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How accurate is the World’s 50 Best Restaurants guide? Singapore industry insiders weigh in.

Is it a showcase of the best restaurants or the most popular, and what does it take to get into one of the world's top restaurant guides?

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards is finally here. On June 25, top chefs, international media and industry players will descend on Marina Bay Sands to see who will be the top eatery in this much followed — but often controversial — culinary version of the Oscars. As the first time that Singapore is hosting this global event – a step up from hosting the Asia’s 50 Best from 2013 to 2015 – the local F&B industry is not sitting still at this opportunity to hobnob with the global culinary glitterati. Besides putting Singapore on the international dining map, what’s at stake is the chance to create awareness for local chefs in the hope that it might translate into a position on this coveted list, and the business potential that comes with it.

  • World's 50 Best Restaurants past winners
    Past winners at 50 Best.

Awards With Benefits

Both tourism boards’ emphasis on greater exposure to the world and the business potential is not lost on the local F&B industry, which has seen what kind of results guides like Michelin and 50 Best can bring. Top of the game is of course Odette, which chef-owner Julien Royer has led to the top of the Asia’s 50 Best list, an accolade which saw “hundreds and hundreds of enquiries and reservations” for the restaurant which Chef Royer says has been busy since it opened four years ago. The fact that the restaurant also has two Michelin stars is another factor for its success.

Ivan Brehm’s Michelin-starred Nouri, which made its debut at number 39 in the Asia’s 50 Best list, also saw “a good increase in covers” although he notices that “Michelin and Asia’s 50 Best differ in their demographic. Michelin represents an older crowd, predominantly western. Guests that reach us through 50 Best tend to be younger and from everywhere.”

Wee Teng Wen, of the Lo&Behold Group which Odette is a part of, feels that Michelin and 50 Best play complementary roles. “They are both prominent platforms which help showcase us to an international audience. Where Michelin celebrates the more classic institutions in the tradition of fine dining, 50 Best highlights the progressive and unconventional stars of the culinary world. Our guess is that 50 Best seems to have surpassed Michelin in terms of reach which has translated to greater impact on reservations and business.”

Han Li Guang is known for his wildly-inventive interpretations of Singaporean cuisine.

Meanwhile, Michelin-starred Labyrinth owner Han Li Guang is one chef who’s looking forward to next week’s event. “It’s only once in a long time that we can bring something as big as this, with something like 300 chefs in town – not just from 50 Best but chefs from around the region. With media, PR, social media influencers and investors in town, it would be foolish not to take advantage of this opportunity to introduce our cuisine to the world.” For sure, the locavore chef would like the exposure of being on the Asia’s 50 Best list from a business perspective. But for now he is looking to organise farm-to-table tours for visiting chefs, media and PRs, “not to come to Labyrinth but more to raise awareness that Singapore has an agricultural scene worth boasting about”.

50 Shades of Grey

There were many surprise drops in restaurant rankings last year. Among those falling out of the top 50 are: The Ledbury (42 to 64); Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (45 to 83); D.O.M (30 to 54); and Arzak (31 to 53). How does that happen?

Chalk it up to the quirky voting system of the 50 Best guide, where 1000 plus voters set out each year to choose their favourite restaurants and the results reflect their dining experiences of the year. It’s a system that relies very much on how ‘popular’ a restaurant is, which has spawned a ‘parallel economy’ -of PR agencies courting media to raise the profiles of their clients; chefs linking up for collaborations to widen their networks; of restaurants lobbying for ‘influential people’ to dine mostly for free, in the hope of boosting their chances at snagging that all-precious vote.

In the process, it has created an environment ripe for opportunists, with restaurants dealing with outright requests for free meals from bloggers, influencers, and people claiming to be either voters or from obscure media outlets looking for ‘content’. Tales abound, too, of chefs flying in ‘relevant’ people from overseas to dine at their restaurants for free, or lobbying the guide’s regional chairs for special treatment. The need to network intensively, too, is practically a must.

One ex-50 Best chef says that he got tired of the wheeling and dealing that goes into scoring a place on the list. “They say that voters are supposed to be anonymous, but the reality is that the industry knows who most of them are.” In fact, he finds such activity particularly rampant in the Asian guide, but less so in the World’s 50 Best which he feels is more impartial. Still, he decided that he didn’t want to be part of a circle where chefs no longer cook for passion but for awards.

(RELATED: Marco Pierre White: “I’m so happy I won my (Michelin) stars when they meant something.”)

