F&W Best New Chefs 2017
Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson, Kismet (Los Angeles)
“We think about Kismet as an American restaurant, not a Middle Eastern one,” says Sara Kramer. She and co-chef Sarah Hymanson make up a culinary duo challenging apple-pie assumptions of American cooking. “We draw inspiration from lots of different cuisines and cultures, but we want to create our own language, our own world.” At Kismet, the two explore Middle Eastern ideas with a free spirit, shooting lebneh and saffron from the hip, reimagining tahini with sunflower seeds, dreaming up freekeh fritters that fall somewhere between falafel and arancini, or pairing a “Turkish-ish” breakfast with an herby salad that verges on Vietnamese. The result is a new perspective on American cuisine at a time when this country needs it most.
Peter Cho, Han Oak (Portland, Oregon)
Of all the battles one might choose to pick at this moment in history, fighting for the right to party may seem low on the list. But someone has to take over where the Beastie Boys left off, and for that, we have Peter Cho. After 10 years working for April Bloomfield in New York City, the chef moved west to stage the best bash in Portland, in a space that doubles as his family home. Seated around the open kitchen, you can watch as cooks hand-cut noodles for egg drop soup or open cans of beer with the sharp snap of a twisted towel. That Han Oak also happens to serve the most exciting new Korean food in the country—and for just $45 a head—is worth mentioning, too. You’ll wonder how no one ever thought to serve sweet-and-sour potatoes in a banchan spread, or smoked hanger steak in a bo ssäm, but you’ll be grateful that Cho finally did.
The Women Who Shaped Peter Cho
Cho’s life as a chef has been influenced by a few powerhouse ladies. Here, the ones who helped the young cook along the way.
HIS MENTOR: BNC alum April Bloomfield hired Cho with no experience. “April was very good about giving me enough responsibility—just a little bit more when I felt I needed it, but never too much to make me feel overwhelmed.”
HIS MUSE: Bloomfield sent Cho to stage at The River Café in London, where he met the legendary founder, Rose Gray. She had the foresight to connect Cho to Fergus Henderson, whose meaty cooking at St. John would have a lasting influence on his food.
HIS MOM: It was Myung Ja’s breast cancer diagnosis that drew Cho back home to Oregon, but making time for her care while working a chef job wasn’t possible. This paved the way for Han Oak—a live-work restaurant open four days a week, where “we only do as much as we feel like our family can handle,” says Cho. Myung Ja also named the project (a nod to a style of Korean architecture).
HIS WIFE: A new mother frustrated with their rickety house, Sun Young turned to Craigslist to find a new one. “She dragged me. I knew we couldn’t afford to live here, but when we walked in, our jaws dropped,” says Cho. “We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my wife. The space shapes what we do.”
Angie Mar, The Beatrice Inn (New York)
It may be a cliché that the steakhouse is the seat of male social ritual, but even in this era of Pantsuit Nation feminism, the idea has stuck around. Enter Angie Mar. “I want to cook food that takes you out at your kneecaps,” says the chef of NYC’s The Beatrice Inn, where English game meat pies are encased in flaky, golden suet crust and steak is lavished with blistered blackberries. It all adds up to a radical moment of reckoning for the steakhouse, and not a minute too soon.
Growing Up Angie: A Tale in Five Meats
1. Try, Try Again Pork
“The first dish I tried to cook as a kid was a milk-braised pork shoulder. It was terrible, and my brothers teased me mercilessly. But I made that dish for my family every Sunday until I got it right.”
2. Lucky Ducks
“As a kid I was always obsessed with the ducks in the windows in Chinatown, lacquered and shiny, like walking by Cartier. At The Bea I marry that memory with my father’s tradition of slow-smoking duck.”
3 . Chicken is a Vegetable
“The menu is a representation of all the meat we love, and other than the pâté there is no chicken. I believe chicken is a vegetable. This pâté is the same one I’ve been making since I was 15 years old.”
4. Proust's Hand Pies
“I remember being a kid in London with my mom and we’d always eat these flaky hand pies. I knew we had to have a pie on the menu at The Bea. We make it with an array of game meat, like it’s the Noah’s Ark of meat pies.”
5 . Eureka Meat Moment
“I was traveling alone in Sevilla in 2010, and I ate an Ibérico pork shoulder, seared, medium-rare. I’d never eaten anything like that before; it was so beautiful. I wasn’t cooking then and it made me ask myself why.”
