The People's Best New Chef: Southwest Contenders
At F&W, we name America’s 10 most brilliant up-and-coming chefs every year. Now we want to know who you think is the most talented new chef in America.
Photo © Jody Horton
Why She's Amazing: Because, for two years in the early 2000s, she was the executive chef at a Seattle retirement home (yes, cooking exactly the kind of institutional food you’d imagine); today she’s setting Austin’s taste buds on fire with her terrific Thai dishes, from chile-soy-glazed boar ribs to flash-fried whole branzino served with a cooling coconut cream.
Background: La Condesa, The Driskill Hotel (Austin)
Quintessential Dish: Braised pork shoulder with palm sugar, thick soy sauce and sticky rice
How She Got Into Cooking: “When I was in high school, I didn’t really get along with a lot of the kids, so I took a vocational training program. It was very instrumental: It taught me to find something I was good at and stick with it. I’m still in contact with two teachers there; anytime I’m stuck, I’ll give them a call for insight and perspective.”
Photo © Debora Smail
Restaurant: Pax Americana
Why He's Amazing: Because, as a kid growing up in Ponca City, Oklahoma, his life changed when he discovered The French Laundry Cookbook. Today, he’s transforming Texans’ ideas of what dinner can be with dishes such as Gulf tilefish with braised kale, smoked ham and cauliflower and pecorino crema.
Background: Revival Market, Stella Sola (Houston)
Quintessential Dish: Nine spice-smoked brisket with black garlic vinaigrette and roasted potatoes
Photo © Lower48 Kitchen
Restaurant: Lower48 Kitchen
Why He's Amazing: Because he’s taking the art of snacking to new levels with inspired, bite-size takes on corn dogs and onion chip “Funions.” He's equally adept at transforming a simple cabbage wedge into a smoky, umami-packed masterpiece.
Background: Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Pocantico Hills, NY); Vetri (Philadelphia)
Quintessential Dish: Smoked sweetheart cabbage with Comté cheese, black olive and potato crunch and sunflower seeds
The Dish He Could Never Take Off the Menu: Corn dog, battered with hand-milled organic cornmeal and served with house-made mustard. “We sell thousands of those each week,” he says, “and this is only a 90-seat restaurant.”
Photo © Mike Itashiki
Restaurant: Casa Rubia
Why He's Amazing: Because he’s given Dallas an innovative, soulful Spanish tapas spot.
Background: Abacus (Dallas)
Quintessential Dish: Corn and chorizo fritters with charred oregano aioli
Culinary Lineage: His father was a chef at several Mexican restaurants in El Paso, and for a time his family owned a restaurant in Chicago. "I wasn't necessarily cooking, but I was always in the kitchen. I watched my parents cook and watched their technique. I'm a visual person. If I see something, I can pick it up really quickly."
Photo © Robert J. Lerma
Michael Fojtasek & Grae Nonas
Why They're Amazing: Because the duo—who met while working at one of L.A.’s hippest restaurants (Son of a Gun)—shares a passion for classic Southern cooking, locavorism and innovation. This magical combination results in dishes like whey-caramel-glazed sweet potatoes with popped sorghum and crudo with puffed black rice, benne seeds and pickled watermelon rind.
Background: Both: Son of a Gun (Los Angeles), Fojtasek: Lincoln Ristorante (New York City); Nonas: Animal (Los Angeles)
Quintessential Dish: Chilled North Carolina crab salad with Carolina gold rice, kuri squash pudding and radish
Insider Tip: The ultra-popular handmade biscuits are available by request only and made in limited quantities; guests have been known to protest when the restaurant runs out. "If we put them on the menu," says Fojtasek, "we'd be doing nothing but making biscuits all day long."
Photo © Adam Finkle
Location: Park City, UT
Why He's Amazing: Because he has a gift for presenting familiar ingredients in wonderfully unexpected, often contrasting ways. Example: his smoked trout sausage with red-pepper butter and pickled summer vegetables. Plus, he’s an ace motorcycle mechanic.
Background: Talisker on Main, Spruce (Park City)
Quintessential Dish: Buffalo-style cauliflower with dehydrated Frank’s Red Hot powder and vinaigrette and carrot and celery top salad
Reality vs. Reality TV: “I think up-and-coming kids should go and work in a kitchen before they think they’re going to make the jump to culinary school and become a celebrity chef. It’s glamorized on TV, but they don’t show the 16-hour work days.”
Photo © Buff Strickland for laV
Why She's Amazing: Because she’s jump-starting Austin’s slowly growing upscale-restaurant scene. Even laid-back locals are flocking to the super-posh laV for her rustic yet refined Mediterranean cooking. It’s like haute comfort food.
Background: Ajax Tavern, The Little Nell (Aspen, CO)
Quintessential Dish: Whole roast chicken with kale, squash and bourbon-soaked cherries
Career Change: “I was pre-med in college, so I wanted to be a cardiac surgeon or a forensic scientist. I was really interested in medical science. I wanted to be an FBI agent at one time. But a lot of kitchen stuff is detail-oriented, process-oriented and science-oriented, so it worked out.”
Photo © Julie Soefer
Why He's Amazing: Because his modern Italian dishes and wood-fired pizzas take the terms “fresh” and “local” to a new level: Most of their elements come either from Pera’s restaurant-cum-general-store, Revival Market (which peddles goods from Houston-area farmers, ranchers and cheesemakers), or from Coltivare’s gorgeous 3,000-square-foot backyard garden.
Background: The Grove (Houston); Washington Park (New York City)
Quintessential Dish: Ricotta gnocchi with Parmesan, greens and balsamic
How He Stays Fit: “For the past three years, I’ve been leaving my restaurant right in the middle of the day to exercise. It’s a huge stress reliever that has gotten me in shape. At this point, I’m an exercise freak, playing basketball, running, weights, Pilates, balance exercises.”
Photo © Justin Lee
Location: Boulder, CO; Denver
Why He's Amazing: Because after starting his career at Le Cirque at age 21, he's raising the bar on the Colorado food scene with his two seasonally focused restaurants—one centered around a unique oak-fired oven and grill (Oak), the other a super-hip shared-plates spot (Acorn).
Background: Cyrus (Healdsburg, CA); Frasca Food & Wine (Boulder); Jean-Georges, Le Cirque (New York City)
Quintessential Dish: Kale and apple salad with candied almonds, Parmesan and togarashi (a mainstay at both restaurants)
Photo © Knox Photographics
Why He's Amazing: Because he’s serving thoughtful vegetable preparations at his new restaurant Gardner while turning out terrific rustic meat dishes like ox tongue sliders with pickled green tomato at the hunting lodge-inspired Contigo.
Background: Brix, La Toque (Napa, CA); Olivia (Austin)
Quintessential Dish: Spaghetti squash with bonito butter and pea tendrils
On His Travel Obsession: "When I worked, I'd do nothing but save all my money so that later I could travel and spend it." He hiked New York's Adirondacks for 10 months, spent six months in Croatia, walked across Slovenia (it took him 21 days) and hitchhiked from Munich to Hungary before walking to Italy.