The hunt for the 31st annual class of Best New Chefs turned up 10 rising stars who are lighting the way forward for American cuisine.
Egusi stew isn’t an everyday thing at Kith/Kin. There’s the matter of finding the egusi itself—the ground melon seeds are common in West Africa, but less so in Washington, D.C. Same goes for yams, which transform into soft, elastic fufu by way of mortar and pestle and patience. But when the stars align, egusi stew is in the offing, thickened with those seeds and rich with palm oil and fermented locust beans, pumpkin leaves, and monkfish. It’s a bowl of food so inextricable from the larger story of African flavor and ingenuity that to do without any single ingredient would be profane.
This is the work of 2019 Best New Chef Kwame Onwuachi, whose personal cooking springs eternal in the spaces between straight lines of tradition. And that, exactly that, is the prevailing spirit of this year’s class of F&W Best New Chefs. Over the course of six months, 24 cities, and about 30,000 miles, I encountered chefs wading into the ever-more-intimate deep, committing to the detail work of cuisine rooted in identity, choosing, always, to take the long way home.
The long way is Best New Chef Brandon Go’s 16-hour work day at Hayato in Los Angeles, which he spends rolling fat scrolls of dashimaki tamago, simmering Japanese eggplant, and managing the many other microscopic tasks his exquisitely detailed bento boxes ask of him. It’s Matthew Kammerer hauling gallons of seawater out of surging tidal pools to make his own salt, the foundation of his merroir cooking at Harbor House Inn north of San Francisco. It’s Misti Norris at Petra and the Beast in Dallas digging into her ancestral archives to perfect her Cajun charcuterie, and then—why not?—choosing to throw wildflowers into the curing liquid, like Ophelia with a meat grinder.
This is what food looks like right now at the edge of a decade of transformation in American restaurants. An age in which fine dining loosened up; in which the food world recognized the limitations of a Eurocentric culture and came to understand what it was missing without kimchi and nam prik and jerk; in which critics wondered, blindly, where all the women and people of color were hiding, then found them in plain sight, aprons knotted, heads down, sometimes twice as good but half as seen. It was a decade that recognized, far too late, that professional kitchens weren’t always fair places (or healthy places, or safe places) and began the work of transforming itself. And so here we are, at the tail of one decade and the head of another, this next one more thrilling, more radical, and more inclusive for its spirit of revolution—and because of that, infinitely more delicious.
Consider the chefs we celebrate here the culmination of this decade of radical change. They lead kitchens that foreground compassion as much as ambition; they cook food that is as meaningfully diverse as it is tasty—that high whistle of lemongrass in Nite Yun’s Cambodian kroeung paste at Nyum Bai, the bubble-pocked perfection of Bryan Furman’s pork skin at B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque. You might be tempted to view this year’s class as a measure of how far the industry has come, but I hope you’ll see it as something else: Ten reasons to go out tonight, to lay a napkin across your lap, to read a menu like a rally cry, to clap your hands, to get on your feet for what comes next. Are you with us? Read on to meet your 2019 class of Food & Wine Best New Chefs.
“I don’t want to cook my ‘take’ on jerk chicken, I just want jerk chicken. That’s something that is very personal to me—those memories of going with my dad to the jerk shacks in the North Bronx, those steel drums with the smoke billowing out and the jerk sauce. I don’t want to mess with that.” Read More.
“My first job in the kitchen was at a retirement home in high school. That was one of the coolest jobs. I loved talking to the older people. We’d play bridge and drink rum; I used to love listening to their stories.” Read More.
“My grandma taught me about countryside cooking. She would forage for mushrooms and other vegetables for tempura, and she grew her own buckwheat grain. She made everything that way. She passed away the same day my daughter was born, so I’m thinking I have to teach soba noodle making to my daughter too.” Read More.
“We only buy or harvest what we need. If we use a Cryovac, we save the bag and bring it to a waste facility. If we make an ice bath, we save the water and use it for the garden. As chefs, if we want to be able to continue to do this, we have to make changes.” Read More.
“I’m super proud to be able to take care of our staff at Nyum Bai, to pay them a living wage, to speak up for their needs, and to bring light and fairness into the kitchen. It’s a very passionate thing that we do here, and we want everyone to feel proud and like they are a part of the business.” Read More.
“If you start with something really beautiful, it doesn’t take much more than acid and salt to transform it. I don’t want to manipulate ingredients to the point where I don’t recognize them.” Read More.
“I have a few nightmare stories from when I was a young cook. I always said if I ever run a kitchen, it will be a place filled with respect, where everyone can feel safe.” Read More.
“When I was 12, I asked my parents if I could go to culinary school. But my parents didn’t want their son to be a chef. Eventually my mom let me go to a class to learn about Korean food during my summer vacation. Everyone but me was 20 or 25 and looking for a job, but people really loved working with me. I was having a lot of fun with it.” Read More.
“Making osechi at Ishikawa had a real emotional impact on me. We would make them in the temple [next door] then send them out into the world with a courier. It made me feel like crying to think about somebody getting it at home and seeing the care that went into it. It’s just such a special gift to have someone cook for you like that.” Read More.
“Back in 2011 I remember telling my mom and dad, ‘I'm going to open up a bbq joint.’ My dad said, ‘What’s going to make you different?’ and I said, ‘Mine’s going to taste better.’ I remembered seeing Andrew Zimmern on TV talking about Ossabaw Island pigs, and I thought of it—I’m going to do a barbecue restaurant that uses only heritage-breed pork.” Read More.