Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Another Year, Another List

I’m not the biggest fan of “Best” or “Top” lists.  While I understand the excitement and public interest that these lists generate, I simply can’t rationalize the generalized yearning for constant gratification based on a judging system for a subject that cannot be tangibly judged.  It’s not lost on me that competition, awards and recognition are all good things to have, but I’m not so sure they are core measures for the art or spirit of cooking. 

First, let me put a disclaimer out there: basic human vanity and ambition is not lost on me.  I will never say no to being awarded for my work and I will never work without a goal in sight.  And, while I often argue the legitimacy and bias of these lists, I’m not immune to their impact or their value in the restaurant industry.  They are important and they are necessary.

If you haven’t seen or heard it over the last 24 hours, Danish restaurant Noma has been crowned the #1 restaurant in San Pellegrino’s 2010 Top 50 Restaurants in the World – a hefty honor that Spanish restaurant El Bulli had seemingly handcuffed the last 4-5 years.  To be honest, I’ve always been dazzled by the promise and meaning of being on that list.  It is not only a dream, it is a definitive pinnacle of culinary success and for many, it is enough reason to die happy.

While I can certainly defend the importance and existence of such a list, I’m not sure I can defend its credentials, unintentional bias or ripple effect on a evolving industry.  The list is unbelievably biased to Western fine dining in a time when fine dining is becoming less approachable and more difficult to maintain.  I’m sure the 50 (or 100) or so restaurants on that list have no trouble drumming up business, but doesn’t it seem misleading to put out a giant list that sends such the message: “non-tasting menu need not apply.” 

I know the techniques and skills grandfathered by some of these great restaurants have inspired so many in the world, but at the same time, doesn’t that subjugate creativity on some level?  The El Bulli, Fat Duck and Alinea books may be the open peek to their ascension to the top of the world, but it seems that some cooks have spent more time reproducing someone else’s inspiration than redefining their own.   And in that vein, a desire to be top-listed has likely lead to influxes of copycat restaurants hell-bent on attaining what they think is a clear-cut and linear fine-dining climb to the top.

While most of my example here is geared towards the Top 50 list, I tend to think that the example holds true for any list/trend.  When lists and awards come with a promise of dollars and publicity, it’s hard to look away from what sometimes may just be a rat race.  It’s even easier to try to get mixed up in the fray, but it seems on closer examination, isn’t it always an original that sits at the top?     

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