“Every August, I go to Ladakh in the north of India,” Prateek Sadhu told me, his voice swelling with excitement. “I go there to pick sea buckthorn. It is one of the most beautiful places, there is so much biodiversity. It is really the hidden gem of India.”
I was speaking by phone with Sadhu, the chef of Masque, in Mumbai — one of our 2019 World’s Best Restaurants — from the dull twilight of my home office in Melbourne. We had been discussing the incredible lengths to which he and other restaurateurs around the world were going in order to save their businesses and help their communities, and the conversation was often heavy with the burden of turmoil and uncertainty. But Sadhu’s tone changed completely when I asked him about his post-COVID dreams. “Next time you come to India, I will take you there,” he said.
For a moment, I allowed the warmth of his vision to carry me to this incredible place he was describing. It seemed impossible to believe I would ever travel like that again. I’d barely left my house for months. But nothing about this year has been believable, and the fantasy of some wild corner of Asia gave me strength and excitement and wonder — all of the things that travel has always done for me.
Less than two months earlier I had been wandering the streets of Cartagena, Colombia, in what felt like a trance. I was on the road doing research for the second iteration of the World’s Best Restaurants list, an ambitious undertaking by Travel + Leisure and Food & Wine, which was to appear in the pages (or on the screen) you’re reading now. A couple of days later I was seated at the counter of a blindingly fantastic restaurant in Rio De Janeiro, sipping a cocktail the color of the sun. Four days after that I was driving over the hills of St. Lucia, looking for the first time at the vividly colorful rooftops of Soufriere set against the brilliant blue of the Caribbean.
Like last year, when my editors and I launched the annual project, the travel was intense. I was in a different country almost every day, rising before dawn to catch flights, drive over mountains, check in to hotels, and eat multiple meals. The idea of sending one critic around the globe to experience the most magical and impressive restaurants was slightly less daunting this time around, only because we understood the stamina and logistics needed to make it work. And we believed more than ever in the mission: to seek out places — nominated by an incredible group of trusted chefs, writers, travel professionals, and previous winners — that most dazzlingly represented the cultures and communities of their locations.
My memories of Colombia and Brazil and St. Lucia now have the otherworldly quality of something not quite real, like a fantastic dream. Everything changed so quickly. The plan was for me to be on the road for just over three months, but four weeks into my reporting, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and a few days after that I was on one of the last flights back to Australia before the country closed its borders. I was given an order to self-quarantine for two weeks. The day before that quarantine ended, Melbourne, where I live, went into lockdown.
We went into this year’s research with safety on our minds, but no idea how quickly the virus would change everything. In February we assumed I wouldn’t be able to get to many parts of Asia, and that Italy was unlikely, too. We talked about how to compile a meaningful list with those large gaps, and decided that perhaps this would be the year I leaned into destinations in Europe and Asia and the Middle East that lay outside of those early hotspots. I hit the road, traveling through South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean — which, at the time, were some of the least affected locations — and had just entered the U.S. to begin eating there when it became clear that I had to get home. When I left the U.S. in mid-March, I told friends and family that I’d be back soon, once this had blown over.
It is still my intention to pick up where I left off as soon as possible. But possible now seems a long way away. My home country of Australia is lucky; at the time of this writing our COVID-19 numbers are down and restrictions are beginning to loosen. Those low numbers have been achieved in part because we are an island nation that closed its borders early. I have no idea when international travel will be allowed again, but it’s unlikely to be any time soon.
We couldn’t bear to let the travel I’d already undertaken go to waste. There were restaurants I visited this year that were stunning, and that absolutely deserve recognition. We felt strongly that the list’s intent — to celebrate and showcase the hard work and creativity of the industry we love — is even more important now, with that industry among the hardest-hit. But what is a list of the World’s Best Restaurants with only a few parts of the world represented?
In the end, we decided that the list was always meant to be a rolling, ever-expanding beast. We never planned to repeat restaurants year over year; the theory being that once a restaurant has earned a place on the list it should remain unless there is good reason to remove it. And so, we are adding to the list what we can — from South America and Mexico and the Caribbean and Australia and New Zealand — and as soon as I’m able to resume travel, we will continue to add restaurants from other parts of the world. I can’t wait.
