World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards Latin America 2014 – Behind the Scenes
A few weeks ago…actually, I lie, I remember the exact date: 3 September 2014 (how could I not), I attended the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards Latin America, in Lima at the very posh Lima Country Club hotel.
I travelled a day and a half to get to Lima (didn’t expect to visit again this year), just in time to hunt down a big bowl of ceviche and a dizzying tower of crab causa, plus a glass of could-be-colder chicha morada before the awards.
Because I don’t often get to attend such things, I wrestled about to get a frock and heels for the day and a half I did have spare, that at the very least wouldn’t leave me tripping down the stairs in front of Alex Atala’s revered free-range Amazonian python-leather clad feet. I survived, the frock performed no nip-slips, I chatted to anyone who would agree to converse with me in English (Perdon no hablo Español….*insert shameface*).
I may not have conquered the room nor earned the right to another invitation, but this is what I picked up at the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards Latin America 2014, and various after party dos I had the sheer luck of attending:
- The ladies at the registration entry points (regular, media, VIP) will probably look more elegantly put together than you. Accept it. Also red lips do not work unless you b.e.l.i.e.v.e
- The wait staff offering glasses of champagne and Pisco Sours (in this case- Lima, and all) do know what they are doing. Accept the first glass – you need it more than you understand right now.
- The chefs are imbibing as well. Or doing jumping jacks, yoga handstands or having their therapists give ‘em a pep-me-the-hell-up talk etc etc. If anyone tells you they are not nervous/devil-may-care – they are fibbing. Unless it’s Gastón Acurio. He is the Zen of zen kings. As you know.
- Think Bridget Jones, and circulate, tilting your head to the side ever so slightly and nodding, as if you have been there from the start of the conversation and understand whatever Latin language is being spoken, and laugh when the recipients of the story do. At the first gap in conversation, chip in: “You know, in South Africa, we really don’t like raw fish. Have you seen the story about the Chinese man and the tapeworms? Horrifying. Though sushi is the novelty of the last 8 years. Oh, and we’ve evolved past eating domesticated animals – my nephews have, well had guinea pigs. They don’t always live long, the buggers…”. Aim to create gentle tension and thereby stimulate vigourous discourse. If met with silence, or if the circle moves in tighter, thereby leaving you with a cold wind on your back, just follow up with, “Bailamos! Te quiero” (or any Enrique Iglesias lyrics you can muster), and repeat from the top…
- If met by insistent declarations by the person you are talking to (or at, my case), that they do not understand a word you are saying/a word of English, do not feel foolish that you’ve just spent 10 minutes in an intimate monologue about the “future of social change being our responsibility”. Think of it as drying out your throat in readiness for that second drink. Get that second drink, now.
- When waiters offer you snacks, accept them. Each one has been created by a selection of the chefs on the list. I did not realise this (How?! I know..) and did not eat a single morsel, except for the Cacao Barry chocolates that twinkled like friendly (English speaking) jewels. More food to line the stomach and spleen. Less chocolate.
- The water you are offered comes in a glass bottle and not filtered, in jugs with lemon. This may be an awkward time to bring up your saintly quest to forever thwart the big, bad bottled water industry…*koff. sponsers. koff*
- Latin American bloggers (or should I say those living there, writing about the cuisine) are on backslapping terms (literally) with the local journos and the chefs. Do not look shocked when you see aforementioned backslapping and cracking of witty rapid-fire one-liners. It does look a like a friendly, happy family of food lovers. Instead, hope they will sense your willingness to be absorbed into the family, and smile widely. But not if you’ve been eating stringy seaweed encrusted deep-fried guinea pig legs.
- The awards are a little different to the London awards (from what I’ve seen on the live-streaming on my laptop). Yes, it is a cosier affair. People are more casually dressed, but they are also a lot more vocal. At one stage I thought the woman sitting behind me was about to lose her voice for good from all the shouting of “Bravo! Bravo!” We were at number 47 at that stage. And yes, they count in ascending order 50 -1. The man sitting next to me, delivered an excited whisper about “Latin passion” but got visibly worried by the time we got to the top ten. The crowd was pretty much on its feet by then. Rearing to go!
- You may get run over by a photographer after a cover story. Hope no one saw, it was not recorded on camera and get another drink. You may have to stand in line behind Bravo woman and her parched throat. Do not let anyone cut in front of you. Unless: Alex Atala. At number 3, usurped, he probably needs it more than you.
- Chefs do get a little tipsy. More than that even. I can’t tell you who or when and how messy it got. But know they are human. We can all breathe a sigh a relief.
- Not all chefs are as nice as we think. Not all are as conceited as we expect. Again, they are much like the humans we know in everyday life. You may like the work they produce; you don’t have to like them.
- The young breed of writers (specifically blogger/new media journo types) will party until an hour before sunrise, sleep for an hour and hand in 1500 words by 10 am. They may drink and dance with the commis chefs, but never get wasted. I can’t generalise, naturally, but this was a 4-5 day observation. I got nothing but R E S P E C T.
- Not every food writer, eater, passionate “foodie”, observer endorses the awards. In fact few awards cause as much friction and faction as any of the restaurant awards. People yell “rigged”, they question how voters vote, if they were swayed, if it’s all a formula. I’m all for questioning. I’m all for diverse opinions. I’m not going to say I am convinced that awards like these unite and motivate the chefs to elevate the diner’s experience. But I will say that I know, from interviews I have conducted, both long and short that they are meaningful to the chefs – the young, aspiring ones, and the ones cutting their teeth at the top. It’s something to strive towards; this recognition is possibly the one out of two (nationally, they may get a pat too) accolades they will receive in a year. But for the most part these chefs are interested in their own kitchens and bettering their own craft and strengthening the food relationships around them. Are there others more deserving? Perhaps. Votes are cast by eaters who have to eat independently, who travel widely to taste, test, compare and enjoy. I know many will work the system (let’s be fair- this is a hobby only a few mad people can afford or will sacrifice to afford) and have the meals comped, but I’d like to think, with a view to voting, most will not. Is there a better way to award the best crop of chefs who are pushing the frontiers to showcase the finest of their own nations’ culinary stories? I’d like to know. Actually, sing it in fluent Spanish first. *Baliamos!*