Why Basques Dominate The World's 50 Best
Two weeks ago (I know, I know...I'm so late) marked the annual celebration that everyone loves to hate, The World's 50 Best. After having followed the list from afar for many years, I had a definite preconceived notion of how it was decided, awarded, and regarded. Many in the food world talk down about it, calling it everything from arbitrary to biased. And in a way, it is—like everything in life, the hard part is getting on it, but once you are on, your likelihood of zooming to the top skyrockets.
However, when one really sits down to consider it...what would you do differently? Michelin is so much more of a failure in regards to measuring the best restaurants. The standards by which it judges are stuck in 20th century France (although they have realized that and are starting to update them, especially in other countries' Michelin guides). This is a new generation...so why not judge by a combination of critics' opinions, habitual diners, and press and other factors? Anyway, I believe it's as good a measure as any, and, more importantly allows for some fun surprises. And what really surprised me during the event in Bilbao's Euskalduna Palace was how all the chefs who might trash talk the rankings the rest of the year or in private were there with bells on, glowing and on the edge of their seats.
It was about time the awards were celebrated in these parts, as the Basques take up a whopping four spots on the list, two of which are in the top 10. People often ask me why, what is it about the Basque region that makes the food so good?
You'll be able to read more about the why in my upcoming book on Basque Cuisine, but in the meantime it is an interesting point to reflect upon briefly during these, the World's 50 Best awards. The four Basque chefs on the list were definitely the most humble, least attention-seeking of the chefs. So how did they get to the top?
In reality it is a combination of factors, some more tangible than others. On one hand, they have a totally privileged spot on the globe. Perched on the best seafood producing ocean, but nestled right next to the greenest mountains—Basques have had good food falling out of the sky and swimming around in the water for time eternal. So that's luck. On the other hand, there is a social respect for eating here that is unparalleled across the world. Food is given its due, savored for hours around the table, talked about and debated. It is basically a national obsession, which of course means that more people eat, more people want to cook, more people pay attention, and more people demand high quality dining.
And the final factor is the one that positioned Basques on this worldwide stage, that of fine dining. The group of chefs that in the second half of the 20th century begin to experiment with fine French cooking saw a cuisine that was enviable but by no means out of their reach. So that took that knowledge home and banded together, trading info and supporting each other in their ventures, which became famous and went on to train generations of chefs. So now, you have chefs in the most average of restaurants that have spent time in the kitchens of the world's best. The average bar is very, very high.
So it's no surprise that my friends and my mentors from across the region pepper this list very generously. Here is the full list from this year:
1. Osteria Francescana; Modena, Italy
2. El Celler de Can Roca; Girona, Spain
3. Mirazur; Menton, France
4. Eleven Madison Park; New York, USA
5. Gaggan; Bangkok, Thailand
6. Central; Lima, Peru
7. Maido; Lima, Peru
8. Arpège; Paris, France
9. Mugaritz; San Sebastián, Spain
10. Asador Etxebarri; Axpe, Spain
11. Quintonil; Mexico City, Mexico
12. Blue Hill at Stone Barns; Pocantico Hills, USA
13. Pujol; Mexico City, Mexico
14. Steirereck; Vienna, Austria
15. White Rabbit; Moscow, Russia
16. Piazza Duomo; Alba, Italy
17. Den; Tokyo, Japan
18. Disfrutar; Barcelona, Spain
19. Geranium; Copenhagen, Denmark
20. Attica; Melbourne, Australia
21. Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée; Paris, France
22. Narisawa; Tokyo, Japan
23. Le Calandre; Rubano, Italy
24. Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet; Shanghai, China
25. Cosme; New York, USA
26. Le Bernardin; New York, USA
27. Boragó; Santiago, Chile
28. Odette; Singapore
29. Alléno Paris au Pavillon Ledoyen; Paris, France
30. D.O.M.; São Paulo, Brazil
31. Arzak; San Sebastián, Spain
32. Tickets; Barcelona, Spain
33. The Clove Club; London, UK
34. Alinea; Chicago, USA
35. Maaemo; Oslo, Norway
36. Reale; Castel di Sangro, Italy
37. Restaurant Tim Raue; Berlin, Germany
38. Lyle’s; London, UK
39. Astrid y Gastón; Lima, Peru
40. Septime; Paris, France
41. Nihonryori RyuGin; Tokyo, Japan
42. The Ledbury; London, UK
43. Azurmendi; Larrabetzu, Spain
44. Mikla; Istanbul, Turkey
45. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal; London, UK
46. Saison; San Francisco, USA
47. Schloss Schauenstein; Fürstenau, Switzerland
48. Hiša Franko; Kobarid, Slovenia
49. Nahm; Bangkok, Thailand
50. The Test Kitchen; Cape Town, South Africa
All in all it was an amazing experience and a fabulous night, meeting some of the people I most admire.
And getting up close and personal with some of the greats (who are really still just kids at heart).