A Special Edition of Bord: From the Department of Provocations
An opinion about Opinionated About Dining and other rankings
Throughout the Covid crisis, there have been voices suggesting that, however awful the impact on the restaurant industry—and we all know how truly terrible it has been—the pandemic has also brought an opportunity: to correct course, to fix deeply entrenched problems, to essentially come back better. As someone put it to us in a recent interview, “Our industry is fantastic, but it’s also flawed. And if we don’t learn from this, if we don’t use it for positive change, if we just fall back into what’s comfortable, then we have failed miserably.”
So in the interests of not getting too comfortable, we thought we’d rake a little muck.
Today, Opinionated About Dining released its rankings for European restaurants. For a lot of restaurants—150 of them, to be exact, plus others that are unranked but recommended—it is very welcome news. Eleven Copenhagen restaurants made the list (including Amass, Noma, Geranium, Kadeau, Alouette, and, at number one, The Alchemist), which for a city this size is a pretty remarkable showing, and testimony to the extraordinary degree of creativity, hard work, and talent that characterize the industry here.
So, first of all: congratulations to all the restaurants that made the list. We know how much it means to be recognized for your work, and we know that, especially right now, when everything still feels pretty fragile, a list like OAD can provide a welcome boost in morale and revenue. It’s also one more sign that things are returning to normal.
But it also make us wonder: are we sure ‘normal’ is what we want?
We know that these kinds of rankings give a lot of influence, for example, to a relatively small group of people with either the means to travel extensively and eat out, or the willingness to have their expenses subsidized by tourism boards and even restaurants themselves. We also know from numerous firsthand accounts that some of those reviewers have used their position to request or demand special treatment.
We know that lists like OAD, which this year counts 6 women among the 150 European chefs it recognizes, have struggled to be representative, and that, despite efforts to appear more inclusive, they can help perpetuate the notion that the world of gastronomy is a boy’s club. And because they tend to reward—sometimes implicitly, sometimes by design—the tasting menu, they can reinforce the sense that only one genre of restaurant is truly ‘best.’
We know that all of these rankings are aimed at the traveling international foodie class, and that—directly or indirectly—they encourage their audiences to “make a special trip” (in OAD’s parlance)— in order to eat. But we also know that when travel restrictions killed tourism, a lot of restaurants found themselves in the novel position of having to rely almost entirely on a local clientele—and that they were gratified to learn that those guests, given the chance and bookings that didn’t have to be made three months in advance, were eager to support them. What happens to those locals once the international clientele comes back? And given the even bigger crisis that is bearing down on us—which is to say, the climate crisis—what do we think about restaurants whose business models depend on thousands of people flying thousands of kilometers to eat in them?
Finally, we know that a ranking, by its very nature, is a zero sum game: one restaurant’s rise is another’s fall. Yet if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the value of community over competition.
None of this is meant to detract from anyone’s accomplishment, and we’re as happy as anyone to see restaurants we love get the recognition they deserve. Nor do we doubt that, in some ways, rankings like OAD do indeed help restaurants. But as the number of these kinds of awards and lists grows—and a new one seems to pop up every year or two— we think it’s worth inquiring about the costs of that support. And gently reminding that, in the answer, there’s a choice being made. We can come out of this moment of rupture by trying as hard and fast as we can to put things back the way they were. Or we can take a moment, breathe, and ask: what version of normal do we want?