40 Restaurant Stars on the Rise
A teenage prodigy, 17 young adults roaring into restaurant careers while still in their 20s, and a collection of prime-time pros who have hit their stride and are rising fast, well before they crest the 40-year mark—these are the stars we hail as ones to watch in 2017.
Representing all walks of restaurant operations, the FSR Rising Stars include chefs, owner/operators, entrepreneurial restaurateurs, executive leaders, and beverage visionaries. Most were nominated by industry professionals, often by a mentor or peers, and all of the rising stars have proven histories working in full-service dining.
As is often the case, young and driven stars first make their mark in large cities, and this list is heavily populated with those working in major markets like Chicago, Las Vegas, New Orleans, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and—of course—New York City.
Our story begins with a profile of one such chef: Esther Choi, who opened her first restaurant, mŏkbar, in New York’s Chelsea Market and, in January, opened a second mŏkbar in Brooklyn. Chef Choi fulfilled her teenage dream of owning a business by the time she was 30 in 2014, actually two years shy of turning 30, and since then she’s become the unofficial Korean food ambassador for New York City tourists and locals.
The first mŏkbar location in Chelsea Market paved the way for Chef Choi’s rise in the industry, not only for the success of the concept but also for the fulfillment of her vision to educate people about Korean cuisine. It helps that the Manhattan food hall is one of the largest foodie destinations in the world, attracting more than 6 million visitors annually and easily positioning mŏkbar to serve thousands of guests—despite its diminutive dining area of only 20 seats. Take-out and lunch service dominate the fast-casual business model, but Chef Choi’s second mŏkbar, located in Brooklyn, is a 60-seat, full-service restaurant that goes well beyond lunch, catering, and dishes to go, including an expanded menu, a vibrant bar scene, and late-night hours.
To educate people about Korean food, she had to move people past their misconceptions about the cuisine, and she had to make the dishes less intimidating to try.
“A lot of people still think Korean food is limited to barbecue—and that’s so not true. Korean barbecue actually came about in modern years; real traditional Korean food dates back thousands of years, and the flavors and dishes are quite different from Korean barbecue,” Choi explains, adding that to educate people on what the cuisine is really about, she opened mŏkbar as a Korean ramen bar. “I chose ramen because it serves as a vehicle to introduce the flavors. When people think of Korean food, they might be nervous or scared to try something they’ve never had before, but ramen is such a popular item—and people love noodles, so it was sort of like a disguise.”
One that worked perfectly: People try the ramen, she explains, and then wonder, “What was that really delicious, distinctive flavor?” Ramen becomes the gateway for Korean flavor profiles and techniques. “It softened people up to try traditional Korean foods, like a fermented product like kimchi, that they wouldn’t have tried otherwise.”
The best-selling dish at the original mŏkbar is the classic bibimbap, which is Chef Choi’s craft-ramen take on a true Korean dish. “That’s traditionally a rice dish, with a lot of vegetables, and I created a ramen soup version of it,” she says. “It’s my crazy twist on what bibimbap could be.” And like all the dishes on her menu, the inspiration comes from the very traditional Korean dishes that she grew up eating at home, prepared by her grandmother who still offers advice to the chef, or on the streets of Korea, when she spent three years living near Seoul, becoming immersed in authentic Korean culture as a child.
“That idea of being an ambassador of Korean food and culture came about very naturally,” she says. “After opening mŏkbar and being in the spotlight for Korean cuisine, the Korean government and Korean organizations sort of named me the Korean food ambassador of New York.” A role she embraces wholeheartedly as it aligns perfectly with her philosophy that cultural acceptance begins with food.
“I truly believe that food is the first element that brings people to be interested in any culture; it’s always about the food. Every time I hang out with someone who is not Korean, I bring them Korean food and all of a sudden they’re fans of Korean music, of Korean skin care, of every element of Korean culture. You fall in love with a cuisine and it opens the door to other aspects of the culture.”
Already, Choi has her sights on another NYC location, and recently she traveled to L.A., contemplating a cross-country leap with her mŏkbar concept, or perhaps another Korean eatery. “I am open to doing other concepts, which is kind of a goal of mine. I don’t want to just be pigeonholed into doing this Korean ramen concept—I want to do different types of Korean eateries. And hopefully I will do that in the near future.”
As for how many mŏkbar locations she might open, there isn’t a magic number, but she says, “Definitely like five locations I could handle, but anything above that could be a little bit much for just me to handle.”
Defining goals, understanding market potential, and realistically assessing her own capabilities is a large part of what has led to her early successes—all of which add up to a business savvy that belies her youthful experience.
“I’m very comfortable here in New York City because I know the real estate market so well. That’s a big part of being a chef, or a business owner, because really, in the end, that is what I am. I’m a chef first, but business owner is right up there as well,” she explains. “Knowing your market, knowing who your guests are, and who you are feeding—I’m very comfortable with all of that in New York, and that’s why I’ve been as successful as I am. But going into a different market is going to be a challenge. I’m going to focus on Brooklyn and one other location in the New York area, but after that I’m open to expanding into a different city.”
That business acumen is not something every chef talks about, so how did Choi develop those skills? “When you’re a chef, you either have that element or you don’t, and a lot of chefs don’t,” she acknowledges. “But I was always super interested in the business side. I read these crazy business books when I was growing up, and even in high school I knew that eventually I was going to open my own business—whether it was a restaurant or not. Back then I didn’t even know I wanted to be a chef. That came after college, when I realized I had a crazy talent for cooking.”
She took that talent to culinary school, honing her cooking skills at the Institute of Culinary Education, but the entire time she kept thinking: “Five years. In five years, I have to own my own restaurant.”
And she did, opening mŏkbar at age 28—and the cooking part came easy, but the business part, it was an arduous process.
