The Quest For Culinary Gold From The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2024’s #50BestTalks

50 Best Talks

The #50BestTalks at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ 2024 was themed ‘Treasure Hunt,’ with seven globe-spanning guests exploring that topic in their own eclectic and inimitable ways.

Speaking at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ 2024 #50BestTalks were Jessica Rosval, who co-founded the Association for the Integration of Women, and later Roots Restaurant. She was joined at the #50BestTalks by Billy Wagner and Micha Schäfer, from Nobelhart & Schmutzig, Berlin, who, the following day, would be placed at #43 in the list and receive the Sustainable Restaurant Award. 

Speaking too, were Malena Martínez of research body Mater Iniciativa, Eleven Madison Park’s Daniel Humm and Josh Niland, from Saint Peter, who started the proceedings. Finally, Kwame Onwuachi who runs Tatiana in New York, and is weeks away from opening his second restaurant in Washington D.C. called Dōgon, was wrapped up the #50BestTalks.

Together they proved that culinary treasures could range from fish butchery, to projects that prepare migrant women for the restaurant industry, to baking cosmic brownies as a love letter to New York. 

Kwame's cosmic brownie
Kwame Onwuachi’s cosmic brownies.

Food Is Culture

“It’s just a f*cking brownie,” Kwame Onwuachi declared, when his brownies, just like the ones served at Tatiana, were being handed out to guests at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2024 #50BestTalks. 

Josh Niland had probably shook up the audience’s expectations an hour earlier when his prim-looking ice cream sandwich served during his opening talk turned out to be made with fish eyes and fish bones. 

Kwame, though, was being facetious. During the press conference that had preceded The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2024 #50BestTalks Virgilio Martinez, from Central Lima, the current number one who would have the title for another 24-hours and a little more, had reminded everyone that food is culture. And so a brownie, especially one made by Kwame Onwuachi at his Tatiana Restaurant, could never simply be just a f*cking brownie.

Josh Niland from Saint Peter with a dissected fish
Josh Niland from Sydney’s Saint Peter.

Respect For Ingredients, Sustainable Practices, and Pure Economics

Josh Niland, the celebrated seafood chef, from Sydney’s Saint Peter restaurant, assisted by the Wynn Las Vegas team, had diligently dismantled a fish for this World’s 50 Best Restaurants #50BestTalks. They’d laid it out on the table on the stage, and covered it with a sheet for the big reveal. 

Whipping it away, with a joke about CSI Las Vegas, and another about David Copperfield, Josh revealed various dismembered pieces of fish. At the same time he drew back the curtain on his treasure – one that points the way towards the ethical consumption of fish. 

Embracing a gill-to-fin philosophy, Josh, a kind of piscine apostle extracts maximum value through the ingenious uses of eyes, organs, bones – even the roe is cured and crusted into delicacies.

Motivated by a trifecta of respect for ingredients, sustainable practices, and pure economics, Josh makes use of an average 90% of each marine offering. But he still took a moment to grumble about his experiments at his restaurant, Saint Peter, to utilize the gallbladder.

Jessiva Rosval from the Association for the Integration of Women
“In this room, everyone has this power: the power of food, of community, or perseverance.” — Jessica Rosval

A Social Project From “The Land Of Balsamic Vinegar And Parmigiano Reggiano, Massimo Bottura…And Pavarotti.” 

Following that, Jessica Rosval took the stage, a Canadian-born chef known for her work in Modena, Italy, which she called: “the land of balsamic vinegar and Parmigiano Reggiano, Massimo Bottura…and Pavarotti.” 

Modena, Jessica explained, has a population of just over 200,000 people. “But what a lot of people don’t know is that there are 143 nationalities represented in the city.”

The catalyst for action was when, in 2019, Caroline Caporossi, who would become Jessica’s first co-founder, met a 25-year-old English speaking Nigerian woman, who had arrived three years earlier but in that time had been unable to find a job. 

“Using her contacts in the restaurant world, Caroline helped her find a job. But a lot of obstacles started after – things like reading and understanding her pay contract in a language that wasn’t her own,” Jessica remembered.

“Women of color are one of the most disadvantaged groups in the European Union. No financial security. A high risk of poverty. Caroline is a social entrepreneur. I am a chef. We had a group of people in our community that needed help. And on the other side we had an industry that couldn’t find workers for their restaurants.” 

Joined in 2020, by their third co-founder, the lawyer, Maria Assunta Ioele they founded the Association for the Integration of Women, and, over the next two years set about finding donors, sponsors, partners, volunteers, and a space where they would launch their pilot training program. “It was a place where these women could learn, make mistakes, and grow,” Caroline smiled tearfully. “And at the end of it they would have access to a job market.”

