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If you are a foodie, then you probably are familiar with the San Pellegrino list of the world’s best restaurants. It started out as a rival to the Michelin guide’s monopoly of deciding which the world’s best restaurants were (the ones that Michelin gave three stars to). But in recent years it has overtaken Michelin in influence and turned such chefs as Rene Redzepi of Noma and Ferran Adria into stars. At this year’s awards, held in London, El Celler de Can Roca was adjudged the world’s best restaurant. And Gaggan Anand’s eponymous Bangkok restaurant came within the Top Ten.
But on the eve of this year’s awards, there was an international outcry about the way the list is compiled. The anger emanated, initially, from the French who believe that the list discriminates against them. (It does, so that’s fair.) The French outrage is directed at the list’s “lack of transparency.”
This may sound odd. Michelin sends anonymous inspectors to restaurants to eat in secret and never explains what it bases its ratings on. That’s not very transparent. But the Michelin star system has credibility because, by and large, chefs respect Michelin’s opinion on European food.
The San Pellegrino list, on the other hand, should actually be more transparent. It relies on the votes of a 1000 judges, whose names appear on its website. (Or at least, they did last year). These judges vote for their favourite restaurants and the votes are added up in London. That certainly sounds more transparent than the Michelin guide.
But there are problems with the San Pellegrino list’s claims about its methodology. It usually picks hard-to-get-into restaurants like Noma, DOM, Mugaritz or (till it closed) El Bulli for its top restaurants. How many of these thousand critics, scattered all over the world, could have gone to Copenhagen and secured a table at Noma, for instance?
These questions have long been raised. For Noma to be so high up on a popularly-voted list, a vast majority of the judges should have voted for it. But how could they have got in? And if they voted without actually eating there, then what is the value of the list?
But now, the opposition to the list has crystallised with articles in the French press, a website and petitions by some of the world’s most famous (and French) chefs. Even Nestle, which owns San Pellegrino and pays for the list is said to be concerned about the transparency issues.
Nevertheless, whatever the methodology, let’s give credit where credit is due. Without this list, the world may never have heard of the Scandinavian food revival or the great chefs of Latin America. And any list that recognises the genius of Gaggan Anand must have something going for it!
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.