“You have to read so many books. You have to educate yourself on how to develop a business mentality. And to be honest, it wasn’t easy for me,” Choi says. “Being a chef is easy for me; being in a kitchen is such a fit. When you have a talent for something, it just comes very naturally. But with business it was definitely a struggle—I made so many mistakes.”
It’s hard now to pinpoint what those mistakes were, but the challenges remain fresh in her mind: “Just being a leader to my team of like 30 people—that’s not an easy job. Especially being so young, and a lot of my managers are much older.”
Her advice to others on the rise: “Constantly keep an open mind and educate yourself as much as you can. It’s a nonstop process. At this point, it’s important for me to be a good leader and a great business owner—above even being a great chef. I’m so passionate about food and creating great dishes, but I also have a team to lead. So there’s always a balance that I have to maintain.”
At 13 he became the chef of his own fine-dining supper club (via the kitchen in his parents’ home), and at 14 he launched Eureka, a monthly pop-up restaurant in Los Angeles. McGarry, at 16, had crossed the continent and was charging $160 per person to partake in 14-course dinners at his Manhattan pop-up. He became the youngest “30 under 30” Zagat honoree for his pop-up in Los Angeles and was named one of Time magazine’s most influential teens in 2015. As well as being self-taught from a young age, McGarry received his culinary training by staging and working at fine-dining restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City, among them Eleven Madison Park and Alma. He also staged in Oslo, Norway, at Maaemo, and in Copenhagen, Denmark, at Geranium. Flynn officially moved to New York City a year ago to continue his culinary career, opening Eureka NYC, a 6-month pop-up residency at Creative Edge.
Ryan Peters has always dreamed of a culinary career. After high school in Reading, Pennsylvania, Peters attended the Academy of Culinary Arts at Indiana University of Pennsylvania for the one-year accelerated culinary program. He then landed a job at the Ocean Reef Club in Florida for a season before moving to Pittsburgh to work at Salt of the Earth. But he ultimately chose the Sunshine State and returned to Ocean Reef. This time around, though, he says he came with more experience, drive, and passion—and quickly climbed the ranks to the role of sous chef, where he now leads a team of 20 cooks. In 2016, Peters was the recipient of the BKB ment’or grant, which allowed him to stage for one month at Thomas Keller’s lauded restaurant The French Laundry. “That month instilled in me habits and a work ethic that will remain for my career,” Peters says.
Acclaimed chef Tony Maws has turned Craigie On Main into a staple in Cambridge, Massachusetts, incorporating local and seasonal ingredients into his French-inspired fare. But while Maws’ tasting menus are legend among Boston-area customers, one of the stars of the show isn’t the food—it’s general manager Olivia Moravec.
Moravec started at Craigie On Main as service manager in 2014 and worked her way up to the general manager position in a year. The native Texan says she grew up in a family that “thrived on the practices of Southern hospitality,” and she translates that to her hospitality program at the restaurant. For her, success is built upon relationships—relationships between kitchen and bar staff, chefs and farmers, and beyond.
“Those relationships influence how I’m able to train and motivate my staff, who create our relationships with neighbors and guests,” she says. “And then there’s the relationship between food and wine. Each relationship plays a part in creating a culture that I’m very passionate about.”
A certified sommelier by age 24, Moravec leads bi-weekly regional wine training and helps curate Craigie On Main’s award-winning wine program.
Executive Chef, Roux
Slingerlands, New York
Not everyone can handle the intensity of a kitchen. But Michael Mastrantuono thrives on it. The 26-year-old executive chef at Roux, a farm-to-table restaurant outside Albany, New York, says he remembers working the line at his father’s restaurant when he was 9 years old—and loving every minute of it.
“I grew up in the restaurant business with my family, and when it was time to go to college, this was all I knew,” Mastrantuono says. “I fell in love with food, and I fell in love with the intensity.”
These days, Mastrantuono is directing that intensity toward sourcing. He visits nearby farms every week to select ingredients and educates staff and guests on the importance of quality food.
“I’m at the farms just as much as I’m at the restaurant. I not only respect the craft; I respect the food, and what it eats and what it is grown in,” he says.
“Thomas Keller once said, ‘You could be just as passionate, have the same work ethic, the same drive, but if you are able to get better ingredients, then you will be the better chef.’ I live my life around this concept, and so does my staff.”
Pastry Chef, Kuro at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
Local foodies have described Chef Evans as an “alchemist, not a cook,” largely because his desserts seem to strike a perfect harmony between art and science. His career has already included exclusive resorts as well as fine-dining restaurants: He served on the opening staff at Charleston’s Stars Rooftop & Grill Room, and before that served as pastry cook at Georgia’s acclaimed Sea Island Resort. His training includes stages at Alinea in Chicago and The Blackbird in Asheville, North Carolina. At Kuro, Evans is creating a pastry menu that reflects the complexity and balance of Japanese cuisine while complementing savory selections created under the tutelage of creative culinary director and executive chef Alex Becker.
Stars often beget stars, and such is the case at Little Bird Bistro, the sister concept of Le Pigeon—a true feather in the culinary cap for Portland, Oregon. Both concepts reflect the vision and talents of co-owners Gabriel Rucker, executive chef and winner of two James Beard awards, and Andrew Fortgang, wine director. For Chef de Cuisine Marcelle Crooks, joining the Little Bird Bistro team in 2013 as line cook, then progressing to kitchen manager followed by sous chef, has given her ample opportunities to spread her wings—and now soar. During her time as sous chef, Crooks was mentored by Chef Rucker, whom she worked alongside for a year before progressing into the role of chef de cuisine. Originally from Whidbey Island, in Washington’s Puget Sound, Crooks says she grew up around incredible food, learning to cook from her mother and grandmother, eating vegetables out of her grandparents’ garden, and working a summer job at the local café.
At 27 years old, Kwame Onwuachi has lived the life of a chef decades his senior. He’s won numerous accolades and starred on a season of “Top Chef.” He’s cooked in Michelin-starred restaurants Per Se and Eleven Madison Park. And he’s opened a restaurant that was so highly anticipated before opening that it commanded a price of $185 per person for a tasting menu.
