Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2018
I was in a strip mall in Los Angeles when the proverbial light switched on. My friend was late to dinner. I was due on a red-eye, and, my god, what’s a girl got to do to get a drink in this place? BYOB, you say? Oh. Fantastic. Point is, I wasn’t feeling especially sunny when the steamed fish arrived at my table at Kato. But that smell was something to feel good about—scallion, soy sauce, and roasted ginger oil. “Good thing you made it,” I heckled my tardy date after a bite or two, “because this is a Best New Chef.” The class of 2018 was taking shape.
The road to Best New Chefs doesn’t always look like that, of course. Eureka moments are part of the magic, but there are also the quiet riots, the chefs who surprise you, and the ones you eighty-six until you wake up in a cold sweat and realize you had it all wrong. The thing is, parsing through America’s most captivating emerging culinary talent gets harder every year. As more up-and-comers enter the kitchen, the pool of cooks with fewer than five years of head chef experience gets deeper, weirder, and more exhilarating. And then there’s the matter of Best New Chefs itself—a proud, gorgeous, 300-pound gorilla that incurs more weight with each passing year. That the franchise’s 30th anniversary happened to coincide with an unprecedented cultural reckoning in the restaurant industry only made our choices this year feel more meaningful.
Since 1988, Food & Wine Best New Chefs have reflected the American way of eating and shaped the future of food (see "The Tastemakers"). This year’s class is no different. Taken together, these chefs represent the country’s best restaurant cooking right now and offer a clarion call for the kind of future we’d like to see: one that celebrates character, commitment, and imagination on and off the plate; amplifies all kinds of voices; and is always, of course, full of dazzling things to eat.
Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer—King, New York City
“We met on the cold line at the River Cafe, where everyone starts out. There was instant common ground. We were the greediest two in the kitchen, always with something in our mouths.” —Shadbolt
That rabbit en cocotte isn’t going to get you many Instagram likes. Other restaurants might have decorated it with edible flowers, like a crown at Coachella. But things work differently here at King. The creamy white beans with their gentle ripple of black pepper are plain speak personified, but weeks later you won’t be able to shake the memory of their humble perfection. Could this modest meal really be the work of a Best New Chef? Even better: It’s the work of two.
Clare de Boer and Jess Shadbolt first connected at the legendary River Cafe in London, founded in 1987 by another pair of female powerhouses, Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray. At King, Shadbolt and de Boer are gunning for that same trend-proof longevity with food that is stripped down and extremely responsive to the seasons. King feels like the kind of neighborhood restaurant you might call your own if you lived in Bologna, Italy, or Roussillon, France, where a windfall of shellfish winds up in a Provençal stew paired with charred toast and garlicky aioli, and where the first peas of spring pop with mint and toothy ribbons of mandilli pasta. This food is simple, it’s guileless, it’s astoundingly good. In an age of gilded lilies, de Boer and Shadbolt offer a radical reminder that before food dazzles, it needs to do something much more human: It needs to nourish.
Kevin Tien—Himitsu, Washington D.C.
“Our restaurant isn’t Japanese; it’s not Vietnamese; it’s not Southern. It’s all of those things—everything I love on a plate. As long as I continue to grow, my food is going to grow with me.”
Kevin Tien's life in the kitchen started in an unlikely place: a sushi counter in his hometown, the heart of boudin country, Lafayette, Louisiana. For Tien, the family-owned restaurant Tsunami was a lifeline, his first introduction to cooking—and more importantly, a glimpse into the way a restaurant can feel like home. He stayed with Tsunami through high school and college, and the job kept him afloat when he was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. He eventually landed a gig at Uchi in Houston and might have continued on this path—this Gulf Coast Vietnamese kid becoming a modern master of sushi—had someone not sent the whole thing sideways: Tien met José Andrés.
In the four years he spent at Oyamel, Andrés’ Mexican kitchen in D.C., Tien was captivated by the ways the Asian and Latin-American pantries overlap. It was a realization that planted the seed for Himitsu, Tien’s first solo effort as a chef, a Petworth jewel where he connects all the dots of his life experiences. The menu leans Japanese, with shades of Tien’s Vietnamese heritage and Latin-American experience. Nasu dengaku, a classic Japanese dish of miso-glazed eggplant, reaches toward Mexico with chile-lime vinaigrette and candied pumpkin seeds. A strip steak with a dozen fried quail eggs nods to bò né, a Vietnamese breakfast staple he discovered while working in Houston. His years in the American South show up, too, in the flaky biscuits standing in for pancakes in his Peking duck. Tien has devised a highly personal, individualized style of cooking that’s as hard to categorize as it is to forget. But then again, why would you want to?
