How Three Decades of Food & Wine Best New Chefs Shaped Dining in America
As big an impact as the BNCs have had on American cuisine, for the chefs themselves, the award was both an acknowledgement of their craft and a catalyst for more success, starting with the very first class.
Picture a moment in time in which chefs are nationally famous, with TV shows, millions of dollars in revenue flowing through flagship restaurants, branded cookware in home kitchens, and frozen food in the supermarket. That moment was 1988. And it was a fine time to be a chef.
That same year, a young editor at Food & Wine named Malachy Duffy was walking down Varick Street in New York City looking for a lunch spot. He happened upon a new restaurant serving dishes that were radical for the time: tuna au poivre with wilted baby spinach and poached lobster with arugula, a then-exotic green. He ate a meal that, some 30 years later, he still describes as “stunning, spectacular, and unbelievable.” The restaurant was called Rakel; the name of the chef was Thomas Keller.
At the time of his lunch at Rakel, Duffy had been charged by his editor-in-chief, Ila Stanger, to develop an award for chefs. “Wolfgang Puck had become a celebrity; suddenly it was all first names: Marcella, and Julia, and Craig,” remembers Duffy. “Chefs were stepping from the backstage of the kitchen to center stage.” As a national magazine, F&W had the architecture in place to reliably vet emerging culinary talent. And so, later that year, the magazine launched America’s Best New Chefs, an award that marks its 30th anniversary this year. Young chef Keller was in the first class of honorees.
“Anytime anyone gives you any kind of recognition, you have a responsibility to yourself, your team, and those who wrote about you,” Keller says today. “You have to live up to that reputation.” Along with Keller, that first class included chefs who would go on to transform the restaurant world: Daniel Boulud, Rick Bayless, Hubert Keller. It was the first major award that any of these chefs had won.
Over the years, BNC has helped to launch the careers of many others—Tom Colicchio, David Chang, Anita Lo, David Bouley, April Bloomfield, Nancy Silverton, and the list goes on. With this year’s class, the BNC family is 323 chefs deep. The full list of alums reads like a who’s who of the chefs who have shaped American cuisine. Take, for example, the impact of Nobu Matsuhisa, class of ’89. In an unremarkable space in L.A., Matsuhisa, a Japanese immigrant, impressed Angelenos with his hybrid cuisine, which combined familiar jalapeño and lime with then-unfamiliar raw fish. His vivid, approachable sushi helped pave the way for the ponzu sauce on your grocery store shelf and the yellowtail rolls in the cold case today.
And so it goes with other winners of Best New Chef: Without Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz, would there be Joule or Anova sous vide machines in home kitchens? Without Dan Barber, would you see roasted kale chips at Trader Joe’s? Nancy Silverton’s fancy grilled cheese launched a thousand imitators, as did Daniel Boulud’s foie gras burger and Roy Choi’s fusion tacos. (The offspring of the latter even made it to the TGI Fridays menu.)
“Best New Chef was about finding a chef doing incredible interpretations of their cuisine,” says Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine from 1995 to 2016. “And doing something on the plate that every other chef is going to copy, or [creating] a pantry that’s going to change the culinary world.” When assessing a potential BNC, editors looked for chefs with the singular focus to create something true to themselves—innovative, disruptive, and delicious—identifying their potential impact before the rest of the country caught on.
Although the chefs didn’t set out to make over menus across the country, they see the ripple effect, too. Suzanne Goin, class of ’99, is pleased that people are still ordering kale, brussels sprouts, and roasted cauliflower and sharing them on small plates 15 years after she introduced the trend at L.A.’s A.O.C. in 2002. “At the time it seemed so wacky. We loaded the menu with vegetables and thought the vegetable station would be the slowest. It turned out to be the craziest,” says Goin. “I didn’t set out to start a trend. I just loved vegetables and wanted to cook them. And it turned out to be the most influential part of my cooking.”
As big an impact as the BNCs have had on American cuisine, for the chefs themselves, the award was both an acknowledgement of their craft and a catalyst for more success, starting with the very first class. For Daniel Boulud, being named BNC conferred validation. As a French citizen working on American soil, Boulud says, “I felt for the first time totally included and recognized as an American chef.”
