Jay Sparks, Chef, Azur, Minneapolis, MN

Jay Sparks couldn't cut it as a rock guitarist in the '70's. He was a pretty decent musician, but just couldn't stand the smoky bars his band played in. "So what did I do? I got a job in a smoky kitchen instead," he laughs, while holding court in the kitchen of Azur, Minneapolis' newest, eye-popping restaurant.

Sparks, who was always a whiz in his own home kitchen, decided to become a chef at the urging of his wife. He enrolled in a Minneapolis culinary school and quickly landed a job at Five-Ten restaurant, a French operation where just about every Minneapolis chef who is anybody has worked. There he honed his craft for five years before hooking up with the D'Amico brothers, a dynamic duo who have created more than their share of the city's best restaurants. "Azur is great because we've gotten away from the formal and refined style of a Five-Ten and created a more casual place where the food has a simple, Mediterranean origin," he says.

A sample of Spark's work, which helped put Azur on the best new restaurant list of Esquire, is a signature dish that places snapper on top of mashed potatoes. The combination is then bathed in stewed artichokes. "This is no-fuss cooking designed to make food taste as good as it can without messing with it. Plate painting is not what we're all about," Sparks says.

Sparks, who developed Azur's first menu with Larry D'Amico, the culinary genius behind the D'Amico restaurant group, is responsible for keeping the menu alive and as interesting as Azur's decor, which is no easy feat considereing its Jetson-like futuristic look. To this end, Sparks changes the menu every two months or so. "Perhaps my biggest strength as a chef is the intuition I have about dishes; what foods work well together, what looks and tastes right in combinations. That's not always easy to do," he adds. "Jay is one of the more talented chefs I've come across in years," says Larry D'Amico.