind the iron curtain: Dinner is finished. Melinda is chatting with L. (the chef). He knows he should know who we are but truth is: he has zero clue. We are the perfect spies. The invisible middle aged women. I N V I S I B L E.
They had just eaten in Austria at a restaurant we had been to during GELINAZ! DOES UPPER AUSTRIA but while the chef seemed to recognise Marie-Claude and Melinda he could not really remember where he had met them.
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But let’s start at the beginning. In September, I submitted my nominations together with another 99 members of the jury for the World’s Restaurants Awards. I was curious and eager to see the long list of restaurants and eventually the short-list in 18 different categories. But by no stretch of imagination was I expecting the call from Joe Warwick, the creative director of these awards in November asking me whether I would be willing to eat in five restaurants starting with Elkano in a few days. I would be the ‘inspector’ for the enduring classic restaurants that had been short-listed for the first ever World Restaurant Awards. My travel buddy was going to be Andrea Petrini, the president of the Judging Panel, a food writer and curator of Gelinaz! among others.
The phone call arrived on a cold and dreary late November evening while driving to a meeting. “Are you free and available next Wednesday to have lunch at Elkano?” I thought quickly whether I had any important meetings scheduled or something that would make it impossible for me to travel on Wednesday. There was nothing.
The reason that it had to be on Wednesday 5 December was that Joe and Andrea were dining on Tuesday night at Mugaritz in San Sebastian and then at Enigma in Barcelona for another category (the innovative thinking) on the Wednesday evening.
“Two restaurants are in Lyon. But you will need to go to New York and Kyoto, the bad news is that you will have to fly economy,” Joe tells me. I didn’t really think what this really implied and just said yes despite the fact that I was going to have a very busy schedule at work in January. Sometimes you just need to take the plunge and hope for the best.
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In May last year, chefs and food writers assembled in Paris to discuss the launch of the World Restaurant Awards. For an afternoon we discussed the categories, the principles for voting. I got the impression that the organisers thought that this would be plain sailing. But get 100 creative and highly opinionated people in a room and you cannot expect the creative energy to just stay inside.
Joe Warwick, the creative director of the Awards and Andrea Petrini, the head of the jury had to go back to the drawing board not just for the categories but also as to how the voting and the judging of the restaurants would take place. While there are lists and there are guides to restaurants nothing like this has ever been attempted before.
First, the members of the judging panel where not looking for the ‘best restaurant of the world’ but rather a curated list (first a long list and then a short list) of diverse restaurants, projects and collaborations in the restaurant world. The categories ranged from the above mentioned off-map destination to enduring classic but also to arrival of the year, atmosphere of the year, original thinking and more.
There were also the thought-provoking categories, considered silly by some observers, but with a strong message. Tattoo-free chef anyone? Tweezer-free kitchen? Shouldn’t we be applauding those who go against the grain? In the Instagram age, where food is meant to look good, tweezers in a restaurant kitchen have become more common than in a hospital’s operating theatre.
The long list came out and what emerged was an eclectic mix of restaurants in each category that was not only progressive but also inclusive. There were many surprises.
From these long lists, the short-lists emerged and out of the 18 awards, seven or so categories were to be inspected by a team of judges. The category I was asked to judge was enduring classics, or restaurants that have been open for more than 50 years.
Here among the 5 places were a few that I had always wanted to visit but had actually never visited. It seemed too good to be true.
The short-listed restaurants were:
1. Elkano, Getaria, Spain
2. Hyotei, Kyoto, Japan
3. La Mère Brazier, Lyon, France
4. Paul Bocuse (L’Auberge du Pont de Collonge), Lyon, France
5. Peter Luger, New York, United States.
The first visit – Elkano
The restaurant had already been booked when I got the phone call. There was not much choice. Getting a flight at such short notice was not easy. I needed to fly in and fly out on the same day and the only possibility was a connecting flight from Madrid. I went to the Brussels airport in the morning and by midday I was in Bilbao. Joe and Andrea had to pick me up at the airport and from there we drove to Getaria to a restaurant that is legendary for its grilled turbot.
While Andrea Petrini is best known for his writing and his ability to discover talent, he is also a book worm and a music aficionado. The problem is that Siri does not necessarily recognise his accent and in the car on the way to Elkano we had a good laugh as we tried to listen to one song after another but constantly hear Siri saying “I couldn’t find what you are looking for in Music or in your library.”
Siri at least manages to find Elkano and we are there just 20 minutes after our booked time. Parking close to the restaurant proves to be a challenge and by the time we are settled and ready to order the time is already 1.30pm.
We will need to leave the restaurant at the latest by 3.30pm because boarding time for the three of us is around 5.10pm and there is an hour drive to get back to the airport.
