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This year's 50Best: Chef-owner of Mirazur restaurant Mauro Colagreco and his team receiving the Best Restaurant award; Gaggan Anand's (left) Gaggan Bangkok becomes Asia's best restaurant, fourth in the world rankings; and Daniela Soto-Innes (right) is the world's Best Female Chef.

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This year's 50Best: Chef-owner of Mirazur restaurant Mauro Colagreco (above, holding award) and his team receiving the Best Restaurant award; Gaggan Anand's Gaggan Bangkok becomes Asia's best restaurant, fourth in the world rankings; and Daniela Soto-Innes is the world's Best Female Chef.
COMMENTARY

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants - How to make it better

The first step is to take a hard look at an ecosystem that is vulnerable to abuse
Jun 27, 2019 5:50 AM

Singapore

NEXT to a good dish, gossip can be just as delicious. As fast as the names of the World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards were being rattled off on Tuesday night, so were the WhatsApp messages pinging on my phone. "So-and-so new entry spent tonnes of money flying 50Best chairs and voters to their restaurant over the past 12 months!" "See that other high climber? He did the same thing." And, "You think that restaurant is so good? Everybody votes for him because he has a cute dog!"

So here we go. Another year, another controversy. You wonder if that's on a poster in the offices of the 50Best organisers. It's like a wart that never goes away. They try to fix it. 50Best talks. Reaching out to culinary schools. Getting Deloitte to do some form of vote policing. Making sure they have equal men and women among their 1,040 voters. They even kick out all the past top winners so others can get a shot at the top prize. Does it help? No. Every year, like clockwork, something like the TIME article, Why The World's 50 Best Restaurants List is More Controversial Than Ever will come out and bite them on the bum.

Maybe it's time to look at it from a different point of view. So far, fingers are pointed at the organisers per se. Like they are this shady, money-making organisation shuffling votes around like mahjong tiles, dropping a few extra here, there, maybe some sweeteners to whichever country that happens to be hosting the awards - you name it, there is no misdemeanour you can't pin on them.

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But what if the root of the controversy - namely vote buying and lobbying - doesn't lie within the guide per se, but the ecosystem it has inadvertently created that has spun out of control?

In other words, how about we stop demonising the guide - which in its essence is meant to celebrate good food - and take a closer look at the players in this ecosystem which threaten its objectivity? Namely the chefs, voters, academy chairs, tourism boards and PR agencies who have created an environment that feeds on the loopholes in the guide - allowing voters, chairs and media to accept free meals and travel, and PRs to direct them to the restaurants they represent?

This isn't meant to cast doubts on the integrity of voters and chairs, but rather relieve the networking and marketing pressure on chefs who feel compelled to take part or lose out.

It's creating a competition of an unhealthy kind, with chefs who don't rely on their cooking skills but their ability to hobnob in the right circles and getting voters into their restaurants.

There isn't any chef who will deny how great being in the 50Best List is for his bottom line. Neither will you find a chef who will go on record about the perceived indiscretions of voters or chairs, because no one wants to jeopardise their chances of being on the list.

Even those who have opted out of the race will only speak anonymously, such is the hold that this guide has on the industry.

The upshot of this is that the guide puts a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of chairs and voters - and there are more than enough chefs willing to court them to swing attention their way. Whether this creates a situation open to abuse depends on the individual integrity of the voters and chairs.

But there is a silver lining. There are still plenty of chefs on the list who have risen with no deliberate effort to court voters, and that there were a good many voters (who stay anonymous) and chefs who made reservations and paid for their meals while in Singapore.

It shows that there is integrity in the list but the question now is whether the organisers will do something about this loophole, whether by capping the tenure of an academy chair before he or she is too entrenched in the ecosystem, or constantly refreshing its voter list.

Is it time, then, to stop blaming the guide and stop feeding the ecosystem - or should it be ego-system - instead? Chefs can unite to effect change - much like the top chefs who initiated the best of the best list and gender parity - and make this list truly a collection of the best restaurants, not the best networkers. 

Wouldn't it be good to look forward to a list where no one would question how a chef got into it? Surely it would be something worth voting for.