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HindustanTimes Wed,23 Apr 2014
Food awards: Scooped inside out
Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
March 09, 2013
First Published: 12:19 IST(9/3/2013)
Last Updated: 19:47 IST(9/3/2013)
Food.

I will say in defence of everybody who runs an awards scheme, that it is much more difficult than it may seem from the outside Is it just me or do you also feel that awards functions can get boring and repetitive? Take those awards nights for Hindi movies. You start with Screen, work your way through Stardust, IIFA, Filmfare, Zee, Apsara and God alone knows what else. Eventually, they all merge into one. Who won Best Picture at Filmfare? And at Screen? Can you really remember who won what where? About the only thing that I recall about Hindi movie awards functions is that Vidya Balan wins Best Actress at every ceremony, every year. Which frankly, is fair enough, because she is our best actress.

That’s a Wrap Folks All I recall about movie awards functions is that Vidya Balan (above) wins Best Actress at every ceremony and Argo shamed the Academy into giving it the Oscar for Best Picture

It is the same with Hollywood-type awards. Who won the Golden Globe for Best Actor this year? The SAG? The Bafta? About the only thing I remember about this season’s Hollywood /London awards is that Argo triumphed at many ceremonies and shamed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into giving it the Best Picture Oscar. Otherwise Steven Spielberg’s supremely boring, over-talky Lincoln would have swept the Oscars. (And it is shameful that Ben Affleck was not nominated for Best Director at the Oscars.)

Which brings us to food awards. We’ve seen a fair number of those in India recently but frankly none has the stamp of authority that makes it rise high above the others. Some food award ceremonies are like children’s birthday parties where everyone who turns up gets a return gift – only in this case, it is an award. At other ceremonies, restaurants that opened barely hours before the ceremony began, win awards for being the Best Restaurant of the Year in some category or the other. (How? The damn thing wasn’t even open for nearly all of the year).

Some are subject to the prejudices of the jury. For instance, the hotel industry believes that the NDTV Good Times food awards are biased against hotel restaurants because the jury (NDTV’s food anchors) comprises stand-alone restaurateurs and the like who reward their own fraternity. (I don’t really agree with the criticism. But believe me, that’s exactly how hoteliers feel.)

Our own awards, the HT Crystals are also far from perfect. The main awards are voted for by the readers of HT City so you can’t quibble with the people’s choices but honestly, public opinion can be strange! This year’s awards were fine but last year, the best nightclub award went to the Maurya’s Dublin, a place that was already on its last legs (it has since closed). Even though wonderful new bars and nightspots open every week in Delhi, the readers still voted for Dublin!
My awards, the supporting act at the Crystals, are meant to be no more than a personal list of places I go to most often but I can already hear the jeers: “Does this man never venture out of South Delhi?” Or “Does he really think that any of his readers can afford to eat at Wasabi?” And so on.

So I make no claims to infallibility either on behalf of my own awards or the HT Crystals. But all I will say in our defence – and in defence of everybody else who runs an awards scheme – is that it is much more difficult than it may seem from the outside.

Take, for instance, all those lists of the world’s greatest restaurants. At the Oscars, everyone who votes for say, Best Picture, will have seen every movie that is nominated. So the award is fair in the sense that the jury sees everything before making a decision.

Working on the list Patricia Wells (above) and I are on the jury for Foodie 100, an American list of the world’s best restaurants

But lists of the world’s greatest restaurants suffer from an obvious disadvantage. I doubt if anybody who contributes to the list has actually eaten at all of the 100 top restaurants let alone all the ones that were unlucky enough not to make the list. So, how does a guy who voted for the world’s best restaurant know that the world’s third-best restaurant (according to the list) is not actually better? The chances are that he has never been to either and certainly not to both. And indeed, when the winners are hard-to-get-into places like EI Bulli or Noma, it is a fair assumption that relatively few members of the jury have actually eaten there in the same year.

I mention all these problems for two reasons. The first is that I am part of the jury for the Foodie 100, an American list of the world’s best restaurants that will appear next month. The jury is small and distinguished (apart from myself, that is) and includes such heavyweights as Patricia Wells and Gael Greene but even as I nominated my top restaurants, I was always conscious that I had never been to say, The French Laundry while the American judges had probably never been to Indian Accent.

