Is Noma really the best?

A deserved winner, agree critics, but how credible is the award itself?

It has been named the world’s best restaurant for the second year running, but some sections of the international media are claiming this title is a misnomer that Noma does not deserve.

“Nobody takes ‘best’ lists seriously,” wrote the Los Angeles Times hours after the announcement last week on Monday. “Best restaurant in the world? The whole wide world? Wonder how many of the voters have actually eaten there – it has only 50 seats and it is, after all, in Denmark. And one wonders how many of these restaurants serve Pellegrino.”

Noma, or ‘noma’ as it prefers the media to call it, has been steadily rising up the S.Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant Awards rankings for years, and will inevitably laugh off such criticism as ‘sour grapes’ that is part of the course of being a success – particularly given the rousing reception its head chef René Redzepi and nine other representatives were given by their peers when they picked up the award wearing Viking helmets in London last week. 

However, the criticism has focused less on Noma’s claim to the title, and more on the credibility of the awards. Started just nine years ago by the British trade magazine Restaurant, the awards have had an enormous impact – every single restaurant in the top 50 sees a meteoric surge in interest from diners following the announcement every year.

“Business after the awards was, like, stupid,” Claude Bosi, the owner of London restaurant Hibiscus, which squeezed into the top 50 in 2010, told the New York Times. “Until then, we would be pretty dead during the summer because all the locals go out of town. But we were full of tourists – lots of people from Asia.”

For the purpose of the awards the world is split into 27 regions, each of which has a chairman responsible for appointing 30 jurors – a cross-section of journalists, chefs, restaurateurs, and food lovers. Each of the 837 voters is asked to vote for seven restaurants they have dined at in the last 18 months – three of which must be from outside their region.

But despite their global reach, only eight restaurants in Asia, Africa and Latin America have made the list. Questions have also been asked about the lobbying carried out by restaurants and in some cases even governments, of jurors who have strong connections to eligible restaurants, of the criteria used to select jurors more likely to favour cool restaurants over traditional ones, of jurors voting for restaurants they have clearly not dined at during the last 18 months, of restaurants giving jurors complimentary meals, and of collusion between jurors to ensure they vote in their region’s best interests. 

Reflecting a voting strategy straight out of the Eurovision Song Contest, Italian juror Alessandro Porcelli told the NYT that Italian jurors consulted each other about who to vote for. “It’s natural that each country would want to protect its rankings – we’re human,” he said.

The newspaper paid particular attention to the efforts of the Swedish government, which invites the regional chairmen and other media to partake in all-expenses paid gastro-tours of the country. Eleven accepted in 2010 – eight of which were jurors.

Critics have suggested that jurors supply receipts to prove they have dined and paid for a meal at the restaurant in the last 18 months. But Restaurant magazine said it was impractical to deal with the 5,859 receipts. “We’re a small organisation,” Drew told the NYT. “We don’t have the wherewithal to deal with that kind of work.”