He’s also experienced hardships normally reserved for more veteran chefs. In January, Onwuachi’s Washington, D.C., restaurant The Shaw Bijou abruptly closed after being open for only two-and-a-half months. This was after several high-profile reviews painted The Shaw Bijou in a less-than-flattering light, much of it taking issue with the high price point.
Through it all, one thing hasn’t changed: Onwuachi’s culinary creativity. The chef describes his style as a dialogue between himself and the guest, one in which the chef is sharing his life story. That story is as varied as the dishes he served on The Shaw Bijou’s tasting menu, which changed every day. Onwuachi grew up in the Bronx, but also spent time living with his grandfather in Nigeria and cooking in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before founding his own catering company in New York and later attending The Culinary Institute of America.
“It’s a food Rolodex,” he says of how his past helps him in the kitchen. “You experience so many things, and it adds to these memories you can grasp from in your head. So when I’m creating a dish, I have a wider range of things I can pull from.”
There’s no word yet as to what Onwuachi’s next move might be, but there’s little doubt he will remain one of the fine-dining world’s most exciting young stars.
The beverage list at Roka Akor boasts award-winning wines and sake, an exclusive Japanese beer list, innovative specialty cocktails, a variety of spirits, and an assortment of Shōchū, which is a distilled Japanese spirit that was used as a medicinal tonic in ancient times. San Francisco–based Alex Riddle, the executive cocktail curator for each of the brand’s locations, is constantly pushing creative boundaries to heighten the cocktail program. Recently he crafted the Cocktail Omakase, which had an assortment of five to seven cocktails that honored different Japanese festivals. As for his take on the job, Riddle says, “We at Roka are always striving to be better than the day before and deliver our best to our guests. At the end of the day, we just want to create something fresh and interesting to broaden people’s experiences and challenge their expectations as to what can be conveyed through a cocktail.”
“Kale, Quinoa, and Community since 1977.” That’s the slogan of New York City’s famed Natural Gourmet Institute, a leader in health-focused cuisine. Don’t be surprised if they add Warm Drunken Donuts and Toffee Monkey Bread to the tagline in the near future. Alumna Tracy Wilk, in a sweet twist of irony, transformed her education at the renowned institution into a career as one of the city’s brightest pastry chefs. Working with Executive Chef Raoul Whitaker at David Burke Kitchen in the James Hotel New York, Wilk has earned a fervent following for her playful creations as well as her celebrated assortment of breads and pastries. This past fall, she offered a personal take on two American favorites: apple pie and the Twix bar. This kind of innovative spirit has come to define her career in the short, but poignant, time she’s been working in the kitchen. Wilk started as an extern at the city’s iconic ABC Kitchen before joining the restaurant as senior pastry cook in early 2011. She accepted a job with David Burke Kitchen in February 2013 as a line cook and has been rapidly ascending ever since.
“I love my craft because I feel like the true purpose of my job is to create joy,” Wilk says. “I became a pastry chef to make people happy, and every day, with one of my desserts, I can make someone’s day a little brighter, a little better, and a little more fun.”
Bar Chef, SoBou
Laura Bellucci brings a truly colorful and charismatic vibe to The Commander’s Family of Restaurants, and in particular to her creative cocktail creations at SoBou. With a degree in writing, literature, and publishing from Boston’s Emerson College, her creativity is steeped in intellect and poetic justice for all. Her libations, said to “fit perfectly into a quirky, modern Creole saloon that fosters sophisticated yet unpretentious creativity,” run the gamut from a Honey Buzz Milk Punch (imagine Honey Nut Cheerios–infused rum and pie-spiced bitters) to the Parakeet Nordine, which combines Chartreuse, Giffard pamplemousse, Seagram’s gin, and lime.
Joining a multigenerational family restaurant can be a daunting prospect for any chef, especially when he’s not a member of the family. But for Kevin Marquardt, it wasn’t so much a challenge as an opportunity at Saigon Sisters, where he has delved into the traditional Vietnamese recipes that have been handed down from mother to daughter.
Marquardt cut his teeth at such notable establishments as René Redzepi’s Noma in Denmark, farm-to-table Station 220, and, most recently, BellyQ and Tru Restaurant in Chicago. He brought that considerable experience with him when he joined Mary Nguyen Aregoni at her Vietnamese-inspired concept Saigon Sisters in October. While Marquardt has plenty of feathers in his cap, he is still an enthusiastic and open-minded student of the culinary arts. “I now use what I have learned, not just combined with Mary but also with her mother, who still works there every day. We take all these generations of knowledge and culture, and blend the food and techniques to create dishes that are on a whole different level,” he says.
Already Marquardt has introduced inventive dishes like Caramel Sriracha Wings served with a fresh papaya slaw, as well as a spicy Red Thai Curry dessert at Aregoni’s Thai concept Bang Chop.
Aregoni says Marquardt understands “what it takes to be a chef and that it’s not all about fame and glory.” That humble attitude extends to the kitchen, where the chef maintains an egalitarian atmosphere and relishes the opportunity to collaborate.
“Every dishwasher, cook, server, chef, manager—they all have amazing ideas and techniques they have learned,” Marquardt says. “By analyzing what everyone does best, you can utilize all this knowledge to develop a style that showcases who you really are, from how you’ve grown along the way.”
Jared Sadoian might take a more measured approach to the cocktail movement than most. But, then again, how many beverage professionals have an MIT degree hanging on their wall? Back in 2014, when Zagat named Sadoian to its “30 under 30” list, he had advanced from rookie bartender to beverage director at Craigie on Main, a James Beard Award–winning institution, in rapid fashion. It’s no surprise to see Sadoian’s star continue its meteoric rise. In 2016, he was promoted to assistant bar director across all of restaurateur Garrett Harker’s seven properties. Sadoian, who left banking for bartending after college, is known for his focus on education. He launched a series to equip employees with an elevated knowledge of spirits and ingredients.
