Food & Wine Best New Chef alums look back on the signature dishes and a-ha kitchen moments that were pivotal points in their journey.

By Morgan Goldberg
Updated October 03, 2019
Diana Davila
Credit: Landon Nordeman

Back in 1988, Food & Wine editor Malachy Duffy named the first class of Best New Chefs, a group of brilliant, young culinary talents from across the country who he felt should be recognized on a more national level. At the time, each of the 11 cooks was little known beyond their own neighborhood, but you may have heard of them now; Daniel Boulud, Rick Bayless, and Thomas Keller were among the BNC honorees in that very first year. Over the past three decades, the BNC program has helped to the launch careers of hundreds of chefs, from Tom Colicchio and Nancy Silverton to David Chang and Missy Robbins.

While most honorees will say the award propelled them to new heights, their innovative approaches to food got them where they are today. That's why we asked recent BNCs about the most important dishes of their careers. From a last-minute spin on cacio e pepe, to a paella using vegetable scrap stock that led to more sustainable cooking, these game-changing dishes are not just career significant–they are wonderfully appealing dishes that would all pair beautifully with S.Pellegrino Sparkling Natural Mineral Water. For a deeper look into the defining plates of our generation's brightest culinary minds, read their own words below.

Diana Dávila, BNC 2018, Mi Tocaya Antojería in Chicago

“I learned how to make mole verde when I was 19 in Oaxaca and never made it again until I was developing the menu for Mi Tocaya. For some reason my bruja voice said fish con mole verde, which is a very unheard-of combination if you are Mexican. When I showed my mother the menu she said I was crazy, that fish does not go with mole and that I was being “too much,” but when she came in and finally tried it she told me, ‘Diana, I was wrong (which never happens), fish con mole verde está para chuparse los dedos.’”

Kevin Fink, BNC 2016, Emmer & Rye in Austin

“The dish that changed the trajectory of my career was our cacio e pepe. It is ironic because it is not truly a cacio e pepe. It came to fruition because one of our pasta dishes for the proposed menu wasn’t tasting right. I cut it from the menu at 4 p.m. and buried myself into cooking a new pasta. I cooked a dish of clarified fermented tomato, wild dandelion greens, raw cow’s milk cheese, and grass fed butter with black pepper that was delicious and raw. It ate like a truly balanced and special cacio e pepe, so we leaned into the happenstance. The dish resonated with people immediately and during its first week on the menu Kate Krader came in and enjoyed it. It was a dish that won us Best New Chef when we had been open for only two and a half months. It later won one of the best dishes of 2017 from Bloomberg. Today, the Emmer cacio e pepe is one of the most important dishes of my career.”

Angie Mar, BNC 2017, The Beatrice Inn in New York City

“One of the most important dishes in our repertoire is the whiskey aged beef. It's a technique that I learned from Yves Marie Le Bourdonnec in Paris that I have altered and made my own. The Beatrice was the first to implement this technique in the States, and since we rolled it out in autumn of 2016, many chefs, restaurants and butcher shops have followed suit. The exciting thing for me is that we have paved the way and truly pushed the boundaries of industry forward. The idea that others are now following suit and experimenting with a technique and trend that we have defined has been one of the most humbling experiences for me.”

Kevin Tien, BNC 2018, Himitsu in Washington, D.C.

"The most important dish of my career is my hamachi crudo. It's a representation of my cultural background and training as a sushi chef. It combines those skills and the flavors of my heritage into an awesome bite that represents me as a chef. It’s the only menu item Himitsu hasn’t changed since day one.

Fabian von Hauske, BNC 2016, Contra and Wildair in New York City

“For me, it was the passion fruit pavlova at JoJo Restaurant back in the day. My father took us there for my mom’s birthday and when I had that dessert, it just blew my mind. The mixture of acidity with creaminess and a little bit of salt opened the doors to what I think about desserts.”,

Katie Button, BNC 2015, Cúrate and Button & Co. Bagels in Asheville

“It was our Paella de Verduras. It isn't so much that the dish itself was earth-shattering, it was the thought process that went into the dish and what it was created out of, and how it totally changed the perspective of how we think about menu development in our restaurant. For years we were throwing away all our vegetable scraps. We were composting it, so it wasn't going in the landfill, but still it was getting turned into soil and not being used.

