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Chef Rene Redzepi of Danish restaurant Noma, which won top honours at the 2012 World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards in London on April 30, 2012. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)
Chef Rene Redzepi of Danish restaurant Noma, which won top honours at the 2012 World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards in London on April 30, 2012. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

Venus flytraps and foie gras lollipops: inside the Grammys for gastronomes Add to ...

What started 10 years ago as a fairly informal poll of chefs and culinary friends of Restaurant magazine has grown into what Ferran Adria, chef of the legendary El Bulli restaurant, recently called “the most important event in world cuisine.” If you’re a wildly ambitious, blindingly creative and incredibly talented chef, you dream of earning a coveted ranking. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards celebrates the elite’s elite. (No, there wasn’t a Canadian restaurant on the list announced on Monday night.)

It’s an event like no other. Of the 50 restaurants ranked this year, 47 of their chefs made the trip, on their own dime, to accept the award in person in London. Before the ceremony the chefs and VIPs gathered in the Guildhall’s majestic hall, sipping Veuve from foot-tall flutes and snacking on canapés. There wasn’t a coconut shrimp in sight. Instead, there was tomato water served in Venus flytraps, chocolate-covered foie gras lollipops (a server sprayed a spritz of scotch in your face while you ate it) and green garlic panna cotta.

The awards were read out in reverse order, and mercifully the proceedings moved at a quick pace given the sheer number of awards. The countdown recognized certain milestones: D.O.M (No. 4) won Best Restaurant in South America; Best Restaurant in Asia was Iggy's (No. 26); the Highest New Entry Award went to Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (No. 9). Elena Arzak from Spanish avant-garde restaurant Arzak won World’s Best Female Chef and Thomas Keller from The French Laundry won the Lifetime Achievement Award. In his heartfelt acceptance speech he thanked his mother and brother and reminded the assembled chefs that “this award was bestowed on us for what we did, and together we must keep an eye on the future. We are in a profession dedicated to nurturing those around us.”

When the Scandinavian restaurant, Noma, was announced as the first-place winner for the third year in a row, the entire kitchen staff hopped onto the stage, looking like a hip indie band accepting an award at the Grammys – right down to the scruffy beards and bright, undersized suits. Further cementing their rock ’n’ roll attitude, when it came time to give their speech, it wasn't head chef René Redzepi who spoke, but rather the restaurant's dishwasher, Ali Sonko, a native of Gambia who had been denied entrance to England for the restaurant’s previous two wins.

In an interview afterward, Mr. Redzepi explained the award's impact. “Before we won, we often had empty tables for lunch,” he said. “The day after, we had more than 100,000 people trying to book online, which is an obscene amount. So in one day, we could have filled our restaurant for almost 15 years. It was a crazy thing.”

Any ranking system is bound to be controversial, but organizers go to great lengths to ensure that it’s as scientific as possible. They divide the world up into 27 regions; North America, for instance, is divided into three. Each region has a committee chair and 30 voters split evenly among chefs and restaurateurs, food media and well-travelled gourmands. Each voter casts seven votes (at least three must be for restaurants from outside their region) for the best restaurant experiences they’ve had in the past 18 months. In total, about 6,000 votes are tallied. It is a process that Restaurant magazine editor William Drew calls “fundamentally democratic.” In theory, at least, the world's best restaurant could be a diner or a burger joint.

Although shut out this year, both Rouge in Calgary and Langdon Hall in Ontario have placed in the Top 50 in the past. Restaurants like Vij's in Vancouver and Montreal's Au Pied de Cochon are also frequently mentioned as deserving of spots on the list. The committee chair for Canada and the central United States, Chicago-based food writer Steve Dolinsky, has seen the awards evolve over the years. “I've definitely seen a shift from the awards being very U.K.-centric or Europe-centric. Now there’s definitely more from Scandinavia and a couple more from Asia. We've had our first restaurant from Thailand break into the Top 50 this year, but I'd still like to see more from Canada.”

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