This week Wild Card attended the inaugural World Restaurant Awards in Paris and witnessed a joy ride of a production with something for everyone.
When one hundred of the planet’s most food-fluential professionals (comprising “cosmopolitan, multicultural, globetrotting- chefs, restaurateurs, influential new and old media individuals, book publishers, film makers, food system scientists, activists and campaigners”) from 37 countries with 286,000 eating miles of judging on the clock, come together to give opinion, judge and celebrate the food & drink community, international star chefs to interns need to sit up and take note – and, take note of the absence of the V word*
The Big Idea was simple. The awards creator said it was, “to try to do something different, something that celebrated the restaurant world in a new, more relevant and entertaining way”. We say there is so much more here to talk about than restaurants as there are many other conversation starters to whet the appetite in professional, domestic and NPD test kitchens and boardroom brainstorms.
The awards, previewed with a blockbuster film trailer were divided into two main categories, ‘Big Plates’ and ‘Small Plates’, with winners taking us on an inspirational journey to new heights. They spark thoughts to what might follow into mainstream, either within restaurant experiences or via the supermarket shelves and into homes, bringing to the fore a realisation of our ever-changing connection to food, food culture and how we relate to it as it sits today.
First up, the ‘Big Plates’: awards designed to ‘champion excellence and integrity while trying to better promote the diversity of the international restaurant community’. Our favourite categories and winners promoting thoughts of what will follow to mainstream are:
‘Atmosphere of the year’, winner: Vespertine, USA. “A hallucinogenic sci-fi dream bought to life… an experience, a trip, a deep-dive into a hypnotising, nature-orientated cuisine. It’s a meditation chamber, where you can float outside of time.” Atmospheric dining experiences are not new, of course, but going on a journey to a greater level of consciousness sets us in a new direction. Will Virtual Reality move from its current space of enhanced cocktail experiences to home? And will food innovation / recipe development move on from vitamin fortification to relaxation and meditation? Recent months have seen more media attention on our gut health and mental health related to food. Where will this lead us in restaurants and home cooking?
‘Forward Drinking’, winner: Mugaritz, Spain. Here, paradoxically, dishes don’t always begin in the kitchen. At Mugaritz, sommeliers and chefs collaborate to rethink the possibilities of the menu. An exciting proposition and creative starting point that could open up whole new conversation in matching food and wine from fresh start points.
‘Off map destination’, winner: Wolfgat, South Africa. This award celebrates remote restaurants, where the journey to get there is also a discovery, perhaps even a pilgrimage. It is a category reflecting a considered change in food culture – making a special trip to go ‘there’. While always noted in Michelin guide classifications, it has not been embraced within our more everyday culture until recent times.
Finally, ‘Arrival of the Year’, winner: Inua, Japan. In a traditional category that always comes with great excitement, Inua’s fusion of Nordic-Japanese cuisines raises some questions. What are the next ‘new’ trending cuisines to get excited about? Have we likewise exhausted all traditionally regionalised cooking styles? Will we now be turning to cultural collaborations? Food mash-ups if you will, in the supermarket, and at home?
Onto ‘Small Plates’, the intent of which is to recognise ‘contemporary cultural nuances while (with tongue firmly in cheek) attempting to subvert current gastronomic fashion and also make a point of championing tradition, both culinary and literary’.
In other words, give a good old nod to the traditional with for example ‘Red Wine Serving Restaurant of the year’ for those who shun fashion, winner: Noble Rot UK. At the same time, poke some fun at hipster kitchen talent stereotyping with the ‘Tattoo Free Chef’ award. Winner: Alain Ducase, France, celebrated for going his own way and making his own trends without following ready-made ones. Also, ‘Instagram account of the year’, winner: Alain Passard, France and ‘Long-form Journalist’, winner: Lisa Abend Fool Magazine, USA. This award highlights the continuing need for in-depth restaurant writing in an era where we consume so much in short form via the professionally unqualified critic or ‘influencer’. Then, our favourite new award, ‘Tweezer Free Kitchen’, winner: Bo.Lan, Thailand, which recognises a return to more organic presentation.
And finally, of course the big one – ‘Restaurant of the year’, which from this celebrated set of food-fluentials went to Wolfgat, South Africa. Book your flight by all means but be prepared to be placed on an extremely long waitlist for this 20-seater restaurant that is set for world fame.
But for now, lessons on inventiveness should keep us all busy on the evergreen challenge of what comes next…
Victoria Prior – Divisional Director, Food and Drink.