Inspired by other chefs’ creativity in reducing food waste and inspired by a weekend I spent with the James Beard Foundation Chefs Boot Camp, I asked my team to start saving all the vegetable scraps, onion ends, garlic bits, mushroom stems, pepper tops, carrot peels, etc. in a large container in the walk-in. Within a day, I had an unforgettable amount of vegetable scrap taking over my walk-in cooler and knew I had to do something about it. We roasted all that scrap really hard, then deglazed it with white wine, added water, and simmered it for a few hours. What came out of that process was an amazingly rich and hearty vegetable stock that we turned into the base of a paella dish we put on the menu. But the real impact it had was it changed the way all of my cooks looked at the waste they were putting in the compost bin and all of a sudden a whole knew creative focus was born out of that dish. I don't think the vegetable paella will stay on the menu forever, but the mindset is here to stay.”,

Diego Galicia and Rico Torres, BNC 2017, Mixtli in San Antonio

“The lluvias—pickled chayote, garbanzo beans, purslane, pipian de hoja santa, and chapulín ash—was a dish that really bridged what we had learned from doing menus state-by-state to the more progressive aspect of Mixtli's mission. We were writing a menu called 'origins' which focused on the native ingredients to Mexico, the different seasons, and the changes the landscape goes through as the year goes by. The idea for the lluvias dish came after we began talking about the rain season in Central Mexico, how everything turns green and insects come out of their burrows because there’s so much water pouring. This dish was the spark that began a conversation about letting the land and the changing seasons write menus of their own.”

Katianna Hong, BNC 2018, The Charter Oak in St. Helena, CA

“Our bean tartine really expresses what we do here at The Charter Oak. The base is a grilled slice of bread that has been drizzled with local olive oil. It is lightly rubbed with a raw garlic clove and then spread with with a whipped bean and brown butter purée. The whipped purée is topped with a condiment of cooked dried beans, sliced pickled beans, diced tomato, and diced nasturtium leaf that has been dressed in the bean cooking liquid, salt and olive oil. The entire tartine is generously scattered with beautiful bean flowers from our farm that have a raw-bean-sprouty flavor. It is then dipped in a cumin-scented bean broth. This simple and humble, yet elegant dish utilizes our bread that we bake daily using a locally-sourced wheat, Rancho Gordo dried beans from one of our favorite artisan purveyors, pickled beans from our larder, and fresh bean flowers from our seasonal farm. All of these things make up The Charter Oak and contribute greatly to our menu development.”

Edouardo Jordan, BNC 2016, Salare, JuneBaby and Lucinda Grain Bar in Seattle

“Black cod rundown with plantain chips, pikliz, and peppers was a dish that we first put on Salare's menu within six months of opening and it was very popular, I enjoyed it and it was kind of a take on some of the food I had in Florida. It was a traditional Jamaican dish called rundown that we elevated for our style. The reason that dish was so special is it was the dish Kate Krader had when she came to Salare, and talked about how special it was.,,

Kris Yenbamroong, BNC 2016, Night + Market Restaurants in Los Angeles

“At the restaurant, I always tell guests to order the Nam Khao Tod, aka Crispy Rice Salad. The combination of flavors foreshadows everything that will come later in the meal. It is the most popular dish at Night + Market by a mile. The popularity isn’t exactly surprising, and not just because people in L.A. love salad. The charm of this dish is the freshness and vibrancy — the crunch of the rice, the snap of the raw ginger, and the tension between the salty/tart dressing and fresh herbs.”

Nina Compton, BNC 2017, Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans

“The curried goat with sweet potato gnocchi is a very special dish to me. I came up with the idea of melding Caribbean and Italian in one dish. Being from Saint Lucia, curried goat is my comfort food and I also love making gnocchi. This dish signifies my journey from my homeland, through my cooking background and where I am now in New Orleans.”,

Peter Cho, BNC 2017, Han Oak in Portland

“While Han Oak may be the house that dumplings built, our Korean fried chicken is the dish that changed everything. When we first found our space, we didn’t even have a restaurant concept or menu planned out. The first series of pop-ups was around ‘chi-maek’ (a rough Korean translation of chicken and beer). We did a month-long series of Korean fried chicken-focused dinners, which led to a more Korean-American approach to my cooking, which eventually led to what Han Oak is today. The dish itself has changed a bit over the years, but our current version of a dry spice we call 'essence of instant ramen' is my favorite so far and goes perfectly with our bread and butter daikon pickles and okonomiyaki style savory waffles.”

Brady Williams, BNC 2018, in Seattle

“One of the most important dishes of my career for me isn't my own, but rather came from Blanca, where I worked for a few years. Carlo Mirarchi's signature 'nduja ravioli embodies so much of what I adhere to now philosophically–a single bite, an explosion of flavor, highlighting excellent ingredients and technique–and signifies how so much depth can be achieved with the utmost care and simplicity.”