Fool #7 was themed "Politics". A subject much larger than just food on a plate. We asked journalist Lisa Abend to write a story we privately had discussed for years but not been able to pull off. But Lisa did and here it is, "Welcome to the Food Circus".
Long-Form Journalism winner at the World Restaurant Awards 2019.
WELCOME TO THE
POWER, PUBLICITY & COOKING
NJ Soler is a 31-year-old intensive care nurse with a predilection for slim-cut floral shirts, a side part so sharp you could find your way north with it, and a decidedly positive outlook on life. He is also the author of what he calls an ‘online diary’ about his adventures eating in fine-dining restaurants, which is what brought him to the attention of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. In 2016, the organization best known for its annual ranking enlisted him onto the team of its so-called TasteHunters. Now, in exchange for exposure and invitations, he travels the world, dining in acclaimed restaurants and tagging photos of them with #50Best and #50BestTasteHunter. Soler is, in other words, more than an influencer. He is the embodiment of this peculiar moment in culinary history, when even the entities that exist to promote restaurants have their own promoters.
I met Soler in Bangkok in October. We had both been invited to the Thai capital by chef Gaggan Anand, though in my case it was Manuela Fissore and Marko Kovac, who work as a sort of freelance public relations team, who did the actual inviting. In our group there were also three jury presidents for the 50 Best organization, which had named Anand best chef in Asia and the seventh best chef in the world the previous year. Also present were two other journalists (one of whom happens to be a voter for 50 Best), and two other TasteHunters. We were all flown business class to Bangkok, housed in a four-star hotel and treated to market tours, temple visits and spa treatments. The ostensible purpose of this trip was to attend a special dinner that Anand would cook with Vladimir Mukhin, also a client of Fissore and Kovac, though while in Bangkok we also dined in Anand’s three other restaurants, and in the chef’s lab at Gaggan. It was a tremendous display of hospitality, and together with the other four-hands dinners Anand held in the preceding and succeeding months, it must have cost his restaurant group a small fortune. I couldn’t help wondering what he got out of it and whether it was worth it. And because I know that Anand is hardly alone in looking for new ways to attract attention to his work, I also couldn’t help wondering how the restaurant industry as a whole had arrived at this point.
It seems almost quaint now, but it wasn’t that long ago that chefs toiled in relative obscurity, barely permitted into their own dining rooms, let alone onto the screens and glossy covers devoured by a ravenous public. In fact, none of the enthusiasm surrounding chefs today – the hours of television; the artfully shot cookbooks; the armies of civilian critics, armed with smart phones, who have weaponized Yelp and TripAdvisor; the conferences and ‘gatherings’ and guest chef dinners; the numerical rankings; the influencers eager for selfies – is older than your average millennial. Yet the quest for and maintenance of publicity has so profoundly changed the business of being a chef it sometimes seems nearly as important as actually making food.
“I’m so lucky to have come up in a time before all the PR, the 50 Best, the social media – the big game changers,” says René Redzepi. He is only 40, and it hasn’t even been 15 years since he opened Noma, but he realizes that, even in that short time, the ground has shifted under his feet. “I say good luck to young chefs today. I don’t think I could have dealt with all of that when I was starting out.”
If you wanted to pinpoint the origins of these changes, you could do worse than look to 2003, the year that Noma opened and Ferran Adrià appeared on the cover of the New York Times, launching a relentless tsunami of reservation requests for El Bulli from abroad. That was also the year that another talented newcomer began making a reputation for herself in the culinary world. In 2003, Monica Brown took on chef Heston Blumenthal’s public relations.
At the time, Brown had been working in communications for only 18 months, but she’d already had notable success, and Blumenthal needed the help. Though it had received good press, his restaurant had a problem filling tables during the week, and bankruptcy threatened. Brown’s efforts helped turn things around for The Fat Duck. “Because I hadn’t come up through traditional agencies, I didn’t know words like ‘strategic’ or ‘deliverables’,” she recalls. “I didn’t know I was creating a ‘brand’. But that’s what I was doing.”
Brown’s first great insight sprang from her own experience of watching Blumenthal and his crew at work. “I could see the art and ferocious commitment and felt that that story was not being told. I felt it was my responsibility to translate that story because it captivated me and I thought it would captivate the world as well.” Indeed, her second insight was to recognize that the story could have an impact internationally. Rather than convincing Londoners to make the trip to Bray, she started pitching story ideas to the features desk of the New York Times, (“I was too scared to contact the restaurant critics – they were gods back then.”) and then to European papers as well. By 2004 The Fat Duck was getting regular mentions and had earned its third Michelin star. Brown’s company Lotus quickly became the agency of choice for ambitious chefs who had stories to tell.
Jock Zonfrillo was one of them. When he opened Orana in 2013, intending to use the restaurant to preserve and promote aboriginal culture, it didn’t take long for him to run into trouble. “It was only then that I realised I was in Adelaide, which is far from Sydney, and that nobody gave a fuck, no one had heard of me, and certainly nobody knew what I was talking about when I started talking about seven different types of eucalyptus. I had no customers and I was surrounded by credit card bills I had to pay in two days. At that point, I knew we needed help.”He knew Monica’s reputation; she, in turn, was impressed enough with the story of Orana to reduce her normal fee. “It’s hard to measure because you never know how many people a specific magazine article brings in,” Zonfrillo says. “But during Monica’s tenure we got a lot of coverage. I remember being amazed anyone was interested. And it kept us open.”
