THE BLOG
05/08/2013 05:00 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2013

Inside the World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards

Melinda Joe

By the time I'd arrived at the Guildhall, half an hour before the World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards in London, the scene had descended into quiet chaos. The guests had started to migrate from the courtyard into the hall for Champagne and canapés, and journalists were scrambling to snatch two minutes with the top chefs. A wall of reporters five-people deep surrounded Noma's Rene Redzepi, forming a small but impenetrable citadel of cameramen.

While waiting for an opening in the human barricade, I met a young Italian copywriter with a difficult-to-place accent (he lives in France) and a formidable Afro. He wasn't going to the ceremony but had stopped by to spread the word about the after parties.

Partying was the last thing on my mind. The week leading up the 50 Best had been a string of late nights and food-related bacchanals. It had started with a boozy, pop-up Sunday lunch prepared by James Lowe, of the guerilla cooking team The Young Turks. Next came the LAB festival, where I ate ants that tasted like lime caviar from the Noma test kitchen; elbowed my way through a hungry mob for a bite of the stunning, minimalist Parmesan risotto Massimo Bottura serves at his restaurant, Osteria Francescana (No. 3 on this year's 50 Best List); and discovered why Danny Bowien, of Mission Street Chinese Food, had once been crowned the pesto champion of Genoa. The day before the ceremony, I'd attended the Identita Golose London Lunch of a Lifetime at Harrod's, a 13-Michelin-starred collaboration featuring seven of Italy's most celebrated chefs, followed by a launch party for the new Cook It Raw book released by Phaidon.

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The grand finale of my time in London was the announcement of the 50 Best List, the controversial ranking system created by Britain's Restaurant Magazine 11 years ago. With 49 of the 50 nominated chefs were in attendance -- a testament to the rising prominence of the awards -- the atmosphere was one of buzzy excitement. Like many of the chefs, Seiji Yamamoto, of Tokyo's Ryugin (No. 22), had come to London specifically for the event. He had flown in the night before and was scheduled to return to Japan the following day.

"How terrible," I said, recalling that I, too, would be making that trip in under 24 hours.

"I'm fine," he shrugged. "I'm not here long enough to feel the jet lag." Such is the life of a traveling chef.

When I finally caught up with Redzepi, I was surprised to find the famously healthy Danish chef puffing on a cigarette.

"Have you always smoked?" I asked.

"Only on wonderful occasions," he replied, flashing a boyish smile.

I chatted with him about the destination he's the most interested in now (Mexico) and what he thought would be the next big thing in gastronomy (South America, a "world of totally new flavors"). I'd already heard him tell the previous two journalists that although it would be nice to remain in the No. 1 spot, he didn't feel like Noma needed to win this year. Instead of repeating the question that had surely dogged him all afternoon, I wished him luck.

As the guests took their seats at the ceremony, however, news quickly spread that the results of the 50 Best List had been leaked. Twitter flaunted that the rankings were already "all over the Internet." Thanks to the early disclosure, few were surprised to hear that Spain's El Cellar de can Roca had pushed Noma into the No. 2 position and had risen to the top of the list.

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After spending 90 minutes trapped in the media center, tweeting, the prospect of Champagne suddenly sounded like a rather appealing idea. And so I went, into that dark night, to the official after party downstairs.

"Just for a minute," I told my friends. Fatal last words.

We carried on at Roka, where the Roca brothers -- Joan, Josep, and Jordi -- were celebrating, together with several of the night's winners. Between glasses of bubbly and bites of sea-bream sushi, celebrity chefs like Dinner's Heston Blumenthal (No. 7); Thomas Keller, of The French Laundry (No. 47); and Alex Atala, of D.O.M. in Sao Paulo (No. 6), floated around the room, exchanging hugs and congratulations. Asian chefs Yoshihiro Narisawa, of Narisawa in Tokyo (No. 20, and winner of the first Sustainable Restaurant Award), and Andre Chiang, of Restaurant Andre in Singapore (No. 38), made appearances later, and Alinea's Grant Achatz (No. 15, and winner of the Chefs' Choice Award) rolled in well past midnight.

Apart from saying what an honor it was to be included on the 50 Best List, the chefs didn't comment on the awards. Our conversations turned instead to Japan, where I live. Apparently, several gastronomic luminaries are heading there in the upcoming months for business and pleasure: Achatz and Chiang, for example, are scheduled to participate in a culinary congress on Modernist cuisine in Hokkaido in September.

By 2 a.m., I was itching to get to The Clove Club, the hip new restaurant in east London helmed by another Young Turk, Isaac McHale. While the vibe at Roka had been exclusive and subdued, The Clove Club was heaving, with people spilling out onto the steps and along the pavement. Inside, ankle-throbbing music reverberated off of the high ceilings, and mustachioed bartenders outfitted in suspenders and vests mixed potent gin and tonics, as half of the Osteria Francescana team trailed by in a conga line.

The energy in the place was almost as intense as the music. Here, alongside big names like Rene Redzepi, was the next generation of rising stars, bursting with the kind of exuberance that comes from knowing that your best work is ahead of you. The Young Turks. James Knappett, a Noma alum whose restaurant, Kitchen Table, had impressed me a few nights before. Junya Yamasaki, the chef at the cultishly popular Japanese restaurant Koya. And perhaps most significantly, the sous chefs and kitchen staff that keep many of the world's top restaurants running every night -- ambitious, young men and women you haven't heard of yet but will soon.

Past 4 a.m., I tottered away from The Clove Club on four-inch heels as treacherous as Champagne flutes, happy but dreading the 12-hour flight back to Tokyo that I'd have to face later that afternoon. Unlike Seiji Yamamoto, I could feel the jet lag already.