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Top 50 list mired in controversy - again

Question of how exactly candidates get onto the World's 50 Best Restaurants list is back in the spotlight

THE World's 50 Best Restaurants list - which is embraced by chefs who are in it but privately criticised by just about everybody else - can't seem to escape controversy and Monday night's unveiling of its 2015 winners proved no different. With previously lauded eateries free falling out of the Top 50 and a petition in France calling for more scrutiny of its voting process, the question of exactly how restaurants get onto the list is back in the spotlight.

Some of the "casualties" in the Top 50 include Portugal's Villa Joya which plunged from 22 to 98; Daniel of New York which dropped from 40 to 80; Coi (49 to 75); L'Atelier Saint Germain De Joel Robuchon (31 to 63); Geranium (42 to 51) and Waku Ghin (50 to 70).

On the other hand, the spaces they vacated were taken up by fresh new entries from Chile, Peru and Mexico, along with stalwart Alain Ducasse's new Au Plaza Athenee (47). American chef Dan Barber's Blue Hill at Stone Barns also made it into the list (49). Singapore's only representative on the list is Restaurant Andre at 46, down from last year's 37. Jaan, on the other hand, climbed from 100 to 74.

"Each year, around 20 per cent of the list changes, which means around 80 per cent remain," says William Drew, group editor of the World's 50 Best. "That doesn't strike me as being particularly unpredictable. Of course, in any given year, you will have some restaurants rising and falling more than others. But we believe that the votes of nearly 1,000 independent experts from across the world creates a credible barometer of the best places to dine on earth."

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But what started out as an interesting list of places to eat has grown into a public reference that needs to be done more responsibly, charges Zoe Reyners, one of the activists behind the Paris-based Occupy 50 Best movement (inspired by Occupy Wall Street) which has so far collected about 400 signatures on its petition for more transparency on the part of World's Best 50.

While it's not a big movement, it has created enough attention for international media such as The New York Times and AFP to highlight its agenda. The movement's biggest supporter so far has been multiple Michelin-starred Joel Robuchon who was one of the first to sign the petition. "Voters are supposed to have eaten in the restaurants they vote for at least once in the preceding 18 months," he reportedly told NYT. "But no proof of their visit, no expense bill is required, and I know for a fact that this is a major loophole in the process. It gives free rein to the worst manoeuvres - cronyism, 'flip a coin' voting, geopolitical influence and lobbying."

In a telephone interview with BT, Ms Reyners says that she had chefs who had originally signed the petition but were forced to retract after pressure from parties close to 50 Best. Even the Occupy 50 Best website was taken down after lawyers for the restaurant guide objected to the use of the guide's logos. The site went back up after the organisers changed the logo. Ms Reyners says she and her fellow Occupy founders are not involved in the F&B industry and so have no vested interest in the guide. "We're just foodies, but we have friends who are chefs or food journalists - there is so much criticism of the guide that we just wanted to do something about it."

Unlike the Michelin Guide, where stars are awarded according to a strict list of criteria, the Restaurant Guide is based on the personal choices of almost 1,000 chefs, journalists and well-travelled "gastronomes" from across the world who can vote for seven restaurants they have dined in within an 18-month period. Yet Noma and El Celler de Can Roca are notoriously difficult to get into (and elBulli before them), and keeping them in the guide's top spots every year requires voters to eat there just as often - which is just one of the head-scratching questions often asked in private conversations.

But with Occupy 50 Best, such private grumblings are getting louder, which may make it harder for the guide's organisers to continue with the line that theirs is a non-scientific guide to what's hot in the restaurant scene. Fortunes are made when a restaurant hits the top 50, so a lot is at stake. For the World's Best 50, it also means sponsorship money from S Pellegrino, Acqua Panna and national governments including Peru and Singapore - which hosted the Asia's Best 50 for the last three years.

The other issue is whether voters even pay for the meals at restaurants they vote for. "Restaurants are free to host complimentary meals; but voters must remain anonymous as to their status as such," says Mr Drew. However, it's common practice for restaurants to host meals for visiting food journalists or anybody they think might be involved in the guide, whether or not they eventually win any votes. Even though voters are technically sworn to secrecy, those in the industry will tell you it's not difficult to find out who they are.

For all the brickbats that the guide attracts, no one has suggested shutting the World's 50 Best guide down. "We're not accusing chefs of playing the game," says Ms Reyners. "And we're not saying that those who are in the guide don't deserve to be there. We're just hoping we can make enough of an impact to get the organisers to change their methods and be more transparent."

For its part, the guide hired consulting firm Deloitte to oversee the 2015 list. "Deloitte is there to protect the integrity of the list by ensuring that the voters are who we say they are, that they have voted according to the rules and that the votes cast are directly reflected in the ranking," says Mr Drew. "Each diner is asked to confirm that they have dined at the restaurants for which they have voted and must provide the date of their last visit. We do not insist upon receipts as this is deemed unworkable."

He dismisses the credibility of Occupy 50 Best with "I don't think it's gaining much traction (in terms of signatures)", although he respects their right to express themselves.

However, as one Singapore-based chef puts it: "Robuchon has the most stars in the world, he's not afraid of anybody." While the chef has nothing against World's Best 50, he feels that some changes would make it more credible, saying that "too many voters have no knowledge about food - they are more preoccupied with what's trendy". He adds: "There should be a better selection of chairperson and a clearer system of rating like Michelin, which also includes value for money. Voters should pay for their meals, and not be invited like they are now. And they need to stop building personality cults around chefs and focus more on the food and technique."

Whether Occupy 50 Best achieves its goal time will tell, but perhaps what is more important to watch is where the wave of latent discontent will lead, and what the World's Best 50 guide will do about it, if anything. We'll probably have to wait for the 2016 awards in New York to find out.