“Each year, as I move further from the trenches of the ‘bar shift,’ I realize that the education of others is just as important as my own education,” he says. “With my expanded role, I’m able to discover many new ways to allow my personal study and education to facilitate others on my teams so they can grow and strengthen themselves. At this stage of the game, the success of those I am actively managing and mentoring is the key to my own success.”
Greg Van Wagner
Aspen is one of those resort towns where people sip a lot more than just hot cocoa by the fire. In a skiing destination known for its 1889 opera house, high-end restaurants, and celebrated boutiques, wine aficionados are hardly in low supply. At Jimmy’s Aspen, a winner of Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence in 2015 and 2016, Greg Van Wagner is exceeding even the loftiest expectations. Despite being two years short of his 30th birthday, Van Wagner is a certified sommelier with more than 10 years of experience in food and wine. Since joining the restaurant, he has traversed the globe, searching for premier wines and rare bottles. The result is a more than 650-label list that is twice what was on the menu when he arrived. Additionally, Van Wagner has extended in-house classes to Jimmy’s staff, which resulted in 12 employees becoming introductory-level sommeliers and three earning certified distinctions.
“I was lucky enough to have grown up in restaurants and was mentored in hospitality by some of the best people in the business,” he says. “The restaurant world— and in particular the wine world—is beautiful in that it is a ‘rabbit-hole,’ and you’ll never quite reach the bottom. You truly learn something new every day, and that is very invigorating.”
As is often the case with opening a new restaurant, timing has been everything at Income Tax. The food-friendly wine bar, which opened in December in Chicago’s eclectic Edgewater neighborhood, was built thoughtfully—one fortuitous brick at a time. From the initial meeting between Chef Henderson and general manager Collin Moody, which occurred on Moody’s final day working at Perman Wine Selections, to the days when Henderson had become enamored with wine during a stint as opening executive sous chef at Maple & Ash, to owner Nelson Fitch’s history working at liquor store Independent Spirits, which is just two doors down from the restaurant, the concept of Income Tax has always been focused on the marriage of food and beverage. At Income Tax—the name itself is an ode to the classic vermouth and gin cocktail—Henderson will turn to global cuisine, everything from Spanish to German, to complement the vino to perfection. To do so, he will pull from stops alongside David Chang at Momofuku, Alex Stupak at Empellon Cocina, and Danny Grant at Maple & Ash, plus time spent serving as Wylie Dufresne’s chef de cuisine at Alder.
“I’m excited about what Income Tax is bringing to the incredibly supportive Edgewater community,” he says. “I’ve worked at remarkably different kitchens throughout my career, and I’ll be using that experience to create thoughtful food that helps highlight wines that we collectively love. We’re hoping to get Chicago as a whole a little more excited about drinking wine, and we’re putting a strong emphasis on integrating our food and wine programs to make sure every pairing works well.”
A born and raised Portlander with more than 15 years of experience in the industry, Jarrell began his culinary career at age 13 when he started baking bread in nearby Hillsboro. Since then, Jarrell has worn many hats in the restaurant business, from cooking pizza, to crafting French cuisine, to serving as a regional manager for Panera. In 2012, Jarrell began working under James Beard Award–winning chef Vitaly Paley as he opened Imperial and the Portland Penny Diner adjacent to the Hotel Lucia. Benefiting from Paley’s mentorship and tutelage, Jarrell progressed from sous chef to chef de cuisine in 2016. The two chefs continue to work and collaborate closely, exploring menu ideas that have historic significance and using cooking methods and ingredients from Oregon’s diverse bounty.
Dustin Kelly started in the industry early. When he was 17, his family bought a small neighborhood restaurant in Pennsylvania, and he began bartending on the weekends while in college, ultimately leaving college to run the restaurant full time. The family opened two more iterations of a brewery and restaurant—TimberCreek and Tap & Table—before Kelly set out on his own, after more than a decade in business with his family. “I took the summer of 2015 to travel and figure out what was next,” he says. “After a few months of vacationing—never having had one before—it was time to get back to work.”
Kelly set out for Pittsburgh and landed a job at a restaurant he had long admired: Monterey Bay Fish Grotto. Hired to serve as assistant manager in September 2015, Kelly was bumped up to the role of beverage director after a few months. He revamped the program, which led to double-digit growth in beverage sales and a decline in staff turnover.
“I took my mother for dinner at Monterey Bay one evening years ago, before seeing James Taylor in concert, so it has a special place in my heart,” he says.
Chef Scarpone took a global path to Daniel Boulud’s DBGB Kitchen and Bar in the nation’s capital. His culinary studies began in Bangkok, Thailand, at the Suan Dusit University, and from there he spent time in Singapore at the At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy where he dove deeper into Pan-Asian cuisine. After returning to the U.S., he graduated magna cum laude from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, and then embarked on a number of restaurant experiences culminating in his work at Chef Daniel’s DB Bistro in New York City. The two years he spent as a chef de tournant at DB Bistro led to his role as sous chef at the Michelin-starred Café Boulud, and in 2014 he opened DBGB Kitchen in D.C. (At presstime, FSR learned Chef Scarpone had just left DBGB to join Fabio Trabocchi’s group.)
At 29, Chef Sean Telo has amassed culinary experience some rarely see in a lifetime. Born in Rhode Island, he grew up around the country before settling in Atlanta. Television cooking programs and the cooking of his Portuguese grandmother and parents instilled a love of food in him.
As he entered the industry, Telo staged at Atlanta restaurants including Bacchanalia, Empire State South, and Octopus Bar.
More stage roles eventually led him out of the South and into restaurants including Morimoto in Philadelphia, Vinegar Hill House in New York City, and Alinea in Chicago, where he worked closely with Grant Achatz.