Dovetailing with this new approach to public relations was Madrid Fusion, which also launched in 2003. There were older chefs conferences, such as Lo Mejor de la Gastronomía, held in San Sebastián since 1999, but Madrid Fusion was different. It was in the right place at the right time, launching precisely at the moment when avant-garde Spanish cuisine, in all its liquid-nitrogenized glory, was taking off. And thanks to Adrià’s openness, it was also unique: at the conference he broke with the tradition of chefs jealously guarding their recipes, and demonstrated how El Bulli’s dishes got made. That transparency became a rallying cry for a new generation, and helped form a diverse group of cooks into something resembling a tribe. “It was like the bloody Kennedy years,” recalls Brown. “So beautiful and so fantastic. It felt like gastronomy was changing the world.”
At around the same time, editors Joe Warwick and Chris Maillard came up with a plan to get attention for their tiny British trade publication, Restaurant Magazine. In 2002 they published an article, ‘The World’s 50Best Restaurants’, modelled on the lists printed by music magazines to sell copies and get their geeky readers talking. The list was put together mostly off the top of Warwick and Maillard’s (thoroughly baked) heads. “Was a restaurant Astral Weeks or was it Revolver?” is how Warwick remembers the conversation. “Should it be #4, or #40?”
The following year – 2003 again – Warwick and Maillard decided to make it more official: they asked 100 chefs, food writers, and well-travelled gourmands for their opinion. “It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously as ‘the best,’ recalls Warwick. “It was just supposed to be a snapshot of the year, as judged by 100 well-qualified people.” But it was taken very seriously indeed, especially when the magazine threw a party to announce the rankings, and nearly all the chefs— as well as Roger Moore – showed up and had what is universally remembered as a very good time. World’s 50 Best quickly came to be the arbiter of choice for many within the industry, who saw it as far more supple, transparent and in touch with the scene than stalwarts like Michelin or Gault Millau. In 2005, Restaurant Magazine – and with it the World’s 50Best list – was acquired by William Reed Business Media. The academy of voters was gradually expanded, and new rules of governance established.
In the coming years, each of these phenomena flourished, mutually reinforcing each other in ways that makes the period in hindsight seem impossibly heady. Conferences sprang up like shitake, fueled in part by governments that saw in them the chance to promote themselves as culinary destinations – Identità Golose in Milan (2004), StarChefs in New York (2005), Mistura in Lima (2007), Paris des Chefs in, well, Paris (2009). Chefs themselves were eager collaborators, sometimes hiring pr companies expressly to get themselves invited to these events. “The international circuit became incredibly important to chefs because it gave them a voice,” says Brown. “It was a chance to tell their own story.”
Indeed, Brown’s narrative-driven approach would be adopted by other agencies, as more and more came to devote themselves to the branding of chefs with international potential. Spoon and Sauce, both in London, Becca PR in New York, The Cru in Sydney, Grup GSR in Barcelona – all of these began reaching across oceans to tell stories about their clients. “It used to be that, when you opened a restaurant, if you could set aside a little extra money, you would hire a PR to help you spread the word,” says Andrea Petrini, writer and organizer of chef conferences and events. “And then, a few months later, if you were good enough, you wouldn’t need them anymore. But things changed, and a PR became more like an agent or a manager.”
In fact, ‘brand director’ is exactly how Sue Chan describes her role these days. After handling Momofuku’s communications for seven years, Chan launched her own agency, Care of Chan, in 2016. “We’re not just promoting anymore. It’s about asking: is your story being told correctly? What are your values and are they being communicated? Are you staying productive? What do you want to achieve down the line? We’re all about the long game.”
That view doesn’t always sit well with inexperienced chefs who see the fame of some of their peers, and decide the key to getting some of it for themselves is to hire the right publicist. “I’ve had it happen so many times,” Chan says. “A young chef will approach me because he thinks I can sprinkle magic fairy dust on him and turn him into Dave Chang. I have to remind him: first, you need a good product.”
The long game also includes attention to one other crucial thing that happened in the early part of the 2000s, though its impact on food was not immediately evident. In 2004, Facebook went online. The internet, of course, had already changed the industry, giving birth to blogs like Grub Street and message boards like Chowhound and eGullet, which quickly began to displace the singular role of the professional critic. Social media would only hasten the process, both by making traditional journalism even more difficult to finance and by bestowing the critic’s power on pretty much anyone with a phone. Sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor cracked the field open (and not always for the better, as more than one chef would learn when he publicly responded to negative comments on the sites), but their power would pale compared with what was to come.