As an extension of that, in 2022, they opened their non-profit restaurant, Roots, that these days is full every night. “I joke with Massimo Bottura that soon our waiting list is going to be longer than at Osteria Francescana!”

More important than the queue is that over the last 2 years, 43 women from 15 different countries have gone through their culinary training program, and as of April 95% of them are working in kitchens.

“In this room, everyone has this power: the power of food, of community, or perseverance. These are the ingredients we need to see to make change in the world…one ingredient at a time,” Caroline concluded to a rousing ovation. 

Micha Schäfer the former head chef of Nobelhart & Schmutzig who is now creative culinary director.
Micha Schäfer the former head chef of Nobelhart & Schmutzig who is now creative culinary director.

Who Pays The Price?

Billy Wagner and Micha Schäfer, have their sights set on change too. They are the driving forces behind Nobelhart & Schmutzig, a restaurant in Berlin, Germany.

When it was established, the restaurant quickly became a leader in the “vocally local” movement, emphasizing transparency in sourcing and challenging conventional fine dining norms.

Billy Wagner is the sommelier and owner, known for his innovative approach to wine pairings and passionate advocacy for local, sustainable producers. And Micha Schäfer is the former head chef, now creative culinary director “which better explains what I do,” renowned for his dedication to hyper-local, seasonal cuisine. He crafts inventive dishes using ingredients sourced exclusively from the Berlin-Brandenburg region, pushing the boundaries of German gastronomy.

Reading from cue cards, Billy came across as a hectoring circus ringmaster, Micha as an analytical head coach, recounting how, over the last four years, they’ve explored what they call the triangle of humanity. “At our core,” Billy explained, “I create, we create, our team creates a space for encounters and communications between people.”

“But if hospitality is the people’s business, why is it so terrible sometimes for the people working there?” Micha Schäfer continued. “Our guests get the champagne and the pampering. We are nice to them even when they’re not nice to us. But if guests pay the bill for that illusion, who pays the price?” Billy joined in, concluding that the people paying the price includes “the unpaid intern and the dishwasher in the dead-end job, and the small-scale producer who’s margin is going down and down…”

Four years on, Nobelhart & Schmutzig staff work 4 days and 40 hours a week. The dishwashing position has been abolished. Instead, chefs take turns to do the job. But, Billy and Micha have gone beyond structure to create a code of conduct – in collaboration with all of their team, external consultants, and after attending extensive training and numerous workshops – that covers everything from basic communication, to racism, sexual harassment and inclusiveness, “not to give our team a prescription to live by, but to empower them to make informed decisions.”

“Everyone should be accountable, even us,” Billy concluded. “No. Especially us.” 

“Everyone should be accountable, even us. No. Especially us.” — Billy Wagner

Finding A New North Star

Eleven Madison Park’s Daniel Humm, recounted the restaurant’s controversial conversion to a plant-based menu coming out of COVID. The naysayers circled and the bad reviews accrued. Even worse, reports of food waste and labor issues arose, and Humm was lambasted for a lack of humility. 

For Daniel Humm, the dirt covering his hands, and the plants it helped nurture, in the photo he posted to Instagram to announce the new direction, in May 2021, was probably the treasure. Or, maybe the treasure was simply progress itself for himself and his celebrated restaurant. 

By that time, Eleven Madison Park needed to find a north star to strive towards, as it had in 2006 when Daniel Humm and front-of-house partner Will Guidara had set out to turn the brasserie, opened by Danny Meyer in 1998, into the best restaurant in the world. 

Although they achieved that in 2017, “None of these awards meant that much on their own,” Daniel reflected in the talk – a kind of counseling session in a soothing armchair. “It’s the energy that they can create.”

But “becoming number one was disorientating too and we didn’t know what to do next.”

That was until with their new direction, “we’d found our north star again – to create these plant-based meals.” If only, he bemoaned, they’d known the path led through the brambles and thorns. “If I knew how hard it was going to be,” Daniel recounted with remarkable honesty, “I never would have done it.”

Daniel Humm recounting the decision in 2021 to turn to a plant-based menu at Eleven Madison Park.
Daniel Humm recounting the decision in 2021 to turn to a plant-based menu at Eleven Madison Park.

The Fear Of Forgetting

Malena Martínez, co-founder and director of Mater Iniciativa, has dedicated herself to exploring Peru’s rich culinary heritage. This Peruvian research center, which studies local biodiversity and culinary traditions, forms the foundation for renowned restaurant concepts like Central, Kjolle, and Mil in Cusco.

Working alongside her brother, chef Virgilio Martínez, Malena has led expeditions across Peru, uncovering native ingredients and cultural practices. Their mission: “to have a positive and inclusive impact in the world through a deep understanding of food, nature, society and the environment.”

