mkgallery's Best New Chefs 2017
Yoshi Okai, Otoko (Austin)
At its highest level, sushi is still very much a discipline that values custom over personality, but what might label 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 feels reverential of Japanese traditions—the fetishistic attention to rice; the hand-shaping of nigiri; the choreography of service, piece-by-piece, hand-to-mouth. But the rest of it is where the magic happens. You might find Meyer lemon or finger lime tarting up your ivory king salmon nigiri, or a finishing sprinkle of sea salt and Arbequina olive oil shaken from an elegant bitters dasher, all departures from tradition that find the sweet between sashimi and crudo. But it’s the way Yoshi takes his region into account that most distinguishes his work. He seamlessly incorporates hyper-local ingredients like henbit and edible flowers and deploys one particularly smart hat tip to Central Texas barbecue that somehow, remarkably, manages to give sushi an unmistakable Lone Star terroir.
Val Cantu, Californios (San Francisco)
Chef Val M. Cantu has forgotten more about America’s history with our neighbors to the south than most of us might ever know. Take, for example, the name of his —it references a term for Californians of Spanish and Mexican descent, back when San Francisco was still part of Mexico. If this all sounds pretty cerebral, then you’re on the right track. Val 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 it 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 context, consider Val’s tres frijoles—three different preparations of Napa- and Mexican-grown beans topped with a spoonful of hackleback roe and specks of gold leaf. Like everything else on Val’s dazzling tasting menu, this dish delivers Mexican ideas with a NorCal charisma that’s uniquely his own.
Peter Cho, Han Oak (Portland, Oregon)
Of all the battles one might choose to pick at this particular moment in American 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. In a space that doubles as his family home, the chef is staging the best that also happens to serve the most exciting new Korean food in the country for $45 a head—smart and technical, rooted in culinary tradition, and yet totally fresh, exciting and personal. Seated around the open kitchen, you can watch as a cook hand-cuts noodles for egg drop soup, keeping time with Chance the Rapper on the speakers, or marvel at the way another one opens cans of beer with the sharp snap of a twisted towel. Peter uses iconic Korean foods as blueprints and then, often brilliantly, finds his own lane—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 someone finally did. The result is a little bit Seoul savant and a little bit Kid ’n Play, which feels like the right tone for a chef who is preserving the art of the damn-good time for future generations of food nerds.
Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson, Kismet (Los Angeles)
American diners are so hungry for Middle Eastern food right now that it’s easy enough to gold-star a restaurant simply for knowing its way around a chickpea. So much rarer is the chef who can tango with the flavors of the Fertile Crescent and create something that feels entirely new. At we get not just one such chef, but two. Sara and Sarah may have devised America’s most addictive new side dish, topping roasted potatoes with lebneh and macadamia nuts, cured scallop and Urfa pepper. Their freekeh fritters fall somewhere between falafel and arancini. Their breakfast is not Turkish, but “Turkish-ish,” with marinated cucumbers and olives scented with fresh laurel, pickled things and dates, velvet-yolked eggs and a minty, herby salad that verges on Vietnamese. Sara and Sarah have a modern, global perspective that allows them to encounter Middle Eastern ideas and ingredients with fresh eyes and combine them in a thoughtful way that feels exciting, progressive, deeply Californian and, of course, wildly delicious.
Noah Sandoval, Oriole (Chicago)
From Trotter to Gras to Achatz, Chicago has a long legacy of game-changing tasting menus. Into that bedrock of Windy City superstars, we’re ready to carve a new name: Noah Sandoval. Here is a chef with gob-smacking vision, who convinced us in the space of 16 sublime courses that the country’s best new fine-dining experience can be found up a freight elevator at the end of a West Loop alleyway. Noah’s high-wire wanderings toggle confidently between Japan, Italy and beyond: hamachi with yuzu kosho topped with genmai, crispy puffs of grain; rye capellini with white truffle and yeast butter; a mid-meal bread course of exquisite sourdough, slathered with whipped butter, wheat berries and caraway. Noah owns the restaurant with his wife, Cara, who is also the GM. Their pal Genie Kwon earns her own raves on the pastry station. Genie’s dating another cook in the kitchen. All of which is to say that is a family affair—the Fleetwood Mac of restaurant teams—and it has that all-in energy you get when, quite literally, everything is on the line.
