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How judges decide which restaurants and dishes deserve awards

THE DISH

Lifting the lid on restaurant awards

Baked minced pork pie with black pepper from Dynasty Seafood Restaurant, a Vancouver Chinese Restaurant Award-winning dish.

Described as a 'necessary evil' in the culinary world, Alexandra Gill sheds some insight on how judges decide which restaurants and dishes deserve the accolades

The restaurant-awards season is upon us. After months of bingeing, bloating and widening waistbands, the votes have been tabulated. Get the envelopes ready. Let the bunfights begin.

At last week's ceremony for the Chinese Restaurant Awards, someone turned to me and asked: "Just how many awards do you judge each year?" I had to think about it for a minute, so obviously, too many. But having worked behind the scenes for several of these "necessary evils" (as one chef described them to me this week), I thought I would lift the curtain to discuss their relative merits and widely griped-about flaws.

Chinese Restaurant Awards

Now in its ninth year, the awards celebrate Chinese restaurants across Metro Vancouver in three categories: Diners' Choice, Social Media Choice and the Critics' Choice Signature Dish Awards. The event was founded by promoter Craig Stowe (president of the Luxury & Supercar Weekend), but is now managed by communications consultant and passionate foodie Rae Kung, largely as a labour of love.

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For the first time, I was part of the Critics' Choice panel this year. And I must say it was the best judging experience I've ever had. What I appreciated most was the narrow parameter. We voted for one dish, not an entire restaurant, irrespective of cuisine, neighbourhood, price point or style of restaurant (although we did weigh these variables to create a diverse short list, which was then voted on by secret ballot and tabulated by an independent accounting firm).

Roasted lamb’s leg from Hao’s Lamb Restaurant, a Chinese Restaurant Award-winning dish.

A signature dish makes a lot of sense for Chinese restaurants because this is how Chinese diners eat – they go for one special item and compose a meal around it with complementary shared plates. Each year, the winning dishes are taken out of competition, so the format encourages innovation and always offers something new to explore. It's not so easy for us judges, however. Instead of going out for balanced meals with various textures, flavours and counterpoints, we'd usually end up all sitting around a big table, eating our way through numerous hefty main dishes, searching for the one that would keep us digging in with our chopsticks and fighting for the last scraps, despite feeling slovenly full.

The group dining was another aspect I enjoyed. Although we were each given a generous stipend ($700) to dine around individually and come up with suggestions (we also relied on tips from friends, family and colleagues), we usually dined as a team (under a false-name reservation) at least once a week from July to December. I called it my Friday Night Date Club. The group dinners helped us pool the costs and gave us shared reference points.

Pork-belly bao from Heritage Asian Eatery, a Vancouver Chinese Restaurant Award-winning dish.

Of course, it's not a perfect system. It would be impossible to cover every Chinese restaurant in Metro Vancouver and I'm sure there are many great dishes we missed. When whittling down the short list, some of us had to make compromises. But in the end, everyone was satisfied with the 10 winning dishes.

If you'd like to learn more about why we chose them, my fellow judge Lee Man has written a great summary of each on his blog, thefoodbot.com.

Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards

Coming up on its 28th edition, the annual awards will be presented on April 18. As far as city-magazine food awards go, these are easily the largest and most comprehensive in Canada. There will be 30 awards given out this year, plus eight additional neighbourhood awards to be published in a later issue. Some (myself included) say this is too big to be meaningful. Everyone gets an award, kind of like kindergarten these days.

The magazine's editorial team has tried to decrease the number of categories (down from 45 last year and 50 the year before). It has also increased the number of judges to 19 (this will be my third year participating). The broad judging panel is probably the event's greatest asset. Unlike most city awards that rely on the opinion of one critic, this format allows for a robust diversity of opinion. And trust me, there is a great deal of vigorous debate within each category and around the larger awards, for which we vote as an entire team. These judges take their roles extremely seriously.

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But 19 judges still aren't enough for 30 categories. There must be at least three judges in each pod (usually five), meaning that we are all responsible for about 12 categories, in which there are five winners, narrowed down from long lists of 10. That adds up to about 120 restaurants, bars, pastry shops, etc., for which we are all responsible (in an ideal world) for visiting each year. It's completely unrealistic, especially when we are only given a $1,000 honorarium (up from $500 two years ago).

As a restaurant critic, it makes sense for me to participate. This forces me to revisit restaurants that I haven't reviewed for a long time and discover new ones. I can chalk up the significant extra costs to professional development. For the others, well, they must really love eating.

Canada's 100 Best Restaurants

Launched three years ago by former National Post restaurant critic Jacob Richler and magazine publisher Geoffrey Dawe, the annual awards try to satisfy the laudable – albeit highly controversial – need for a "genuinely authoritative national listing." And how is that done? Well, I suppose they could give a $10,000 stipend or so to a handful of judges to crisscross the country and visit hundreds of restaurants. But that would be awfully expensive. Instead, much like the World's 50 Best, they rely on the personal budgets, expertise and dining experiences of some 82 hand-selected gourmands and professionals, including a few writers, of which I am one.

The inclusion of chefs and restaurant owners on the judging panel is what riles the critics most. It's a conflict of interest! (Of course, the judges are not allowed to vote for themselves.) But they all vote for their buddies! (Probably, although some have been disqualified for making it too obvious.) As Mr. Richler explains, he took the idea from the Oscars. "Their 'academy' is made up of previous nominees and industry professionals who best understand the business." I can already see the hashtag: #Canadas100BestSoInsularCorrupt. Actually, the outcry on social media after this year's awards was: Canada's 100 Best – so regionally biased toward Ontario and Quebec. Those provinces did win the lion's share of awards (31 and 28, respectively), but if you look at the differences by population, British Columbia (which took home 20 listings) punched well above its weight class.

But what about all the great restaurants left off the list? And yes, there were many, all across the country. As judges, we are asked to rank the best 10 restaurants we experienced within the past 12 months. There is no requirement to visit every restaurant within our region. It often comes down to a popularity contest dependent on the breadth of our individual experiences or the influence of the restaurants with the best PR. And this is precisely why Canada has never done well on the World's 50 Best Restaurants. Unlike Tourism Australia, which has campaigned hard on behalf of its restaurants and will be hosting the awards next month, Destination Canada has never paid any interest.

Ultimately, restaurant awards are all flawed. They might generate important discussion, but they are imperfect, even more so the larger they become. And while it's very hard to look a tearful young cook in the eye – especially those who count on these awards to build their résumés – they should all be taken with a large grain of fleur de sel.

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