<p></p>

Jane Holroyd

So just how difficult is it for an Australian restaurant to grab the attention of "The Academy" - the 936 voters who determine the annual World's 50 Best Restaurants list? At last year's awards, an emotional Ben Shewry of Melbourne's Attica said he thought his day would never come.

"Because of our isolation [in Australia] it's hard to get the judges here," he told Good Food. "In some ways I thought it would never happen."

In fact, that year Attica jumped to 21st on the World's 50 Best list, up from 63rd the year before - earning the restaurant the "highest new entrant" award. This year, it ranked No. 32, and was awarded Australasia's Best Restaurant by the judges.

Theoretically, every restaurant in the world is eligible but the need to get internationally based judges to our shores and into our far-flung restaurants means that arguably Australian chefs and restaurateurs - particularly those not based in Melbourne or Sydney, are at a disadvantage compared to their rivals in Europe and the Americas, where the bulk of Academy members are based.

Since 2002, when the first list appeared in British magazine Restaurant, five Australian contenders have made the top 50: Rockpool (Sydney); Tetsuya's (Sydney); Flower Drum (Melbourne); Quay (Sydney); and Attica (Melbourne). Of these, Sydney's Rockpool (George Street) and Tetsuya's have performed the best, finishing 4th (2002) and 5th (2006, 2007) on the list respectively.

The voting academy was created in 2005 with a view to giving the awards greater credibility. Since then, Restaurant has divided the world into 26 geographic regions, with 36 judges drawn from each region. The 936 judges cast votes for the seven restaurants they consider the best in the world, so all up 6552 votes are cast.

Some countries are a region unto themselves, for example France, Italy and Brazil. Australia is grouped with New Zealand and Oceania, which takes in Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

The voting academy is made up of chefs, food journalists, restaurateurs and other industry insiders. They may vote for up to four restaurants in their region, and must vote for at least three outside of their region. Judges may not vote for a restaurant in which they have a commercial interest and at least 10 judges from each region change each year.

Not surprisingly, Australians make up the largest group on the Australia, New Zealand and Oceania voting panel though chair of the panel Pat Nourse would not confirm the exact breakdown. This should place our restaurants in a pole position regionally, but judges from the international pool are less likely to travel to the antipodes. For this reason, Australian restaurants are to some extent dependent on locally based judges voting both parochially and along similar lines.

Also, the increasing number of quality Australian restaurants could be a poisoned chalice as local votes are more scattered, said Nourse, who is Gourmet Traveller's chief restaurant critic.

Nourse said that if speculation Peter Gilmore's Quay would drop down the list this year was correct (it fell from 48th to 60th), it could actually be indicative of Australia's culinary climb. Quay was ranked at 29th in 2012. "It's one of our great restaurants, but the vote could readily be split by competition from the likes of Brae [Birregurra, Victoria], Attica [Melbourne], Momofuku Seiobo [Sydney], Sepia [Sydney], the new Rockpool [Sydney], Garagistes [Hobart], Marque [Sydney] and a host of other innovative places."

Restaurant magazine acknowledges as much with the following: "If a restaurant falls from the top 50 or the top 100, it does not necessarily represent a decline in the standards of that restaurant. It could be an indication of shifting culinary tastes, or it could also represent that another geographical area is becoming more important. Many restaurants come back onto the list after falling off it."

Nourse agrees that the concentration of votes in Europe does place countries such as Australia at a disadvantage. "People in the US and Europe still think Australia is a really long way away." But he says isolation can't be used by restaurants as an excuse. "Places that are remote such as Faviken [Sweden], or very hard to get into such as elBulli [Spain], have as much impact as grand, very central establishments in Paris, London and New York."

Nourse believes a big problem for Australia is that it is not perceived internationally as a "destination for diners".

The Age restaurant critic Larissa Dubecki, who has been a judge for the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards, believes Australia does suffer from "the tyranny of distance" but says fashions also come into play. "Australian places didn't fare so well last year, with the exception of Attica, and I think a lot of the judging heat is moving its gaze to South America," said Dubecki.

"It's largely a self-fulfilling prophecy, however - get a toehold on the list and you're likely to move upwards. Getting on the list means more of the panel might visit your place, thereby increasing your potential pool of voters and helping a restaurant move up through the rankings."

Joe Warwick, who helped establish the World's 50 Best awards when he worked at Restaurant magazine in 2002, said it was important to remember that the annual awards are really "a magazine feature that's gotten out of hand …".

"I remember being photographed with a kids' atlas for the editor's letter that year, acutely aware of the impossibility of the task [of ranking the world's restaurants]," Warwick told Good Food. "The reality is that it's the gastronomic equivalent of deciding on a voting system for the UN security council. No matter how you do it, someone is not going to be happy."

Luke Burgess heads up one of Australia’s more remote and highly regarded restaurants in Garagistes, which has helped put Hobart on food lovers’ maps in recent years. He believes Australia’s location does count against it in global tallies such as the Restaurant magazine awards.

"It’s a London-based publication and London is just a short flight to New York and a train ride from Belgium or Paris... If [judges] come to Australia they have the places they must visit and everywhere else it’s just if they can fit it in.

"I’ve eaten at Dan Hunter’s restaurants and some of the dishes are better than many I’ve eaten at restaurants that are on that list."

But Burgess believes the Best 50 awards have a positive role to play. "In the top 10 you will undoubtedly find some of the world’s best restaurants and after that, it’s open to debate... It’s a popular vote and it’s a nod to peoples colleagues and what inspires them".