So how does one compare? How does one decide which restaurant is better?
Frankly, I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to see how it works out. Perhaps it will end up like the silly list of Asia’s top 20 restaurants that the Miele guide comes up with each year where Japan – which has some of the world’s greatest places – is always under-represented and fat white men who run hotel kitchens in Asia run away with the prizes.

Resident Darlings Heston Blumenthal (above) and Ferran Adrià were favourites at Restaurant magazine’s list of World’s Top 100 Restaurants

Or it could end up like the Restaurant magazine list of the World’s Top 100 restaurants which is an accurate representation of British prejudices at any given time – and of not very much else. For instance, the French are always under-represented in the Top 20. Then, Britain’s current obsessions dictate the choice of restaurants. When the world economy was booming, Brits looked to sunny Spain and to the wonders of molecular gastronomy. So Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal grabbed the top slots. Then as the British economy began to collapse, the Brits fell in love with Scandinavia, perhaps because it is the only region in the world that can be even greyer and gloomier than Britain. It was shows like Wallander and The Killing on TV and Denmark’s Noma on top of the lists. Everything Scandinavian is now as wonderful to the Brits as everything Spanish used to be a few years ago.

Then there is an Asia Top 50 announced with much fanfare in Singapore a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know the two Tokyo restaurants that came in at number one and two but both have been much praised by critics so I would imagine that their placing will not be controversial. I do know David Thompson’s Nahm in Bangkok which easily deserves to be number three.

Of the other restaurants on the list, two surprise choices are in Bangkok. I love Eat Me on Soi Pipat  2, but does it really belong at number 19 on this list? I am not sure. On the other hand, I’m really pleased to see Gaggan on Soi Lang Suan at number 10. I wrote about Gaggan Anand and his vaguely molecular take on Indian cuisine some years ago when his restaurant had just opened and I’m delighted by his success. According to this list at least, Gaggan now runs the best Indian restaurant in Asia.

I’m sure this will annoy India’s restaurateurs. The top Indian (in the sense of country rather than cuisine) restaurant on the list is Dum Pukht but 17 is way too low. Dum Pukht is a far, far better restaurant than Singapore’s boring Les Amis (14) or the gimmicky Bo Innovation (15) in Hong Kong. And it is just silly to put the Bombay Wasabi at number 20. There are hundreds of Japanese restaurants all over Asia (let alone Japan!) which are superior. Hell, even the Delhi Wasabi is better! 

Rahul Akerkar of Indigo made it to the Asia Top 50 list

Of the other Indian restaurants on the list, I have no problems with Bukhara (26), Indigo (28) or Varq (30). These are excellent restaurants that deserve recognition though of course we can always argue about how low or high on the list they belong. Personally I would have put both Indian Accent (41) and especially Karavalli (44), much higher. But the list has its biases: towards the Taj (it has three restaurants) and ITC (it has two restaurants) and against all of India with exception of Bombay-Delhi (only Karavalli is from another city). Given that the jury loves the Taj, then I wonder why it didn’t choose Madras’ Southern Spice rather than Wasabi? The Taj would have been happy and the list would have seemed more national.

But that’s okay. No list is perfect and no awards ceremony is perfect either. If Argo’s director can be overlooked by the Oscars, then why should we complain if Southern Spice, Gajalee and so many excellent restaurants were ignored? Somebody  has to decide. And we can’t all be expected to agree.


Meanwhile, congratulations to all the chefs who made it: Hemant Oberoi, Naren Thimmaiah, JP Singh, Ghulam M Quereshi, Manish Mehrotra and Rahul Akerkar. Special congratulations to the Maurya’s Anil Chadha and Manisha Bhasin. It is unusual for a single hotel to have two restaurants on the list. And of course to Gaggan Anand: with this recognition, a star is born.

I doubt if anybody who contributes to the lists has actually eaten at all of the 100 top restaurants.

From HT Brunch, March 10

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