In september 2010, i rode a night train from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, in Finnish Lapland. There were about 30 of us on board – 15 chefs (among them René Redzepi, Albert Adrià, David Chang and Massimo Bottura), and a dozen or so journalists, all gathered for the third installment of Cook It Raw. I had been to the previous editions, so I knew that the gathering, with its emphasis on foraging, fishing, hunting, cooking and just plain hanging out, represented a kind of riposte to those other gatherings, like Madrid Fusion, that had grown big enough and corporate enough to feel impersonal and even exploitative – some chefs were already whispering about how they were being pressured to attend conferences with vague warnings from organizers about no longer being considered “a friend”. In its intimacy and focus on learning and cooking, Cook It Raw felt more authentic.
There were a few new faces on board that night. One of them was Ali Kurshat Altinsoy, who had parlayed his then-anonymously written blog Food Snob into an invitation to the exclusive event (eventually he would be so well accepted in the community that he landed a job at Noma as organizer of the restaurant’s chefs’ symposium) – an early sign of the power those with digital presences would come to have. Another was Emilia Terragni, an editor at Phaidon who had recently added chefs to her remit, and had tucked away in her luggage at that very moment the first copies of Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine to show its author. That night, over bowls of reindeer stew, we would all coo over its artful pages, and several of the chefs present, including Daniel Patterson, Massimo Bottura and Alex Atala, would soon become Phaidon authors themselves.
On that same trip, Swedish food writer Mattias Kroon introduced us to a baby-faced chef who was, Kroon said, doing amazing things on an estate far up in the Swedish wilderness. The journalists were paying attention: within weeks of that trip, articles about Magnus Nilsson began appearing in print and online. Within months, his remote restaurant Fäviken had entered the extended 50 Best List, at number 71. Without a doubt, its spot was well deserved: to this day, I have had few more glorious meals in my life. But in the sequence of events you could see how all these young phenomena – new media, trips that help solidify the reputation of an ‘international’ restaurant, Phaidon, publicity, 50 Best – were creating a kind of cyclone of buzz, feeding off its own gathering energy.
It wouldn’t be the last time that an event brought these new factors into focus. In 2011 Redzepi went on to found his own symposium for chefs, mad, which eschewed the demo-heavy format of earlier conferences in favor of TED-esque talks focused on educating chefs, reforming the industry and making the wider world a better place. It generated such enthusiasm from chefs that other issue-led conferences, like Food on the Edge and Parabere Forum, soon followed.
Yet the growth in major events was nothing compared to the explosion of smaller ones. Suddenly it seemed as though every chef with even the beginning of a name was cooking at a collaborative dinner or doing a pop-up; hosting or being invited as a guest chef; or celebrating the 1st, 5th, or 12th anniversary of her restaurant. Some events were corporate affairs, intended to showcase how in touch with the culinary scene a product or place was. Others were chef-run, born out of a desire for the same kind of camaraderie and exchange that Cook It Raw fostered. But regardless of intention, all had a secondary effect in common: they justified a press release, or a round of invitations for a press trip, or, at the very least, a slew of social media posts.
In 2013, Vladimir Mukhin learned just how powerful events could be when he took second place at San Pellegrino’s Young Chef of the Year competition in Venice, and discovered that chefs like Massimo Bottura and Davide Scabin were talking about him as a result. Over the next few years Mukhin would be invited to San Sebastian’s Gastronomika and Chefs Revolution in the Netherlands, and cook as a guest chef in Salzburg, Perth and Bangkok. An appearance at Mesa Tendências in Brazil brought him to the attention of Chef’s Table, the Netflix documentary series that has itself become a powerful maker of reputations.
It all had an impact: his restaurant White Rabbit is full, attracting so many international guests that he has had to learn English and hire French- and English-speaking waiters. But Mukhin has also started to see the dangers of too much time away. “I get a lot of invitations now,” he says. “But you can’t be everywhere, and you shouldn’t be. You must be the father of the kitchen for your cooks, and if you’re travelling all the time, you forget about them. So now I don’t do more than one event a month.”
He’s not alone in feeling overwhelmed. “I get invited to dozens of events every week,” says Petrini (adding dryly, “And I read every press release because they make me feel like Martin Amis.”) “It’s very dangerous for chefs now. They think their life is on the stage, that it’s important to do this demo, or that corporate event with mineral water, or that four-hands dinner. Their restaurants become collateral damage.”
There’s some irony here, when you consider that Petrini is one of the founders of Cook It Raw and the originator of Gelinaz, a shape-shifting event that has, among other things, sent three dozen chefs around the world to each other’s kitchens. But he resists the idea that he may have created a monster. Gelinaz, he argues, is one event, held for a few days once a year, with the aim of doing nothing more than bringing a group of like-minded chefs together for some inspiration and fun. The problem comes in the aggregate, with the sheer number of events to which chefs are invited, and in the fact that many chefs feel compelled to participate in all of them, thanks to pressure from both organizers and those in charge of their own public relations. “Once prs became a permanent part of the team,” Petrini says, “they needed to keep coming up with things to justify their salaries.”
The truth is, they don’t even need to be permanent. One of the notable changes of the past few years within the restaurant industry has been the emergence of public relations freelancers who don’t really consider themselves PR agencies at all.