Heading back to Atlanta, Chef Telo held a variety of chef roles at FIGO Pasta, Home Restaurant, FLIP Burger Boutique, Noon Midtown, Miller Union, STK Atlanta, and STG Trattoria.
He moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 2013 to assume the executive chef position at Extra Fancy, before becoming the executive chef at 21 Greenpoint in September. In this setting, he aims to create shareable preparations of locally sourced seafood, meat, and produce.
“With the advent and popularization of social media like Instagram, it’s easy for chefs to cook like other chefs, or at least plate like other chefs,” he says. “I don’t want to cook like other chefs; I want to cook like other chefs’ grandmothers—and draw real inspiration from the people who inspired us to cook in the first place. That’s the goal in my kitchen, to cook simple, straightforward food that will evoke memories and emotion.”
As soon as he arrived in America, Albert Allaham knew he wouldn’t return home. But he could hardly have imagined what the future held. By the time Allaham—who moved from Damascus, Syria, to New York City when he was 13—reached his late 20s, he owned and operated a thriving Manhattan steakhouse—no small feat in a city that swallows ambition as much as it encourages it. Even more impressive is the fact that Allaham’s Reserve Cut, a 278-seat, 15,000-square-foot kosher restaurant in the Financial District, only continues to grow. In 2016, the venue eclipsed $10 million in sales. Allaham says new locations, perhaps in Israel, Chicago, and Miami, could be on the horizon. While the kosher designation helps Allaham corner a growing market, it hardly defines the restaurant. In fact, he says around 70 percent of the nightly clientele don’t keep kosher.
“When you step into Reserve Cut, there’s nothing saying it’s kosher. There’s no difference between kosher and nonkosher when it comes to taste. The only time you realize it is when you come on a Friday night and the place is closed,” he says. “It’s not the fact that we’re kosher that makes us successful. It’s that we’re one of the best restaurants in the city.”
In the culinary kingdom of New Orleans, the Commander’s Palace family is undeniable royalty. The Garden District icon, which has produced six James Beard awards, including Outstanding Restaurant in 1996, Outstanding Service in 1993, and a lifetime achievement honor for legendary operator Ella Brennan, is home to a lineage of who’s who for chefs. Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme clocked time there, and Jamie Shannon and its current chef, Tory McPhail, won James Beard awards leading the kitchen. But in the entire history of the Commander’s Palace restaurant group—a story that dates to 1893 and includes the more recent concepts Brennan’s of Houston, SoBou, and Café Adelaide—there has never been a female executive chef. Not until Meg Bickford. The former sous chef at Commander’s Palace (also a first for a woman), Bickford was given the reins at the group’s modern Creole restaurant Café Adelaide and Swizzle Stick Bar in 2015.
“I grew up surrounded by great Louisiana cooks in my family and in the Commander’s Palace kitchen, and I’m proud to bring those lessons into the kitchen at Café Adelaide and the Swizzle Stick Bar,” Chef Bickford says. She’s brought her own spark and signature fare to the menu, with dishes like the Poor Man’s Foie Gras, a chicken liver paté with blueberry-sherry jelly.
“I work to make the restaurant a part of the fabric of New Orleans,” she says. “One of the top places you think of for great joie de vivre and food that makes you step back and pay attention. But always in an irreverent, playful way.”
Actually, you can go home again—and do quite well in the process. New Orleans native Jacob Cureton clocked time in kitchens across the South, from Alabama to stints at NOLA restaurants Stella! and Emeril’s Delmonico, before being tapped to helm the kitchen at Johnny V’s Bistro when it opened in NOLA in 2011, and then moving to San Diego, California—where he served as executive chef at The Range Kitchen and Cocktails/Club 1202, which has since closed. Before taking the helm at Annunciation last year, Chef Cureton also broadened his culinary career working as a seafood specialist for retailer Whole Foods Market and traveling around the country as a tour chef for the national underground dining club Dinner Lab. At Annunciation, Chef Cureton has created a soulful menu of modern Creole and Southern-inspired dishes, like the signature Baked Oysters with house-made Boudin and a brown-butter Hollandaise, or Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes, bound with Leidenheimer French bread and served with lemon beurre blanc and curly cress.
Executive Chef, Buck’s Restaurant and Bar
Colter Hubsch still has just the right amount of perspective to appreciate his culinary journey. Perhaps that’s because his climb began in earnest 13 years prior, or nearly half a lifetime ago. Along the way, Hubsch has held virtually every position in the kitchen. No matter where he lined up, cooking has always been the culmination of a lifelong dream, one that began parked in front of the TV while Julia Child and Jacques Pépin filled the screen.
“I began cooking at home when I was just 9 years old,” he says. “And I never would have expected my passion for food to take me all the way to executive chef at a fine-dining restaurant like Buck’s.”
Founded in 1992, Buck’s is known as a celebration spot in Louisville. Its romantic, flower-laden setting, complete with live piano music, is an ideal backdrop for Chef Hubsch’s refined continental cuisine, which includes coffee cocoa–encrusted rack of lamb and the restaurant’s signature Crispy Fish with Hot Sweet Chili.
Hughes puts a whimsical spin on seasonally inspired classic French desserts at Little Bird Bistro, sister restaurant to Portland’s acclaimed Le Pigeon. She grew up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and graduated Cum Laude from the University of Oregon with bachelor’s degrees in International Studies and Women’s Studies, before embarking on a career in pastry arts. However, it was during her time in college that Hughes realized baking was her passion and decided to turn the passion into a career post-graduation. She went on to complete all the pastry classes offered at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon. Since beginning her pastry career, Hughes has worked at Waverley Country Club in Portland, serving as pastry chef, and later at Andina, the Peruvian restaurant in Portland’s Pearl District. In 2015, Erin joined the team at Little Bird Bistro as a pastry assistant, where she was mentored by pastry chef Helen Jo.