During the days that I was supposed to be flying to Jordan and boarding trains in France and waking up in hotel rooms wondering not just where I was but which continent I was on, I sat in my dim home office in Melbourne and made phone calls. I spoke with the chefs whose restaurants were honored on last year’s list. I asked them how they are weathering all of this, what they thought the restaurant world would look like in the months and years to come, and where they longed to visit when travel is possible again. Though the mood was often somber, the overwhelming feeling I came away with was pride, and awe in this community of people who are using every ounce of creativity and positivity they can muster to save their businesses, help their employees, and contribute to their communities. No one I spoke to longed for things to return to normal in the restaurant industry – the normal of low wages and job insecurity and abusive power structures. Normal is no longer good enough.
Though I talked with chefs and owners from all different parts of the world, the similarities in attitude and strategy were striking. In Mumbai, Sadhu transitioned from a multi-course tasting menu format to a takeout restaurant that serves ramen and tacos. At Noma in Copenhagen, René Redzepi turned his fine-dining institution into a wine and burger bar. Here in Melbourne, Attica’s Ben Shewry also transitioned from in-house fine dining to takeout comfort food, making meals of lasagna and salad and fresh bread. Shewry has managed to keep all of his employees working, using front-of-house staff as delivery drivers. “We get up every day and put on our uniform,” Shewry said of himself and his staff. “We are still professionals, and we present ourselves as such.”
Sadhu is also continuing to pay all of his staff, plus provide them with healthcare. He also looks to extend extra service and comfort to those who order food from him. “If they ask me to bake a birthday cake, I will bake a cake,” he says.
Many of the chefs I spoke to from last year’s list had become advocates for their larger communities. A percentage of each meal sold by Masque is being donated to an NGO that works to feed the hungry in India. Part of Attica’s takeout offering includes a soup that helps to fund meals for hospitality workers in Australia on who can’t access government resources due to their visa status.
At Hiša Franko, in Slovenia, Ana Roš has used the lockdown to do intensive education with her staff around topics like fermentation and foraging, and to start a gelato company that buys surplus produce from her suppliers, who were faced with a brutal loss of business. “We had space to open up to new ideas,” Roš says. “We are trying to industrialize all the work we are doing in this moment, helping the local farming community to save the excesses of their production that now are huge.” The aim, Roš says, is to take those excesses and turn them into gourmet food products that people can eat at home. “It takes a lot of time, and a lot of passion. It is another way of thinking.”
When I spoke to Redzepi, on what he described as a glorious spring day in Copenhagen, he was bursting with joy at the opportunity to feed the people of his city in a format that made it possible for Noma to serve a far larger demographic than usual. “It’s so fun,” he beamed. “We had a bunch of kindergarteners walk by the other day and one of them pointed and told his friend, ‘my dad says you can get burgers there now!’ Our first people in line today are a couple of older women, and they’re going to sit in the wine bar for half the day and enjoy themselves. That feels really good.”
It’s incredible that independent restaurants have adapted so quickly, all over the world, with only their own creativity for a roadmap. Not only that, many chefs and owners are actively thinking about ways to move forward that are better than what they’ve done in the past — to make their businesses more beneficial and sustainable and equitable for everyone involved.
That means that in Savannah, Georgia, The Grey’s chef, Mashama Bailey, is hoping that cities will reconsider the benefits of allowing for more outdoor seating, perhaps even closing off more densely-populated streets to make room for sidewalk dining. “Increasing capacity by 20 to 30 percent could save a business,” Bailey says, but it would also make American cities more walkable and livable.
In Copenhagen, Redzepi is thinking of ways he might continue to cook for a wider audience within his own community. (Though we both concede that the burger bar model likely would not work once international tourists arrive on the scene: “The line would be five miles long, and all food bloggers,” he said, laughing.)
I personally am yearning to get back on the road, to explore and travel and taste. But I also have a new appreciation for my home country, where almost everyone has access to healthcare, where minimum wages are high enough that tipping is not the main model of compensation for a huge swath of the industry, and where community cooperation is a foundational value.
I also discovered new wells of pride, a new sense of honor at being allowed to study this industry that is so full of heart, so vastly creative, and so overwhelmingly committed to positive change. When I finally do board that plane and get back out there, I have real hope that what I’ll find will be better than ever.
Until then, I’ll be dreaming of those blue oceans, those sunshine-colored cocktails, and all the astonishing sights and smells and flavors I encountered during my short but sweet global adventure this year. Here’s to more adventures, more mind-blowing meals, and to all the chefs and owners and workers who make my job such an incredible joy.
Read more about this year’s picks for the World’s Best Restaurants list here.
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