Saturday, January 19, 2008

Fifty best, Bah!

Everyone loves French food!

You love it! I love it! And most importantly, food critics the world over freaking LOVE IT! Evidence to support this is in the most recent S. Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants List. Restaurants in France, not counting Le Louis XV in Monaco, won an entirely unmatched 12 positions on the top 50, with 18 in the top 100. In the top fifty, that was the same number as the USA, Australia, Belgium, and Denmark combined. Canada, Japan, and China didn't even make the list at all. You're trying to tell me that a country with a population of 64 million, less than one percent of the global population, is producing over ten percent of the best food. Please! The entire country would have to be involved in cooking! And I know France. They spend far too much time smoking to do that.

Now don't get me wrong. I love French food. Some of my best times have been in restaurants that serve French or have a French skew to their food. What annoys me is that French food is seen as the ultimate cuisine. I think French food is so amazingly popular because the French managed to make something that moms the world over were doing for free, really, REALLY expensive. I can only assume there is a sense of elitism going on.

If you surveyed a random assortment of, say, New Yorkers (Because NY has the widest array of flavors I can think of), to list their favorite restaurants, French food would show up as would be expected based on the number of French restaurants in New York. Ask your average food critic, and her list would be overflowing with French cuisine. There's a disconnect here that the food critic's "finely tuned palate" does not explain. And if you want evidence of this, look no further than While it's a subsidiary of a French guide, it is, as far as I know, fully American-staffed. Their Top-40 in America list reads like a French shopping list. Ten of the names are in French.

I don't think this obsession is on the part of the chefs. Every great chef who is born does not automatically gravitate towards French cooking. They branch out. They expand. They work on what they knew and loved as a child or they explode into new, unexplored areas. I think the scattering of great chefs would be even throughout the cuisines. That can only mean the published adoration of French food is on the side of critic and some bias there. And bias is ALL over this idiotic 50-Best list.

Granted, this may also be a symptom of the Michelin Guide. Up until very recently, the Michelin guide only rated Europe, and most heavily documented France. And being, rightfully, as respected as it is, food critics would wander according to the guide. But come ON! Don't food critics read the interwebpipes? Don't they watch The Travel Channel or The Food Channel. Read a book by Anthony Bourdain, for God's sake. Japan is a gourmands dream! They are just as obsessive with food as any restaurant in any other part of the world.

And I hope that the Michelin Guide's newest releases, Los Angeles, San Fransisco, and Tokyo begin to eliminate this absurd French bent. Tokyo was awarded 117 one-star awards, 25 two-star awards, and an astounding 8 three-star awards. This is three times New York's star-count and nearly twice Paris. Yes! Recognition that French food isn't all there is!

Now, while it sounds like I accept this list as credible at least from an opinion standpoint, I actually don't. It's worse than opinion. It's uninformed, forced opinion. If you read the procedure for the formation of the list, you'll find that people cast a vote for their list of five best. They cannot vote for their own and they can only vote for two in their own region. And, finally, any restaurant they vote for must have been visited within the past 18 months. Now, coming at this from a perspective of experimental design, this is a nightmare! Any data collected would be useless!

What if the person actually thinks that four of the best restaurants on Earth are in her region? Forcing people to vote outside does not eliminate bias, it introduces it by forcing people to vote for places that they have recently visited, or can lie about recently visiting and just read about. And if we're dealing with restaurant owners, where will they have gone in the past 18 months? They're too busy running their restaurant.

This leads to the aforementioned Michelin Bias. These reviewers are likely not super-wealthy. They cannot afford to go from Tokyo, to Paris, to New York, to Sao Paulo, all the while blowing huge amounts of money at the world's most expensive restaurants. To get anywhere near votes of any merit the panel would need to consist of globe-trotting rich people and professional critics who get paid a lot more than me. As such, places rated by major guides will get all the attention, vis a vis, France.

But this is terrible! It draws attention away from other places, be it international like Tokyo, or local like that dynamite sushi place down the street from Le Réstaurânt Expênsïve, other places that deserve the attention because they're producing great food for half the price, the pomp, or both.

Now a list by Anthony Bourdain, there's a list I'd read.

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