Peter Botros has a knack for flipping the script. The Staten Island native is not only the chef and proprietor of The Stone House at Clove Lakes, he is also a banker with the U.S. Mortgage Corporation. In less than three years, he’s managed to transform a once-private boathouse-turned-club into an egalitarian venue. Dubbed “Staten Island’s secret restaurant,” The Stone House takes advantage of its expansive property and scenic setting to host special events. In addition to the restaurant, Botros also hosts a Chef’s Loft with a special tasting menu that changes monthly.
But what separates Botros from the pack of young, ambitious restaurateurs isn’t his culinary and business savvy so much as his modesty, which belies a steely resolve. Botros, who lost his mother to cancer when he was a teen, was himself diagnosed with cancer in his mid-20s. Because of this, Botros realized he wanted to do more than mortgage banking.
“I was always passionate about food and the food industry, I decided that I would take the opportunity to incorporate that passion into my daily life,” he says. “I have a smile on my face every day because I do what I love while around people I love.”
While Botros is not one to spotlight his past struggle, he does work to help others in the community by regularly hosting charity fundraisers at The Stone House.
Assistant General Manager, Ocean Prime
New York City
Recognized in 2016 by Cameron Mitchell Restaurants as “Assistant Manager of the Year” at its upscale Ocean Prime brand, Tricia Finke is known for her work ethic and competitiveness. It helped her beat out more than 60 other candidates for that award—despite a shorter work tenure than many—and it helps her thrive at the New York City location of the seafood-and-steak restaurant and lounge.
Finke oversees the beverage program at the restaurant, running the lowest beverage costs in the 14-unit Ocean Prime system. She’s also known among her team as unselfish and approachable, which helps create superior hospitality.
“Our goal is to provide the best dining experience with the philosophy, ‘Yes is the answer, what is the question?’ as established by Cameron Mitchell,” she says, noting the Ocean Prime proprietor. “He believes the associate comes first, because if we’re happy and driven and putting our best foot forward, we’re delivering genuine hospitality. I truly feel I am, which enables me to continue my growth in management, as well as in the industry.”
Executive Chef, Woods Hill Table
Charlie Foster is heading up no average farm-to-table restaurant. Woods Hill Table, created by Kristin Canty, who once directed a film about the struggles of American family farms, sources ingredients from the restaurant’s own 250 acres in scenic Bath, New Hampshire. Canty made sure to place those well-loved ingredients in capable hands. Chef Foster cut his teeth in some renowned kitchens, working the line at Ken Oringer’s Clio in Boston and becoming the executive chef at Daniel Boulud’s DBGB in the Bowery. Foster traversed the globe as well, even spending time as a personal chef to the Guinness family in Spain. But perhaps it was his tenure at Sweden’s Restaurant Frantzén where he learned the true value of sustainability and hyper-local sourcing.
“A native of Massachusetts, my journey has taken me from working under Ken Oringer at Clio in Boston, to running Daniel Boulud’s DBGB, to training with Kobe Desramaults at In de Wulf in Belgium,” he says. “Through all of these experiences, I have focused on the importance of sourcing the best possible product and using international techniques to showcase the quality inherent in these superior ingredients. With my position at Woods Hill Table, I have been able to take the incredible wealth of products from the restaurant’s Farm at Woods Hill and utilize them to their full potential, demonstrating the simple pleasures to be found in responsibly sourced food.”
After clocking time in various roles at Eschelon Experiences for six years, Chef Taion McElveen finally realized a dream this past fall: Not only was he getting to open and direct his own concept, but the group’s founder and president, Gaurav “G” Patel, decided the restaurant should also be an “homage to Taion’s incredible talent and menu creation.” That meant everything—from the burger grind to the rubs to even the ketchup—was left in McElveen’s capable hands.
Additionally, Chef McElveen’s Bare Bones opened in the heart of Downtown Raleigh, a city he had called home since he was 7 years old. Along with the low-and-slow Southern-inspired food, Chef McElveen injected his personality into the brand from the outset.
“Bare Bones is a restaurant that everyone can enjoy. The menu has a broad Southern base with regional influences that focus on smoked meats, house-ground burgers, and from-scratch cooking,” he says. “In the coming year, we [hope] to gain stake as a mainstay in the restaurant industry around the Raleigh area and nationally. We also are providing opportunities for guests to join in on special dinners with local breweries and to come to our bluegrass brunch on Sundays.”
Tyler Sailsbery’s passion for food goes back to his school days. While other kids participated in sports or band, Sailsbery—who grew up on a farm—cooked breakfast for his teachers and sold food out of his locker.
Today he brings that passion to his menu at The Black Sheep, the restaurant he opened after attending business school at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater. He invests in nearby farmers, purchasing local wine, meats, cheeses, and produce whenever possible.
“It’s amazing to bring a fresh product to my customers, and with our ever-changing menu, I get to do that often,” he says. “I also love how our restaurant has helped us introduce our food to schools as we build farm-to-school programs in the area and broaden the palates of elementary students.”
Sailsbery’s second restaurant, Casual Joe’s, offers smoked meats and other high-quality foods at a lower price. The chef hopes it will educate customers that “local food can be affordable and attainable for all people.”
Chef de Cuisine, Mizado Latin Kitchen
For self-described “Cajun boy” Eric Solar, New Orleans has been the epicenter of his life and career.
Solar, who has Spanish and Filipino ancestry and Louisiana familial roots dating back centuries, was born and raised in New Orleans and found he had a passion for cooking while he was living in foster homes as he grew up.
“I found I really enjoyed cooking Sunday breakfast and dinners for the other kids,” he says. “It helped me realize what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Solar embraces his heritage at the restaurant Mizado, which combines Latin flavors with locally sourced New Orleans ingredients. Solar creates daily specials for guests to try, as well as items on Mizado’s menu like wild-caught Gulf shrimp tacos with toasted garlic, lime, ancho adobo, salsa de aguacate, and serrano crema; Peking duck tamales; and “mac and chorizo,” with house-made chorizo, elbow macaroni, queso, and Salvadorian crema.