“I see what I do as a collaboration,” says Manuela Fissore, who started as an events organizer for Slow Food, and later handled communications for her then romantic partner, chef Davide Scabin. She had never considered doing freelance pr, until she met Vladimir Mukhin in 2014. “Here’s someone who really had something to communicate,” she says. “I wouldn’t have to make everything up.” She started by talking him up to other influential people in the industry. “Then, I had to find events. I got him invited to Identità Golose, to Salone del Gusto, and other people started talking about him too.” She made sure to invite journalists and influencers from other parts of the world to Moscow.
It wasn’t long before Fissore gained other clients. One of them was Ana Roš. The Slovenian chef – who, with her husband Valter Kramar, runs Hiša Franko – had always resisted hiring a publicist because, as Roš says, “I’m very idealistic. I thought the restaurant should be good enough to attract people on its own.” But in 2016 she was featured on Chef’s Table, and suddenly, things changed. “Chef’s Table saved our business.Instead of a lack of guests four months out of the year, we suddenly had a wait-list year round.” It was within that context that she decided to take someone on to maintain the flow. “We needed someone to represent us, but I didn’t want the whole PR thing. I just wanted someone to organize things, to invite people to come. We hired Manuela because she would invite people to Slovenia, not just Hiša Franko.” (In this case, the costs of bringing those journalists to the country was subsidized by the Slovenian tourist board. Other restaurants, such as Anand’s or Mukhin’s, pay for journalists’ travel and accommodation.) “And because she was able to get us enough good quality guests we didn’t have to compromise anymore.”
Or maybe it’s just that the nature of the compromise changes. Last year, Rošsays, she did more than 500 interviews. When she was in Montreal for an event a couple of months ago she took a few minutes off to go book shopping. She was waiting to pay when a stranger came up to her and asked, “Are you Ana Roš?” “I wanted to escape,” she says. “But of course, I didn’t. We had to pose for selfies.”
Not long ago, i was invited to dine with three food writer colleagues at a new restaurant in Sweden. Dinner would be on the house, so long as we each agreed, the chef stipulated, to post on Instagram a single photo of the meal. I declined, as much from sadness at how little the chef seemed to value his own work as from journalistic scruples. One picture? That’s all it took?
It’s no revelation that print journalism has been in freefall since the start of this century. A number of once-important magazines devoted to food and restaurants no longer exist, and those that survive have had to resort to new strategies to stay alive. For some, that has meant finding new ways to cover a reporter’s expenses, as outlets that were once fiercely independent, including some big, glossy magazines in whose pages any chef would be thrilled to appear, now accept or even require that their writers take comps.
For a publicist like Monica Brown, that transformation presented an opportunity. “Journalism was broke, and so, yes, we would arrange to cover the journalist’s costs. But the journalists themselves still had integrity. I was dealing with people who were incredibly knowledgeable, people who could talk as well about classical French cuisine as they could about Japanese kaiseki. You weren’t going to change their mind just because you had sent them on a trip. They had real background; they understood contexts, so they weren’t going to be so easily swayed.”
In recent years, those journalists have been supplemented, or outright replaced, by social media. Certainly among younger generations, social media influencers have more pull, which is why an organization like 50Best might seek to create its own cohort of them. When it launched the TasteHunter program two years ago (originally, they were called Tastemakers, but someone pointed out that it was the chefs who actually were making the tastes), the goal, according to director Hélène Pietrini, was to “harness love for the 50 Best brand and, given the importance of social media, grow organically with younger generations.” It took the organization a while to clarify the parameters – TasteHunters are not voters for the 50 Best list, they are not allowed to request free meals, and they receive nothing in exchange for the affiliation beyond invitations to events and exposure. But the mere existence of the group is recognition of the rising importance of this new form of communicator. That doesn’t come as news to someone like Soler, himself a TasteHunter. “When I ask my friends where they get restaurant recommendations from,” he says, “they never say critics or newspapers. They say ‘Instagram.’”
They’re referring to someone like Anders Husa. A fan of restaurants and the person all his friends turned to when they needed dining recommendations, the 33-year-old Norwegian left his job in marketing a couple of years ago and began devoting himself full-time to andershusa.com, a lushly photographed website that publishes his images, videos and writing about his frequent dining experiences. The site, which gets 60,000 unique visits a month, has become an important source of gastronomic information in Scandinavia. Husa also writes and photographs stories for print magazines and newspapers and maintains an active presence on Instagram, usually posting at least one photo and several Instagram stories a day for his 30,000+ followers. Lately, he’s added YouTube videos to the mix.
Husa operates from a clearly outlined set of ethical boundaries. He accepts consulting gigs from some restaurants, in which he advises them on social media strategy or acts as a mystery shopper, anonymously testing their offerings. At the same time, he freely accepts invitations to dine, though he sayshe never asks for them, and in compliance with Norwegian law he takes care to note any time he posts something on his blog that has been sponsored. He also makes it clear to those who do invite him that he will only write about their place if he actually likes it. “If it’s a bad restaurant I won’t publish anything about it. That probably makes it easier for chefs to like me. They know I’m not going to come and ruin their business.” He recognizes that some see him as less credible because of this practice, but those people, he says, misjudge his role. “I’m not a critic. My business is to give recommendations.”
