America's Best New Chefs 2002

A young chef's job can be thankless. Besides coping with the usual challenges--long hours, cramped kitchens--ambitious newcomers have to captivate a jaded public. Every year, a few do so and earn our Best New Chef award. On this page, you'll meet this year's stars of the future. All have run a kitchen for less than five years, and in that short time, they've managed to seize our attention with their bold visions and dazzling food. Luckily, our job--indulging in their fabulous creations--is much easier than theirs.

    By Salma Abdelnour

THE WINNERS

Deborah Knight: Mosaic, Scottsdale, AZ
Grant Achatz: Trio, Evanston, IL
Mark Sullivan: Village Pub, Woodside, CA
John Harris: Lilette, New Orleans
Laurent Gras: Fifth Floor, San Francisco
Dan Barber: Blue Hill, New York City
Thomas John: Mantra, Boston
Michael Anthony: Blue Hill, New York City
Fabio Trabocchi: Maestro, McLean, VA
Suzanne Tracht: Jar, Los Angeles
Hugh Acheson: Five & Ten, Athens, GA


A young chef's job can be thankless. Besides coping with the usual challenges--long hours, cramped kitchens--ambitious newcomers have to captivate a jaded public. Every year, a few do so and earn our Best New Chef award. On the following pages, you'll meet this year's stars of the future. All have run a kitchen for less than five years, and in that short time, they've managed to seize our attention with their bold visions and dazzling food. Luckily, our job--indulging in their fabulous creations--is much easier than theirs.


HUGH ACHESON
Five & Ten, Athens, GA
Why: Because his idiosyncratic vision succeeds in merging soul food with Old World cuisine.
Born: Ottawa, Canada, 1971.
Education: He is a self-taught chef.
Experience: Henri Burger, Montreal; Gary Danko, San Francisco.
How he describes his food: Contemporary American with influences from France and Italy. "It's definitely not fusion."
First dish cooked: Paprika toast. "I think I was 4. Don't even ask."
Why he became a chef: He studied political philosophy in college. "If that won't make someone want to pursue something else, nothing will."
Where he would eat on a $1,000 budget: Gordon Ramsay in London. "He's a nutcase but an absolutely amazing cook."
Where he would eat on a $10 budget: La Taqueria, in San Francisco's Mission District.
What keeps him up at night: "Things like, Are the fridges still working? Are the veal bones burning? God, everything keeps me up at night."
Favorite kitchen tool: "Other than the stove? The Vita-Mix blender. And a good Japanese knife--a Masahiro."
About his recipe: His Frogmore stew, named after an old South Carolina town, is a Southern version of bouillabaisse. "It's simple yet refined. We're not into foam yet."
Details: Five & Ten, 1653 S. Lumpkin St.; 706-546-7300.


JOHN HARRIS
Lilette, New Orleans
Why: Because with his precise technique, premium ingredients and aversion to unnecessary flourishes, he taps into the essence of French and Italian cooking.
Born: Chicago, IL, 1971.
Education: Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, Pittsburgh.
Experience: Spiaggia, Chicago; Bayona and Gautreau's, New Orleans.
How he describes his food: "I try to use only three main flavors. And I don't go for flowery presentations."
Most popular dish on his menu: White-truffle Parmesan on toast with mushrooms, marrow and veal glacé.
Food he hates: Green bell peppers. "I can't stand them. I never order them for the restaurant."
Where he would eat on a $1,000 budget: Ginza Sushi-Ko in Beverly Hills. "The chef, Masa Takayama, sounds really whimsical. I like the idea of interacting with him and having him prepare random things for me."
Where he would eat on a $10 budget: "I'd get a roast beef po'boy at Monica's, a grocery up the street."
Why he named his restaurant Lilette: While apprenticing in France, Harris lived with the Mauri family, whose matriarch, Lilette, was an inspired cook. "She's honored about the name. She sent me a flower from her garden to put in the dining room."
About his recipe: To make the fritters in his seared tuna puttanesca dish, Harris says, "I cook the fennel until it's mushy and sweet and then fry it until it's crisp."
Details: Lilette, 3637 Magazine St.; 504-895-1636.


MARK SULLIVAN
Village Pub, Woodside, CA
Why: Because he has successfully stretched the definition of "pub food" to include foie gras and oxtail ragout, but he's not afraid to keep a burger and fries on the menu.
Born: New York, NY, 1966.
Education: He is a self-taught chef.
Experience: 42 Degrees, San Francisco; Plumpjack Squaw Valley Inn, Olympic Valley, CA.
How he describes his food:"We call it American, but we're really influenced by European technique: French, Spanish and Italian."
How he got into cooking: "I thought I'd give it a year. But when I was working, I never watched the clock. I just loved what I was doing."
Favorite cheap meal: A beer and a burrito at La Cumbre Taqueria in San Francisco's Mission District. Bedside reading: "Lately, I've been interested in management. I'm reading a book called Jack Welch and the GE Way by Robert Slater.
Favorite kitchen tool: The tamis (drum sieve). "It creates a fine, even texture. I like hand tools in general. I don't think you need a lot of electrical equipment in a kitchen."
About his recipe: Sullivan says the best part of making his shell bean soup with pistou is "the meditative task of peeling the fresh beans. And I love the creamy texture of the cranberry beans."
Details: Village Pub, 2967 Woodside Rd.; 650-851-9888.