Malena emphasizes Peru’s diverse and challenging geography. The country comprises three distinct zones: the Western Coast, the Central Andean Highlands, and the Amazonian forest, which covers 60% of the nation. She explains, “All this co-exists with 55 ethnic groups. Each has a different language and different customs. So you can imagine how enormous the challenge is of articulating all this, but through gastronomy we can make it happen.”

Malena Martínez has looked inwards too as the co-founder and director of Mater Iniciativa, the Peruvian research center studying local biodiversity and culinary traditions – studies which underpin restaurant concepts like Central, Kjolle and Mil in Cusco
Malena Martínez whose work underpin restaurant concepts Central, Kjolle and Mil in Cusco.

The preservation techniques they study predate even the Incas, capable of extending an ingredient’s lifespan by 20 years or more. Malena elaborates, “We’re shedding light on those techniques that talk about cultural traits, and the deep connection to the environment – how people can use all the resources they have around: the wind, the sunlight, the shadow, the earth, and the soil.”

These preservation methods are not only practical but culturally significant. “What’s interesting about these preservation techniques is that they can transform one ingredient into another, and when it does so that ingredient can even take on a different name. And five ways of preservation means five safety nets, if the harvest doesn’t go as hoped,” Malena notes.

In Andean and Amazonian cultures, plants play a central role. “For people in the Andes and in the Amazon the world of plants is quite present there – people connect to the gods, and their ancestors, and to each other as human beings through plants. So, plants restore harmony and balance.”

Mater Iniciativa’s work extends beyond research. “We decided to give back to the community through a registry, a photographic record, so we have an account of what they feel about their own plants – is it for medicinal purposes? Is it significant in a ritual or ceremony? Does it have some spirituality behind it? Most of the time, they believe that if you have a disease it’s because you did something to yourself, towards others, or towards the environment, and through plants you can get the balance back,” Malena explains, showcasing images of plants in their natural habitat, studio settings, and prepared forms.

This documentation serves a crucial purpose: preserving knowledge for future generations. As Malena poignantly observes, “This is our way to create a legacy. What’s common between all the communities we’ve encountered is the fear of forgetting.”

Echoing the sentiments of her colleague Jessica, Malena concludes the #50BestTalks with a powerful message: “We shouldn’t be so worried about what future generations are doing. We should be concerned about what we can do right now, at this moment.”

Emma Sleight and Kwame Onwauchi
Emma Sleight and Tatiana’s Kwame Onwauchi.

A Final Reminder At The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2024 #50BestTalks Of The Joy Of Food

Chefs often mine their formative years for dishes they then elevate when they’re old enough. But Kwame Onwuachi has been praised for his ability “to connect his autobiography with some of the great themes of Black life in the United States.”

Kwame Onwuachi, an acclaimed American chef and author born in 1989 gained fame as a “Top Chef” contestant in 2015 and for his restaurant Kith/Kin in Washington D.C., which featured Afro-Caribbean cuisine. Onwuachi won the James Beard Rising Star Chef award in 2019 and published his memoir ‘Notes from a Young Black Chef’ the same year. He’s known for innovative cooking that draws from his diverse cultural heritage and for advocating diversity in the culinary world.

His New York restaurant, called Tatiana – he was wearing a cap with the name on as a reminder – is in New York City’s Lincoln Center, which, when it was constructed, displaced the Black and Puerto Rican families living there. 

“When I was pitching Tatiana, I said I wanted to serve food that represented old New York. And they asked, ‘Do you mean the Ritz Carlton and the Four Seasons?’ I’m like, ‘We grew up in very different parts of New York – I want to talk about the birth of hip hop, and the Bronx is burning. I want to talk about the location of the Lincoln Centre, built on San Juan hill, and create the kind of restaurant that would be here, even if you weren’t here. And I want to talk about food that represents New York, but not the New York City people think. This is the real one, the one that feeds New Yorkers.”

Food that he would go on to honor, like the chicken and lamb served on Halal carts in the city. 

The entire team of presenters and speakers from The World’s 50 Best Restaurants #50BestTalks.

“There’s four pillars of culture at Tatiana: Nigerian, Trinidadian, Creole from Louisiana and Jamaican, based on my culture. But it also tells the story of all the cultures that make New York what it is,” he explained to the audience. “The Halal cart-inspired chicken we make is really good. We take a whole chicken, brine it for a couple of days in shawarma spices, and roast it low and slow and pair it with turmeric-scented rice and braised lamb and serve it with hot sauce and white sauce, a bunch of pickled vegetables and lots of torn, fresh herbs. It’s a really beautiful dish.”

Amid the hefty reminders of workplace responsibilities, ethical sourcing, it was a reminder, to end The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2024’s #50BestTalks, of the simple joy of food.

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