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Many of the greatest names of the world of cooking – including Joël Robuchon, Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal – were gathered in London tonight for the ‘Oscars’ of the international restaurant world, the San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants Awards.

The night was a triumph for Spain. Not only did Ferran Adrià take top position for El Bulli (for the fourth year running), but three other Spanish restaurants figured in the top eight positions.

Local interest was provided by the nomination of Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley for the Breakthrough Award, signifying almost certain presence in the top 50 next year. The restaurant was, for the first time, voted the best in London last year by Harden’s survey.

The news for Wareing’s former boss Gordon Ramsay was not so good. He registered an eyecatching decline in prestige, from 13th position last year to nowhere (not even in the top 100) this year. As is so often the case, the response from Ramsay’s camp bordered on churlishness, with a spokesman quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying that Gordon “takes all these sort of surveys with a pinch of salt”*.

Does it ever occur to the Ramsay camp that if they stopped talking nonsense, they might get a better press? Ramsay has a clear record of not taking all these surveys “with a pinch of salt’. His PR made extensive use of our own, Harden’s, survey, during the many years our results were very positive for him. But, all of a sudden, when the results became a little less flattering, Harden’s was suddenly ‘just out to get him’.

It’s difficult not to see the parallels here. How could it not matter to a brand as self-aggrandising as Ramsay’s that a carefully-chosen cross-section of the world’s foodies seem to have decided – perhaps as he can seem to value the screen so much more than the stove – that he’s not really very important any more?

Like so many utterances from the Ramsay camp, it just beggars belief.

PS (21 April) Giles Coren takes a tilt in a Times column today at the awards. He stopped participating, he says, when he realised that “if everybody else judging had been to as few of the restaurants on the list as I had (and most of them had been to far fewer) then the comparative element was a sham, and the findings complete bunkum.” In this concern, he echoes the criticism most often made: it’s so difficult to get a table at El Bulli, say, that it’s simply not mathematically possible for many of the 800-odd strong jury to have eaten there in any 12-month period.

It is entirely true, therefore, to say that the awards almost by definition cannot be assessing what they purport to be assessing. As a gauge of fame and esteem in the international foodie world (especially the English-speaking part), however, they are not without interest.

The parallel with the Oscars we used in the story above is perhaps not so far wide of the mark. In both cases, there’s a panel of voters deemed to have particular knowledge and interest in the subject – whereas it’s almost certainly true that most of the movie panel have actually seen the relevant films before they vote on them, it‘s also true that they may be reflecting third-hand personality and so on perceptions, just in the same way as the restaurant awards probably do.

As is the wont of restaurant reviewers, incidentally, Coren – for the purposes of the day’s article anyway – puts all the list-makers of the culinary world into the same sin bin. Fom Michelin to Harden’s, via Gault Millau, all suffer from a tendency to make “compulsive and irrelevant lists” of the sort normally held to be indicators of “personality drawbacks”.

All good knockabout stuff, but restaurant lists, in the form of guides or otherwise, have been an essential concomitant of restaurants almost since their inception in pre-Revolutionary France. If there really wasn’t any point in them, we would suggest, you can’t help feeling that the market would have rumbled them by now.

* PPS (5 June) Amusing extract from the Gordon Ramsay website, noted today. “Mark [Askew] has overseen Gordon’s restaurants as Executive Head Chef of Gordon Ramsay Holdings since 2001. His talent, passion and ongoing involvement with Restaurant Gordon Ramsay have seen it maintain three Michelin Stars, while it has also featured consistently among ‘Restaurant’ magazine’s annual S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, ever since the list began in 2002.” This, of course, isn’t actually true any more, but it also clearly shows that the suggestion that Ramsay takes all these suggestions “with a pinch of salt” is nonsense. Why refer to them then?

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