I live in Hong Kong, where according to the tourist board there are more than 11,000 restaurants. That's a lot of choice. That's also a lot of washing up. Having been the founder and publishing editor of LUXE City Guides for the last nine years and as Chairman of the Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan Academy panel for the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants organized by Restaurant Magazine since 2006, I've been lucky enough to appreciate some of the world's most wonderful dining experiences. (Yes, I have eaten at Noma, no I didn't eat at El Bulli.)
The voting by the 27 regional panels worldwide (each containing 31 voters handpicked with a sturdy and opinionated mix of chefs, food journalists, gourmands and food industry professionals) is now underway to decide on the W50Best 2012 list announced next April. But with only seven votes to cast each year, who would you choose?
Well first of all you have to know the rules. Voting is strictly confidential before the awards announcement. Panelists vote for four restaurants within their region and three votes must be for restaurants located outside of their region. Voters must have eaten in the restaurants they nominate within the last 18 months, voters are not permitted to vote for restaurants they own or have an interest in, nominations must be made for the restaurant, not for the restaurateur or the chef, and of course the restaurant must be open for business when the list is announced.
Okay, so now we've got that straight, what makes a great restaurant? A celebrity chef at the helm? A particular dish? Longevity in the industry; service; size (4 seats, 200 seats, no seats?); ambiance; price; all of these; none of these? And ultimately, who cares? Well, actually, I know a lot of people care. With food travel burgeoning the world over and people's palates ever more sophisticated, to have a sounding board like the W50Best is a great starter point.
It's never meant to be decisive or definitive -- as stated in the manifesto -- but it's certainly meant to generate response and discussion. Chiefly what it does is generate interest in what is something that, let's face it, we all have to do up to three times a day: Eat.
Last year, Amber became the first restaurant in Hong Kong to grace the Top 50 (congratulations Mr. Ekkebus), but take a look at the 51-100 list and you'll find three more Hong Kong restaurants bubbling under (Caprice, Bo Innovation and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon). If you add in Singapore and Japan, there are three more: Singapore's Les Amis and Andre and Japan's Kitcho Arashiyama.
Why not more Asian cuisine restaurants? I hear you cry. Well, good question. As Chairman of the Hong Kong panel I am honor-bound to change the panel by at least 30% year on year (normally I try to make it closer to 50%), and 50% of my panelists are of Asian extraction, but who they vote for is entirely their own choice. They travel, they eat, they vote. I never get to see the votes and have no sway on their personal choices.
So, if it's just personal choice why bother with the whole thing? Well, these are the votes of over 800 of the world's most well-traveled and well-fed people, and surely that accounts for something (and don't call me Shirley). And bear in mind that when Noma was first announced as number one on the list in 2010, they received 250,000 calls and sufficient bookings to remain open for the next 15 years. (These days you have to book online, understandably.) So will I be voting for Noma this year? Well, that would be telling, but I will certainly be in London at the Guildhall next April to find out who has won. Go Asia!