Solar graduated with a culinary degree from Delgado Community College in 2005, then went to work as a line cook at Zea Rotisserie and Grill. In 2008, he was promoted to kitchen manager and then took over another Zea location in Baton Rouge two years later. In 2013, chef-driven Mizado tapped Solar for its chef de cuisine position.
Recently named general manager and wine director at Ripple, Jose Aguirre earned his Advanced Sommelier Certificate in 2014 and will be sitting for his Master Sommelier Exam in July.
While his résumé includes management of world-renowned restaurants and hotels, much of his career has been spent overseeing the wine programs for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants around the U.S. He cut his teeth at Chicago’s South Water Kitchen and at Area 31 at Kimpton’s EPIC Hotel in Miami, where he built an education and love of wine, eventually managing the property’s award-winning beverage program. As wine director at the legendary Fifth Floor in San Francisco, Aguirre developed a program extensively rooted in California classics that eventually expanded, reflecting a personal curiosity in South America, Spain, and the Pacific Northwest. While living in San Francisco, Aguirre was offered the opportunity to serve as wine director for the five-star Resort at Pedregal in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Under Aguirre’s leadership, Ripple guests will have the benefit of his experiences, and be offered interactive opportunities including a dinner series and wine classes.
Executive Chef, Alizé at the Top of Palms Casino Resort
As often happens, the protégé becomes a master. With 11 years of experience, including extensive work in the award-winning restaurants of Chef André Rochat, Chris Bulen recently stepped into the role of executive chef at Alizé, a fine-dining landmark in a city of glamorous, posh restaurants. This is Bulen’s second stint in the Alizé kitchen, as he was hired by Chef Rochat soon after coming to Vegas and worked his way through various positions at Alizé. From there, he served as executive chef at Andre’s Restaurant & Lounge at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino, but Andre’s closed late last year after 35 years of stellar service, opening the door for Chef Bulen to take his next step. “The concept of Alizé is more modern than that of Andre’s Restaurant & Lounge. Flavors and dishes will be reminiscent of what I have served in the past, but the development of plating and presentation will be elevated,” says Bulen.
As if the years spent and accolades won helming the acclaimed San Francisco bar Trick Dog weren’t enough to make her a top choice to lead the beverage program at Mezcaleria Las Flores, Caitlin Laman recently arrived in Chicago fresh from four months in Mexico City, where she was consulting for Licorería Limantour (No. 13 on the World’s 50 Best Bars list in 2016). Now as beverage director, Laman plans to bring her own expertise on the smoky spirit. “My years in San Francisco first sparked my love affair with mezcal. After spending four months working in Mexico City this past year, I’ve only become more enamored by the spirit,” Laman says, adding that the focus at Mezcaleria will remain on mezcal, but other spirits will come into play as well. No doubt, the winner of Food & Wine’s Best New Mixologist recognition in 2014—and the national Speed Rack champion that same year—will elevate the beverage service in Chicago. Under her leadership, Trick Dog won Best Bar Team and Bar Fight Champion at the 2014 Tales of the Cocktail, and in 2015, it was among the top four finalists for James Beard: Outstanding Bar Program.
New York City has a distinct culinary style. Same for New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.
Detroit? Not so much. But James Rigato is out to change that. The 32-year-old chef and Michigan native—who’s worked in restaurants since he was 14—traveled to places like California and France and, when it was time to open his first restaurant, The Root Restaurant & Bar, wanted to communicate the same sense of place as restaurants in those areas.
“I really wanted to dial in on what I think our cuisine is here,” he says. “As I’ve gotten older in my career, I’ve become focused on curating the narrative of Michigan cuisine.”
Just what is Michigan cuisine? As Rigato explains it, a little bit of a lot of things: There’s a bounty of local agricultural resources and four “aggressive seasons.” There’s fresh water and plentiful hunting and foraging. There are multicultural influences ranging from Middle Eastern to Japanese and Korean. And, of course, there’s the industrial heritage, which turned Detroit into an automotive epicenter in the mid-20th century before collapsing into its Rust Belt status.
Detroit, he says, is the de facto capital of Michigan cuisine, and often gets lumped in with other Midwestern culinary scenes like Chicago. But he says the city has its own distinct style, something he’s hoping that he and other area chefs can give voice to. “If you’re a chef in your 30s or 40s in Detroit right now and you stayed, you’ve been through some [stuff],” Rigato says. “You’ve feared for your job, or your restaurant closed out from under you, or you took a job for $10 an hour when you were probably worth more. So there’s a grit in Detroit.”
Hundreds of restaurants have opened in Detroit in the last few years, he adds, which has been helped along by cheap real estate prices. But he thinks the number of great restaurants is still small, as not enough operators are looking at the long-term big picture.
“We need to reinvest in talent, in product, in quality,” he says. “We could learn a lot from our manufacturing history. What are the brands that survived? Lincoln and Cadillac. We need to make top-brand restaurants. It’s not just about opening a restaurant because it’s profitable. There’s too much of that going around right now.”
At Mabel Gray, which opened in 2015 and was named a James Beard “Best New Restaurant” semifinalist, Rigato has an opportunity to tinker with the Michigan narrative. There is no set menu at Mabel Gray, allowing Rigato and his team to improvise and work with whatever ingredients might be available to them from local purveyors.
“I can allow Mabel to be an incubator,” he says. “It can be a playground for the restaurant scene as a whole in Detroit, and not just, ‘Come see what I’m doing; you’ve got to try my famous rice dish.’ It’s not like that.”
Chef/owner: Alfie’s, Nok Noi, Tchoup’s Markets
Food is in Alex McCoy’s blood, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the 33-year-old is as successful as he is. The Washington, D.C.–based chef says his parents were both great chefs and encouraged culinary creativity from a young age.