Katianna Hong—The Charter Oak, St. Helena, California
“We share our garden with Meadowood, and we have that same mentality of trying to highlight seasonal ingredients. We want to have technique in there, but in a subtle way that allows for a really fun, celebratory, shared dining experience."
Katianna Hong is intense. She was a competitive gymnast until the age of 15, so the discipline of professional kitchens held a certain familiar allure. Nineteen years later, she still hasn’t lost her game face. You can usually spot Hong tending to the wood-burning oven at The Charter Oak in St. Helena, California, stoking the logs in its fiery maw or stringing up bunches of rosemary, corncobs, and trussed haunches of meat to dangle in the smoke. Hong herself has been forged in the fire of Christopher Kostow kitchens. She spent five years working her way up to become the first-ever chef de cuisine at Kostow’s The Restaurant at Meadowood. So when Kostow opened this more casual restaurant nearby, she was more than ready to take the reins.
At The Charter Oak, Hong draws from the same well of gorgeous Napa-grown ingredients she had access to at Meadowood, but the results here feel limber and spontaneous. She smashes potatoes and fries them up like tostones, draping them in Mendocino seaweed, local honey, and brown butter. She reimagines ranch dressing as a tangy, funky blend of fermented soybeans and crème fraîche, served with a platter of vivid crudités. She brines chicken in buttermilk, grills it slow and steady, and pairs it with subtle nods to her wine-country home: fresh grapes wrinkled over the fire, raisins, preserved young grape leaves, splashes of verjus. It takes a real savant to deliver knockouts like these, as delicious as they are studious. Hong spent years winding her spool of experience at Meadowood. But at The Charter Oak, she lets it fly.
Liz Johnson—Freedman's, Los Angeles
“I always wanted to be a chef; I never considered anything else. I asked my mom for Miracle Blade knives from the infomercial every year for Christmas and never got them.”
Trigger warning for those of us who grew up in Jewish delicatessens, swirling ketchup and mayo and calling it Russian dressing: At Freedman’s in L.A., chef Liz Johnson puts Oaxacan chiles in her ketchonnaise. Just a bit—not enough to catch the ire of a deli-counter conservative. But it turns out that little wisp of dried chile smolder does the Lord’s work on a house-smoked pastrami Reuben. So you trust she has her reasons when you find out there’s Madras curry powder rubbed into the skin of her chicken, and that she’s seasoned half-sour pickles with Japanese furikake, and that it’s a tiny bit of Sichuan peppercorn that gives her mutton chop its ambiguous tingle. Johnson might have picked up a few of these tricks working in New York City kitchens like Empellón and Mimi, where her command of old-world French cuisine had every critic in town calling her a millennial virtuoso. But it was at Toro in Boston, under chef Jamie Bissonnette (a People’s BNC in 2011), that she acquired the kitchen tool she values most: intuition. It’s what makes Johnson’s dance with the deli canon so compelling. At Freedman’s, Johnson treats tradition like a suggestion, an approach that frees her up to finesse old ideas while still tugging at nostalgic heartstrings. It all might be best expressed in her version of a black-and-white cookie, a vanilla-sugar number that is soft and tender where the OG version is dry and cakey, with glossy ganache and egg-white frosting where a purist might have settled for fondant. With one bite it resolves every broken promise of every black-and-white that came before it, reminding us that in the hands of a true technician, relics have plenty of fight left in them.
Michael Gallina—Vicia, St. Louis
“Working with Dan Barber played a huge part in shaping who I am as a chef. The reason I came home to St. Louis was to further what he taught me and bring it to a place I knew I could do some good.”
Michael Gallina spent four years as chef de cuisine at Dan Barber’s farm and restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester County, New York, an experience that instilled a reverence for vegetables. But to bring that sensibility to St. Louis—home to ag giant Monsanto’s world headquarters? That takes some grit. Vicia is named for a common Midwestern cover crop that restores nutrients in the soil. It’s also a metaphor for the larger mission here, celebrating the region’s rich agricultural history. Dinner delivers the message with bites like split breakfast radishes served with a pesto made from their tops, or a glass of tomato water with a piece of charcuterie balanced on its rim. Vicia isn’t meatless, but Gallina chooses his moments carefully. You might find rich pork jowl and tender rib paired with “taco” wraps—purple top turnips sliced into translucent rounds.
