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Should you Take Restaurant Awards Seriously?

The inside story of Restaurant Awards

22 Mar, 2015 by Vir Sanghvi

The inside story of Restaurant Awards

Years and years ago, I started announcing my Rude Food awards. Sometimes the list of awardees featured in the HT City Food Guide. Sometimes the awards were tagged on to the HT City Crystals and I actually handed out prizes at a glittering function. But through it all, I was always clear that mine was an entirely subjective list of places I ate at. It did not claim to be comprehensive or objective.

These days however, everybody and his dog gives out awards. Some, like the HT City Crystals, are based on popularity because they are voted for by the readers of HT City. The winners may not be Delhi’s best restaurants but they are certainly the more popular ones.

But other awards use criteria that baffle me. Let’s take a comparison from another field, the Oscars. The way those work is that people in each category (actor, directors, costume designers, etc.) vote for the best in their field. The movies and people that get the most votes become the nominees for that year. Then, for the final awards, all members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vote for every category. So directors can now vote for actors, set designers, music composers, etc. and not just for people in their specialty.

The advantage with this is that an Academy member who votes for best actor from the five nominees has usually seen all the nominated performances and is in a position to judge and compare performances.

In the food business, things are different. How can you say that X is the best chef in Delhi when you have not eaten the food of all the other good chefs to compare? That’s why most critics treat academy-based food awards with a certain scepticism. They claim to be objective measures of quality when clearly, they cannot be.

In the global food scene only two awards count. Michelin stars are awarded by anonymous inspectors who visit every restaurant in the Michelin guide. And while you may not agree with the inspectors, at least you know how the stars are awarded.

But in recent years, the San Pellegrino list of world’s 100 best restaurants has begun to rival Michelin in influence. Chefs all over the world vie to get on the list and once a restaurant is in the Top 20, its future is made.

Unfortunately nobody is sure how the list is compiled. The official version is that an academy of thousands of members votes and that the votes are compiled. This sounds fine but there are problems. The restaurants that usually top the list (places like Noma and earlier El Bulli) are small and booked out months in advance. For the thousands of members of the Academy to have visited Noma, a significant proportion of them would have had to travel to Scandinavia and score tables. This is virtually impossible. So how did the members vote for Noma as number one?

One answer is that they didn’t actually go there but that they’d heard about the restaurant. Which is fine. But would you trust a list whose compilers vote for restaurants they have never been to?

The best way, in my experience, to find out the best restaurants in each city is to ignore lists and trust critics. In New York, it is the New York Times (not Michelin) that can make or break a restaurant and I always trust its judgement. In London, Fay Maschler of The Evening News has been reviewing restaurants (She too can make or break a restaurant) since 1972.

Then there’s Zagat which claims to be no more than a self-selecting popularity guide because it is based on the views of people who write in. It is not an ideal system but I have found that, by and large, Zagat is a more reliable guide to London and New York than Michelin.

And when it comes to Delhi (and Mumbai later this year), you need look no further. There is always Eazydiner!

Written By

Vir Sanghvi is India's best-known food writer and TV host. His book, Rude Food won the Cointreau Award for Best Food Literature book in the world and his food and travel shows on channels such as TLC and NDTV Good Times have won numerous awards and continue to be watched by millions.

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