(CNN) — The latest addition to the roster of global culinary extravaganzas seeking to highlight some of the best dining experiences on the planet, the inaugural World Restaurant Awards took place in Paris’ Palais Brongniart Monday night.
But the event was far from your typical awards ceremony.
Tuxedos were notable by their absence, with tattoos and jeans a far more popular choice.
To his clear astonishment, chef Kobus van der Merwe took home two awards for Wolfgat, a tiny 20-seat spot in an isolated fishing village a two hours’ drive from Cape Town, South Africa.
He won the prize for “Off-Map Destination” and — far more significantly — the prestigious overall prize: the award for “Restaurant of the Year.”
“I’m a little bit speechless,” said van der Merwe.
“It’s an amazing honor, being in a room full of people that I admire. I had so many fan moments since I arrived! We’re a small team, a total of six, we all do everything with no distinctions.”
“There’s no kitchen hierarchy so it’s all about collaboration and learning from one another. I’m incredibly proud of them. They don’t come from any formal food background, so this achievement is all the more amazing.”
Not bad for a journalist and blogger who only started cooking at the age of 30.
“I went to culinary school straight after school, got the fright of my life and then ran in the opposite direction,” he says.
‘There’s no such thing as South African cooking’
Wolfgat’s seven-course tasting menu costs diners who make the journey to the restaurant, housed in a historic 130-year-old cottage on the west coast of South Africa, around $60 — barely enough to cover an appetizer in most Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris.
As for the food?
“We serve a small seasonal tasting menu of seven courses, predominantly seafood, then we enhance that with indigenous pickings that we find seasonally around the village like succulents and seaweed,” says the chef.
The award marks a proud moment for South Africa’s culinary scene — with an impact that is set to go beyond borders and maybe around the continent — but part of van der Merwe’s approach is to continue to define his nation’s cuisine.
“South Africa is such a melting pot of cultures, we are such a diverse nation,” he says.
“Eleven official languages, so there’s no such thing as South African cooking, very diverse cuisines. But I think it’s finally starting, there’s a lot of momentum coming with people that really appreciate the ingredients we have and showcase them in innovative ways. So we’re all working towards a concept of South African cuisine, trying to establish something that is representative of who we are and where we are.”
A new way to champion the world’s culinary stars
The World Restaurant Awards has deliberately taken a very different tack from established and better-known culinary platforms such as the Michelin Guide’s annual announcement of their stars, or the World’s 50 Best Restaurants events.
According to the organizer, events company IMG, the winners were decided by a 100-member, gender-balanced judging panel that included restaurant journalists, influencers and culinary professionals from 37 different countries.
Monday’s event was hosted by popular French TV host Antoine de Caunes, the self-professed “Frenchiest Frenchman in France, coming to you from Paris, the city of light — and yellow vests.”
Refreshingly, the ceremony started with a short film — not from a corporate sponsor, but the event’s charity partner.
The World Restaurant Awards claims to champion the sort of destinations, chefs and dishes otherwise overlooked by most awards to date.
The categories — and the winners — certainly supported that assertion.
Awards in a special “Small Plates” category stood out for their irreverence and sense of humor.
The “tattoo free chef of the year” award went to a slightly surprised 62-year-old Alain Ducasse, the French culinary icon who presides over a supremely successful global portfolio of Michelin-starred restaurants in New York, Paris, Tokyo, Monte Carlo and beyond.
On being asked his thoughts on winning such an unusual award, he joked: “It’s never too late!”
As for the overall event, Ducasse appears to be a fan.
“It’s a good idea,” said the chef.
“Any event, when they support our industry, I am a supporter. It was the first initiative for IMG to host these awards, they chose Paris and that was a great idea. It’s a different kind of award — it’s a new vision, that’s interesting. Different restaurants, cuisines and atmospheres — everything is different.”
When asked what tattoo he would get should the temptation arise, he said “a cocoa bean” — an apt choice from someone who has a burgeoning chocolate empire to add to his 21 Michelin stars.
Amongst other awards, “Event of the Year” went to the Refugee Food Festival — an annual project that allows restaurant owners to open their kitchens to refugee chefs — besting traditional pop-ups and partnerships with big-name chefs.
Music was a standout feature of the event as well.
“Pictures of You” by the Cure aptly accompanied the award for the “Instagram Account of the Year,” won by French culinary legend Alain Passard.
London’s Noble Rot won the award for best “Red Wine Serving Restaurant” to the tune of Ian Dury’s “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.”
Then came a poignant moment reflecting on a sad 12 months for the culinary world.
Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” played as a photo montage of food industry people who died in the past year — Myrtle Allen, Anthony Bourdain, Paul Bocuse, Joel Robuchon, Jonathan Gold, Roger Jaloux and Andrew Fairlie — appeared on the screen before the packed auditorium.
Here’s the full list of winners from the inaugural World’s Best Restaurants awards:
Tattoo-Free Chef: Alain Ducasse, France
Long-Form Journalism: Lisa Abend (Fool Magazine), USA + Sweden