Better Than “Best”? This New Culinary Award Breaks with Tradition

The 50 Next List spotlights the chefs, farmers, activists, and educators revolutionizing the industry.

By Caitlin Gunther

Updated on July 8, 2022

A new culinary award is recasting how to celebrate food professionals. The 50 Next List, from the same organization that compiles The World's 50 Best Restaurants, hosted its second annual ceremony in Bilbao, Spain, on June 24. Featuring chefs, entrepreneurs, farmers, activists, educators, and innovators from around the world—ranging in age from 22 to 37—the list feels more compelling than many longstanding culinary awards. Another refreshing change? Everyone's a winner, since 50 Next does away with rankings. 

“It feels great when we are seen and recognized for all our hard work and the contribution my team and I bring to the culinary space,” said Michael Adé Elégbèdé, one of the honorees and chef of Lagos, Nigeria, restaurant ÌTÀN Test Kitchen. “Being in Africa, we are often neglected. I'm glad to see this is gradually changing.” 

Jessica Fong, founder and CEO of Common Farms, a Hong Kong-based vertical farm company that supplies restaurants and home chefs with low-carbon footprint microgreens, edible flowers, and specialty herbs, was also on the list. Said Fong, “The recognition for all the endeavors of entrepreneurs making a difference is an amazing start and encouragement for all of us.”

Back in 2018, I had the chance to attend the World’s 50 Best Awards ceremony. As the winners, primarily men, arrived sporting their candy-apple-red scarves, cameras flashing, I was admittedly starstruck by the Massimo Bottura of it all. The excitement in the air was palpable. 

It wasn’t until later, after I settled into my seat to watch the ceremony, that I felt the nagging sensation that something was off. More than half (26) of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants were located in Europe. (As of 2021, that number barely budged to 25.) And while I was sure that London-based chef Clare Smyth put in the requisite blood, sweat, and tears for her recognition, I wondered why the organizers carved out a special category for the best female chef. It felt a bit like adding a kids’ table to the family dining room. 

The list may have been high on Michelin stars, but—rather than learning something about the cutting edge of the culinary world—it was decidedly low on suspense. This is in many ways by design: big names garner news and buzz, and rankings just add to that hype. 

The 50 Next List, on the other hand, features diverse professionals overhauling food systems on various levels—such as by offering smart farming software to farmers across Latin America (Mariana da Silva Vasconcelos, CEO & founder of São Paulo-based Agrosmart); or by founding a food collective to spark conversation around the Indian food system (Anusha Murthy and Elizabeth Yorke, co-creators of Edible Issues). 

Implicit is the idea that chefs—the individuals who tend to get the limelight at culinary awards—can and do move the industry forward, but comprehensive change comes at the hands of a much broader range of professionals. Rather than attempt the highly subjective task of trying to pit nominees against each other; there’s space for everyone to thrive and be recognized. 

The 50 Next “aims to inspire, empower, and connect young people who are pushing boundaries at every level of the food chain,” explains William Drew, Director of Content for 50 Best, in an email, regarding whether the unranked list format is a matter of principle or practicality. “Each of the 50 winners is celebrated, with no hierarchy or competition. [And the organization] specifically celebrates people, not establishments.”

This year’s ceremony brought many of these young trailblazers together. Said Mmabatho Molefe, chef-owner of Emazulwini, a Cape Town restaurant that celebrates Nguni and Zulu cuisines, “I think the best part was getting to spend time with everyone and realizing that they are people outside their work and what they have achieved.”

Of course, The 50 Next isn’t immune to criticism. It’s inherently a little ageist. And there’s also the matter of the selection process—according to its website, the 50 Next List was created by the 50 Next team and the Basque Culinary Center, the organization’s official academic partner; details and the diversity of the panel remain unknown. On the whole, though, the list showcases a variety of people who are addressing today’s most pressing issues and making a positive impact on the future of food. Here are a few more of the up-and-coming professionals on this year’s 50 Next to watch out for: 

Jenny Dorsey is no stranger to innovating in the culinary space. The resumé of the Los Angeles-based Chinese American chef also includes artist, cookbook author, culinary consultant, supper club host, and more. One of her recent ventures is Studio ATAO, a non-profit that creates educational resources to “inspire socially conscious FBH professionals toward action through publicly available social justice education, vulnerable conversations, and community-building.”

If you struggle to get your recommended 6 to 8 glasses of water a day, then Air Up—the revolutionary scent-based drinking system from German designers Magdalena Jüngst and Tim Jäger—is for you. It’s a refillable bottle that flavors water with natural scents using “aroma pods,” essentially tricking your brain into thinking you’re drinking flavored water. Air Up comes in various flavors, like basil-lemon, mango-passion fruit, and watermelon, and the bottles are created using recyclable materials. 

Born in Kharkiv City, Ukraine, Dinara Kasko had been making eye-catching cakes using 3D printers well before the war broke out in her hometown. Forced to flee Ukraine, Kasko managed to continue creating her bold confections and teaching online classes. With over 718,000 Instagram followers, she also capitalized on her huge reach to raise money for Ukraine. 

Charles Michel believes food literacy can change the world. The Colombian French educator creates educational content on Patreon, offers classes on the ecology of food, and has given several TED talks. As Michel’s website states, “I believe food education, innovation, and the power of community will play an important role in bringing back balance within ourselves, with each other, and with natural ecosystems.” 

According to Uvera, the biotech startup founded by Saudi scientist Asrar Damdam, spoiled food represents a staggering 33% of global food waste. Uvera’s on a mission to halve that by 2030 using containers that prolong the shelf-life of fresh food by destroying harmful bacteria using ultraviolet light.

Updated July 23 with quote from The 50 Next following request for comment.

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