As late as the afternoon of April 28, Rene Redzepi was warning his staff they would probably drop in the rankings of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, which were to be announced that evening, by making cryptic comments about Isaac Newton. “The rules for this competition were established over three hundred years ago,” he said at lunch with his staff. “What goes up must come down.”
But gravity, it seems, doesn’t apply to restaurants. After losing the top ranking in 2013, his Copenhagen restaurant Noma last night regained the status it had held during the three years prior. When Redzepi and his team mounted the stage of London’s Guildhall last night to claim the prize of best restaurant in the world, the joy was palpable. “It doesn’t even compare,” the 36-year-old chef said of his comeback, in an interview with TIME. “This is better than the three previous wins combined.”
The victory gave Redzepi and his team a much-needed sense of redemption. But it also promised a return to the peculiar status and opportunities that come with being number one. Although the World’s 50 Best list started twelve years ago as a lark—the founders of Restaurant magazine were, in one late-night brainstorming session, trying to come up with ways to attract attention to their publication—it has grown to become one of the most influential forces in modern gastronomy.
For the staff at Noma, returning to the top position has been especially rewarding after a difficult year. In February of 2013, the restaurant experienced an outbreak of norovirus that, although quickly controlled, prompted a deluge of gleeful reports in the media, as well as hate mail and death threats. Two months later, the restaurant lost its top ranking. And in the same period, its head chef and several sous chefs, all of whom had been with the restaurant for years, left to strike out on their own.
“For a while, it felt like there was only bad news out of Noma,” Redzepi says.
But the hardships and criticism may have spurred the restaurant’s crew to greater heights. For many chefs and critics who dined at Noma in the last year, it was their best meal ever at the restaurant. Their number includes David Chang, chef and owner of the Momofuku restaurants in New York, Toronto, and Sydney. “I knew right then that they were going to get number one again,” he told TIME after dinner there in August. “You could taste the anger.”
Unlike the Michelin guide, which relies on the assessment of professional inspectors to award its stars, the 50 Best list is decided by industry peers. Divided into 26 regional juries, more than 900 chefs, food writers, and gourmands vote for best restaurants in which they have dined over the previous 18 months. That structure makes the list particularly valuable to chefs, for it is flexible enough to respond quickly to changes in the dining scene (witness London’s Clove Club, which opened exactly a year ago, enter at number 87 on the Top 100 list). But even more importantly, it provides a form of recognition from their peers that many chefs crave—and, once earned, want to maintain. “The list has become incredibly important to them,” says Swedish food critic Mattias Kroon. “It’s heroin for chefs.”
There are also financial reasons for the addiction. At a breakfast the morning of the awards ceremony, Joan and Josep Roca, chef and sommelier of Spain’s Celler de Can Roca, which won the title in 2013, talked about its impact. In the twelve months following their victory, they received 121,000 reservation requests, and more than 1200 journalists visited the restaurant to write stories about it. They received a sponsorship from Spain’s BBVA bank that will allow them to close their restaurant in the Catalan city of Girona for a few months later this year, and re-open it as a pop-up in a series of Latin American cities.
Opportunities like that are beginning to bring around even France’s chefs, who have typically disdained the list for its populism, and for rewarding trendiness rather than quality. (No French restaurants made this year’s top 10, though Argentina-born Mauro Colagreco’s restaurant Mirazur, on the French Mediterranean, came in at number 11.) “They still don’t like it,” says Alexandra Michot, a food writer who was until recently restaurant critic for Le Figaro. “But they’re starting to see that a high-ranking fills seats.” Further to the south, chef Quique Dacosta, whose eponymous restaurant in Denia, Spain came in at number 41, agrees. “You may or may not like everything about how the list works,” he says. “But there’s no denying how important it’s become for getting diners, especially international ones.”
In other words, the slight drop-off in reservation requests that Noma has experienced in the past few months has likely already been reversed by the time of this article’s publication (the flood of visitors had already crashed the restaurant’s website twice in the 12 hours after the announcement). And the victory will give added ballast to projects already underway, like the opening of a Noma pop-up in Tokyo in January and February of 2015 which, Redzepi believes, will now likely sell out.
Wielding its increasing clout, the organizers of this year’s event refused to leak the results to journalists covering the event, which meant that, unlike in the past, neither they, nor the winning chefs they were seeking to interview on deadline, had any idea who would take the title. So Redzepi was truly surprised last night when, trembling with emotion, he led his crew to the stage. “Guys,” he said, “We did it.”