Lyon-based food writer Andrea Petrini is one of the most powerful figures in fine dining—a culinary star-maker whose enthusiastic seal of approval can turn young chefs into the next big thing. For his newest project, as the chair of the judging panel at the World Restaurant Awards, he’s aiming to eschew the tried and tired benchmarks of the global restaurant scene, celebrating diversity rather than the “usual suspect” names that win Michelin stars or feature on the 50 Best list.
With Where Chefs Eat author Joe Warwick as the Creative Director of the awards, collaborating alongside IMG (the global management company behind events such as Frieze and New York Fashion Week), this week the longlist of nominees was unveiled among categories such as “Restaurant of the Year,” “Original Thinking” and “Off-Map Destination,” alongside others intended to more humorously subvert culinary trends, like “Tweezer-Free Kitchen,” “Red-Wine Serving Restaurant” and “Tattoo-Free Chef.” With Petrini and Warwick’s estimable standing in the food world, and having secured the financial backing of management firm IMG, their awards may just become the most influential accolades in fine dining or at very least shake up some pretty flawed methodology and institutions.
Indeed, for many years, Petrini has wielded his unique combination of charisma, gravitas and irresistible eccentricity to bring together culinary talent. Take, for example, GELINAZ! Does Upper Austria,’ the high-concept summer camp he arranged last year, where 23 of the world’s most feted chefs converged at the town of Neufelden. Here, they were tasked with reinventing dishes of goulash, freshwater fish and venison and serving them around the village, before plunging into a cold river to build a crossing from plastic containers as a sort of symbolic (and bizarre) bridging of gastronomy and art.
Among the cooks-turned-sappers were René Redzepi from Denmark, Magnus Nilsson from Sweden, Ana Roš from Slovenia, Gabriela Camara from Mexico and New Yorker David Chang. All are friends of Petrini, who has doubtlessly dined in more restaurants than almost anyone else on earth. For seemingly thirteen months a year the always flamboyantly dressed writer with the thick-framed glasses travels to every corner of the food world to be waited on and fawned over.
Now, with the World Restaurant Awards—which will take place in Paris next February and features a 100-person judging panel—he’s hoping to celebrate a new generation of forward-thinking cooks while commending established chefs doing things right.
Why do you think the world needs another gastronomic award ceremony? Because what we are doing is essentially different from already existing awards. First of all, because it is not a ranking and therefore doesn’t imply any kind of competition. Our main aims being to avoid comparing the incomparable and, at the opposite end, celebrate the diversity of different types of restaurants. We try to make people think outside the box and help them discover restaurants that don’t necessarily fit within the usual fine-dining scheme. Also, we have committed ourselves to form a judging committee constituted of at least 50 percent women, which is unfortunately still unique in the industry and could create some diverse and surprising results.
And why Paris? Because Paris is the place where the idea of the restaurant has its origin. And because the city was—and still is—a symbol of a certain conception and philosophy of fine dining. And last but not least, because Paris has changed a lot in these last years and has again become a main destination for people interested in good food and haute cuisine. Just like the entire country, the capital has opened up and receives a growing number of young chefs, who not only come to study classic French cuisine and techniques, but are also bringing their own history and find here a scene in which to tell it. That makes Paris today—gastronomically and culturally speaking—richer than it has ever been.
What’s a city you think is underrated and could become a food destination in years to come? I would say that Taipei fits your description perfectly. Despite the negative outcome of the recently held referendum on gay marriage, I’m convinced that the general atmosphere in Taiwan and its capital is a very tolerant one and becoming still even more so. Which is an important factor for an exciting food scene to develop. Furthermore, the sensational Taiwanese cuisine is a mixture of all kinds of cooking styles from mainland China, with strong influences from Japan and other Asian countries. Therefore, most conditions are fulfilled for becoming a food destination. What it needs now is the will of the Taiwanese government to encourage that trend, for example, by supporting the publication of a local Michelin Guide.
The three stars that the Michelin Guide assigns famously stand for “a restaurant worth the trip.” Would you really travel to faraway places to get to a special restaurant, even if this were not your profession? I definitely would. And I would travel to all kinds of restaurants, not exclusively fine-dining places. Of course, I also like to go to restaurants in my neighborhood to experience something familiar and comforting. But besides that, eating out to me becomes increasingly connected with traveling, with discovering new cooking styles, cuisines, cultures and people.
Today, chefs are expected to travel a lot as well. And many of them comply. Do you consider that a positive development? It is, of course, very welcome that chefs are traveling to discover other cuisines, to learn in exchange with their peers. But some of them definitely exaggerate. They expect their guests—who nowadays are often fans—to accept long and troublesome travels and to pay 300 euros or more and then they are rarely seen in their own places. My fear is—at least in the long run— that some guests will resent them for that.