Gaming The System

“You may try to game the system but succeeding is another matter,” warns William Drew, director of content at WRBM. “There is always a lot of talk about this. When you become quite big and influential, people want to get on the list, and of course they will discuss how to do it. We continue to monitor our voting process, and we have Deloitte as our independent adjudication partner which looks forensically at the voting data and investigate anything suspicious.

“Voters are largely anonymous – if they claim to be and they are, they will no longer be a voter if such news becomes public. The only voters who are public are the Academy Chairs but there are only 26 of them out of 1,040 voters. (Essentially) you can lobby all you like as a restaurant or a PR agency to get people into your restaurant. Voting is private and anonymous, so if a voter doesn’t think that the restaurant is actually one of the best that they’ve been to in the past 18 months, they’re not going to vote for it, whether they had a good time or were hosted or not.”

The same goes for a country that hosts a 50 Best event which expects to get a boost of votes for its restaurants. “Experience tells us it doesn’t work like that. When we hosted the World’s 50 Best in Australia in 2017, Tourism Australia was extremely happy with the partnership because it helped showcase Australian food and drink overall. But it didn’t make any difference to last year’s list (2019’s results certainly reflected that). There’s no direct correlation of where we host the awards. We hosted Asia’s 50 Best in Singapore for the first three years, but restaurants in Bangkok took the top spots. Of course, there were a good number of Singapore restaurants on that list, but there always will be because it’s a great dining city.”

But the guide has been making efforts to balance the playing field, with better representation from non-European regions; this year also saw more female chef-led restaurants entering the long list.

Making It Fair And Square

While not all would agree with Mr Drew, Danny Yip of Hong Kong’s Chairman restaurant says that he has never had to lobby anyone to get to where he is on the list. “When I got into the first Asia’s 50 Best in 2013, I did not even understand the voting process,” he says. “I didn’t do any four-hands collaborations and did not attend any related events. We focused solely on our own food. I did one four-hands dinner this year but that’s all we will do. At the end of the day, it is the food that matters. We always have other chefs visiting us which is an honour. We are a small restaurant, we can only fit a small number of customers so we can’t compete even if we want to.”

Chef Brehm reckons that transparency – whether with 50 Best, Michelin or other guides – will go a long way in avoiding conflict of interest issues. “Ultimately, the problems regarding objectivity in rating or voting of restaurants lie with people, not the organisation. In an environment as competitive as the restaurant industry, sometimes the problems start with the restaurants and chefs who will do anything to get recognition. It’s only when relationships between tourism boards, chefs, voters and people who stand to benefit are disclosed will you have full objectivity.”

(RELATED: Who are the Singapore foodies that travel the world just for good food?)

Checks And Balances

Mr Wee, too, feels that “the panel approach for the World’s 50 Best is not perfect, but it helps create a more faithful representation of the world’s tastes at a given time, showcasing some of the world’s hottest and brightest stars. But I do agree that the system has some weaknesses in the reliance on panels and tasters which favour more socially hungry restaurants.”

Even so, “while there are no explicitly enforced rules to prevent abuse of the trust system in place, I also believe that free meals can only get so far. Once a voter is through the door, the actual dining experience will speak for itself.”

Of course, there will also be competitors for the World’s 50 Best including The World Restaurant Awards, which was created by IMG in partnership with creative director Joe Warwick and Andrea Petrini, the Chair of the judging panel. It has just 100 judges picked from among chefs, media and the industry and gives out awards not for best restaurants but for categories such as Restaurant of the Year and New Arrival. Incidentally, STB is also one of its partners.

Mr Warwick — who was also the original founder of the 50 Best — says, “The World Restaurant Awards are about celebrating the whole gamut of the world’s restaurants and restaurant experiences. We have already highlighted restaurant experiences that don’t get consideration elsewhere. The 50 Best was an original idea at the time and has had lots of imitators. We’re trying to do something completely different and there’s room for both of us. It’s not about who is better, it’s all good for the restaurants whether it’s Michelin, 50 Best or us.”

The Joy Of Awards

Whatever the outcome, there’s no denying the excitement in the air and the celebrations that will follow once the top 50 restaurants in the world are unveiled next week. Sure, there will be much debate over which restaurant is truly the best, but few will disagree that the real winner would be Singapore’s dining scene.

(RELATED: World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards in Singapore: everything you need to know)

A version of this article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: The World’s Top 50 Restaurant Awards