Val Cantu, Californios (San Francisco)
Val M. Cantu's knowledge of America’s history with our neighbors to the south runs deep. Take, for example, the name of his restaurant—it’s a term for Californians of Spanish and Mexican descent, back when San Francisco was still part of Mexico. “Why would a restaurant in the Mission try to imitate a restaurant in Mexico City? We should pay respect to the historical context of what was here before,” says Cantu. If this all sounds pretty cerebral, then you’re on the right track. Cantu isn’t the kind of chef who talks about his food in simple sound bites; in fact, he’s not the kind of chef who likes to talk about his food much at all—so it’s a good thing his dazzling tasting menu speaks for itself. If you’ve ever wondered what Thomas Keller’s iconic, caviar-topped “oysters and pearls” dish might look like in a Mexican framework, consider the tres frijoles at Californios: three different preparations of Napa- and Mexico-grown beans, topped with a spoonful of hackleback roe and specks of gold leaf. Like everything else Cantu touches, this dish delivers Mexican ideas with a NorCal charisma that’s uniquely his own.
Yoshi Okai, Otoko (Austin)
At its highest level, sushi is a discipline that still values tradition over personality, but what might make Yoshi Okai a heretic in the sushi-yas of Tokyo is exactly what makes him a Best New Chef in our book. His work at Otoko feels reverential of Japanese culinary culture—the fetishistic attention to rice, the hand-shaping of nigiri, the choreography of service. But it’s when Okai detours from custom that the magic happens. You might find Meyer lemon or finger lime tarting up that ivory king salmon nigiri, or a finishing dash of sea salt and Arbequina olive oil shaken from an elegant bitters dasher, all departures from tradition that find the sweet spot between sashimi and crudo. But Okai’s greatest trick is the way he embraces his region, giving sushi an unmistakable Lone Star terroir. He seamlessly incorporates hyper-local ingredients and borrows from the Tex-Mex playbook, sprinkling sal de gusano over watermelon ice and turning prickly pear into crisp tempura. Tipping his hat to Central Texas barbecue, the chef quick-sears hamachi with a handheld wand of smoldering binchotan. “In Japan you’re not supposed to pick up the charcoal, and you definitely shouldn’t touch it directly to the meat,” says Okai. “But it tastes good. It looks good. So I’m doing it.”
Jay Blackinton, Hogstone’s Wood Oven (Orcas Island, Washington)
Skipping the grid and living off the land is a fantasy indulged by every fatigued city-dweller now and then. But it takes a punk kid with grit to actually do it. Jay Blackinton spent years cooking for friends in Seattle, dumpster-diving for ingredients and getting by as a bike messenger. Nine years ago he left the mainland for Orcas Island, scraped together $15,000 and, in 2013, opened Hogstone’s, making blistered pizzas and more complex wood-fired dishes using ingredients from partner John Steward’s Maple Rock Farm. He raises his own pigs—he’d slaughtered Grunt just before our visit—digs his own clams, grows his own vegetables. When we sat down to dinner after the long ferry crossing, we were comforted by “the last of the beans,” which were tender and creamy, perfumed with allium and topped with a few thin slices of pumpkin. That this was all a product of the island’s microenvironment made it even more impressive. “Everything we serve has to have an element from the farm, the forest or the ocean surrounding us—something that reminds the diner where they are,” Blackinton explains. It’s a hard-line choice that turns things as simple as lemons into rare exotica, but it also makes for what may be the purest expression of Pacific Northwest cuisine we’ve ever encountered.
Diego Galicia + Rico Torres, Mixtli (San Antonio)
Looking for the most exciting regional Mexican cooking in America? Check out the railroad car behind the strip mall in San Antonio. At the 12-seat restaurant inside, chefs Rico Torres and Diego Galicia change the menu every 45 days, designing multiple courses around the lesser-known virtues of the country’s cuisine. During a recent visit, the menu was inspired by Veracruz, with seafood dishes like forbidden rice with sofrito, mussels and fried plantains. The setup puts the two chefs on their tippy toes, hunting for ways to keep it fresh and get it right.
Noah Sandoval, Oriole (Chicago)
From Trotter to Achatz, Chicago has a long legacy of game-changing tasting menus. Into that bedrock of Windy City superstars, let’s carve a new name: Noah Sandoval. Up a freight elevator at the end of a West Loop alleyway is Oriole, where Sandoval’s high-wire wanderings toggle among the flavors of Japan, Italy and beyond. Hamachi with yuzu kosho topped with genmai, crispy puffs of grain; exquisite sourdough, slathered with whipped butter, wheat berries and caraway. The son of a Navy SEAL, Sandoval had a nomadic childhood that made him a nimble thinker and a master in the art of winging it. Here, five impulsive decisions that influenced his life as a chef.