GRANT ACHATZ
Trio, Evanston, IL
Why: Because his imaginative combinations, such as foie gras with roasted bananas in a chocolate– sweet onion sauce, aren't just risky; they're delicious, too.
Born: St. Clair, MI, 1974.
Education: The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY.
Experience: Charlie Trotter's, Chicago; French Laundry, Yountville, CA.
How he describes his food: Progressive French cuisine with global influences. "You could say ‘cerebral,' but that's just too much."
Most exotic item on his menu: Rosemary vapor. "We pour boiling water over rosemary sprigs at the table, so it perfumes the air and adds a new level of complexity to our lobster dish."
Culinary hero: Thomas Keller, the chef at French Laundry. "He's concerned about everything, from how the food is seasoned to whether there are any gum wrappers littering the garden."
Favorite childhood food: Walleye. "My family lived on a river near the Great Lakes, and we used to go fishing a lot."
Local haunt: Potbelly Sandwich Works. "They have the best sandwiches in the world. I like the Wreck, a sub with everything on it."
Bedside reading: The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten, A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain.
Favorite kitchen tool: Silicone-coated parchment paper from J.B. Prince (www.jbprince.com), which Achatz uses to make the tuiles that decorate some of his savory dishes.
Most common mispronunciation of his name: uh-CHATZ. (It should be pronounced AH-kitz.)
About his recipe: Describing his watermelon salad with shrimp, Achatz says: "I think shellfish benefits from a little sweetness." He suggests draining the fruit in a colander after you cut it, for a cleaner presentation.
Details: Trio, 1625 Hinman Ave.; 847-733-8746.


LAURENT GRAS
Fifth Floor, San Francisco
Why: Because his cosmopolitan riffs on French cuisine display a restless imagination and masterful skill.
Born: Antibes, France, 1965.
Education: École Hôtelière, Nice, France.
Experience: Peacock Alley, New York City; Restaurant Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy, Paris.
How he describes his food: "It's grounded in French technique but with more powerful, exciting flavors."
Guilty pleasure: The pastrami sandwich at Katz's Delicatessen in New York City, "especially on Sundays in winter."
Where he would eat on a $1,000 budget: El Bulli in Rosas, Spain. "A lot of chefs seem to be copying Ferran Adrià. I want to go there and see what's going on."
Where he would eat on a $10 budget: New York Noodle Town in Manhattan's Chinatown.
About his recipe: For his lamb marinated in jasmine tea with sweet pea sauce, Gras suggests using a young lamb. "It should havea soft flavor." Gras buys his jasmine tea from Ten Ren in San Francisco (www.tenren.com lists store locations throughout the United States). "I use the $60-per-pound tea for the recipe, but for drinking, I'll usually go ahead and spend $100 per pound."
Details: Fifth Floor, Hotel Palomar, 12 Fourth St.; 415-348-1555.


DEBORAH KNIGHT
Mosaic, Scottsdale, AZ
Why: Because her internationally diverse menu reflects a light, sophisticated touch and a passion for distinctive flavors.
Born: Culver City, CA, 1969.
Education: California Culinary Academy, San Francisco.
Experience: Miraval Life in Balance spa, Tucson, AZ.
How she describes her food: "Eclectic, very adventurous. It's like playtime in the kitchen."
Bedside reading: You Eat What You Are by Thelma Barer-Stein, "an anthropological study of how the way people eat has changed through time."
Favorite kitchen tool: The mini Cuisinart. "We call ours the Mini-Me."
About her recipe: Knight likes this tabbouleh salad with artichokes and spinach since it showcases one of her favorite ingredients: bulgur. "It's versatile, sturdy and so hard to ruin by overcooking."
Details: Mosaic, 10600 E. Jomax Rd.; 480-563-9600.


MICHAEL ANTHONY
Blue Hill, New York City
Why: Because he expertly weaves global nuances into the modern American dishes he creates with co-chef Dan Barber.
born Cincinnati, OH, 1968.
Education: École Supérieure de Cuisine Française, Paris.
Experience: Jacques Cagna, Paris; March and Daniel, New York City.
How he describes his food: New York–style American cuisine.
Current Obsession: eGullet.com. "It's a Web site for food fanatics."
About his recipe: Anthony says the pickled eggplant in the lettuce soup he developed with Dan Barber was inspired in part by his grandfather. "It was his favorite thing to eat. He ate a simpler version: He'd salt the eggplant and slap it between two slices of Italian bread."
Details: Blue Hill, 75 Washington Place; 212-539-1776.