If only it were always that clear. But in fact, the lines between journalism and advertising, between criticism and publicity, between selling and reporting and promoting and “influencing” – all of these have become almost impossibly blurred. People who once considered themselves journalists, but are no longer able to make a living solely from writing, take on gigs with chefs, bringing colleagues to their restaurants. Some magazines that report on chefs accept and indeed encourage ‘invitations’; others combine their own reporting with advertorials or ‘native advertising’. The publishers of this magazine run a creative agency that produces photography and graphic design for, among other clients, chefs and others working in gastronomy; it also handles communications for one local restaurant. And in an age in which ‘exposure’ itself is monetized, many seek to wield whatever influence they have in whatever ways they can. Most chefs today have a story about the self-identified contributor to Yelp or TripAdvisor who requested special treatment in exchange for a good review, just as most regularly receive requests from people calling attention to their numerous followers as they request a reservation at a fully booked restaurant or a free meal.
Hélène Pietrini recalls the business card a chef sent her after he received it from a diner: the man’s name was followed by the title “Juror for The World’s 50Best Restaurants” and he hoped to receive special treatment with it (the man was dismissed from his jury the following day as, after 2010, jury members – except for the regional presidents – are supposed to remain anonymous).
Others don’t see anything wrong with asserting their influence. In 2007 Steve Plotnicki, an entertainment entrepreneur, launched his own ranking system, Opinionated About Dining, in an attempt to bring analytical rigor to the task. The site draws on the opinions of a set of what Plotnicki calls “destination diners” – some 6,000 are registered, though a core group of about 300does most of the voting – whose votes are weighted according to the frequency with which they eat out, the quality of the restaurants they dine in, and how far they travel to do so. The results are collated into ranked lists that, according to Plotnicki, provide a more accurate picture of “where the destination dining community is going.” Pointing toSingle Thread restaurant, which this year was named 50 Best’s “One to Watch”, he says, “That restaurant was already number three on our list of best restaurants in the uslast year. And it’s number two this year. We’re the most agile ranking system out there. We’re the Nadia Comăneci of the restaurant industry.”
Some chefs, however, see OADas closer to Tonya Harding. On June 28, 2014, Plotnicki wrote to Restaurant Sat Bains, introducing himself as OAD’s publisher, and requesting a reservation at the chef’s table for mid-September. He knew that the restaurant released all its reservations for that month at 9am on July 1, but because of the time difference, wanted to avoid having to wake at what would be 4am in New York to make the call. When he received the restaurant’s standard response citing its policy, he tried again, this time clarifying that he was coming specifically to evaluate the restaurant for a possible spot on OAD’s list, and asking the reservationist to pass his request along to Bains. “I sincerely hope you manage to visit us,” the reservationist responded. “However our booking system is in place because every customer is a VIP booking for us. I’m sure being part of the industry you understand.” But Plotnicki did not understand. “I know a whole slew of chefs who can pick up the phone and call Sat and a table appears for them,” he wrote back. “If you can’t or don’t want to extend the same courtesy (which every restaurant extends) to me, then just say so. But don’t make out that you have a policy, when the truth is it only exists on an arbitrary basis when you want to impose it.”
The conversation did not end well, and both Plotnicki and Bains are still annoyed by it. “I could have called up David Chang and asked him to do me a favor with his friend,” Plotnicki says now. “But they pissed me off. I was trying to help Sat Bains, and they’re treating me like I’m trying to get something from them.” For his part, Bains sees Plotnicki’s response as “rude and aggressive”and his statement that he wanted to come in order to be able to include the restaurant on OAD as a naked attempt to wield influence to get special treatment. Yet sometime later, Bains received word that his restaurant had made OAD’s Top 100Restaurants in Europe list anyway (based on votes from other OAD members ). ”Top 100 what?” he asks now. ”Top 100 chefs who want to suck off Steve Plotnicki? That’s not for me.”
Indeed, OAD is particularly vexing for some chefs. Many are grateful for the attention and awards it bestows, and participate happily in the dinners arranged during the awards ceremony weekends. Others are more critical, believing that its hobbyist voters flaunt their association with the list in order to gain access or special treatment they might not otherwise enjoy. Plotnicki himself, who says he doesn’t care if OAD voters accept comps (“We’re not journalists, we’re enthusiasts,” he explains), encourages members to reveal themselves. ”We don’t want to be anonymous. We want to relay the experience so that others aspire to do what we do.” But how far does that extend? When the power went out last summer at a restaurant in Spain where reservations are notoriously difficult to obtain, the mortified kitchen staff was unable to continue the meal. Yet one diner, citing her own status as a voter for the OAD list, refused to leave, even as both kitchen and dining room emptied out.
The fact that the source of this story and some others wanted to remain anonymous is a sign of just how influential something like OAD, or a popular Instagrammer, can be. “It can be very difficult to deal with influencers,” says Christian Puglisi. “Of course it makes a difference if someone with half a million followers says you’re the best. I acknowledge and appreciate it. But I’m not going to sell out because of it.”
