This week, I found myself amid the swells of restaurant high society, flanked by the head chef of one of my favorite New York restaurants, Dirt Candy, and someone who probably works in food PR. I sipped my champagne and took in the moment. I was in Paris, at what the organizers hoped to be the industry-defining party of the year.
It was . . . fine.
I had dressed up in my most passable party attire (Uniqlo blazer and thrifted tie) to attend the World Restaurant Awards–the first of its kind, despite the seemingly old and hackneyed name. (Couldn’t we find a better acronym than WRA?) The event bills itself as an updated, perhaps even woke, Michelin star-like gala.
The events company IMG, along with journalists Joe Warwick and Andrea Petrini, spearheaded the event, with diversity being a focal point of its pitch. The evening was intended to honor unique and innovative fine dining restaurants around the world, judged by a panel of 50 men and 50 women. Sponsors included American Express and Gaggenau. The concept telegraphs fine dining’s innate sense of superiority while at the same time nodding to its very superfluousness. There’s an award for “restaurant of the year” presented alongside one for “tattoo-free chef.” It longs to be cheeky, self-deprecating, and yet still important.
The reception took place at the Palais Brongniart, a cavernous and regal building that was once a stock exchange, in a room surrounded by columns and with a circular Laurent-Perrier (another sponsor) champagne bar at the center. Along the periphery were various culinary treats, mostly from Singapore (also a sponsor).
Throughout the night, I found myself wondering—sometimes aloud to my date—whether such an awards ceremony even needs to exist. Do we need more pomp? Does the suffocating veneer of prestige not permeate most restaurants of a certain caliber already? And aren’t the attendees who want to eschew rarefied dining culture also making a very intentional choice by showing up to such a pretentious event? The World Restaurant Awards seemed to be trying to cater to both groups, but with little effect.
The unofficial dress code symbolized this duality: straightforward cocktail and look like I don’t care, but hey, maybe I do care, actually. A few people swanned around in tuxedos or in flowing sequined dresses with long trains, but there were also folks in plaid getups, T-shirts, and jeans. Of course, this is an event with chefs at its heart–a profession known for certain nonconformist mentalities.
But what does a new culinary awards gathering bring in 2019 that previous ones have neglected?
The party began with cocktails and finger foods. Then we were ushered into an auditorium. French actor Antoine de Caunes hosted the awards ceremony itself, peppering the seated attendees with dad jokes–making a toast with a literal piece of burnt toast (food humor!)–and references to his French-ness. His routine was punctuated by clips that showcased chefs discussing their craft (or cooking or gardening or doing something else serious yet photogenic) or referencing sustainability. The event ended with more food and drink as well as a DJ set from Hot Chip. As a mosh-pit-like atmosphere developed near some of the food tables, the hungrier in attendance clamored to get their hands on some dinner.
Despite press materials’ focus on the gender diversity of the judging pool, the event itself proved to be lacking in that very regard: The presenters were majority male and overwhelmingly white.
Attempts to stray from the usual script for events like these also missed the mark. The award for “tattoo-free chef,” for instance, appears to have been an attempt to poke fun at the colorful aesthetic body-art trend embraced by many chefs. This was a chance for the WRAs to shine a light on people who don’t fit the mold of the buttoned-up culinary world–perhaps a not-white, non-male chef in a non-European country. But the winner was . . . Alain Ducasse, a celebrated, extremely famous 62-year-old white Frenchman with multiple, hugely successful restaurants.
Even before the ceremony began, there were red flags. The Washington Post pointed out that the awards shortlist was overwhelmingly male-dominated. Bloomberg highlighted the lack of diversity: Though the judging pool had decent gender representation, “Only three of the 100 are of African descent; the majority of the female members are media, not chefs; and Europe is disproportionately represented.” The event director, Cécile Rebbot, provided the Post with the following statement:
We are giving women in the industry an equal voice in these awards, and are hoping that the successful female judges coupled with those who are breaking through (we have two female-fronted restaurants on the shortlist for “Arrival of the Year”), will inspire and ignite this change. Also by addressing ethical thinking/staff welfare, we are hoping to contribute to improving the work environment for all, and that it will attract more female talent to the industry.
Fine. But the overall effect of the ceremony was mere hand waves. The WRA acknowledged there were issues to be tackled, provided a bit of lip service and one tangible action in the form of gender equity on the judging panel, and then went on with the regularly scheduled programming. There were some nods in a certain direction–including an award for “ethical thinking”–but they didn’t amount to much.
The past year-plus has been a reckoning for the restaurant industry. We’ve learned of culinary titans either harassing or assaulting employees–and we’ve started to view the long-standing reputation of kitchens being untenable work cultures in a new light. The industry is entering a new and uncertain era; it must figure out how to go forward. It can either ignore the headlines or talk about the cultural upheaval necessary to make for a more equitable workplace. Restaurateurs love (and I mean love) to talk about how to fix the system. Rarely is real action taken.
An event like the World Restaurant Awards presents a unique opportunity. Sure, Michelin would never utter a word about #MeToo, but if you are producing a new program that touts gender equity as one of its main tenets, you best be ready to frankly discuss the ugly issues as well. Yet this week’s event didn’t go that far. It dipped its toe in the pot and jerked it back out just as quickly.
Don’t get me wrong: The event wasn’t bad. It was a party, an opportunity for people to hobnob and unwind. Every industry should celebrate its best and brightest (although the culinary world does this a lot). Attendees certainly had fun. Some winners were elated, others visibly uncomfortable–quickly grabbing their award and an expensive bottle of champagne, posing awkwardly for the photo op, and then scampering offstage.
I left the party thinking about how events like the World Restaurant Awards could help us rethink the industry. Given the deep-pocketed sponsorships, I imagine the creators intend to make this an enduring event. I probably won’t be invited back, but I sincerely hope next year they can rethink their attempt at rethinking.