Faces to watch in 2011

Faces to watch in 2011

Corey Lee

Chef/owner, Benu, San Francisco

What's watchworthy: Lee, who has cooked with some of the best, is putting an indelible spin on his first place.

It was tough for Corey Lee to leave Napa Valley's storied French Laundry after eight years, but the time was right. “I realized that my greatest responsibility there was that, as I continued to develop personally as a chef, I needed to leave it behind. It was about keeping the identity of the French Laundry and Thomas Keller. It wasn't my restaurant; it is Thomas' restaurant,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. Regardless of whose personality it reflected, Keller's place netted three Michelin stars during Lee's tenure as chef de cuisine.

Initial reactions to Benu, which Lee opened in San Francisco last year, have been enthusiastic. “By the sixth course — a faux sharks' fin soup of intense, meaty consommé, scented with threads of Dungeness crab, cabbage and Jinhua ham, poured over a thin layer of black truffle custard — I was in love,” gushed Patricia Unterman in the San Francisco Examiner, referring to Benu's 12-course pan-Asian tasting menu. The restaurant is refined without formality (or tablecloths); service is efficient but not intrusive and the food is like nothing most people have ever eaten.

“It's hard to describe Lee's handiwork,” noted Michael Bauer of the Chronicle. “He employs so many components, unfamiliar ingredients and cutting-edge techniques that each dish requires a diner's total concentration.”

“Lee has changed all the rules,” Unterman agreed.

Amanda Cohen

Chef/owner, Dirt Candy, New York

What's watchworthy: Her novel take on vegetables — as stars of the show — has been turning heads.

Cohen, who graduated from the Natural Gourmet Institute Chef's Training Program, toiled in some of New York's better vegetarian restaurants, then fell off the wholesome wagon briefly at DinerBar, a neighborhood diner, where her buffalo wings drew many fans. Next up: she opened Teany, rock star Moby's teahouse, on the Lower East Side. Turning back to the earth, she did stints at Pure Food and Wine and Heirloom, ultimately as chef de cuisine at both. Heirloom won a reader's choice award for best new vegetarian restaurant in the city.

Now she's running the show at her first place, the tiny East Village Dirt Candy. Her menu is adamantly not vegan (although vegans can be easily accommodated). Instead, she's on a mission to win over carnivores and other doubters with imaginatively conceived vegetables, period. Menu choices all start with a vegetable and build from there; one appetizer, for example, called “Carrot,” is steamed barbecue carrot buns, cucumber & sesame ginger salad. The “Cauliflower” entree is buttermilk battered, with waffles, horseradish and wild arugula.

Cohen shuns the usual vegetarian restaurant model, which creates faux versions of mainstream proteins (e.g., seitan gyros or soy-based mock seafood). She prefers to let the veggies (candy from the earth, thus the name) speak for themselves.

So far, her strategy has worked: New York Magazine recently mentioned Dirt Candy on its “Vegetable Movement's must-visit restaurants” alongside the likes of Per Se, Dovetail and the Spotted Pig.

David Schmidt

Executive Chef, L'Auberge Restaurant on Oak Creek, Sedona, AZ

What's watchworthy: In the process of reinventing a concept that was past its prime, he's using social media to win newer, younger followers.

The 33-year-old Schmidt, a Cordon Bleu graduate, cut his teeth at Phoenix-area restaurants including T. Cooks at Royal Palms and Michael's at the Citadel. But he faced a new challenge at Sedona's L'Auberge Restaurant on Oak Creek: How do you make a 25-year-old beloved traditional French restaurant relevant to a younger crowd — without alienating established fans.

Schmidt took a two-pronged approach: Menu and social media. He reconceived the restaurant and steered it toward more contemporary regional American cuisine with Mediterranean influences. And he's reached out on the internet by posting YouTube videos of himself foraging for wild lobster mushrooms and blackberries, and by tweeting with guests to put together custom tasting menus before their visit to the romantic resort.

Kim Alter

Executive Chef, Plate Shop, Sausalito, CA

What's watchworthy: She's taking the farm-to-table philosophy to a new level by learning to grow stunning produce.

Alter, with a pedigree that includes time at the likes of Aqua, Restaurant Gary Danko, Manresa and Ubuntu, was recently tapped to head up the kitchen at a new ingredient-driven restaurant across the bay from San Francisco. The menu at Plate Shop is described as “simple handcrafted Californian food and drink,” which translates here into nose-to-tail butchering, an extensive on-site garden, breads baked in house, flavored butters and more.

Alter, who devoted a year to working on a farm after her stints at Manresa and Ubuntu, was patiently tending her 14-bed garden behind Plate Shop in anticipation of its December 2010 opening. Her crops were so good that a number of local chefs bought them; once Plate Shop cuts through the red tape, she plans to showcase her produce throughout the menu and in handcrafted drinks.

Joe Campanale

Co-owner, Dell'anima, L'Artusi and Anfora, New York

What's watchworthy: Only 26, he's behind launches of two hot restaurants and a wine bar.

