The World Restaurant Awards aims for serious social change with an IMG-produced ceremony that lauds diversity—and the best “tattoo-free” chef.
We are deep into award season, long evenings of small statues, golden medallions, engraved lucite placards. No, it’s not just the Grammys, the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and the Emmys. As chefs have become celebrities, they too demand their own ceremonies, with red carpets, scandal, and speeches cut off halfway through.
Of course, this isn’t new. Chefs and restaurateurs have long chased after accolades and for good reason. Unlike other forms of entertainment, there’s no trailer or streaming service to easily lure customers into a restaurant. Traditionally it has fallen to celestial bodies in the form of critics or the Michelin Guide to air-traffic-control the discerning hungry. They wave stars and shimmering awards like flares toward the dining room.
But recently awards, themselves once meant as useful guides, have become so profuse they might need a guide of their own.
This Monday, for instance, marks the inaugural World Restaurant Awards, a splashy new ceremony that takes place at the Palais Brongniart in Paris, hosted by French actor Antoine de Caunes. (He is perhaps best-known for his role as host of a 1990s TV show called Eurotrash.) The new event is owned by IMG, the multinational entertainment concern behind everything from Fashion Week to the Frieze Art Fair to the UFC. It joins a laundry list of similarly congratulatory evenings such as the James Beard Awards, the World’s 50 Best Awards, the Eater Awards, as well as the Michelin Guide, which has its own soigné cocktail party, each claiming to recognize the best restaurants ( and bars) on the planet.
To differentiate itself from the pack, the World Restaurant Awards has staked itself as the wokest, weirdest, and hippest of all awards (Bloomberg’s London restaurant critic Richard Vines is a judge). Categories include “Ethical Thinking” (Blue Hill Stone Barns is shortlisted), “Tattoo-Free Chef of the Year” (really— Alain Ducasse is a finalist), and something called “Event of the Year.” There are also more traditional categories like “Arrival of the Year” and “Original Thinking.”
According to creative director Joe Warwick, the categories can change every year. “We spend way too much time talking about the same kind of restaurants,” he says, “and we’d like to try and change that.” IMG promises a brave new world, where judging is “conducted with complete integrity, total transparency, and a real sense of inclusivity.”
“The world is in need of change,” says Andrea Petrini, the Italian journalist and chair of the judging panel who co-founded the awards with Warwick and director Cécile Rebbot. “Looking for diversity means … to look beyond the typical middle-upper class, fine dining, male-dominated restaurants.”
To that end, the judging panel is made up of 50 women and 50 men from around the world, a mix of journalists, chefs, and entrepreneurs who gathered in Paris last year for a weekend of discussion and then went on small whirlwind tours, paid for by IMG, around the world to visit the hundreds of restaurants that made the long list. (Although the jurors are balanced in terms of gender, it should be noted only three of the 100 are of African descent; the majority of the female members are media, not chefs; and Europe is disproportionately represented.)
How much of this is driven by virtue and how much by the market is an open question. Wokeness sells, and events like this are, of course, a profit center; American Express, Gaggenau, Singapore, and Champagne Laurent-Perrier are among the sponsors. (IMG declined to discuss financials.)
But new awards shows are also a reaction to the sordid history of opaque judging that has bedeviled others and the vast, decades-long exclusion of women in fine dining, both on the podium and at the pass. The 50 Best Restaurant Awards, for instance, still have the risible category of Elit Vodka World’s Best Female Chef, as if fine dining were weightlifting or track and field. But even they, last September, announced their 1,040-strong voting panel would be gender-balanced. They’ve also introduced rules to discourage podium hogging, such as prohibiting current No. 1 restaurants from winning again. Instead, according to the 50 Best’s group editor William Drew, they’ll ascend to an unranked afterlife category called “the Best of the Best.” In October the James Beard Awards announced they too would be altering the Restaurant and Chef Awards committee panel to better reflect wider demographic representation. (Bloomberg Pursuits food editor Kate Krader is a committee member.)
That’s all great, for sure, and undoubtedly progress. But one can’t help but feel a tinge of cynicism as the red carpets are unrolled and valedictory speeches given that wokeness hasn’t become just another luxury commodity to perform. Achieving 50-50 gender parity in a judging panel is not the same as gaining real equality in the kitchen (or anywhere else). Especially when that virtue is then elaborately performed and celebrated for a live audience.
Though the categories are novel, many of the names shortlisted for the World Restaurant Awards will be familiar. Noma, René Redzepi’s winningest restaurant of all time, gets the nod, as does much-laureled Mugaritz and Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger. There are no restaurants from Mexico or Canada and only one from Africa shortlisted, in the “Off-Map Destination” category. The Grill, perhaps the epitome of a patriarchal restaurant, is nominated for “Trolley of the Year,” however. Though the jury might have been equally split, the shortlist still skews so heavily European, cis-het, and male. I haven’t yet seen that so proudly trumpeted.
“Change is not going to happen overnight,” Warwick admits, and that’s true, but until it’s change we see, evenings of glitzy awards shouldn’t be mistaken for the real thing. As IMG is banking on, it’s a good show, sure, but it’s just panem et circenses, with perhaps a side of fig leaf.