Some call it a popularity contest, others the only restaurant list that matters. Either way, it's coming to Australia, and for hospitality workers it's going to be bigger than Ben Hur.
It's the list that stops a nation. Or at least, it's the list that's propelled many a nation to pause and pick up their cutlery. Over the past 14 years since its inception, the 50 Best – created from votes from more than 1000 restaurant industry professionals from around the globe – has grown to become a culinary tour de force that commands the attention of food enthusiasts the world over.
It hasn't always been the Olympic undertaking it is today, though. The influential list began as a bit of fun featured in London-based trade publication Restaurant Magazine. "When the inaugural list came out, I laughed," says Thai cooking sensei and Aussie culinary legend David Thompson (his Bangkok-based restaurant Nahm is currently ranked at 37). He and Brett Graham (the Ledbury, London, currently ranked 14) are the only two local chefs on the list to own and run restaurants outside Australia. "I thought to myself, 'Really? What upstarts'."
From little things, however, ridiculously huge things can grow. Last year saw the awards move from their traditional lodgings in London to New York for the first time. And now the awards are coming to Australia, bringing with them a chorus line of the world's greatest and most influential chefs, who will descend on Melbourne in April next year.
Since its inception, the list has steamrollered its way across the globe, flattening its distant, blousy cousin Michelin as the world's current culinary litmus. "The stiff criteria of Michelin don't apply to 50 Best, and there's a lot of merit in that," says Thompson. "A lot of very good restaurants are cooking much better food than the ones Michelin award but would never be considered because, say, the toilets aren't good enough."
Apart from the anticipated spike in trade, there's an expectation that it'll also force Australia to pick up its game. "I think it's a pivotal time for our restaurants and bars," says Dan Hunter, whose restaurant Brae in Birregurra took out three hats and the gong for Restaurant of the Year at the Age's most recent Good Food Guide Awards.
Brae also currently places 65 out of a possible 100 on the larger list that 50 Best prints each year. "It's a spotlight on the industry. The whole country will benefit. There'll be so many people coming at once to have a look at what we do, it might force the industry as collective to sharpen the cue a little bit."
So what will this mean long term for the Australian hospitality scene? "Look," says Thompson, "the effects can be great. And that's why there's so much lobbying going on, and that's why there's so much concern about the propriety of the awards and making sure it's beyond reproach. I know a few restaurants that have gone from being OK to being world class just from these awards alone."
The World's 50 Best will be held in Melbourne at the Royal Exhibition Building on Wednesday April 5. The awards will be streamed live from theworlds50best.com.