I had heard from a chef a while ago that the Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards will be changed this year, in that all the judges have been let go, and that new judging categories will be added for the annual evaluation.
I received confirmation of the judging change directly from one of the judges, Anna Trapido telling me spontaneously that she had been “fired” from her one-year tenure as one of the four Eat Out judges. Long-term judges Pete Goffe-Wood and Arnold Tanzer have been let go too, leaving Eat Out editor Abigail Donnelly as the sole judge to choose the elite Top 10 chefs of the country. The problem with this of course is that every restaurant worth its salt knows what she looks like, and will be expecting her visit if they expect to be on the Top 20 shortlist. Every restaurant kitchen probably has her photograph, in anticipation of her visit!
The Eat Out judging change announcement was made in the Eat Out newsletter last week, and there is no mention of the ex-judges, nor is their past contribution acknowledged. Ms Donnelly writes: “It’s a very big responsibility, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. Through the year, I make an effort to visit restaurants more than once, so to get the most balanced view possible. It’s also of the utmost importance for me to get to know the chefs behind the food and find out what their philosophies are”, she wrote. What exactly she means when she writes that “I won’t be judging for my peers. I will be judging with knowledgeable foodies in mind. The people who are actually dining out at Top 10 restaurants on a regular basis” is unclear. This makes one worry – was Ms Donnelly judging to satisfy her fellow judges in the past, and what would have made their taste in and evaluation of restaurants different to that of the ‘foodies’ she writes about? This begs the question as to the comparability of the Awards outcome in November this year, compared to that of all previous years.
A further uncertainty is exactly what Ms Donnelly means when she writes about a further judging change: “…the awards are going to be much more inclusive and will celebrate the best Asian, steakhouse, Italian, bistro and country-style restaurants. The awards are no longer only about the celebration of fine-dining establishments. It’s very important that the fabulous specialist eateries dotted around the country are given the recognition they deserve.” It was not clear from the newsletter if the restaurant types mentioned by her will each attract awards for the best in each category, or if all of these styles will compete with fine-dining restaurants. One would also have liked to see recognition for the best South African-style restaurant, for the Restaurant that is most environmentally responsible in its sourcing, handling and disposal of food, and for the Restaurant with the best Menu.
In addition to announcing the Top 10 Restaurant list, as well as the Top Restaurant, Top Chef, and Top Service, the following categories will be added: Best New Restaurant of the Year, and Most Stylish Establishment in the Country. This could cause some compromises, as we saw in the 2009 Awards, when Bizerca won in a newly created Bistro category that year, and fell off the Top 10 list. It also would be easier for Nobu at the One&Only Cape Town, for example, to win Top Asian restaurant, when it should really be a contender in the more competitive Top 10 Restaurant award.
To gain clarification, we sent Ms Donnelly some questions, and her response time was impressive, especially as she was ill.
Why the change in judging?
No. I have great respect for their knowledge and experience and would have no hesitation to work with any of them again.
Does it allow consistency with previous awards?
Absolutely. Consistency will always be key – it’s what our brand is about. Whether the judging is done by one person or ten people, it’s a subjective process. I am however judging restaurants according to criteria and a scorecard.
Please can you explain how you will cater for the non fine-dining restaurants in the awards?
Our new award categories are more inclusive – and allows for more non-fine dining restaurants to be recognized. Best steakhouse, Best bistro, Best Italian restaurant, Best Asian restaurant and Best country-style restaurant along with Best new restaurant will celebrate restaurants that will probably not be categorized as fine dining. These eateries make up the bulk of our database of restaurants, as well as the places most frequented by our consumers.
How will you choose your shortlist?
I will be looking at all the specific categories and then shortlist restaurants. Together with our reviewers and online users I will determine who is consistently shining. In the Asian category, I’ll consider places serving anything from sushi to Thai, from inner city to harbour edge. In the Italian category, family-run trattorias to ultra modern pizzerias. Steakhouses to be considered might focus on serving the best-aged or grass fed meat. The best bistro will be a restaurant that is doing something more than casual but just not too fine dining. The country style eatery will be tucked away, off the beaten track, where there is cooked with care and generosity. The best new restaurant will be awarded to a restaurant that has opened its doors in 2011. Thank you so much for taking the time and interest in this. Hoping to hear your voice come through in the top 10 too!
Ms Donnelly and her Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards will be closely watched, no doubt, as no restaurant likes change if it could disadvantage them. However, it does sound as if the awards will be more inclusive than in the past, and the additional categories give a lot more restaurants a chance of winning recognition at the awards. There will be many keen chefs holding thumbs that Ms Donnelly will grace their restaurant tables in the next few months!
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage