The San Pellegrino Top 50 has been ranking restaurants across the globe since its inception in 2002. The list is labeled “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants,” voted on by “a panel of over 1,000 culinary experts” (Reed n.d.). The 2020 edition has been postponed so the brand can focus “its attention on supporting global recovery” from the pandemic; however, a look back at 2019’s list offers a glimpse into contemporary haute cuisine’s great irony: hyperlocal cuisines supported by globe-trotting customers.
The current top restaurant, Mirazur, is located on France’s Côte d’Azur in Menton, population 29,000, and features “citrus fruit from the Riviera, saffron from Sospel, olive oil and lemons from Menton, wild mushrooms from the surrounding countryside, produce from the Ventimiglia markets, gamberoni prawns from San Remo, locally caught fish, and so on” (Mirazur n.d.). Even a pristine Mediterranean enclave would struggle to support a restaurant of Mirazur’s aspirations with a population less than one-tenth of nearby Nice. But international acclaim brings the attention of the global elite: at the height of its powers, El Bulli, another former world #1, would receive up to one million reservation requests annually for only a handful of spots at the restaurant (Matthews 2010). Its hometown, Roses, in Spain, has a population even smaller than Menton’s. It’s unlikely a local resident will pop by for dinner when the wait list is overbooked indefinitely. Eating at these restaurants is a luxury monopolized by those with the means not only to pay for them, but to travel to them as well.
Consider restaurants like Central, in Lima, Peru (currently #6), and White Rabbit (#13), located in Moscow. Central is a restaurant focused on rediscovering traditional Peruvian cuisine, and enjoys deep roots in the local Andean ecosystem. Its chefs forage for wild products and source local ingredients to prepare in sophisticated, creative ways. All very admirable, but with a menu starting at 568 Peruvian sol (approximately $168 US dollars) without alcohol, it is natural to question for whom this locality is intended. Peru is a developing nation with a poverty rate around 20 percent, and while their GDP is growing, it’s safe to say that Central is not a restaurant with broad local appeal (Central Intelligence Agency 2020). Business Insider’s review of the restaurant is at pains to point out that “Our waiter was friendly, happy to joke about the somewhat-ludicrous eating experience we were having,” but their idea of ludicrous didn’t encapsulate the irony of eating a monumentally expensive meal in a developing nation (Gilbert 2018). A Google Street View search for the restaurant shows it hidden behind a tall steel wall, topped with barbed wire—revealing a different face than the inclusive, locally minded attitude suggested by the cuisine.
White Rabbit offers an opportunity to taste luxury while literally looking down on local citizens. You can take in panoramic views of Moscow from the glass-roofed restaurant as you tuck into the “Platter Royale for Two” (8,300 rubles), “Crab cake, caviar, and champagne sauce” (1,990 rubles), “Filet mignon, parsnip puree, foie gras and black truffle” (2,850 rubles), and finish with “Porous pine ice cream and fondant with cedar pine nuts praline” (620 rubles)—a $183 meal (before alcohol) in a country where corruption is estimated to consume between 25 and 50 percent of their GDP (Milov et al. 2011).
This is not to say that chefs should be criticized for following their creative impulses or that efforts to revitalize local cuisines aren’t worthwhile endeavors. The chefs on the 50 Best list are at the height of their craft, demonstrably aware of shortcomings in the food system, using their own practices to model a better way. However, as a result of the heightened profiles created by reviewers like San Pellegrino, their restaurants become monopolized by the global 1 percent. Faced with high overheads and tight margins, top chefs can’t afford to locally source their customers as they would other ingredients, and consumers’ provenance isn’t included in the critical commentary determining a restaurant’s commitment to locality. Moreover, navigating the complexities of food accessibility goes well beyond any chef’s purview; in the event a restaurant successfully raises the profile of a local cuisine to global levels, powerful market forces take over. Quinoa is a classic example: once a staple crop in the Andes, when global demand soared, prices rose and locals’ consumption rate dropped 4 percent. In Bolivia, one of the two largest quinoa-producing nations, 80 percent of the rural population still lives below the poverty line. The globalization of this local food has Bolivians turning to rice and pasta as the increased market price of quinoa obliges them to export their best production (Yu 2019).
