MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA (NYTimes) - London. New York. Melbourne.
No argument: The first two cities are international culinary capitals. But Melbourne?
This city, Australia's second largest, was chosen to host the World's 50 Best Restaurants awards this year, with ceremonies held on April 5 at the historic Royal Exhibition Building. It is only the third city to have hosted the awards, after London and New York.
For lovers of Melbourne's food scene, it would be nice to think that the city's edible riches - its cafes and laneway restaurants, its vast multicultural menu - are what attracted the awards. But the real credit goes to a campaign by Tourism Australia and Visit Victoria to woo event organisers with visits, services, infrastructure and money.
In the process, Australia grabbed the attention of hundreds of visiting journalists and chefs, as well as a global audience who watched the live-streaming of the ceremony. The nation also landed a second restaurant on the list - Brae, in Birregurra, Victoria, at No. 44, joining Attica, in Melbourne, also in Victoria, which edged up to No. 32 from the 33rd place it won last year.
While that may not be a stellar showing, the hope is that the spotlight from this year may bring the country more attention on future lists. This year's No. 1 restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, is in New York, which hosted the awards last year.
"It's a great opportunity for us to showcase what we've got to the world," the Melbourne chef Frank Camorra said at an evening event April 4 for the international news media that celebrated the food and drink of the city. "But was it a surprise they chose to come here? Well, yes, it's quite a surprise." Asked why he thought the city had attracted the awards, Camorra said, "I don't know, but I'd assume it was a lot of political machinations." The awards, which began in 2002, have their critics, who object to (among other things) an abundance of corporate sponsors, a dearth of female chefs on the list and the ease with which they say restaurants and others can game the vote.
But there is no doubt that a place on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list (which is actually a list of 100) can change the fate of a restaurant, its chef and even its hometown. Food obsessives plan travel around these restaurants, and the reputations of cities rise with each ranking. Noma, which won the list's No. 1 spot in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014, has helped turn Copenhagen into a must-visit culinary destination.
For the first 14 years, though, the list and awards - an offshoot of Restaurant magazine, based in London, and William Reed Business Media - held the ceremony in London. But given the list's international scope, it made sense to branch out. The World's 50 Best is now on what the organisers call a "global tour" that started last year with awards ceremonies in New York.
"To be perfectly honest, we were trying to be easy on ourselves that first year," said William Drew, the editor of the list and of Restaurant magazine. "New York is not the hardest place to get to from London, and it has all the obvious benefits of being a world food capital. From there we were thinking, 'Where next?'" Much like the Olympics, the global tour has prompted cities to vie for consideration as host locations, in the hope that the awards will bring visibility, recognition and, in time, tourism dollars. "Australia had indicated quite some time ago that they would be interested in having us," Drew said. "It was an ongoing conversation with Tourism Australia." Last year, Tim Brooke-Webb, the list's managing director, took two trips to Australia - one to Melbourne and one to Sydney - to scout possible locations for the awards. Tourism Australia paid for his flights and accommodations.
"As you can imagine, they set foot in Melbourne and we turned it on," said Melanie de Souza, the director of international marketing for Visit Victoria. "It was not going to be a choice for them as far as we were concerned." This meant wining and dining them in Melbourne's best restaurants and discussing what the city could offer as a destination for the awards, said John O'Sullivan, the managing director of Tourism Australia.
In the end, Drew said, the representatives of the World's 50 Best Restaurants agreed with Melbourne's perception of itself as the nation's food and drink capital. "Melbourne is incredibly fast-moving and dynamic all the way from street food to premium high-end dining," he said.
Tourism Australia became an official sponsor of this year's World's 50 Best, at the $800,000 level (about $600,000 in U.S. dollars). Visit Victoria provided the location for the awards ceremony, and the two tourism organisations staged more than a week's worth of events, meals and trips for the chefs, judges and news media representatives who attended.
The quest to lure the World's 50 Best is only one prong of a many-faceted strategy by Tourism Australia. The country has long attracted tourists for its physical assets - Sydney Harbor, the outback, the Great Barrier Reef - but research conducted by Tourism Australia in 2012 showed "quite a disparity between how highly regarded Australia was, for food and wine, between the people who had already visited versus those who hadn't," de Souza said.
In an era when food is driving more travel decisions than ever before, the country had an underused weapon in its tourism arsenal.
In 2013, Tourism Australia started a campaign to raise the profile of the country's food and drink. It includes not only traditional marketing and advertising, but also the courting of bloggers and journalists from around the world who have been flown in and entertained.
The various tourism agencies have poured much effort and money into events like the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, which this year ran concurrently with the World's 50 Best celebrations. Since the campaign started, food and wine spending by international travelers to Australia has increased by A$1 billion (S$1.05 billion).
Landing the World's 50 Best ceremony is considered a coup in large part because it brings a swarm of chefs, journalists and industry players who can raise the profile of the country internationally, and are also judges for the competition.
Judges must have eaten a meal in an establishment in order to vote for it. Bring a lot of them to a city like Melbourne, make sure they eat in the region's best restaurants, and those restaurants are much more likely to end up on the list (and higher on the list) in years to come.
Attica, Melbourne's only restaurant on this year's list, spent the past several days hosting chefs and journalists, with Visit Victoria picking up the tab for many of those meals.
During the month of the awards, Australia's various tourism groups are providing about 160 lavish multiday experiences for visiting journalists. These "famils" (public relations slang for free media trips) include high-end restaurant meals, helicopter rides and stays in luxury hotels all over the country.
Much of the criticism of the list centers on the culture of free meals and glad-handing that goes along with judging and voting. But good food alone, many say, is not enough to attract accolades or tourists.
"You don't just do an advertisement and put some food in it and people will think, 'Australia has great food and wine,'" O'Sullivan said. "You have to really work it and work over it."