By now, anyone interested in the top 50 restaurants in the world has found the list and read the articles about how last night’s ceremony went. As it has been for the past 20 years, it was a chic, upbeat party, a happy place where chefs and foodies celebrated each other.
What was special about it was the emphasis on change and change makers. For the first time in history, the award was not just given to a European or North American chef. In a move that was somewhat expected (although we were led to believe it might be a European restaurant after all), the highest and well-deserved accolade went to Virgilio Martínez and Pía León at Central in Lima. Her love letter to Peruvian gastronomy reflects passion, creativity and deep research into her country’s culinary traditions and possibilities.
Three themes emerged throughout the gala and the lectures and events leading up to it: Reinvention, Diversity and Social Impact.
Chefs from last year’s top winner Geranium showcased dishes from the menu they redesigned during the lockdown. Bruno Verjus talked about becoming a chef in his fifties (and a good one at that – his Parisian restaurant Table came in at number 10 on the list, an amazing achievement). Former awardee Daniel Humm spoke about his decision to go vegan with Eleven Madison Park. And local chef Quique Dacosta combined the creativity of his tasting menus with his vehement defense of Valencia’s signature dish, paella, and the fact that it should never contain chorizo or, heaven forbid, pineapple.
In addition to Central America, Latin America also showed a strong performance. Elena Reygadas, from Rosetta, Mexico City, was named World’s Best Chef (a category we hope we won’t need sooner than later), and Pía Salazar from Nuema, Quito, was named World’s Best Pastry Chef (ditto).
Tatiana by Kwame Onwuachi won the Resy One to Watch Award for celebrating Onwuachi’s Nigerian heritage and New York’s Afro-Caribbean communities. New York’s Korean destination, Atomix, also received high marks, coming in at #8 on the list.
Angél León, the chef at Aponiente in Spain, spoke about his commitment to sustainability – using a wide variety of fish, many of them by-catch, instead of other animal proteins. Massimo Bottura from Osteria Franciscana in Italy emphasized that sustainability means more than zero waste and it is also about helping communities, highlighting his Food for Soul project. Janaína Torres Rueda, the chef and co-owner of A Casa do Porco in São Paulo, spoke about her mission to improve and transform the diet of the population by offering quality artisanal products at affordable prices. In four years, her Cooks for Education transformed state school meals by replacing industrial foods with natural ones, a project that has benefited more than two million students.
Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen has been named a Champion of Change for her work at the Amal Center in Marrakech, where she trains local women in culinary and hospitality skills which they translate into long-term employment. When her deaf graduates couldn’t find work, she opened the sign language café in the same town. The other Champions of Change were Damián Diaz and Othón Nolasco, who created the nonprofit food security project No Us Without You LA, which focuses on caring for the undocumented workers who form the backbone of Los Angeles restaurants.
But the real star of the celebrations was Valencia. The third largest city in Spain dates back to the 1st century BC. It now has one of the highest numbers of musicians per capita in the world and the only Berklee College of Music outside of the United States. The architecturally stunning City of Arts and Sciences (location of the awards ceremony) with futuristic structures such as a planetarium, an oceanarium and an interactive museum was designed by local son Santiago Calatrava.
Valencia is also an excellent food city. There are so many beautiful, high quality food markets used not only by tourists but also by locals that there is a festival every year to celebrate them. Social gatherings often take place outdoors, where huge pans of (pineapple-free) paella and other rice dishes are prepared over orange wood fires. There’s also a dynamic gourmet scene, with established chefs and rising stars.
Located near Ruzafa Market, Fierro is a tiny slice of a Michelin-starred restaurant, seating just 14 in a pleasantly modern space. Before Corona there was a long table for everyone; Now there are several smaller tables, but each still has a view of the kitchen and the chefs’ attention. Germán Carrizo and Carito Lourenço previously worked in the Quique Dacosta group and obviously took over some of his creativity. Lourenço’s native Argentinian roots are reflected in many of the small courses on the long but not heavy-tasting menu, including the small empanadas served as one of the snacks. There’s also an encounter of foie gras with passion fruit, a plate of monkfish and marinated carrots, and a shrimp and melon soup. The bread course is outstanding: a fluffy cremona loaf (another Argentinian tradition) served with whipped butter and individual tins of caviar.
Camarena’s flagship has two Michelin stars and was recently voted number 96 on the expanded list of the world’s 50 best. He says his cuisine is based on time, and proves it with the start of the 20-plus-course tasting menu: he invites diners to a counter where he slices aged tuna (a mix of lacto-fermented and dry-aged). , which was cured with carob. The Toro naturally melts in your mouth. The rest of the menu unfolds like a symphony of gorgeous dishes and elegant dishes like red shrimp with garlic, bobby beans and egg yolks, as well as a delicious cold spring herb soup with tiny zucchini flowers, hamachi and sweet wild strawberries. Finish off with a sweet “socarrat”, a nod to the crunchy part of the paella.
Another two-star El Poblet, owned by Quique Dacosta and run by chef Luis Valls, is more sophisticated. The “Territori” tasting menu begins with a more traditional Valencian selection of cured meats (albeit with some unusual ones, like eel and goat leg, rather than the horse that was typically served earlier). One dish not on the menu includes raw fish and “edible plastic” intended as a political commentary on the state of our oceans. Then the guests read that the following dishes will contain “Allium” and “Reeds and Mud”. The former turns out to be a slow-cooked onion stuffed with tapioca pearls and foie gras, while the latter is a composition of eel in three different life stages. The olive rice, which contains spherical olives and tender lamb, caused sighs of joy from my table neighbors. As a farewell, petit fours are presented in the form of pine cones on a bed of pine needles.
Outside of town, in Dénia, Dacosta’s three-star flagship, which finished 20th last night, occupies an airy, lightly decorated white mansion. First sips of Dom Perignon and bites of small snacks – a sweet version of a tomato is delicious – are served in the courtyard before diners are seated at the indoor tables. The rest of the menu unfolds elegantly, paying homage to the region’s meat, fish and rice dishes. Dacosta cuisine has long been influenced by art and architecture and the theme of this year’s menu is “For the Love of Art”, a blend of taste, harmony, avant-garde nature and imagination. One of the highlights is the golden saffron fideuà (a type of pasta paella) with razor clams and the lobster roe salad, which is served with an intense sponge cake poured from an iridescent sea snail shell. A highlight is the fish portion of the menu, presented as a sort of avant-garde kaiseki set and served with a red tuna kombucha that tastes way better than it sounds. He also comes with a cart to thinly slice seasoned tuna that melts in your mouth, and there’s not a plastic in sight. Dacosta’s cuisine is pure beauty and fantasy.