Campanale, a former Babbo sommelier, and his partner Gabe Thompson clearly have good instincts when it comes to new concepts. Dell'anima, which opened in 2007, “has been packed ever since, its appeal attributable in large part to its intimacy, its seating arrangement (many high chairs at tall tables and counters), its wines, and a savory, hip analogue to the make-your-own sundae: the make-your-own bruschetta,” wrote Frank Bruni in a New York Times review two years later. Bruni was impressed at the breadth and affordability of Campanale's wine choices.

The pair's latest venture, Anfora, is focused squarely on wine. Red, white and sparkling varieties are available by the glass at this wine bar. But so are cocktails including the Anfora Highball (gin, Fernet-Branca, ginger ale and lime) and the Purple Pedro (chamomile-infused tequila, lavendar and lime).

“I just put wines on the list that I really love and hope that our guests like them, too,” Campanale explains. “Fortunately, they often do.”

Seth Caswell

Chef/Owner, Emmer&Rye, Seattle

What's watchworthy: Caswell, who paid his dues in the kitchens of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Dan Barber and David Pasternack, headed west six years ago and immersed himself in the Pacific Northwest locavore movement. He opened his first restaurant in 2010.

Caswell originally intended to wind up as an environmental lawyer after graduating from Vassar College, but a ski-season baking job changed his mind. He followed that up with experience and training at a Vancouver culinary school, then set out for New York, where he worked for top names before eventually taking over as chef de cuisine at Nick & Toni's in East Hampton.

At the venerable Long Island establishment, Caswell introduced seasonal menus and developed a 1.5-acre organic garden to supply his kitchen. His efforts earned Nick & Toni's three stars in the New York Times in his second year on board.

Caswell returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2005, then spent three years as executive chef of the Stumbling Goat Bistro in Seattle. While there he cultivated relationships at area fisheries, cheesemakers, farms and markets. Caswell originally wanted to open his own fine dining location, but while he was scouting sites he stumbled on available space in the city's historic Queen Anne neighborhood that lent itself to a more casual theme — arguably a wise choice, given the current economy.

His menu at Emmer&Rye (two locally grown grains) showcases the best of the region. Guests can go small or large, cheap or splurgy, based on the two-tiered menu.

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Jesse Schenker

Chef/owner, Recette, New York

What's watchworthy: His private dining venture quickly evolved into a full-blown restaurant that's wowed the critics early on.

The 27-year-old Schenker grew up quickly at the two Michelin-star Gordon Ramsay at the London in New York. He left there to launch a Harlem private supper club, which segued into a cozy West Village small-plates spot, Recette, a year ago. His complex dishes showcase seasonal ingredients refined with classical technique; one, for instance, is described this way: “roasted scallop, cockles, white asparagus, cipollini onion marmalade, fresh peas, green peppercorn sauce.”

A New York Times review called the menu “American food with Spanish flavors, cooked with French technique; small plates, high concept….The cooking at Recette is smart and imaginative, the food that results from it elegant and full of flavor.” The review declared Schenker's way with foie gras “revelatory,” and called a dish of a single roasted scallop with a smidgen of braised oxtail, earthy morels and a green-garlic puree “phenomenally good.”

David Posey

Chef de Cuisine, Blackbird, Chicago

What's watchworthy: After a year as sous chef, he recently took over at one of the country's most revered restaurants.

Venerable restaurateur Paul Kahan likes to cultivate talent, and this recent decision — handing the reins at his flagship Blackbird over to the 26-year-old Posey — is just the latest example.

Kahan clearly liked what he saw in Posey, who had been on board at Blackbird only about a year before taking over for 2007 Restaurant Hospitality Rising Star Mike Sheerin.

All eyes will be on Posey, a CIA graduate who worked in two restaurants with Grant Achatz, Trio and Alinea. During a stint at Whole Foods he learned more about seasonality and organic ingredients.

Apparently he was a good student. Kahan says Posey is “just an amazing, natural cook” who has “a real focused, clean aesthetic.”

Sisha Ortuzar

Executive chef, Riverpark, New York

What's watchworthy: He and Tom Colicchio collaborated to create the ‘wichcraft brand; now he's taken on Riverpark, an ambitious project off the beaten path.

Elegant and stylish, Riverpark opened as part of a new biotech office development set on the East River last fall; the restaurant may bear Tom Colicchio's name, but Colicchio turned control over to Ortuzar.

Ortuzar calls the food New York-style American, or “the food I like to eat.” The concept is designed to attract guests from beyond the immediate neighborhood, and is divided neatly into a dining room and a casual lounge/bar, each with its own menu, to appeal to health care professionals and researchers as well.

Dishes run from a simple house-ground cheeseburger to fried chicken, to more sophisticated choices, such as fresh sturgeon with sunchokes, radicchio, fig, red wine and pistachios.

“It is all over the place in a controlled manner,” Ortuzar has explained. Time will tell whether his strategy pays off.

Matt McNamara and Teague Moriarty

Owners, Sons & Daughters, San Francisco

What's watchworthy: McNamara and Moriarty tantalize palates with rare foods many have never tasted.