DAN BARBER
Blue Hill, New York City
Why: Because, along with co-chef Michael Anthony, he is pushing American food in new and unpredictable directions.
Born: New York, NY, 1969.
Education: French Culinary Institute, New York City.
Experience: Bouley, New York City; Chez Panisse, Berkeley, CA; Campanile and La Brea Bakery, Los Angeles.
How he describes his food: "Cozy and approachable. I like to underpromise and overdeliver."
Favorite childhood food: "My aunt made scrambled eggs for me when I had tonsillitis. I still remember the wonderful taste of the eggs."
Where he would eat on a $1,000 budget: "I'd bribe Fredy Girardet to cook for me at home. I always wanted to go to his restaurant [Girardet] in Crissier, Switzerland. He retired before I could."
Biggest kitchen disaster: "At La Brea, I forgot to salt 1,200 pounds of rosemary dough on the first day they let me mix. The dough fell flat like a pizza. I heard [co-owner] Nancy Silverton say, ‘I can't let this kid ruin my career.'"
About his recipe: Barber says that the lettuce soup he created with Michael Anthony is "a different way of looking at romaine. We think of it mainly for its texture, but it has its own distinctive flavor, and pureeing it into a soup brings that out."

FABIO TRABOCCHI
Maestro, McLean, VA
Why: Because his menu pits Italian classics against more progressive interpretations--and both sides win.
Born: Osimo, Italy, 1974.
Education: Istituto Alberghiero Panzini, Senigallia, Italy.
Experience: Floriana and Grissini, London; Bice restaurants, Marbella, Spain, and Washington, D.C.
Where he would eat on a $1,000 budget: Alain Ducasse's restaurants in Paris or Monte Carlo. "Ducasse is our leader in terms of what a chef can achieve in the 21st century."
Where he would eat on a $10 budget: "I would give it to my wife and she would make a Spanish tortilla--the best one in the world."
Bedside reading: De Re Coquinaria by Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman merchant and gourmet in the first century A.D. "It's surprising to learn that ancient Romans were eating foie gras with figs--stuff we eat today."
Biggest culinary influence: The Marches region of Italy, where he grew up. "We have the sea in front of us and mountains in our backyard."
About his recipe: To make sure the capellini with clams and caviar is perfect, Trabocchi suggests rolling the pasta in a towel after draining it. "That way, when you toss the pasta with the other ingredients, the dish won't end up watery."
Details: Maestro, Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner, 1700 Tysons Blvd.; 703-821-1515.


SUZANNE TRACHT
Jar, Los Angeles
Why: Because she has ingeniously updated the classic chophouse repertoire without alienating traditional meat-and-potatoes types.
Born: Phoenix, AZ, 1963.
Education: She is a self-taught chef.
Experience: Campanile and Jozu, Los Angeles.
Her favorite dish on jar's menu: Braised pork belly. "But it's not the biggest seller" (the pot roast is).
Guilty pleasure: A great taco from the El Taurino taco truck in east L.A.
Favorite kitchen tool: A whisk. "Mixing ingredients with a whisk helps you connect with what you're cooking."
About her recipe: To make her veal chops with tomato and green mango salad, Tracht uses meat from Niman Ranch or Newport. "Both companies offer all-natural veal."
Details: Jar, 8225 Beverly Blvd.; 323-655-6566.


THOMAS JOHN
Mantra, Boston
Why: Because his creative, multidimensional and exquisite dishes make us understand why Indian fusion has caught on.
Born: New Delhi, India, 1965.
Education: The Oberoi School of Hotel Management, New Delhi.
Experience: Le Meridien, Pune, India; Radisson Hotel, New Delhi.
How he describes his food:"I like to use very simple ingredients. The concentration of flavors is the result of French technique and the judicious use of Indian spicing."
Favorite childhood dish: A fish called karimeen wrapped in banana leaves and cooked with curry leaves, coconut milk and fresh black pepper.
Dish he hates: Burgers. "I never serve them. I think it's unsexy for people to eat them."
Where he would eat on a $1,000 budget: Chez Nico, a French restaurant in London run by chef Nico Ladenis, who earned notoriety when he rejected his Michelin three-star rating. "Ladenis is my idol. He is an innovator and a relentless perfectionist, uncompromising in his approach to cooking."
Where he would eat on a $10 budget: "I'd probably go hungry."
If he could travel anywhere: Kuala Lumpur. "The normal greeting is ‘Have you eaten?'"
What he likes about working in the United States: "The agricultural bounty that's available in America provides me with an almost limitless pantry from which to create, like a mad Indian scientist."
About his recipe: To guarantee perfect results for his curried scallop salad, John says, "use absolutely fresh ingredients. And it's important to sear the scallops over high heat to ensure caramelization."
Details: Mantra, 52 Temple Place; 617-542-8111.

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Published July 2002

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