We order a number of starters and the legendary grilled turbot and wash it down with a lovely Sherry. We are running late but still order a dessert. All’s well that ends well but with the benefit of hindsight we should have skipped dessert first because the star of the show was always going to be turbot and secondly we seriously risked missing the flight.
Taking into account that we needed to fill the fuel tank of the rented car and also leave the car in the rented car parking lot we ended up getting to the gate with barely a minute to spare. A slight delay meant that I could at least digest the food and the experience before I got onto the plane.
At the restaurant, we discuss our plan of action. Lyon is easy enough. Andrea lives there though in December, Lyon seems like a city on the other side of the world given all his travels. He tells me that the best time for him was between Christmas and New Year which works for me because it means I don’t need to take days off work. In Lyon, we need to get two bookings, one at La Mere Brazier and another at Paul Bocuse. Andrea makes the reservation for the first, I make the latter. We’ve chosen the perfect week because a week later, Paul Bocuse closed for refurbishment meaning we would not have been able to visit the restaurant until it would have been too late.
Kyoto and New York will prove to be a bit more challenging. It’s my son’s birthday on the 5th January and I don’t want to miss it. Shall we fly to Japan on the 6th? It doesn’t work because Andrea had to be in Copenhagen on Monday 7th.
We finally agree to go to New York on 11 January. Andrea secures a booking at Peter Luger at 10.45pm on Saturday 12 January. It is the only spot on a Saturday unless we were willing to wait till March which is of course too late.
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La Mere Brazier and Paul Bocuse
A day before my trip to Lyon I messaged Andrea to ask him for recommendations for a light late lunch in Lyon. “Anything unmissable at the moment?”
He told me to skip lunch, have a yogurt or a very light vegetable soup or a tiny sandwich with crudités. He’s warned me that things are about to get heavy. And he was not referring to the Gillet Jaune movement which blocked the entrance to Lyon on the Saturday afternoon, only a few hours after my arrival in the centre.
I don’t necessarily take him seriously though I do keep things light. After a stroll at the Marché des Halles Paul Bocuse I opt to just have some slices of bellota ham with some bread.
At around 6.30pm I head to Andrea’s home and we discuss our Kyoto trip and decide to try and secure a booking. He’s tried to find a spot through his contacts in Japan but no one was responding. We agree to try tomorrow before going to Paul Bocuse.
We walk to La Mère Brazier on a cold December night. Eating at La Mère Brazier and Paul Bocuse reminded me a bit of Clayton Christensen’s seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Clayton Christensen came up with his theory of disruptive innovation that has changed the ways that managers around the world think about innovation.
In this case, you had two classic restaurants that were on opposite ends of the spectrum. Of course, Paul Bocuse would not be Paul Bocuse unless it serves its legendary classic cuisine. But at what point will it have to disrupt itself? Or is it forever expected to be a ‘living museum’ of time gone by? Only time will tell though since a few weeks ago it has joined the Instagram age with a new restaurant account and has undergone a complete refurbishment.
On the other hand, La Mere Brazier took classics and gave them a modern twist. There was still vol-au-vent for example but this was vol-au-vent 2.0, a new and modern taken on a classic French dish.
We decide to go a la carte at Paul Bocuse as I wanted try the classics. We opt for the VGT soup that was served for the French president in 1975, the traditional Lyon quenelle of pike with crayfish and Normande sauce, we share the red mullet with the crusty potato scales which was recently recreated by Massimo Bottura, and for main course we have the wild rabbit à la royale and sweet breads.
When the waiter asks us about the cheese course, Andrea tells him we have a problem because he was diabetic and therefore couldn’t eat dessert while I had high cholesterol levels which meant I had to skip the cheese course. The waiter did not really believe us until I refused to take the plate when the cheese was served at which point he asked if we were serious.
We arrive back at Andrea’s home in Lyon and agree on the weekend we would go to Japan.
In the evening, I headed back to Barcelona where was spending the Christmas holidays with my family and did not eat. I slept well. I skipped breakfast, then skipped lunch and only ended up eating at 9pm the following day, a good 30 hours later. Always trust Andrea.
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New York, New York
I’m flying to New York on my 45th birthday. It is 11 January. Just before landing an air hostess approaches me and asks me whether it was my birthday today. I said yes and she hands me a gift. I’m positively surprised by the level of service of Brussels airlines. That’s until I switch my phone from flight mode. Instantly a message comes in from Brussels Airlines.
It reads as follows: “We regret to inform you that your flight SN502 to Brussels on 13 January is cancelled. Please contact your travel agency or our service centre for more information. We apologise for the inconvenience and thank you for your understanding.”
Not an ideal start to the weekend. I was already dreading the night flight because my idea was to go straight to work. I’m not the best possible sleeper on a plane, particularly when it is travelling in economy class though I’ve found a method to fall asleep which might make meditation gurus mad. Twice I’ve managed to fall asleep while using a meditation app which is not the point of the app or meditation.