Puglisi didn’t hire someone to do publicity for him when he opened Relæ in 2010 because, as the first chef to open his own place in Copenhagen after working at Noma, he was already getting plenty of attention. And for a while he kept social media at arm’s length (“When I see people duck-facing their way through Instagram, it makes me want to throw away my phone,” he says). But five restaurants and a farm convinced him he had a responsibility to a broader community, and that there was a way to represent what they do with integrity. “I want people to know what our values are, perhaps be inspired by them,” he says. “Or I can use it to debate something that I think needs to be debated. So that’s the tipping point for me. I’m not interested in promoting for the sake of promoting or because it’s good for business. There has to be substance.”
That’s also been the conclusion of a few other chefs who have decided to handle their own publicity. Magnus Nilsson was initially approached by agencies promising him all kinds of results, but eventually they stopped. “A lot of PR companies try to generate this false sense of need,” he says. “But I didn’t see the point. Given how small we are I didn’t see how they could possibly generate enough revenue to justify their cost.” Instead, Fäviken closely controlled its own media presence. Nilsson even took take a six-month sabbatical from interviews and appearances when he felt like they were taking him away from the kitchen too much. “For us, it would be wrong to communicate all the time,” he says. “So we’re selective: we choose only those interviews and projects that have a high impact, and we focus a lot of the outreach we do on returning customers.”
Nilsson was a late adopter of social media, but has kept going with Instagram because he likes the interaction. “I don’t think it does anything for our business, but I like the connection.” That’s a conclusion shared by other prominent chefs. “It’s unfiltered,” says Bains. “I’m not there thinking ‘How do I get the most hits?’ For me, it’s very genuine, a way of giving people a little taste of what we do.”
“You can complain all you want about social media, but it’s not going away,” agrees René Redzepi. “Don’t be a dinosaur.” He most certainly is not. Noma posted its first tweet when they couldn’t get any traditional media interested in MAD, and was shocked to garner 20,000 followers in two days. For a while, Redzepi was a devotee of Periscope – he once, mid-interview, whipped out his phone as we walked past the barbecue behind Noma and started speaking to his followers about the seafood that was grilling on it. But these days, it’s almost solely Instagram and Instagram stories. They’ve used it to announce pop-ups and the dates when bookings go on sale. It has been an important tool for telling the story he wants to tell about the new Noma. “If you do it yourself, social media is a way to avoid too much media,” he says. “They’ll come up to you and say, ‘Let me do this, give me that, I’m an influencer.’ And you can say, ‘Why do I need an influencer? I’m an influencer.’”
I first attended the 50 best awards ceremony in 2010, the year Noma won the top spot for the first time. I remember perfectly the way the whole Noma team tumbled ecstatically onto the stage after the announcement, their joy a testament to the hard work it had taken to reach that moment of acknowledgement. But there was another moment that also stands out in my memory. It was later in the evening and everyone was in the Guildhall basement, downing bad cocktails in the pink disco lights of the after-party. Alessandro Porcelli ran over, and embraced Andrea Petrini in a bear hug. “We did it!” Porcelli exulted. “We did it!”
At the time, I was mystified. I knew that Porcelli and Petrini were not cooks or servers, so I couldn’t figure out what he meant by using the first person. Gradually, though, it dawned on me: they had organized events – Looking North in 2007 and Cook it Raw in 2009 – that brought dozens of journalists and chefs to Noma (I attended the latter). Many of those were 50 Best voters (I am not).
Let me be clear: I am in no way suggesting that Noma did not earn its place at the top of the list; through hard work and exceptional talent it most certainly did. And I never spoke with Porcelli about what exactly he meant by those words. But I’m describing the moment because it was when I first saw clearly the list’s vulnerability. Like many others, I considered its then 700or so voters, whose names were at that time published on the World’s 50 Best website, a more accurate and democratic reflection of the contemporary dining scene than that of Michelin, whose tiny cohort of anonymous inspectors and arcane rules and preferences made it seem mysterious, removed and opaque. But in that moment in the Guildhall basement I realized that the same thing that distinguished 50 Best – namely its voting system – also meant that it could be influenced by publicity, by events and by money.
By the time of Noma’s win, the list had itself become wildly influential. Within 24 hours of the award ceremony 100,000 people had visited the restaurant’s website in a desperate search for a reservation. Even a low ranking could make or break a place: coming in at #49 was enough to fill Hibiscus’ normally slow summer season. Part of what distinguished the list from other evaluation systems, particularly the Michelin guide, was that it was determined by a large but fluid body of those presumed to be plugged into the world of gastronomy – a third chefs, a third food journalists and a third ‘gourmands’ – who voted annually for the best places they had eaten in the previous 18 months. This made the list more flexible and sensitive to change, and helped establish its reputation as a resource of the places where people wanted to be eating now. But in its lack of agreed upon criteria, the ranking sometimes seemed based more on buzz than on a particular standard of excellence. In 2010, when I asked the editor of Restaurant Magazine, William Drew, if it wouldn’t be more accurate to call it the ‘World’s50Hottest Restaurants’, he replied, “Possibly. But that’s semantics.”
