World restaurant awards spark cries of a stitch-up

LONDON - The World's 50 Best Restaurants awards due to be announced in London Wednesday have stoked up passions in the global gastronomic community even before the winners are named.

Organisers have hired the Deloitte consultancy to oversee voting following accusations of cosy deals in a petition by a French group backed by some of the world's top chefs.

The influential awards were started in Britain in 2002 by the trade magazine Restaurant and have become a reference point for globe-trotting gourmets.

The bulk of the complaints against the contest comes from France, which failed to make it into the top 10 last year and has never managed to win first prize.

The winner in 2014 was chef Rene Redzepi's "Noma", a two-Michelin-starred restaurant housed in a former port warehouse in Copenhagen that had won three times before.

The accolade has also been won five times by Ferran Adria's "El Bulli" in Spain, which has since closed.

Thomas Keller's "The French Laundry" in the United States has won the number one spot twice and Heston Blumenthal's "The Fat Duck" in Britain has done so once.

The contest is run by the British media company William Reed and the criticism has focused mainly on the methodology used to select the best restaurants.

An Internet petition against the competition has won more than 350 signatures, including those of France's Joel Robuchon and Italy's Giancarlo Perbellini, calling for sponsors to boycott the "opaque" awards.

"The jury members, appointed by backroom politics, vote anonymously, without ever having to justify their choice of a restaurant or even to prove that they actually ate there!" the petition read.

The jury is made up of 972 "independent experts" including food writers, chefs, restaurant owners and gourmets, divided up into 27 regions.

Jury members choose their seven favourite restaurants where they have eaten in the past 18 months.

Critics say the system is open to abuse since the jury do not have to offer physical evidence of having actually visited any particular restaurant.

To respond to the criticism, a team from 50 Best travelled to Paris last month on a charm offensive.

"We are sometimes portrayed as anti-French in France. We wanted to show that that is very far from the truth," William Drew, editor in chief of World's 50 Best Restaurants, said at a press conference in Paris.

Rachel Quigley, the deputy director, pointed out that jury members were forbidden from voting on restaurants in which they have an interest.

Drew also said that no organiser or sponsor of the contest can vote or have any influence on the result.

The competition's sponsors include drinks brands San Pellegrino and Veuve Clicquot.

The awards have also gone regional and there is now a 50 Best for Asia and one for Latin America, which will be announced in Mexico in September.