Georges Desrues is a Trieste-based food and travel writer.
Where was your last vacation? July 2017 on the Greek island of Folegandros, a heavenly three weeks with (almost) no restaurants and no eating out, just sleeping, swimming and re-reading Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and George Orwell’s 1984 in a very controversial new French translation.
Where will your next vacation be? God only knows when. But where: hopefully in the north of Japan. Or going back to Maine as soon as possible.
The thing you can’t travel without? Books, of course. And the iPad for typing emergency things (like this Q&A).
Plane, train or automobile? When train is not an alternative, planes are mandatory. When it comes to cars—which I hate as much as I hated Gary Numan’s homonymous song— I’m the ultimate bore aboard. Either I get sick immediately or snore loudly in less than five minutes. I’m the worst companion when it comes to cars, with no orientation whatsoever.
The people you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? Tilda Swinton, anytime. Or Sylvia Kristel, like in the first movie of the Emmanuelle series.
What is your in-flight ritual? Meaning when I do not travel cattle class and I’m obliged to indulge in my ritual overdose of booze and sleeping pills?
The language you wish you spoke? German, Yiddish and Japanese, of course.
When were you happiest while traveling? Summer 1995 in West Cork, Ireland, in a beautiful villa on the hills between Durrus and Skull, but so close to the sea you could smell its saltiness. That was the summer when I discovered while arriving at the villa that I had hepatitis. So no food, no restaurants—only a couple of beers. I did almost nothing—just walking and staying up late till dawn reading Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theatre, which had just come out. I enjoyed every bit of it. Including the food poisoning/strong allergic reaction to the herbs and wood used for smoking the salmon that brought me first to the hospital, then to meet a local shaman/homeopathic doctor. I enjoy very much that kind of near-death experience.
Desert island or downtown? Provided that I have a suitcase full of books (a Kindle just doesn’t do), a desert island. Otherwise I love staying inside and going out downtown only after dusk having spent all day barefoot in the dark like a vampire in his panties.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? Definitely not the Chelsea Hotel nor the Grand Budapest Hotel. Probably the high-class fisherman’s rooms that two-Michelin-star chef Alexandre Couillon has opened above his restaurant La Marine in Noirmoutier.
What is your room service indulgence? Throwing dirty socks and panties and crumpled shirts at every corner of the room like a wolf pissing to mark its own territory.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? Again in Ireland, but in the north, above Sligo, in a fancy and brand-new luxury B&B where the owner, a filthy rich and alcoholic young German upper-class psychopath, first tried to fuck me and my wife and then attempted to kill us with a rifle because we didn’t let him enter our room. We had to sneak out at dawn from the back door. But he had two Irish Wolfhounds. A terrifying experience. All in all, totally as satisfying as the collected short stories First Love, Last Rites or The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan.
What is your favorite market? What a question. Les Halles Paul Bocuse in Lyon. And the organic Saturday market at La Croix-Rousse!
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? Anytime, anywhere, hanging out with red-haired Ygritte from Game of Thrones.
What are the show-off spots in your hometown? The natural wine bar Café Odessa in Lyon.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year?
Weekend: The Hamptons.
Year: At Colombe St-Pierre’s place in Le Bic, Canada, finally accomplishing my novel there.
Your biggest extravagance on the road? Having my shirts always properly ironed.
Describe a memorable meal from your travels. Today at Tim Butler’s place in Bangkok—family food with friends with lobsters and strange veggies and spices and a kilogram of caviar to be eaten with crispy pork skin.
Travel hell is? Being jetlagged and wishing that Melinda Joe, a fantastic food writer from Tokyo, had joined with me at Nobel Prize for Literature-awardee Kenzaburō Ōe’s private club for insomniacs getting drunk on whiskey and sake at night in order to finally find the blessing of sleep.
Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? Sri Lanka.
Three favorite stores on earth? The Shop at The Standard in New York and City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Dover Street Market during sale season. The Blue Mountain School in London, if only I could afford it.
Most treasured travel memento? Seizing the time (like Eldridge Cleaver always said) to feel unashamedly romantically Nietzschean playing Brian Eno’s On Some Faraway Beach while camping in the mountain wilds.
Why do you travel? Because I’m stuck with my Marxist upbringing and I feel—no, I know, for sure—that there is always something much more interesting happening right now elsewhere. And that I unrelentingly should try to get there. A perpetual source of unremitted tension and deception.
Born in Paris and raised in Vienna, Georges Desrues is a journalist and photo reporter living in Trieste.