Restaurant Awards: Inside the Judging Process
Our Food Editor answers the hotly contested question: How come I wasn't nominated?
April 12, 2018
And no sooner than the list hit, the inbox started pinging. The emails took on a similar form—they start with light pleasantries, mention how much they love the awards and then spend the rest of the time telling us to politely get our heads out of our asses. Some industrious sorts went so far as to reach out to individual judges to try and get the skinny.
So, in the ongoing spirit of crystal-clear transparency, we’ve decided to pull back the curtain on the entire operation, starting from last year’s post-mortem to the end of this year’s judging in nine easy steps.
The Restaurant Awards Judging Process:
1. A few weeks after the end of each year’s awards, I invite all the judges for a lunch or a meeting where we sit down and go over both the process and the results, and have an in-depth discussion on what we thought worked and what didn’t. We talk about categories that are working well, ones that could be fine-tuned and ones that should either be dropped altogether or cycled out for a year. We talk about categories that need to be created to meet the changing dining landscape of the city. And we gossip.
2. Based on those discussions, I come up with a list of proposed categories for everyone to review and comment on. Some categories are sacrosanct: Best Italian, Best Chinese, Best French. But others we chat about. For example, last year we cycled out Best Pizzeria and Best Steakhouse on the reasoning that we only have so many resources, and that we felt that those two categories were static enough that a year off wouldn’t be a problem (and I submit that we were right given that, when we cycled them back in this year, none of the nominated restaurants in those categories were new). We decided that we would cycle out Best Vegetarian and Best Korean this year. Again, not because they aren’t important, but rather that we didn’t see a lot of movement among the top rooms.
3. Once the categories are final, it’s my job to divide the 15 judges up into smaller groups that we call pods. Whereas all the judges vote on Chef of the Year, Best New Restaurant and Restaurant of the Year, the other categories see pods of judges (from three to 10) vote on them because it would be logistically impossible for everyone to eat at all of the spots in each of our 39 categories. The judges submit to me what pods they’d like to be in, and for the most part their requests are honoured, with the proviso that we make sure the pods change every year. This answers the complaint “X restaurant was in best Gastown last year, so how come it’s not even nominated this year?” It’s our belief that having a variety of our judges weigh in each year gives us the best cross-section of the city’s best eaters. And for the most part, class shines through—most of the lists are remarkably similar each year.
4. Once the pods are set, I appoint a captain to each pod. That person is responsible for canvassing their podmates to get a list of restaurants that should be considered for any given category. In some categories it’s six restaurants, in some it’s 20. It’s normally done by consensus, but not always: if there is a judge who strongly believes that a certain spot needs to be considered for a certain category they’re 100 percent entitled to insist that it goes on the list.
5. Once these lists are set, then the judges have a good chunk of the year to try them out or add new restaurant additions if they become aware of them throughout the year. Some judges actually eat out together, some go with friends, but there’s constant dialog throughout the year as to what’s going on. If a certain chef is no longer cooking at a certain spot, our judges make everyone aware of that and, I will say, they are unbelievably plugged in and knowledgeable about what’s going on in the city. And if someone has either a God-awful experience somewhere or an amazing one, you can be sure that it gets shared as well.
6. By the beginning of January, most of the dining is winding down. At this juncture, we set a date when the final ballots are sent in. Unlike the rest of the process this is done entirely in secret. The ballots are emailed directly to Crowe Mackay, VanMag‘s accountant. No one at the magazine sees them. No one at the magazines votes. The accountants take 10 days or so to tabulate the results and then they’re sent to me. The results that I receive are the results that will be announced on April 16. There are no adjustments, changes or editorial input by us. We respect the judges and the process and frankly you, the reader, too much to give in to the desire to play god, even just a little bit.
7. Finally, we schedule a final meeting where we discuss and agree upon who should win the Lifetime Achievement Award and be recognized in Premier Crew. There are also three final categories discussed and voted on by every judge: Chef of the Year, Best New Restaurant and Restaurant of the Year. There is a lot of heated discussion and it’s always an illuminating, amazing night. Our judges care a great deal about these awards and they acquit themselves with great passion and honour as they put forward their respective viewpoints. Sometimes loudly. Everyone leaves, goes home and thinks about it and secretly sends their votes in, and those results are likewise the exact results that will announced on April 16.
8. On the day of the event, most judges show up to revel in all their hard work, but some prefer to stay away. They watch the joy of the winners they’ve selected, and they no doubt register the disappointment of those who didn’t triumph this year. I have a Laphroaig or two.
9. Two weeks later we begin again.