There’s a heartfelt quality to the experience here, and it peaks with bread service taken outside, in front of the wood-burning oven. There’s a tall table set with warm, blistered sourdough flatbread and an ever-changing lineup of toppings: tomatoes burst in the oven, creamy whipped ricotta, a head of young garlic slow-roasted to sweetness, umami salt made with dehydrated tomato skins. You can chat with the chefs while you rip and dip on your feet. And as they tell you about the crate of pawpaw that just came in from a favorite farmer or the new grain mill in Chicago they’ve recently discovered, you might find you’re in no rush to get back inside. They don’t call this the heartland for nothing.
Kate Williams—Lady of the House, Detroit
“When you come here it’s like, ‘Just relax; we are going to take care of everything. No, we don’t have ketchup for your prime rib, but yes, it’s going to be OK.’”
Kate Williams is obsessed with the idea of tartare. It’s scrappy; it’s resourceful; it’s a whole lot more than the sum of its parts. And in exactly these ways, the dish also sums up the restaurant she’s built. Lady of the House is a no-waste kitchen, a place where produce “seconds” cultivated in urban farms arrive by the crate. It’s a place where citrus peels find new life in flavored syrups and apple cores cook down into sweet butter, where fish bones are scraped of every last morsel of meat and prime rib trim becomes, yes, tartare—paired with a brilliant surf-and-turf swoosh of smoked oyster aioli. You don’t need to know that Williams does most of her own butchery in-house to enjoy her perfect rosy slices of Parisian ham paired with sweet-spicy Dijon butter and chunky fermented honey, just as you don’t need to know that her mom hung the pineapple wallpaper and that some of the dainty china belonged to her grandmother to be blown away by the restaurant’s charm. That Williams has done a lot with a little is part of the allure, and Motor City has shown up to support her. It helps that she’s one of their own, born and bred in the suburbs of Detroit with more than a century of personal history here in Corktown. Her paternal grandfather once lived just a few blocks away from the site of Lady of the House; her mom’s grandparents first met at the Gaelic League around the corner; her dad has memories of visiting the space in its former life as a sports bar. Lady of the House may be a gift to the city of Detroit from its native daughter, but what Williams has built resonates far outside the city limits.
Jonathan Yao—Kato, Los Angeles
“The food we do at Kato is our way of speaking up for young Asian-Americans. There’s a cultural reference behind every dish, but we try to make sense of it in a modern context.”
There's an enduring narrative in the restaurant world that serious chefs must pay their dues, working their way up rung by rung. But in a strip mall on the west side of L.A., another story is taking shape. This one’s about a precocious 26-year-old with almost no formal experience. Meet Jonathan Yao, one of the most imaginative, natural-born cooks we’ve ever encountered. At Kato, Yao interprets the flavors he grew up with as the son of Taiwanese immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley—booming and fading the levels of burnt shallot, sweet soy, basil, and Chinese celery.
Three-cup chicken may be the “Free Bird” of Taiwanese cuisine; if you only know one thing about the island’s food culture, this dish—seasoned with equal parts soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine—is probably it. Yao’s three-cup cover takes the form of a paste, rubbed into curls of octopus or painted on buckwheat crackers sandwiching sweet raw scallops. Thick corn soup is a Taiwanese lunch-box staple; Yao also borrows from congees and egg drops for his luxe rendition, which surrounds a brilliant yellow yolk. These are flossy ideas, evidence of a thoughtful cook. But the dish that cemented Yao as a Best New Chef is also his most modest: Delicate branzino and ribbons of scallion scorched with burning-hot oil, a Taiwanese method that adjusts the scallion’s brightness from mellow flicker to floodlight. Tasting it for the first time is a bit like opening Dorothy’s farmhouse door and stepping into the Technicolor Land of Oz. When it comes to succeeding as a chef, there’s nothing wrong with taking the established route. But every once in a while you find a chef who’s cut their own path.
Julia Sullivan—Henrietta Red, Nashville
“A lot of my cooks ask me how I come up with new dishes. It has to be intuitive—‘This tastes good with that,’ or ‘I really like this texture.’ There’s no wrong way to approach something.”