Semantics or no, there’s the very real fact that a restaurant needs to be present in voters’ minds if it is to make the list. “Some chefs think that if they boost their communications plan they’ll get on the list,” says Pietrini, 50Best’s director. “Of course, the more visible you are, the more chance you have to attract potential voters. But there’s no recipe. Publicity can be a strategy, but it’s only one of them.”
She points to the media-shy Pascal Barbot, whose L’Astrance is currently at #46, as evidence that a restaurant need not engage in a public relations campaign to make the list. There are others that make the same point. “Etxebarri, Elkano – neither of those would be there if the list were totally corrupt,” says Mattias Kroon, who himself organizes events and occasionally takes gigs inviting journalists to restaurants he respects. “They do zero PR. And there are other restaurants that spend a lot of money on PR and aren’t there. Maybe there are a few who buy their way to a slightly higher ranking. But in the end, the list is self-regulating.”
And yet, it’s hard to deny that, at least in some cases, a public relations push can have the desired effect. When Fissore began working with Mukhin, he was number 71 on the 50 Best list: “And I don’t think one of those votes came from outside Russia,” she says. One year later, after appearing at international events and bringing what she estimates were four or five international journalists to Moscow, White Rabbit was #21. “I said, ‘ok,’” Fissore laughs. “I did a good job.”
No PR effort can guarantee a chef a place on the list, a point Fissore herself emphasizes. “In the end, it’s up to the voter – I’m not there in the room, standing over them as they fill out the form,” she says. “All you can do is make it possible so they could vote for a particular restaurant.” And Pietrini, who says she has heard of publicists who market themselves to clients with promises of getting them on the list, says the rumor upsets her. “What can I say? We are committed to protecting the independence and the integrity of the vote. There is not one recipe to get on the list, and I would discourage anyone from believing there is.”
But that hasn’t assuaged all doubts, especially when voters are being sent on sponsored trips. “It’s a popularity list, let’s get that straight,” says Sat Bains. “And if you’ve got enough of a budget, you can achieve what you want with it. I know of people who would sell their fucking grandmother to be on it.” His opinion is shared, if perhaps less vibrantly expressed, by other chefs. “I call anyone a liar who says they don’t know that people are paying to fly them around and eat,” says Zonfrillo of voters.
Others point out that the problem isn’t with the list itself, or its rules, but with the impact it has on some chefs willing to put so much into being on it. “I appreciate the acknowledgement a lot, and from a business point of view, it helped us, though I think the effect would have been the same if it had gone to another restaurant in Copenhagen,” says Christian Puglisi, whose restaurant Relæ is currently at #39. “But I compare it to heroin. If you happen to get a shot of it, you’re probably going to enjoy it. But if you start looking forward to it, you’re going down.”
Petrini, who was chair of the French jury for over a decade before being asked to resign in 2015, agrees that the perceived power of the list can be nefarious. “It’s like the ring in The Lord of the Rings,” he says, referring to the way that the desire for a high ranking can warp a restaurant’s priorities. “You put it on, and you disappear from the real world and become something else. What’s that line from Allen Ginsberg? ‘I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed’? Well, I have seen the best minds of my generation freak out from the moment they put it on.”
Others have commented on the way the list has shaped what gets celebrated more broadly within the industry. At a talk on legacy at this year’s Worlds of Flavor conference in Napa Valley, Christopher Kostow, chef and owner of Meadowood, noted the impossible bind in which the list puts many restaurants. Acknowledging its leading role in attracting attention and reservations, he noted, “By its very nature, the list is meant to honor restaurants that are newer and hotter.” But he went on to suggest that this often conflicts with the very thing that makes a restaurant exceptional. “It takes an eternity to build the work you want. And there isn’t a chef alive who thinks they were better in their first or second year than they are in year five or six. So how does the celebration of all things new dovetail with the fact the new is often in opposition to the great?”
In the past few years, 50 Best has expanded its geographic presence – in 2013 it launched separate lists for Asia and Latin America – and, as the TasteHunters initiative suggests, it is also attempting to expand its reach. It may no longer have quite the same cachet as before, but in terms of getting butts in chairs, it is undoubtedly more influential than ever. That helps explain why, once it began holding its award ceremonies in different places, cities like Bilbao were eager to bid for it. “We want to develop our presence as a culinary nation, and 50 Best is among the best ways to do that,” says Asier Alea, director of tourism for Bizkaia. “It’s a form of soft power.”
Bilbao will get to exercise that power in June 2018. Alea says the city will judge the success of the celebration not on where and whether specific chefs are on the list but rather in the number of articles and other mentions of the Basque Country brought about by the celebration. “Our reason for doing this is to position the country, not the chefs,” he says. “Of course, I hope that restaurants do their job when it comes to public relations. Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of it?”
Who indeed? In its expansion and success, 50 Best may have laid the groundwork for its own diminishment. Although it still poses a challenge to the Michelin guide, it’s no longer seen as the agile, quirky upstart, and it no longer has quite the same reputation among the chefs it helped catapult to fame. “It’s all about the money,” Chris Maillard, the list’s original co-founder, told the Daily Telegraph in 2015. “The awards have now become a massive international revenue-generating machine.”