Jordan Kahn, Destroyer (Los Angeles)
Consider Destroyer the anti-Sqirl. In a cultural moment that exalts approachable pleasures like avocado toast and grain bowls, Jordan Kahn’s position on daytime dining feels straight-up subversive. There are raw oats with layers of red currant, almond praline and sweet clover, sweetened with dates and topped with tangy frozen skyr. There are slices of brown Icelandic rye so dense with seeds and grains that it gives you a new understanding of bread as “the staff of life.” For lunch there are peas mixed up 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. The plating is vivid and wild, strange and fantastic. At Destroyer, Jordan holds the line for a style of cooking and auteurship that is often locked up inside extravagant, international tasting menus. Thrillingly, he brings it to bear on a menu that tops out at $14. If this is what he can do for breakfast and lunch, what on earth will dinner look like? Well…that’s where his new restaurant, , comes in. The follow-up—housed in an Eric Owen Moss–designed monolith in hip Hayden Tract—will open in May as an immersive dining experience that takes its inspiration from site-specific theater like Sleep No More in NYC.
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 French/Southern/Haitian rubber band ball of Louisiana cooking and looks at its constituent parts in a new way. Her food contends beautifully and deliciously with her own heritage and that of her adopted city. A Caribbean seafood pepper pot is like a West Indian bouillabaisse, with shrimp and freshwater drum in a slow-burn broth. For her curried goat, Nina plays with form, serving the sticky, cinnamon-scented meat with refined sweet potato gnocchi. But even still, there’s no mistaking the flavors of this dish—or whatever else you eat at —as anything but a tender, tautly rendered torch song from an island girl.
Diego Galicia + Rico Torres, Mixtli (San Antonio)
Looking for the most exciting regional Mexican cooking happening in America right now? Check out the railroad car behind the strip mall in San Antonio. Diego Galicia and Rico Torres change the menu at their every 45 days, designing multiple courses around the lesser-known nuances of the country’s cuisine—the bison herds of Chihuahua, the strawberry growers of Guanajuato. It takes some serious nerve to pull this off, not to mention a lot of research. The chefs have access to the University of Texas at San Antonio’s collection of 18th-century Mexican cookbooks, and Rico—the more bookish of the two—studies them in a temperature-controlled room to gather inspiration. The result: a deep dive into the nuance of Mexican gastronomy that’s as fun to think about as it is to eat.
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, putting the notion of the masculine meatery on watch. Since she left her corporate job to become a chef, Angie has had a laser focus in her pursuit of meat. She’s an alum of Marlow & Sons and the Spotted Pig. She apprenticed with the legendary Parisian butcher Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, who imparted what is now an Angie signature, swaddling beef in whiskey-soaked cloth as it ages. Angie’s personal heritage is eclectic—her mother grew up in England and Taiwan, and her aunt was a legendary Chinese restaurateur in Seattle who once employed Bruce Lee. And at the helm of , Angie lets all of these Euro, Eastern and thoroughly modern impulses ride: beef cheek Champvallon and other Larousse deep cuts, an English game meat pie encased in a flaky, golden suet crust, a showstopping duck, salt-cured, smoked and roasted, that splits the difference between Peking and flambé, and, of course, blockbuster beef, lavished with blistered blackberries and prawn butter. It all adds up to a radical moment of reckoning for the steakhouse, and not a minute too soon.
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 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 , making blistered pizzas and more complex wood-fired cuisine 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. A pork loin chop arrived with burnt pear; potato puree was topped with jiggly egg and salmon roe. That this was all a product of the island’s microenvironment made it all the more impressive. If it doesn’t thrive on Orcas, Jay doesn’t cook it, a choice that makes for the purest expression of Pacific Northwest cuisine we’ve ever encountered.