I arrive at the hotel in Brooklyn, minutes on foot away from Peter Luger, the steak house that has been open for over 125 years. Our choice of area for the hotel was deliberate. It was close to Peter Luger, our destination and we thought we would get a good room.
It is decent enough though the room is tiny and the shower is possibly the smallest toilet cabin that mankind has ever invented. It is double the size of a boat toilet/shower but without the porthole. It serves as both a toilet and a shower. What you are meant to do if the toilet is wet after a shower and you’re dressed up only God knows.
I meet a Maltese friend who has moved to New York a few months ago and head to the legendary Katz for a pastrami sandwich. I’m meeting Andrea when he arrives in New York later that evening to eat at Mission Chinese, the new Brooklyn restaurant by chef Danny Bowien.
We head there late at around 10.30pm and have an exceptional dinner. The flavours are bold, the food is never ending, we choose a few dishes but the kitchen keeps sending dishes for us to try. The start to our New York trip could not have been better.
The day after we head to ATLA, the sister restaurant of Cosme. Again the lunch is excellent. We wash it away with a short walk to an exceptional book shop Strand which promises 18 miles of books. The bookstore is breathtaking. I could have spent the whole weekend there given a chance.
An hour or two of rest at the hotel, a shower in that small bathroom and then we are ready for a few glasses of wine at the Four Horsemen wine bar before our steak at Peter Luger.
The wine bar staff know we are on a mission to eat at Peter Luger so they don’t force us to eat too much. We get salt cod fritters and lady edison country ham and we share a pasta dish with broccoli, pine nuts, toasted garlic and mint. I’m not normally game for eating pasta if it’s not in Italy but this is excellent. Perfectly al dente, it is the perfect appetiser to our visit to Peter Luger.
At Peter Luger, there is really no choice. We opt for the Luger’s Sizzling Bacon, the steak for 2, french fries and onion rings for two that could have easily fed an army.
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A trip to Kyoto
A week of heavy work followed my arrival to Brussels and on Friday evening, my bags are again packed for a long weekend trip to Japan. I take the direct flight from Brussels to Tokyo and arrive in Tokyo late on Saturday afternoon.
An express train later and I am soon at Shinjuku station. I walk 700 metres to the hotel and immediately get immersed in the hustle and bustle of the capital city of the land of rising sun. The last time I’ve been there was in 2007 for my honeymoon and am immediately nostalgic.
It has been a long day and I’m tired after the 12 hour flight but I have a dinner to look forward to at Zaiyu Hasegawa’s Den. You can read about it here.
I sleep well, very well, after a great dinner and set the alarm for 9am (Japanese time). I don’t think I’ll sleep that well but end up waking when the alarm rang at 9am.
Andrea and I had planned to meet at the ticketing boot of the Shinkansen train at Tokyo station. I still remember that in 2007, when I had ventured to the Tsukiji market by myself early morning, I had had the good sense to tell my wife not to meet at the Tokyo station later in the day given it was big and mobile communications at the time were not possible.
Little did Andrea and I know that meeting would prove to be more elusive than trying to secure a booking at Hyotei. After an unsuccessful 20 minutes looking for each other but to no avail, we finally decide to meet on the platform. We buy the ticket on the Nozomi high speed train and try to make sure we are on the same train and within minutes we’re set for our trip to Kyoto. Our booking at Hyotei is at 6pm. We head to this restaurant with a 400-year history and eat a traditional kaiseki dinner.
On our way out, we are greeted by the 15th chef of this family restaurant. It’s hard to believe but it’s true.
After dinner, we start our deliberations on who should win the category. Both of us are on the same wavelength and it does not take us long to reach consensus. To get to know which of the above five restaurants we visited is the enduring classic restaurant of the year you will have to wait until 17 February.
I slept well that night though I was awake earlier than I would have wished. Andrea sends me an email to say he was awake and asked me whether I fancied breakfast. We find a ramen place near Tokyo station and wash it down with six gyozas. The Japanese breakfast doesn’t break the bank and is the perfect fuel for a long walk to the Kyoto food market close to the Gion district. A few bags of seaweed, katsobushi and miso later, we are ready for lunch before heading back to the hotel to return back to Tokyo for dinner with Thomas Frebel.
A few days after my return back to a ‘normal life’ the fellow travellers of the ring who had visited the short-listed restaurants and decided on the winners of each category are summoned to a Whatapp group by Joe Warwick. We are given 36 hours to convince the other fellow inspectors as to why the restaurant we have selected should be restaurant of the year. Opinions fly but less than 24 hours later white smoke emerges. A consensus agreement has been reached.
But that is another story.