This spring saw the launch of a new celebration of the industry, one that’s designed to avoid the corporatization, the lack of transparency, and the novelty-driven, zero-sum game that some now associate with 50 Best, and focus instead on the diverse spirits of creativity, skill and hospitality that drive exceptional restaurants. Called the World Restaurant Awards, it is founded by none other than Joe Warwick, who is working on the project with none other than Andrea Petrini.
In February of this year, i stood in Copenhagen’s city hall awaiting the announcement of new Michelin stars in the Nordic region. I was conflicted about being there, and not only because of the terrible champagne and the emcee’s painful attempt at banter. On the one hand, I was truly happy for Nicolai Nørregaard and Daniel Berlin as they took the stage, each quietly beaming their gratitude for the recognition. On the other, I had recently heard a disquieting rumor: the Michelin guide to Bangkok, published for the first time in 2018, had been paid for by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. So I did some research, and discovered that, according to the Bangkok Post, the Thai government organization had agreed to a five-year publication deal in exchange for roughly $3,750,000, with the understanding that subsequent editions would expand into the Thai provinces.
At least in some parts of the world, Michelin is regularly turning to commissions in order to generate revenue. “Some countries and some governments that want to… attract tourism, they are very interested in having a guide,” Michelin’s then-executive vice president Claire Dorland Clauzel explained to the Washington Post in October 2017. “So they sponsor a guide to have the ability to communicate around their gastronomic landscape.” Indeed, Thailand’s wasn’t the only Asian tourism board to commission their own red book. According to the Yonhap News Agency, in Seoul, the Korean Tourism Organization paid the equivalent of $350,000 every year for four years to ensure the guide’s presence there. In Singapore, the tourist board was the major partner, though Robert Parker Wines helped sponsor events and recruit other contributors, including Resort World Sentosa, a company, as writer Zee notes on his blog Global Gastronaut, that has four restaurants in the guide. “That includes Joel Robuchon,” he writes. “The only one to receive the coveted three stars.” Hong Kong and Macau have done the same. Most recently, the region of Guanghzou in China – like some prefectures in Japan – commissioned its own guide, due out this year.
It’s not only Asia. Although authorities in Denmark, Iceland, and Norway say the Nordic guide, which debuted in 2015, was published without sponsorship, the same does not hold true for Austria’s future book. “It’s a fact,” says Severin Corti, food and drink editor at Vienna’s Der Standard. “Michelin said it would cost €600,000 to bring the guide back to Austria.” Corti adds that he had heard that various institutions, including the Ministry of Agriculture, were contributing to a fund to come up with the money. “Tourism is a very big part of the Austrian economy, and the thinking is that having more Michelin-starred restaurants would help generate more tourism.” (Neither the Michelin guide nor the Austrian Ministry of Agriculture responded to repeated requests for confirmation.)
Publicity has been tied up with restaurants for almost as long as restaurants have existed: 18th-century taverns advertised their soup in newspapers. Other entities have sought to make money by bringing attention to restaurants for nearly as long. The Michelin guide itself launched in an early form in 1900 specifically as a means of enticing more people to travel by automobile and thus buy the tires that Michelin manufactures. And none other than Paul Bocuse, the first great chef to do international publicity, in later years had his kitchen perfectly lit for selfies with the chef. So there’s something ludicrous – romanticized, naïve and just plain wrong – about the notion that restaurants, or the institutions that exist to promote them, should somehow be above the fray of commerce.
Yet somehow it all feels so much more frenzied now. Maybe it’s because the role of the chef has expanded to such an extent that we expect them to be artists motivated by passion for self-expression, not something so vulgar as lucre. Maybe it’s because, having made professional cooking an avenue for celebrity, we have created a cohort of cooks motivated by fame, who will use every tool to retain it. Maybe there are simply more entities eager to capitalize on the labor of chefs, and others still that will always privilege, as Kostow suggested, the new over the great. Or maybe, it’s just that these days constant publicity really is necessary to keep a restaurant afloat.
Those depressing thoughts ran through my head as I sat next to NJ Soler at that four-hands dinner at Gaggan. I wanted to ask him if he understood that his #50BestTasteHunter tags were corporate advertising, and that his willingness to post content for free is one reason why people like me have a hard time making a living now. I wanted to ask if he understood he was part of a system that had turned a vocation into a competition. I wanted to ask if, like me, he wondered where the demand for constant novelty was all leading.
Instead, we ate dinner. I watched as he gasped appreciatively as Mukhin spooned a cream containing three kinds of caviar over a wedge of cabbage. I saw his huge smile as he sampled a neat cube of strawberry-marinated watermelon. Finally, I simply asked him why he did it, meaning why any of us did any of it: the blogging, and traveling, and Instagramming, and eating – God, so much eating. His answer was one that any of us, whether chef, publicist, journalist, or juror, might have given. “Oh,” he said breathlessly. “Food is my passion.”
LISA ABEND is a journalist based in Copenhagen. She is the author of The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli (Free Press).