“When I won, I didn’t even know what it was,” says Goin, who was named a Best New Chef in 1999 for her cuisine at Lucques in Los Angeles. “But it catapulted me onto the national stage, and people wanted to put me on TV, and I was asked to write cookbooks, and I opened A.O.C. and Tavern. It put me on this trajectory that ended up being my career.” Gavin Kaysen, who was named BNC in 2007 for his work at El Bizcocho in San Diego, remembers the speed with which his life changed after the award. “I’d been working in kitchens for over 10 years,” says Kaysen, “and then within 14 months of winning Best New Chef, I’d done Bocuse d’Or, The Next Iron Chef, and was named Rising Star Chef [at the James Beard Foundation Awards].” (Just this spring, Kaysen won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest.)
Before being named BNCs in 2009, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo used the award as a motivator when they were in the weeds during dinner service at their nose-to-tail restaurant, Animal, in Los Angeles. “Cook like you’re going to win Best New Chef!” Shook would cry to the kitchen staff. Even after they won, the award remained a motivator. “I felt a huge amount of pressure, in a weird way,” says Dotolo, “because I knew what it meant for all the classes before us, and what it meant for the restaurant. It was a good pressure.”
The process for finding each year’s BNCs has remained largely unchanged for the past three decades. It begins with a pool of nominees, which can number upward of 1,000. Then the vetting for eligibility begins: Nominees must have full creative control of the menu—but only for five or fewer years (the threshold for being considered “new”). With these filters in place, the list shrinks considerably. Then editors fan out and dine anonymously, under pseudonyms. And they eat. Often five or six meals a day.
The sheer enormity of the task tends to force perspective. When one dish stands out among 15 you’ve eaten that day, you know you’ve hit on something truly novel. Kate Krader, F&W restaurant editor and lead architect of BNC from 1995 to 1999 and 2003 to 2016, still remembers the standout dishes she ate during those years with epiphanic clarity.
“I remember John Shields at Town House in Chilhowie, Virginia, had a beautiful salad of shaved vegetables made into little swirls,” Krader says. “And I’d talked a friend into driving me 100 miles to get to this godforsaken place, and I remember the salad tasting as good as it looked. Another year, there was Kevin Fink at Emmer & Rye, doing bucatini with a carbonara and grinding his own wheat. The pasta had an amazing chew, and he put a little tomato water in the broth, and it was like I’d never had a carbonara before.”
When Krader sat down at the counter at BNC ’06 David Chang’s Momofuku, she recalls, “I ate a rice cake dish that was simultaneously chewy and melt-in-your-mouth. There was gochujang, and mirin that gave it this delicate edge, but it still punched you in the face with its heat. It looked like nothing. But then you take a bite, and take in its multitude of textures, and realize that your eyes have deceived you.”
For most of the first two decades, the discovery of new chefs was an analog affair: Critics would eat and write, and diners would go. There was no Instagram showcasing the latest photogenic confection to go viral. No social media agents. No influencers. Culinary discovery was not an algorithm, but an action. Today, arriving at that perfect short list of BNCs is still an action—an intimate and personal one that cuts through the noise to find the chefs who are putting their heart and soul on the plate. But increasingly, the task is about more than that.
If, in 1988, chefs were stepping out of the kitchen and into the spotlight, in 2018, chefs are stepping out of the spotlight and into the world. Chefs aren’t just tastemakers—they help shape national food policy; spark conversations about race, gender, and work equity; and are forces for change. And if, in 1988, chefs who were recognized were mostly white and mostly male, today the culinary talent pool is kaleidoscopically diverse, with young chefs from all walks of life bringing their perspectives to bear at the table, drawing from a well of experience that enriches and evolves the cuisine—and the culture at large.
“Yes, it starts with the food, but it’s not enough to keep our heads down, looking only at the plate. It’s our responsibility to look up, to think about context,” says Restaurant Editor Jordana Rothman, who is currently chief steward of the BNC program. “It’s very important to make sure there’s room in the future for all kinds of cooks. When we put together a family of chefs, we’re sending a message to people who aren’t even chefs yet that there’s promise for them, that there’s room for them, that there’s potential for them at the top of the business.”
Best New Chef Angie Mar says, of her BNC class of 2017, “We have chefs with different cultural backgrounds cooking the food of their heritage. It’s amazing to see where we were then and where we are now. Here I am: British, American, and Chinese. For me to be able to celebrate all the things I grew up with is something very special.”
Picture a moment in time in which chefs are nationally famous. And the chefs who have changed the way we eat not only have empires of deliciousness but also a platform for change, with people looking to them and their food to reflect where they come from, where we’re going, and what America truly is. That moment is 2018. And it’s a fine time to be a chef.