There are foods that whisper, and foods that murmur, and then there are foods that howl mightily into a bullhorn. In the latter category, let’s welcome chef Julia Sullivan’s anchovy butter. It is creamy, salty, and infused with a perfectly excessive volume of pulverized anchovy. It’s strappy and self-assured, intense and even unsubtle in the most satisfying way—a tidy shorthand for exactly what makes her a Best New Chef this year. Sullivan put in time with BNC alum Thomas Keller at Per Se, and now she’s doing her own thing at Henrietta Red back in her hometown of Nashville. Keller liked his caviar spooned over oysters, but Sullivan prefers her roe mixed up with sour cream and spring onions. That’s how she serves it here, like a rococo French onion dip. Oysters show up elsewhere: raw by the pristine piece, roasted with green curry, or stewed with cream and sunchoke in a decadent pan roast. Gulf seafood dominates the menu, but it’s Sullivan’s supercharged pantry that makes it all so memorable: that butter, yes, but also the cured lemons and preserved tomato that light up tender rings of squid and fried polenta; and the olives smoked in the belly of a wood-burning hearth and scattered around chunky links of lamb sausage. At Henrietta Red, Sullivan shows her hand as a chef with a feeling for flavors that are big, uncompromising, and entirely her own.
Diana Dávila—Mi Tocaya Antojería, Chicago
“At Mi Tocaya I really wanted to embody what it means to be a Mexican woman and a Mexican mother, cooking for people that I love with sheer feeling and understanding for ingredients.”
It can be tricky to spot Diana Dávila in the thick throng at Mi Tocaya Antojería, her colorful, chaotic Mexican sensation in Chicago’s Logan Square. Luckily she often wears a crown for just such an occasion: Dávila’s the one with the bright flowers arranged in her braided hair, wearing an embroidered huipil instead of chef’s whites. Mi Tocaya loosely translates to “my namesake,” and Dávila’s intentions here are personal: This is restaurant as scrapbook— each dish on the menu is rooted in memory. The salsa Veracruzana that Dávila tasted during summer visits to Casitas is reimagined here as gremolata spooned over crisp fried sweetbreads. Briny mussels, popped in their shells and piled with cabbage and radish, are a vibrant iteration of her mother’s posole recipe. There’s even a standard-bearer steak burrito—all gooey cheese and salty beef griddled in a flour tortilla—a nod to the Mexican restaurants the chef grew up around in suburban Chicago. Dávila doesn’t beat her chest for hyper-regional focus or even rigorous authenticity. Her cooking is authentic to her own experience as a first-generation Mexican- American: It’s confident and joyful, and each course lands like the first few lines of a story you’re going to want to remember.
Brady Williams—Canlis, Seattle
“So much of my story aligns with this place, starting with the Japanese influence on the service style. In many ways, if I immerse myself in the story of Canlis, I can tell my own story, too.”
Cherry blossoms rain their petals all over the sidewalks once a year in Seattle, as sure and fleeting a sign of spring in Washington as it is in Kyoto, Japan. Back in the kitchen at Canlis, chef Brady Williams harvests the sakura, steeping them in vinegar or smoking salmon over their branches— experiments that find a sweet spot between Japanese and Pacific Northwest flavors. This is a new energy for the historic Canlis. Founder Peter Canlis’ first restaurant was on a beach in Hawaii. When he migrated to the Pacific Northwest in 1950, he settled the landmark in its current home on Queen Anne Hill. It’s been the last word in Seattle fine dining ever since, passing through multiple generations of family ownership. But Williams—an alum of Blanca in New York and FT33 in Dallas—shook up the classic when he took over the kitchen in 2015, bringing his Japanese heritage to bear on the menu. He amplifies barley porridge with green strawberries, sorrel, shiso, and curls of geoduck. A barley crêpe folded around fermented cabbage has shades of okonomiyaki, with sauce Pierre, a Canlis classic, standing in for Kewpie mayo. There are a few untouchables on the Canlis menu, including prawns warmed with butter and vermouth. Williams still serves it that way, but he put the dish through a workout: He traveled to Alaska to connect with a trustworthy source for spot prawns, installed tanks in the kitchen to store the live shellfish, and only offers the dish during the peak season of May through July. That’s the magic that can happen when a visionary tangos with an icon: Williams’ work at Canlis is as much a truce with the past as it is a bid for the future.