The illusion of anonymity

Last week I contributed to a Twitter based discussion surrounding the list of “World’s 50 best restaurants” as compiled by Restaurant Magazine. Specifically, about free and special meals being offered to the voting panelists and if these voters are, and indeed should be, allowed to consider such meals and experiences when casting their votes. Talented food writer Elizabeth Auerbach of www.elizabethonfood.com instigated the debate when she asked if voters are allowed to accept invitations from chefs or restaurants. The debate was later picked up by eater.com

The list’s organizers were quick to point out that the voters are anonymous and that any free meals they are privy to as a result of their day jobs do not impact their final votes.

However, as recently as two years ago a complete list of voters was published on the official “World’s 50” website following the awards. Indeed, the list’s organizers tell us that this recent policy of anonymity has been put in place to avoid lobbying. As such, it stands to reason that lobbying used to be a problem.

In fact, we know that the issue of free meals has been a matter of contention before. Only a few years ago restaurant critic for the Observer, Jay Rayner, stepped down from his role as chairman of the UK panel due, in part, to disagreements on whether or not free meals should count towards votes. He suggested to no avail that free meals should count for half a vote at most – a position Rayner reiterated during last week’s debate.

The organizers’ solution to the problem was to make the voters anonymous in an attempt to shield them from aggressive lobbying. Previously, the transparency of the process was one of a few things that set this list apart from the cloak-and-dagger secrecy that surrounds the Michelin Guides. One could be forgiven for thinking that by no longer publishing a list of voters they have, at best, muddied the waters.

They could have opted for Rayner’s solution or simply created clearer guidelines for accepting free and special meals, with appropriate penalties for those who transgressed. However, that might not be as easy as it seems. You see, the voters are expected to cover their own costs for both travel and meals. And therein lies a festering breeding ground for potential lobbying. Not because I believe voters are accepting free champagne in exchange for votes, but because there is an inherent need to reduce cost and streamline logistics for the individual voter.

In an article in the New York Times following this year’s awards, Julia Moskin said the voters “are well known to the world and each other, making objectivity and anonymity impossible.” Recently a highly ranked chef told me, off the record, that; “voters are not shy about letting me know who they are or why they are coming.” I suppose it should not surprise us that the voters might be willing to seductively lift their veil of anonymity in order to secure a reservation at these almost-impossible-to-book restaurants.

The organizers counter and say that 10 of the 36 voters in each region are changed every year. However, that is not to say that all voters would be changed within the span four years. There might very well be a core group of 20 in each region that never changes at all.

The essence of this issue is not whether voters should be anonymous or not. It is a question of policing the personal integrities of 900 unique individual voters. I, for one, would not mind a public list of voters. That way I could form my own opinion as to the competencies and preferences of the different panels, assess whether I’m likely to agree with their choices or not, and take the list with the grain of salt it deserves. At this point we are left in the most dangerous state of all: the illusion of anonymity, where the voters are known to all but the dining public.