“That lust to create is what really drove me to start cooking,” McCoy says. “It was always an outlet for my crazy ideas and has grown into something that gives me life. Every day is different, and I’m constantly finding new ingredients and styles of cuisine that inspire me.”
The former “Food Network Star” contestant burst onto D.C.’s culinary scene in 2013 as chef and cofounder of Duke’s Grocery in Dupont Circle. He’s since made a splash with the Alfie’s and Nok Noi pop-ups, which showcase his passion for Thai food. Alfie’s has since become a permanent location, out of which Nok Noi operates. And he also owns and operates Tchoup’s Market, which dishes traditional po’boy sandwiches.
“My passion is trying new concepts, new styles of cuisine, and challenging myself to take culinary risks,” McCoy says, noting his love for traveling and learning. “As long as I’m in the kitchen, I’m a happy camper.”
A Michigan native, Chef Polisei began his career at Harper’s Restaurant and Brew Pub in East Lansing, while completing a degree in food industry management at Michigan State University. He clocked his early years as a sous chef, first in Cincinnati at Mitchell’s Fish Market and then at Ocean Prime in Tampa. He returned to Michigan with a promotion to executive chef of Ocean Prime in Troy and then came full circle, returning to Tampa, where he leads the kitchen at Ocean Prime. This past year, he earned the title of Executive Chef of the Year for Ocean Prime, and a spokeswoman for the Cameron Mitchell team says, “His commitment to both his personal development and the growth of the team he surrounds himself with is a noteworthy trait that only few possess.”
For Matthew Walsh, his company’s motto is also his mantra: “Just enjoy yourself.” Walsh, the director of marketing and brand strategy for J.E.Y. Hospitality Group, came to Florida from New Jersey, graduating from University of Central Florida with a degree in marketing. Walsh has extensive experience in both promotions and grassroots marketing, and constantly travels the globe to stay on top of industry trends and evolving food scenes. And when Walsh isn’t working, he’s raising money to control and cure cystic fibrosis, a cause for which he was recognized as one of Fort Lauderdale’s Finest for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
J.E.Y. operates a variety of South Florida concepts, including Himmarshee Public House, ROK:BRGR, Pizzacraft, Tacocraft, and Apothecary 330, but Walsh says the goal is to grow outside the region.
“I look forward to continuing to build J.E.Y. Hospitality Group, not just regionally but with national expansion, adding locations of our current brands as well as new concepts,” he says.
As CEO of restaurant development and operations company DRG Concepts, Nafees Alam has led the company through steady growth of new brands and locations while also connecting with the community. DRG manages brands including Dallas Fish Market, Dallas Chop House, Wild Salsa, and Chop House Burger, and more locations and new brands are on the way, such as a new Downtown Dallas Italian concept Oven and Cellar.
Alam, who earned an MBA in entrepreneurship from Southern Methodist University while leading DRG Concepts, received the 2015 National Restaurant Association Faces of Diversity American Dream Award for his entrepreneurship and success in the industry, and for his pioneering impact on the revitalization of downtown Dallas.
Alam also serves on the board of directors for the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association and holds volunteer leadership and advisory positions with The Bridge of North Texas Homeless Recovery Center, the North Texas Food Bank, and Vogel Alcove, providing relief and services for homeless children. He has also brought charitable support into DRG brands, with each restaurant location involved in community fundraising and hyper-local programs.
“I continue to see that all restaurateurs are well-served by cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit to succeed and keep their brands relevant, no matter what size the brand,” Alam says. “Success is defined by the excellence of food and service and space, but also by how authentically a brand connects with other local small businesses, growers, producers, and charity.”
If Chef Erick Harcey’s culinary ideology could be summed in a single word, it might just be fearlessness. Or maybe rebelliousness.
“At some point, it takes someone being fearless, to not do what everyone else is doing and to say, ‘I’m going to cook the food I love and what’s in my heart,’ instead of the formulaic process,” Harcey says.
The Minnesota native lives on a farm about an hour away from the city proper. He doesn’t buy into the latest chef trends. And as an avid fisherman, he’d gladly spend a whole day butchering fish.
Chef Harcey opened his first restaurant, Victory 44, in 2009. The gastropub serves staples like the “Perfect Burger” and bacon fries, as well as notable concoctions like Truffled Popcorn and Beet Risotto. In 2015, he debuted his second concept, Upton 43, which he’s described as “Swedish with a side of hillbilly.” Adjacent to Upton 43 is Dirty Bird—Harcey’s first foray into fast casual—which serves quarter, half, and whole rotisserie chickens with comfort food sides like mac & cheese and roasted carrots.
By all arguments, Harcey has his finger on the pulse of the latest trends in the restaurant world, but that savvy is guided by intuition, not fads. Harcey says the era of the “rock star chef” has run its course, and now it’s time to bring forth food with intrinsic merit.
It all started as a side project, and it wasn’t a stationary one, either. While working at the Coeur d’ Alene Casino, Chef Adam Hegsted and his team would travel around each month, presenting an extensive 12-course dinner called The Wandering Table. The experience proved two things: One: Diners in the Inland Northwest craved creative, fine-dining cuisine. And two: There was unquestionably plenty of room to grow. This revelation inspired Hegsted to open a brick-and-mortar location for The Wandering Table in 2009. He also debuted Yards Bruncheon, started Le Catering Co., and took over Eat Good Café. Since then, the chef, who is native to Spokane, Washington, has spearheaded a food movement in the region. In 2016, he was a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: Northwest; he has cooked at the James Beard House twice; and he is the owner of Eat Good Group, which has six foodservice venues, including additions Cellar Restaurant and Gilded Unicorn. His restaurant philosophy is based on “authenticity,” one that can be defined as a focus on hospitality and seasonal ingredients, such as farm-fresh tomatoes and wild-caught Alaskan seafood. The goal, he says, is, “to learn from our past, our present, and to display a sense of ourselves in every aspect of our hospitality. When our guests leave our restaurants and events, they feel like they have experienced something a little different and very special.”