Food rankings, lists, classifications. A stairway to heaven?

Restaurant ranking lists seem to be two a penny these days, but what has it all meant for the restaurant industry and diners' perceptions of it? Our intrepid food writer gives us his take on an increasingly controversial issue. And as a bonus, he guides us through the next big thing about to hit a table near you.

By Xavier Agulló for SPN Magazine

In these high-speed times, devoid of subtlety and reflection, one of the many things we rely on is information that is simple, ‘binary’ and immediate. As a consequence, we have to have classifications, lists, and rankings for everything, because people don’t have time to read and research, and they want someone with some authority in the subject to tell them what is the best there is to buy right now. The intellect gets diminished at the altars of essential, compulsive shopping.  Because, really, ontologically, who can take an ordered list at face value?  Is the first or the fourth the best?  Why doesn’t the third come second? In certain fields like sport or publishing, the charts make intuitive sense - who wins a match, who gets the most points in the table, who sells the most copies, who gets the most ‘likes'. When it comes to gastronomy, lists and other forms of classification have been multiplying for some time now. Thanks to the overwhelmingly high bar set by consumers everywhere in this sector. Restaurants, chefs, menus, dishes, small plates, and everything that brings with it, are tasty morsels for trendies to consume, thanks to Ferran Adrià’s food revolution and the subsequent popularisation of it in the media (reviews, blogs and, above all, television). One goes to see the ‘in’ film, or buy the t-shirt that whatever celeb is wearing at the time, or goes to eat at the “best restaurant,” as named by the latest list to appear in the papers.  Reputation is the only thing that counts. Ferran recounts that some people who ask for his autograph on the Rambla in Barcelona, very close to his workshop, don’t even know who he is, just that they “guessed” that he was “famous”! Or, they probably thought he looked familiar because they saw his face on the cover of a magazine, or on some TV show. Intriguingly (or not), it was also Adrià who sent the “best chef” lists into orbit.  It must have been in the early years of the 21st century when a copy of the Restaurant magazine review landed in his hands and with it what is today the more-than-famous list of the World’s 50 Best restaurants. Ferran passed the information on to his team, asking them to investigate and tell him if it was anything important.  Soon afterwards came their answer: “It’s nothing, Ferran, nobody knows about that.”  Two years later, the explosion happened; the mistake Adrià’s collaborators made (understandable at a time when Michelin reigned supreme and, well, what the hell could the English tell us about food?) was quickly corrected. Indeed, Ferran got himself on the list and by 2006, he was at the top of the list. A position he would not leave until 2009 when he announced the closure of El Bulli, and which was seized by Danish chef René Redzepi, whose restaurant Noma took the first position (there are those who believe this was due to a complex geopolitical movement). And it was exactly in 2006 (nothing happens by chance, especially in this business) that the World’s 50 Best Restaurants began to emerge from the mists of the Thames where they previously remained hidden. Ferran gave it the definitive push to hurl it into the global media circus, and look at it now. Since the World’s 50 Best, lists and rankings have sprung up from underneath stoves everywhere. Its success was (and is) down to, the novelty of assessing the world’s restaurants from 1 to 50 (implying the authority of an international gastronomic “intelligentsia”) and to the announcement of the results at a widely televised, Hollywood-style gala. As a result, and driven by the success of the World’s 50 Best, those responsible at Michelin seemed to be encouraged to suddenly, and somewhat confusedly, update the French brand. Using marketing tools unfamiliar to them, such as organising grand galas to unveil their guide, entering fully into the new circus of cuisine. Precisely all of this, the whole vehement movement on the Anglo-Saxon scene, itself prompted a strange furore in the red guide about giving stars to new cooks who are young and aggressive, and who until a few years ago had never dreamed of decorating the habitually anachronistic and perpetually chauvinistic Gallic Vademecum. Ultimately, lists rule and are here to stay.  And not only for the obvious reason (that being in them generates a lot of money for the chefs), but also because of the great business they represent.  The dough starts to roll when it’s in the spotlight. But, beyond all that, the role of these guides has been definitive in the great rise of Spanish cuisine and its solid position across the globe. In particular the World’s 50 Best.

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