These two 20-something friends, who met in culinary school, pooled their pennies with those of family and friends and recently took over the shuttered Café Mozart space near Union Square. They toned down some of the dated, formal décor and launched a $48 tasting menu that combines French technique, molecular gastronomy and interesting ingredients in new combinations: for instance, an herb salad with basil and mint, radish shavings, orange flower petals, shaved marinated fennel, curds and whey and crisp fried quinoa, dressed with eucalyptus oil.

Matt McNamara and Teague Moriarty

Matt McNamara

Teague Moriarty

Much of the menu is brought in from local sources, including Mom McNamara's garden, local farms and foragers. The staff makes its own bread and harvests sea salt from the nearby Pacific.

Besides offering food value, “we'd like to put something on everyone's plate that they've never tasted or heard of,” McNamara explains. A four-glass wine tasting, which runs $36, follows the same philosophy.

The approach has piqued the interest of local foodies, including the San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Bauer, who sampled the tasting menu with obvious relish before filing a glowing review.

Matt Levin

Chef, Adsum, Philadelphia

What's watchworthy: Levin ditched the corporate chef life to have fun with his food again.

Levin, who presided over Lacroix at the tony Rittenhouse Hotel, routinely won praise for his haute cuisine. But he apparently craved a place where he'd eat himself. Thus, a few months ago, was born Adsum (Latin for “I am here”), a “refined neighborhood bistro” that won immediate status as a media darling.

At Adsum, Levin is focusing on items like roasted marrow bones with onion marmalade, foie gras-anointed brisket cheeseburgers and poutine. He recently offered a four-course menu paired with drinks incorporating Four Loko, the controversial beverage that has been reformulated.

Philadelphia Magazine calls Levin's food “outrageously delicious — and just plain outrageous.” One critic wrote, “It already tastes like this chef is having fun again.”

Trevett and Sarah Hooper

Owners, Legume Bistro, Pittsburgh

What’s watchworthy: These two Oberlin College alumni are self-taught restaurateurs committed to showcasing local and keeping it affordable.

Trevett Hooper was studying electronic music at Oberlin’s conservatory when his advisor asked “what do you want to do when you grow up?” “Cook,” was his answer. He studied under talented local chefs, then spent time in kitchens in Pittsburgh, in Boston and San Diego, before he and his wife, Sarah, opened Legume Bistro in an emerging Pittsburgh neighborhood. The menu, described as French California, changes daily to reflect what’s available in Western Pennsylvania, and most of it is from scratch.

Trevett likes to experiment, but his basic approach is comforting, nourishing, unfussy food. All of Legume’s lamb, chicken and goat comes from family farmers, while 20 percent of the beef and 40 percent of the pork are locally sourced, with the balance coming from Niman Ranch.

A local newspaper described Legume as “an ambitious little restaurant that has utterly transformed an old pizzeria with an atmosphere as easygoing as its palate is sophisticated.”

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Marcus Jernmark

Executive chef, Aquavit, New York

What’s watchworthy: This 28-year-old is putting his own signature on the country’s premiere Scandinavian restaurant.

For years, Marcus Samuelsson has been synonymous with Aquavit, a midtown Manhattan bastion of Swedish cuisine. Samuelsson racked up years of kudos for his interpretation of Scandinavian fare, using French technique and layering it with the flavors of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. When Samuelsson departed last May, Jernmark, his second in command, took the reins.

Jernmark has reverted Aquavit to a more traditional Swedish sensibility, introducing items such as hay-smoked sweetbreads with parsnip puree, fava beans, grilled bread and apple cider sauce; seared arctic char with cauliflower puree and nettles; or venison tartare, with wood sorrel, huckleberries, capers and vinaigrette. Jernmark is adhering to seasonal ingredients as closely as possible and tries to avoid using items not found in Scandinavia. His early efforts earned the restaurant a two-star review from the New York Times.

Adam Keough

Executive chef, Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, San Francisco

What’s watchworthy: Keough hit the ground running at this Bay Area perennial favorite.

Keough honed his skills as part of Michael Mina’s orgranization, first as interim chef at Arcadia in San Jose, and later as executive sous chef at Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Resort in Dana Point, CA, where he quickly ascended to executive chef and was twice a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s national rising star chef of the year honors.

He joined Absinthe in August 2010, and by October was earning praise for his updated lunch, dinner and bar menus. “Keough’s cooking shows flavors that are all on point, with at least one surprise element that distinguishes each dies on his well-tailored menu...In addition to the food, the service has undergone an overhaul. Maybe it’s the fresh blood in the kitchen, but the staff seems more engaged and helpful,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer.

Michael Voltaggio

Chef, Ink., Los Angeles

What’s watchworthy: This “Top Chef” winner has plans to open his first much-anticipated restaurant in early 2011.

Jose Andres protégé and “Top Chef” winner: Not a bad prelude to having your own place. Voltaggio bided his time for a year after winning the Bravo show to work as executive chef at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. He left to plan his new venture, taking over the site of a former sushi restaurant and turning it into Ink., which was slated to open early in 2011. He plans to leave the sushi counter intact but will serve his own brand of “sharable but well-composed” dishes in a casual atmosphere.