Sascha Lyon, a 26-year-old chef at New York City's Balthazar, throws a dinner party for movers-and-shakers of the Manhattan food world

IT'S 1978 AND A FUTURE STAR CHEF IS IN DIAPERS, his first set of whites. He pushes away the strained carrots--they're not fresh and the presentation is all wrong. "You call this food?" he thinks. "I'll show you food." Though he doesn't know it yet, he was born at the right time to impress us with his cooking: in 1998 he'll be 20 and the world will be ready for a culinary youthquake.

Young people have long tumbled into restaurant work, but today men and women in their twenties are striding into professional kitchens with a definite sense of purpose. "When we, the Generation Xers, started thinking about careers, we were looking for a creative outlet, something more hands-on, and the culinary industry was in the limelight," says Gina DeCew Donald, the 29-year-old executive chef of Spago Hollywood. "I remember watching a TV program about The Culinary Institute of America. I thought, 'I can go to a college where I can do this?' I was hooked."

Cooking has become one of the decade's hottest careers, a development that has helped draw young people into the profession. Restaurants have become entertainment, filled with diners who once might have gone to the theater or to a nightclub for the evening. Mediagenic young chefs--especially those who appear on TV--are part of the phenomenon.

The influx of young talent has given a creative surge to the culinary world. "Young chefs are open to experimentation," says Tim Ryan, senior vice president of the Culinary Institute of America. "They're a little looser, a little freer. Sparks can fly." One reason young chefs have been able to embark on such explorations is that many of them have traveled widely and experienced foreign cuisines at the source. Diners have traveled as well and so are receptive to new ideas back home. "Customers know more than ever," says Andrew Carmellini, the 27-year-old sous-chef of Manhattan's Le Cirque 2000. "They can differentiate between a Meyer lemon and yuzu, a look-alike Japanese citrus fruit."

The global influence is a starting point for many twentysomething chefs. As DeCew Donald observes, "The culmination of our culture is fusion--we're all mutts." But as much as they respect innovation, the most talented young chefs reject unholy combinations from overwrought imaginations. "Before you combine gnocchi with pumpkin puree and duck confit, you should understand where duck confit comes from in the first place," Carmellini says.

Sascha Lyon, the 26-year-old sous-chef at New York City's Balthazar, describes himself as a defender of tradition against fusion. As a member of the team that opened Manhattan's Restaurant Daniel, Lyon prepared extremely rarified French cuisine. But today he's working at Balthazar, one of the city's chicest bistros, where the food is anything but complicated. "People who order steak au poivre get just four things: sauce, meat, spinach and fries," Lyon says. "Because there aren't 15 vegetables and three sauces, the spinach gets much more attention. It has to be really good spinach."

Given his 14-hour work days, Lyon's free time is at a premium. When he cooks outside the restaurant for friends, his menus are fuss-free: many of the dishes can be prepared in advance and served as a buffet. He showed off his style recently at a dinner party in the apartment of Jonathan Adler (a tabletop designer who is about to open his own eponymous SoHo shop) and Simon Doonan (an executive vice president at Barneys and the creator of the store's talk-of-the-town window displays). The modish space acted as a foil for the bistro-inspired menu: both Adler and Doonan favor a retro-chic look that evokes the Fifties and Sixties. The guests included some of the movers-and-shakers of the Manhattan food world, including Alexander Adlgasser, the sommelier at Jean Georges, and Keith McNally, the owner of several restaurants, including Balthazar. Lyon's family--his wife, Latoya, and their two-year-old daughter, Cameron--came to mingle.

Perhaps it's a sign of how far we've come since 1978 that Sascha and Latoya have never served Cameron strained carrots. "Baby food is so bland," Sascha says. "We always just give her what we eat. If we're having steak and mashed potatoes, we'll feed her potatoes. We want her to experience flavor."

CHARLIE SUISMAN is the publisher and editor of the Manhattan User's Guide newsletter.