Food + Wine magazine’s parent company, American Express, e-mailed a press release yesterday morning announcing who the magazine’s ten “Best New Chefs” of the year would be.
Considering the fact that a party announcing who those chefs were was scheduled for last night, the company seemed to be scooping itself.
“Maybe they didn’t want to be scooped by anyone else,” suggested Ben Leventhal, the co-founder of eater.com and general man-about-town in the restaurant world, adding that avoiding such scoops is getting harder and harder.
Ben was one of many members of the food scene social set at the party. Even though we already knew who we were there to fête, the lack of surprise didn’t keep it from being THE party of the early spring season that it always is.
In fact, the winners are announced early on many years. I was in Belize during the announcement last year, so I wasn't paying close attention: my colleague Marcella Veneziale covered the party instead. If memory serves, they kept it a secret in 2011, but announced the winners early in 2010. I’ve never asked why.
But this year’s early announcement meant that I knew to snap this picture of Chris Shepherd of Underbelly in Houston (on the left) and Michael Voltaggio of Ink in Los Angeles right when I arrived at the party, because they were two of the 10 winners.
Here are the other eight, just to get it out of the way:
Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese Food, which has locations in New York City and San Francisco, Justin Cogley of Aubergine in Carmel, Calif., Jose Enrique of restaurant José Enrique in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Matthew Gaudet of West Bridge in Boston, Jamie Malone of Sea Change in Minneapolis, Alex Stupak of Empellón in New York City, Andy Ticer & Michael Hudman of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis (they count as one; just go with it) and Jason Vincent of Nightwood in Chicago.
Many other chefs come to support their winning friends, and because it’s a good party with free food and drinks.
So here you have Missy Robbins, chef of A Voce in New York, congradulating Jason Vincent.
I was trying to ask Jason about winning the award, but I had to wait while he and Missy spoke about ramps. Missy had apparently cornered the New York City market on ramps for the week, having snapped up the case-and-a-half in existence (it’s early yet for ramps here, and spring has been slow to arrive).
I don’t know what it used to be like to be named a Best New Chef, but it’s now less a surprise than it used to be, Jason told me, because now there’s also a “People’s Best New Chef” in each region, voted for online by the public at large. If you’re nominated for that, you figure you’re in the runing for the big prize, Jason tell me. Then you just hope editor-in-chief Dana Cowin calls you.
“Dana’s the phone call you want. you look for that 212 area code,” he told me.
Jason said Dana called him on February 28 at 12:15 p.m. Central Standard Time.
And then he had to shut up about it for more than a month.
I asked him what would happen if he spilled the beans, and he said he didn’t want to find out the answer to that.
Often the Best New Chefs party is held at a new or trendy venue; this year, not so much. It was held at Pranna, a restaurant that’s several years old and served good South Asian and Southeast Asian food last time I was there (but since then it has changed chefs, so I don’t really know). But I think its club-like décor and no-man's-land location (Madison Avenue and 28th Street), has kept it off of the radar screens of the foodies, hipsters and media.
It’s a great space for a party, though: multiple sections that invite mingling, including a second floor
Best New Chef parties always seem to be on multiple floors.
They also always feature food from past winners. This year they were Grant Achatz, April Bloomfield, Scott Conant, Wylie Dufresne, Dan Kluger, Paul Qui and Michael Symon — an indication either that Food + Wine is really good at picking ground-breaking chefs, that its award is a genuine career booster, or a combination thereof.
This is Grant Achatz’s table (Grant’s in the foreground). He and his team from Alinea in Chicago are torching the cinnamon sticks on which they skewered wagyu beef seasoned with what they called “Nonyan” flavors.
Nonya, or sometimes Nyonya, is the cuisine of the Straits Chinese, who settled the Malay Peninsula in the 19th century, largely to work in tin mines. They were mostly men, and they married local women, and a new ethnic group was born, with its own distinctive cuisine.
I don’t think it ever occurred to any of them to skewer meat on smoking cinnamon sticks, but rarely is the team at Alinea accused of adhering to tradition.
Here’s Cafe Boulud chef Gavin Kaysen, on the left, next to Dan Kluger of ABC Kitchen. Dan was serving fried chicken with braised greens and hot-sauce butter.
He used a house-made hot sauce that included habaneros, giving it that bass note that chefs seem to like in their hot sauces these days.
Gavin’s boss, Daniel Boulud, was there, too, but I didn't take his picture. I told him we had recently moved offices and were now around the corner from DB Bistro Moderne.
That’s probably Daniel’s least talked about restaurant, although it does have the distinction of having helped launch the super-premium burger craze at the turn of this century. DB’s creation was stuffed with short ribs and foie gras, and people just ate the hell out of it. It was also served at fundraisers in which Daniel participated. I remember at one it was served with basil milkshakes. This was before practically every fine dining chef onthe planet had opened a burger joint, so it was clever and cutting edge for him to be serving burgers and shakes.
Daniel said he was refurbishing DB this summer. “You should write about it,” he said.
Maybe I will.
Here’s what else was served at the party:
April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig, the Breslin, etc., in New York City served haddock fritters with the curry mayo she normally reserves for her duck fat fries.
Scottt Conant of the Scarpetta restaurants served roasted rabbit with herbed spatzle, parsnip and mint.
Wylie Dufresne of WD~50 and the new Alder, served popcorn soup with shrimp, jícama and shiso, just like you’d expect (it was awesome)
Paul Qui of Uchi dished up crawfish with potato, jamón and paprika in a tasty bouillon
Michael Symon of Lola, Lolita and others was handing out yogurt cavatelli with lamb Bolognese and mint.
That’s two savory dishes with mint. Two out of eight. I know it’s springtime, but it still seems like a lot.
Don’t be surprised if you see a lot more mint this spring. It seems to be trending.