This commentary is long overdue. I’ve been putting it off for close to two years. After all, I rank restaurants and write restaurant reviews. The list of the World’s 50 Best restaurants in Latin America, is, at least in theory, my competition. So I’m not exactly the most objective party to be screaming “foul play”.
And I knew that writing this article would put me into the position of talking trash about a few restaurateurs and chefs who are not at fault for having been named in media and marketing company, William Reed’s, dubious list of “The World’s 50 Best” restaurants in Latin America. But quite frankly, these restaurateurs have undeservingly been reaping the benefits of having been named in this list, which ranks highly in the internet search engines. So, I’m not going to lose too much sleep over whatever consequences come of my stating some candid opinions about the mediocrity of their restaurants.
Simply stated, many of the restaurants in the list aren’t even in the top 250 restaurants in Latin America. I’ve had at least twenty-five street tacos in Mexico that were tastier than the vizcacha sandwich I was served at El Baqueano (#13 on the 2016 list) in Buenos Aires and there are at least 50 restaurants and cafés in Buenos Aires that a have a more pleasant décor and ambiance than that restaurant.
Preface behind us, I’m going to come right out and say it. The Word’s 50 Best List of restaurants in Latin America is a farce. It lacks legitimacy. Unlike the Michelin Guide, that has a well-documented system for visiting, evaluating and rating restaurants, exactly how William Reed has chosen the restaurants that grace their website continues to be a big mystery.
For the first four years after the first list was issued, they merely shrugged off criticism (like this, and this, and this). About a year ago, prior to the awards in Mexico City, William Reed published a section on their website that provided a detailed description about the manner in which the restaurants are selected, including a very attractive and colorful chart that makes it all look very official. They even added a blurb at the end of this explanation stating that the votes were counted by the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche. Hmmm? Sounds like the Academy Awards absent Jack Nicholson in the audience.
Let me summarize the methodology. According to the explanation, there is an “Academy” of voters in Latin America consisting of 252 restaurant “experts” (63 in each of four regions). “The panel is made up of food writers and critics (33%), chefs and restaurateurs (34%) and highly regarded ‘foodies’ (described elsewhere as “well-traveled gourmets”)(33%). Each panelist has seven votes. Of the seven votes, at least three must be used to recognize restaurants outside of their home country. Academy panelists must have eaten in the restaurants they nominate in the last 18 months – and are asked to confirm this fact for each of their nominations.
This would mean that each of the 252 panelists, which include Latin Americans that are journalists (not a high-paid job in Latin America), hobbyist culinary writers (i.e. bloggers), most of whom have low to moderate paying jobs, chefs (again, not a high-paid position in Latin America), would have to have traveled outside their home country, and eaten in at least three restaurants outside of their home country. In theory, for the votes to have any relevance the panelists would have had to eat at many more restaurants to be able to make a valid comparison and cast a legitimate vote.
I personally know several of the chefs at these and other Latin American restaurants. Most work long hours (12 hours or more per day) and rarely travel outside of the country, save the one trip they take per year to attend the World’s 50 Best awards held in various cities each year. At the time of writing this article, I have no statistical data either proving or disproving this, but based on my knowledge of the groups from which these panelists are extracted there is little or no chance that 256 panelists met this requirement.
In fact, I doubt if there are more than a handful of people in the entire world that have been to seven different restaurants in at least two separate Latin American countries during the preceding year. And the chance that several hundred Latin American chefs, restaurateurs, and food critics have done it, is slim to none.
But enough about the questionable “Academy” of experts.
One of the first restaurants I visited when I began garnering content for the website was El Baqueano, in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires. It is currently #13 on the Latin America list and was at #20 at the time of my adventure in dining at El Baqueano in mid-2015. The location of the restaurant is the first clue that El Baqueano is not among the 50 best restaurants in Latin America. San Telmo is one of the Argentine capital’s funky, Bohemian neighborhoods, populated with lots of hostels and lots of drunk teenagers walking around on the streets late at night. The more affluent neighborhoods that are home to most of the fine dining establishments and the trendy upscale casual venues are located in Puerto Madero, Recoleta, Belgrano and Palermo, such as Gaston Acurio’s La Mar in Palermo, celebrity chef Fernando Trucco’s Sucre in Belgrano, and the much acclaimed (including here on ComaBeba) Chila and Osaka restaurants in Puerto Madero.
A picture’s worth a thousand words, right? Here’s a recent photo of the façade of El Baqueano. This is what you see when you’re looking for the front door. I note that if you want to gain entry to the restaurant you have to knock on the front door and wait a few minutes for someone in their grossly understaffed restaurant to open the door. This isn’t because it’s a trendy, secretive, place that requires a password for entry. It’s to avoid the riff-raff from the street strolling in to annoy the guests. I wish I could say the food and service were able to offset the sub-par décor. Unfortunately, of a seven-course meal, one course was inedible, and it would have been a gift if two other courses had been inedible. Unfortunately, I ate them. Or at least a few bites. Service? In a restaurant serving a seven-course tasting menu my waiter was wearing bright blue Nike jogging shoes and jeans. I kid you not.
An aberration you say? In Mexico City, Maximo Bistrot, no longer present on the 2016 list, held the position of #41 in 2015. On visiting Maximo Bistrot, we noticed something unusual. The restaurant we visited was not the restaurant shown in the photos on World’s 50 Best website. We have no clue where they found the photo of the restaurant they published. But it wasn’t Maximo Bistrot. For the record, here’s the photo we took of the dining room on our visit. Not likely to win any Architectural Digest awards for the Best Restaurant Design, is it? And I will venture to say that the food I was served roughly matched the mediocrity of the décor.
This list continues to baffle us. The 2015 and 2016 lists include two “stereotypical” Argentine steakhouses, La Cabrera and Don Julio. Hey, Argentine beef is great. And these two restaurants serve some decent steaks. But I find it odd that there’s no mention in the list of the elegantly decorated Le Grill that offers 45-day and 100-day dry aged Argentine beef. And the famed Brazilian churrascaría, Fogo de Chao, was snubbed as well.
Nothing I’ve said in this essay is scientific nor based on empirical data. It’s one man’s take on the subject. But I really don’t see how anyone could not question a list that ranks the restaurant, El Baqueano, as the 13th best restaurant in all of Latin America.
I look forward to gathering information that will discredit the validity of the list and the claimed “Academy” and add a little meat to the bones I’ve served up here. I’ll serve up the full cut of meat at a later date. And I look forward to providing my take in a future post about which restaurants we think should be on the list, that aren’t. All that’s coming between now and April of 2017, when we add the content for Peru to our website, and I will have sampled the fares of another half-dozen of the restaurants on the infamous list.