Rachel Shteir has another apocalypse to lay on Chicago’s head: Alinea dropped out of the top ten best restaurants in the world, in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. On the other hand, his fellow chefs awarded Alinea the Chef’s Choice prize in recognition of the enormous influence and the inspiration it provides fine dining in the U.S., which is surely part of the reason why Grant Achatz doesn’t seem too upset in the video taken by Steve Dolinsky (a regional chair for the competition) shortly after the announcement ceremony. What does it all mean, if anything, that a Spanish restaurant and a Danish one have flipped places for the best restaurant in the world?
There’s a perfectly good case to be made either for or against the awards as meaning anything. On the plus side it’s reasonably well (and transparently) run, with voters from many parts of the world who are obligated to remain reasonably informed on the world restaurant scene; they are also obligated to turn over a significant portion of the voting body every year, so the group opinion doesn’t calcify. That said, it’s still a relatively low ratio of voters to things to vote for, meaning that a few people shifting their thinking can produce notable shifts in voting. To fall from #7 to #15, as Alinea did, could be the result of a very small number of people changing their minds— and as a friend of ours noted on Twitter, there’s just a human tendency to prize the new and let the more familiar drop in estimation (as the continued fall of Achatz’s top personal influence, Thomas Keller, suggests, with his restaurants barely clinging to the top 50).
The other thing is that the list is very much about only one kind of dining which most people even in prosperous countries will never experience in their lives. Not really till the second 50, when several branches of Momofuku start turning up, do you begin to see things that aren’t white tablecloth dining appear. On the other hand, at least within the white tablecloth realm, it’s an important bellwether for when parts of the world manage to reach that level of artistry; it’s certainly had influence in introducing people to modern dining in Spain and Scandinavia, and Latin America and Asia certainly benefit on an international scale.
So what does it mean for Chicago? It’s hard to say there’s any competition for the honors here when Alinea is the only Chicago restaurant on the list. In that video clip, Achatz tells Dolinsky what he sees as the list’s value— that once you’re at three stars, it’s just about keeping it, but the variability of a 50-slot list gives the cooks something to be motivated by and to cheer themselves on each year, even if the movements on the list aren’t all that significant statistically.