Going behind the scenes at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards

Chefs from the world's 50 best restaurants gather onstage at London's Guildhall.
(Carl Court / AFP/Getty Images)

Unlike the James Beard Awards in New York, which proceed at a deliberate, even leisurely pace with plenty of time for speeches from what seems like an endless stream of award winners, the pace at the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, held Monday in London, is almost breakneck.

Each year chefs sit in the great room at London’s Guildhall, which dates from the 12th century, waiting to hear the name of their restaurant called out. Once the unruly and wildly sociable crowd finally took their seats Monday night, the whole thing was over in less than an hour.

Then it was off to party for a while downstairs in the Guildhall crypt until it was late enough to head over to the Clove Club in the Shoreditch Town Hall for the after-party.


“Password?” the guy with the clipboard asked at the door. “Uh .... “ In my group, somehow none of us knew there even was a password. But one smooth talker got us inside, where chefs and assorted guests were drinking British bubbly, beer or gin and tonics made with Hendricks gin and Fever Tree tonic water.

Clove Club’s chef, Isaac McHale, had baked trays and trays of buns filled with potato, cheese and bacon -- just the comfort food needed for the jet-lagged, over-excited crowd. The music was about as loud as it gets; the good thing about having a restaurant in the Town Hall is there are no neighbors to complain.

And around 1 a.m. everybody’s favorite chef Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, took off his jacket and slipped into the kitchen and whipped up some pasta with Parmesan, cream and bacon or pancetta. I couldn’t really tell as it was impossible to squeeze through the ravenous partygoers to get close enough to actually try some.

But when we finally made our way out into the night, those still standing in line to get in had already heard all about it.

I am one of the judges and was struck this year by how much more diverse the list has become in terms of countries and cuisines represented. But it’s also sadly lacking in women chefs. Elena Arzak is always there with her father, Juan Mari Arzak, representing Arzak in San Sebastian. This year she was ready to celebrate because they held on to the No. 8 spot.

But the only other woman to receive an award was Helena Rizzo of the modern Brazilian restaurant Mani in Sao Paolo at No. 36, a clear crowd favorite if the whistles and clapping that rang out as she received the award for World’s Best Female Chef was any indication.

The main suspense in the announcements of the awards, presented by San Pellegrino, comes in the movement of restaurants up or down in the rankings. Some chefs had to have been heartbroken, others elated. The French Laundry, which held the No. 1 spot for the first two years, this year was No. 44. But don’t shed any tears for chef Thomas Keller. His New York restaurant Per Se was No. 30 and he has had restaurants on the list for 12 straight years, a feat in itself.

Others find their way onto the list for the first time (it is voted on by more than 900 food journalists, restaurant professionals, and gastronomes from around the world, based on where they’ve eaten -- and what they’ve liked -- in the previous 18 months).

And so in 2014 we have the Test Kitchen in Capetown, South Africa, from British-born Luke Dale-Roberts entering the list at No. 48, and San Francisco’s Coi at No. 49. Those were nice surprises. So was Central in Lima, Peru, jumping to No. 15 this year from No. 50 last year to claim the award for Highest Climber.

The big surprise, however, came when Durden-Smith read out No. 2, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, thereby putting Noma in Copenhagen back on top where it had been for four straight years until El Celler de Can Roca toppled the radically experimental restaurant in 2013.