Yet the presence and high ranking of such restaurants as Mirazur, Central, Hiša Franko, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Borago, and others indicates a trend: “hyperlocality,” a practice of sourcing ingredients exclusively from restaurants’ immediate vicinity, often appropriating traditional recipes or techniques from regional cultural heritage. Their common ancestor is Noma, former world #1 and current #2, the pioneer of New Nordic cuisine. The irony is that these hyperlocal cuisines are supported through international travel. The majority of “locals,” particularly in developing nations and even in developed ones, couldn’t be farther from these restaurants’ output, while the global elite travel thousands of miles to support localized procurement practices. The ne plus ultra of this double standard is Schloss Schauenstein, a hotel and restaurant in Fürstenau, Switzerland, #50 on the list and winner of the “Sustainable Restaurant Award.” Fürstenau is a remote mountain town of 345 residents. It is 260 miles from Geneva, 164 miles from Bern, 88 miles from Zurich—even native Swiss clients must travel to access the restaurant, while international customers can fly into the nearest airport, over an hour’s drive away. Clearly the burden of sustainability falls on the restaurant, not its patrons. A three-course meal runs around $225, including a mandatory two-franc donation to the restaurant’s charity—building philanthropy into excess just as locality is acquired through travel.
Hyperlocality facilitates an escalation of exclusivity for haute cuisine. The last big trend, molecular gastronomy, lost its luster among global tastemakers after its assimilation into the mainstream; immersion circulators are now available at Target. Something new had to be found, and what better way for elite consumers to showcase their worldliness than championing irreproducible food from geographically disparate areas? Common food enthusiasts will have a hard time even getting to isolated restaurants like Asador Etxebarri (#3, in Atxondo, Spain), Hiša Franko (#38, Kobarid, Slovenia), or Hof van Cleve (#43, Kruishoutem, Belgium), let alone eating at them. The few with access get the added benefit of virtue, signaling that their conspicuous consumption is done in the service of promoting sustainability through rediscovering endangered ingredients and cuisines. The combination of chefs’ virtuous intent, consumers’ globe-trotting, and the experience’s inaccessibility for ordinary people is a potent one for generating social capital.
High placement in the list often correlates with chefs’ willingness to engage in socially or environmentally progressive ventures outside their kitchens. The late Pulitzer Prize–winning food critic Jonathan Gold wrote: “Restaurants in the World’s 50 Best tend to be run by chefs deeply aware of the societal obligations of their stature. Bottura, who also studies food waste, has opened soup kitchens in Paris; Milan, Italy; and Rio de Janeiro. The Roca brothers work on sustainable development issues for the United Nations. Daniel Humm of 11 Madison Park raises money for No Kid Hungry” (Gold 2018). The moral calculus is the perfect synecdoche for neoliberalism: wealthy patrons of top restaurants demand virtue from restaurants, even as their patronage illuminates the insufficiency of the progress they mandate. Chefs and restaurants are not responsible for fixing economic inequality. But the 50 Best list weaponizes chefs’ virtuous commitments to affix a veneer of progressivism on a flawed enterprise. The list is an echo chamber where the rich and privileged congratulate themselves for their sophisticated taste and laudable goals, even as their engagement with this cuisine contradicts its spirit. Their endorsement of hyperlocality ensures that the art they consume is safely sequestered behind the impenetrable barriers of cost, geography, and the occasional high metal wall.
The list’s utility is demonstrated by Paul Grinberg, an international operations manager for a major financial services company. Grinberg decided that as he traveled for his work he would eat at every restaurant, all 100 (the top 50 plus the additional 51–100), on the San Pellegrino list. As of 2018 he had already finished 99 of them. Asked for the restaurant he would eat at regularly, he cited Maido in Peru, saying, “Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura’s ability to fuse Japanese and Peruvian (two of my favorite) ingredients and flavors is wonderful” (Pomranz 2018). Purportedly to secure a reservation at his missing 100th restaurant, a sushi counter in Japan, he enlisted a team of sixteen people to make phone calls to the restaurant on his behalf when their reservation line opened. The 50 Best list in action: international financiers supporting subsistence-level jobs for restaurant employees as they splash huge sums to enhance their status among wealthy peers.
In the face of enormous challenges to the food system alongside staggering inequality, the global elite have hijacked the restaurant world’s best and brightest to serve their own ends. Great art ought to be accessible: museums are open to the public, great orchestras have free public concerts, operas offer discounted student tickets. It is imperative that criticism of this list goes beyond its obvious Anglocentrism, as if getting a more diverse group of people to serve the global elite is the only progress required. The hypocrisy of hyperlocality demonstrates the disconnect between the penchants of the wealthy and the reality of contemporary food systems.