The king is dead; long live the king. Just when it seem that the food world had moved definitively beyond the high-wire pyrotechnics of modern Spanish cooking to embrace the less adorned lichen and sea buckthorn of new Nordic cuisine, along came the 2013 list of the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants to say: not so fast. At its annual awards ceremony, held April 29 in London’s Guild Hall, the top honor went to El Celler de Can Roca, located in the northeastern Spanish city of Girona. There, avant-garde executive chef Joan Roca invents daring new dishes from things like distilled soil; one of his younger brothers, sommelier Josep, keeps a cellar where music and video images are matched to the flavors of his favorite wines; and the other, pastry chef Jordi, creates desserts that taste like the fragrance of well-known perfumes. Copenhagen’s Noma, which had held the top spot for the past three years, fell to second place.
Among Spaniards, Can Roca’s victory came as welcome reassurance that the country’s moment in the culinary sun was not over. Although Spanish restaurants have performed strongly for several years — two others, Mugaritz and Arzak, retained their positions in the top 10 of 2013’s list — it hasn’t taken first place since Copenhagen’s Noma displaced Ferran Adrià’s revolutionary elBulli in 2010. “It shows a consolidation of our position,” says Rafael Ansón, president of the Royal Spanish Academy of Gastronomy. “It’s the strongest confirmation that in the world of chef-artists, we are the best.”
But the results came as a surprise to some. Says Joanna Savill, director of the festival Crave Sydney: “You have to admire Can Roca, because what they do is so beautiful, so poetic, so evocative. But that’s not the global story at the moment. The global story, the new story, is about chefs reflecting who and where they are.”
That the restaurant industry now craves novelty almost as much as Hollywood does can be attributed in part to the 50 Best list itself. Founded 11 years ago, its audacious innovation was to rank restaurants, based on the votes of the hundreds of chefs and journalists who make up its jury. That simple mechanism has made it tremendously influential, catapulting chefs to prominence and changing the economic fortunes of their restaurants. The day after Noma first won the top slot, its reservationist received 100,000 booking requests.
This year, chefs from 49 of the 50 restaurants attended the award ceremony — proof of how highly regarded it is among them. “It’s an incredible honor,” says Alex Atala, chef of São Paulo’s DOM, which placed 6th this year. “To get this kind of recognition, especially when you come from a part of the world that hasn’t been known for its restaurant culture, is incredible.”
By insisting that jurors use at least three of their seven votes on restaurants outside their own regions, the organization helps ensure a certain geographic diversity. For countries or regions that have not traditionally been part of haute cuisine’s pantheon, the sense that the centers of gravity are expanding can be exhilarating. “We’re the first restaurant from Melbourne to ever make the list, and I’ve been getting messages from people at home — maybe 200 of them — all day,” says Ben Shewry, chef of Attica, which came in at No. 21. “But there’s also a sense of pride among Australia as a whole; I feel like the whole country is behind us.”
Yet for all the enthusiasm that surrounds it, the list is not without controversy, and not just of the “How did that place get there?” kind. Britain’s Restaurant magazine, which oversees the rankings, has been criticized for a lack of transparency. The organization never releases the number of actual votes that each restaurant receives, nor does it require proof from its jury members that they have actually dined in the restaurants they vote for.
And of course the very premise that something as subjective as a restaurant can somehow be judged “best” in the world is itself questionable. Nevertheless, because the list tends to elevate not just chefs but the cuisines that give rise to them, it helps contribute to the sense of a hierarchy of nations — first Spanish cuisine was on top, then Nordic — and raise expectations that one cuisine will replace another (for premonitions of the next big thing, look to the unprecedented presence of six Latin American restaurants on this year’s list).
In London, a visibly moved Joan Roca was modest as he stepped on stage to accept the award for a restaurant that he and his brothers started over a decade ago. “We don’t know if we are the best, but you can be sure we will continue working with audacity, with generosity, and with creativity,” he told the audience. But as photographers crowded around to shoot photos of the world’s newest top chef, he couldn’t help reflecting on the win’s national importance. “Spanish gastronomy needed this,” he told TIME. “We needed a push like this to prove ourselves again in front of the world.”