The World Restaurant Awards: a list fit for modern times

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 15th February 2019

Next week, food critics Joe Warwick and Andrea Petrini will host the World Restaurant Awards for the first time at Le Palais Brongniart in Paris, thanks to a hefty investment from IMG.

Creative director of the awards Joe Warwick told The Staff Canteen that contrary to expectation, their aim isn’t to challenge or replace existing accolades.

“We just wanted to do something different," he said.  

Palais Brongniart 2
A historical print of Palais Brongniart, where this year's World Restaurant Awards will be held

And what makes the WRA different, you ask?

Unlike the Michelin Guide and the 50 Best, he explained, the WRA were designed as awards from the ground up.

“The Michelin Guide was started to promote tyres, the 50 Best started as a magazine article. This isn't an article; it's not a promotional tool. It's a restaurant awards.”

Back in his Restaurant magazine days, where, incidentally, Warwick wrote the first 50 Best list and went on to co-found the awards, the critic took issue with the use of the word ‘best’.

He yearned for a new approach to restaurant appraisals and wanted to create a new food culture beyond pop-shop rankings and Lifestyle column lists.

This is what drove him to write three editions of ‘Where Chefs Eat’, a guidebook featuring everything from late night holes-in-the-wall and sandwicheries to fancy dining rooms.

“There's any number of ways of dissecting restaurants, just like there are for dissecting different cultural art forms,” he said, and The WRA were designed to emulate this.

“We keep talking about the same restaurants all the time and they tend to be very expensive inaccessible places that people like me who are journalists and have access get to go and eat and people that are very rich get to go and eat, but your average person doesn't.”

While the WRA shortlist, he conceded, does include expensive, once-in-a-lifetime dining experiences, it also contains a number of affordable restaurants.

For example, he said: “somewhere like Kiln I think is very accessible. You can go in, have a grilled skewer, the crab and clay pot baked noodles and a glass of wine, and get out for twenty quid.”

Geographic location was a strong consideration in the nomination process as well and the guide will hopefully appeal to the increasing number of people who travel. 

"I'd like people going 'Okay, the rugby world cup is happening in Japan next year, these five restaurants are short listed in Japan, they sound really interesting.' And we've got everything from a Kawasaki place that's incredibly expensive to an ex-sushi chef doing fish burgers. It's hugely accessible, cheap and easy."

The categories: reflecting eclecticism

Nominees are divided into two sub-categories, large plates and small plates.

The former features an ‘enduring classics’ award for venues opened more than 50 years ago – because, he said: “if you're still going after all that time, you're doing something right.”

The ethical thinking accolade will reward restaurants for things like sustainability and reducing waste, treating staff well and engaging with the wider community. In a similarly contemporary vein, the ‘Event of the year’ list is aimed at pop-ups and residencies, while the ‘house special’ at places known for a particular dish.

The small plates shortlist is more playful; it includes an award for the best ‘untattoed chef’ – not necessarily referring to whether they have ink on their skin but talking about classical chefs – and one for the best ‘tweezer free kitchen’, for chefs who like a rustic style of plating.

The best Instagram account of the year is flipsided by a long-form journalism award, Warwick said, to acknowledge social media’s role without discarding the importance of critics.

Three categories focus on front of house skills: ‘Red wine serving restaurants,’ ‘Forward Drinking,’ and ‘Trolley of the Year.’

The shortlist for the latter, comprised of Grill in New York, Otto’s in London and Ballymaloe House, is close to Warwick’s heart.

“It's going back to this classic – that chef de rang, table side service has come back in fashion in a lot of new places. I just think it's a lovely theatre of that and I don't think that should ever go out of fashion,” he said.

Judging Panel WRA

Judging things differently 

Restaurants are nominated, longlisted and shortlisted based on the 12 categories, whittled down from the 65 Warwick and Petrini considered.

Teams of judges are then sent out to the restaurants to pick which ones they think best sum up each category.

“In a way I suppose we're combining that crowdsourcing of opinion that the 50 Best does so very well with a layer of inspection - which is what Michelin does so well,” Joe said.

To ensure transparency, the full list of judges is on the WRA website. They include journalists, consultants and chefs, many of them Michelin-starred, such as Daniel Humm, Maaemo’s Esben Bang and Noma chef René Redzepi.

The logic behind this, he said, is that “you can look at the people in our judging panel and say 'Okay, David Chang. Does he know what he's talking about? Does this journalist know what they're talking about?’ There's no mystery.” 

This isn’t the case with Michelin; we know who the guide’s regional chairs are, but inspectors are kept secret.

WRA judges are required to declare any free hospitality they’ve received from anywhere they’ve nominated. They arrive unannounced and pay for their own meals.

This is something Warwick feels strongly about; he thinks the industry should be more honest about the fact that, with the exception in the UK of a handful of national critics, “everything you read in a magazine, everything - GQ, whatever - it's all on the basis of arranged PR meetings. We don't talk about this.

However, he doesn’t think this should strip anyone’s right to an opinion.

“The alternative is, in a world where newspapers and media outlets have less and less money for expense our restaurants should be picked by millionaires and independently wealthy people like the Opinionated About Dining crew or the Elite Traveller 100, and their opinions are more valid because they've got a private jet,” he said.

“I think at the end of the day what you want is an opinion that you trust and someone that's got a taste and someone that knows what they're talking about. How that’s paid for is a whole other question.”

Ensuring gender parity on the panel was important,  Joe said, conceding this won’t suddenly undo decades of male dominance in the restaurant industry, but that the fact that, coincidence or not, the Michelin Guide has increased its number of female-led nominees and that the Top 50 list now features a gender equal judging panel is also encouraging.

In the next years the focus will be on increasing diversity on the panel and including more industry members that aren’t chefs, like restaurateurs. The categories could be switched up and could include an award for the best vegetable-focused restaurant.

While it may not yet be perfect, he said, “We didn't think when we launched it that it would be.”

“It's like opening a restaurant; it's not perfect when you open it; a year later it should be better, a year after that it should be even better. But I think we're doing enough, I think we're telling enough interesting stories and I think we're doing enough that's different to continue to work on it."

The end game is ultimately for people to consider the WRA as a point of reference. 

"This might sound pompous, and hopefully not, but in the same way that you would watch the Oscar shortlist and go 'I'd love to see that film,' I want that same thing."

By Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 15th February 2019

The World Restaurant Awards: a list fit for modern times