1. Sandoval had only one other job before becoming a chef, and it was a doozy: He shaped calf muscles for a prosthetic-leg company. “I was making limbs in the morning and washing dishes at night,” he says. He was fired after stealing a leg—a prank that ultimately pushed him into full-time restaurant work.
2. After picking up a few simple skills in the kitchen, he decided he’d never work anywhere else. “As soon as I learned how to make crème brûlée and wrap a cucumber around a bunch of lettuce, I said, ‘Alright, this is what I’m doing for the rest of my life.’”
3. Dropping out can work out: Sandoval left high school early and culinary school after just two months in favor of putting in more hours in the kitchen.
4. Sandoval and his partner and wife, Cara, knew each other as kids and reconnected over Facebook. “We spent three days together in Austin and then I asked her to marry me,” he says. Today she’s general manager at Oriole and a vital part of what makes the restaurant so magical.
5. He doesn’t write down his recipes. “I make something, and if it tastes good I put it on the menu,” says Sandoval. “I believe if you give a recipe to 10 people, they will cook it 10 different ways. But if you teach someone how it is supposed to taste, they will do it perfectly every time.”
Jordan Kahn, Destroyer (Los Angeles)
Eating Chef Jordan Kahn's food is a bit like hearing Björk for the first time. You know that even if you listened to the Icelandic musician’s strange, foreign incantations on repeat, you’d never be able to sing along— but even so, her voice makes you feel something powerful. In a cultural moment that exalts approachable pleasures like avocado toast, the stance Kahn takes at his daytime café, Destroyer, feels straight-up subversive. “Community restaurants should reflect their community, and in Hayden Tract there are so many creative people,” says Kahn of the district that Destroyer calls home. “If I had opened a drab, basic café, it wouldn’t have been right.” And so in the morning you might find 3-D animators and art-book publishers lined up for slices of Icelandic brown rye, dense with seeds and grains. By noon they’re back for dishes such as peas mixed with frozen cream and Job’s tears (similar to barley), with tart gooseberry and Buddha’s hand citron, like a grain bowl designed by Carl Sagan. If this is what Kahn can do for breakfast and lunch, what on earth will dinner look like? Well…that’s where his new restaurant, Vespertine, comes in.
Jordan Kahn’s Next Act: Vespertine
Strap in for Kahn’s ambitious follow-up to Destroyer, an immersive dining experience that takes its inspiration from site-specific theater like Sleep No More in NYC. Want to do Vespertine right? Use our cheat sheet.
The first time Kahn laid eyes on Vespertine’s Eric Owen Moss–designed building, “it was like seeing the redwoods,” he says. He dreamed up a mythology about the structure to help shape the restaurant’s identity.
Kahn tapped Texas instrumental band This Will Destroy You to create a score for the restaurant. The music shifts as guests move through the space—tune in for a crystalline soundscape on the roof.
Artist Jona Sees designed Vespertine’s arresting uniforms. Pieces include “interstellar” aprons woven on an 800-year-old Japanese loom, and goat leather slippers that allow the staff to maneuver quietly.
And, Oh Yeah, Eat!
Kahn’s food is as artistic as everything else at Vespertine. The 24-course tasting menu incorporates 3-D–printed service pieces that hold bites like almond “porcelain.”
Nina Compton, Compère Lapin (New Orleans)
The Caribbean influence in New Orleans is deeply embedded in Cajun and Creole traditions. But at Compère Lapin, Saint Lucian chef Nina Compton unravels the rubber band ball of Louisiana cuisine, looking at its French, Southern and Haitian roots in a new way. “Caribbean food isn’t just jerk chicken and grilled fish. Each island is different; each has its own fingerprint,” says Compton, whose food contends as beautifully with her own heritage as it does with that of her adopted city. Her seafood pepper pot is like a West Indian bouillabaisse, with shrimp and freshwater drum in a slow- burn broth. For her curried goat, Compton plays with form, serving the cinnamon-scented meat with refined sweet potato gnocchi. But even so, there’s no mistaking the flavors of this dish—or whatever else you eat at Compère Lapin—as anything but a tender, tautly rendered torch song from an island girl.