Six Chefs Changing the Restaurant Scene

July 11, 2019

From  London to Los Angeles, there was a time you knew what to expect when going out for a serious meal: white tablecloths, black ties, high prices… But a revolution is brewing from one culinary capital to the next, with renegade chefs turning the staid dining scene on its head. They’re cooking wild food in wide-open kitchens, mingling with diners, amping up the music. Formality’s out at many of the world’s most influential restaurants—and reservations are too. Here, we profile six trailblazing young chefs who are changing the way we dine. 

The Mad Scientist

Chicago was once exclusively a meat and potatoes town, tired and traditional, powerhouse meals there judged by the size of the steak on your plate. A few years back, though, a handful of brazen young chefs began taking their food way out on a limb, tinkering with new kitchen gadgets—and with powders, gels and chemical compounds—carving out a new niche, as avant-garde in its own way as the Steppenwolf Theatre. Leading the charge among these mad scientist chefs was a baby-faced native of Michigan named Grant Achatz, who opened his flagship, Alinea, in 2005 when he was just 29. With its abstract food and space-age décor you might have been dining on the Holo-deck of the USS Enterprise. The restaurant served 23-course tasting menus that veered from savory to sweet and back again. One dish may have been flash-chilled on an anti-griddle at minus 30 degrees, another served on a pillow inflated with enticing aromas. 

The restaurant, which remains one of the toughest reservations in the Windy City, has earned its chef every possible accolade. Two years into its very good run, Achatz, diagnosed with tongue cancer, lost his ability to taste. He chronicled his recovery and struggle to keep the restaurant going in a memoir, Life, On the Line. Last year, cancer-free, he pushed the envelope further still, launching a new project, Next, that changes its menu and concept every three months (a recent run focused on Sicily). The restaurant, which sells tickets to dinner, may be the country’s most impossible to get into, with tables sold on Craigslist for as much as $3,000 apiece. 

The Vegetable King

In a country where mushy peas, canned beans and frozen French fries pass for vegetables and meat pies and battered fish remain fast-food staples, building a national reputation on fresh, local produce is no easy feat. In recent years, though, Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetable-centric, multicultural cooking has become a sensation not just across London but beyond British borders as well. The Israel-born chef was already a big star by the time he opened his first serious restaurant, Nopi, last year in London’s West End. He’d built a citywide following with his deluxe deli chain (known for its gorgeous salad displays) and his weekly column, “The New Vegetarian,” in the Guardian newspaper. The chef ’s cookbook, Plenty, has become a bestseller in the U.S. as well. 

His is vegetable cookery for carnivores—not vegetarians—putting meat, fish and fowl in supporting roles mostly. The menu at Nopi, which takes a Middle Eastern-style shared plate approach, features exotic flavors from around the world—with tastes of Southeast Asia (banana leaf steamed fish), Italy (romano peppers with almond pesto), India (pea fritters with cardamom yogurt) and Japan (misobutterscotch duck), among other spots on the globe. Ottolenghi, who is all about building bridges, in life and in food, is partner in all of his ventures with a Palestinian, Sami Tamimi. 

The Outlaw

French haute cuisine, once a national treasure, has in recent years become a bit of a public relations embarrassment, the country’s best restaurants eclipsed on the international stage by edgier spots in Denmark, Spain—even the U.S. and England. The creativity’s been stymied, say critics, by the staid standards of the Michelin star system, and by the complacency that comes from being too long on top. Raffish young chef Inaki Aizpitarte doesn’t look much like French food’s salvation, with his scruffy beard and rock-star demeanor. The Basque-born provocateur—a sort of food world Serge Gainsbourg—rose to prominence overnight in 2006 when he launched his first restaurant, Le Chateaubriand, in the still rough-and-tumble Belleville section of Paris

The place, which looks like any old casual bistro, serves a daily changing five-course tasting menu that, at 55 euros, is one of the best deals in town. It’s also one of the hardest to get your hands on. The phone at the restaurant is rarely answered, and drop-ins aren’t particularly encouraged either. The service inside is famously brusque and the food, based entirely on the chef’s personal whims—and his mercurial moods—can vary dramatically from night to night, brilliant one time, a disaster the next. In spite of all that, Aizpitarte is perhaps the most talked about young chef in Paris these days. Though his restaurant has no Michelin stars, it’s widely considered among the most exciting places to eat in the city (ranked 15th on an influential list of the world’s greatest restaurants). His new spot, Le Dauphin—right next door—serves natural wines and cutting-edge tapas in an austere space designed by superstar architect Rem Koolhaas.

The Fire Breather

The California food revolution that spread across the country back in the ’80s—banishing butter for olive oil, putting fresh, seasonal produce on everyone’s table—started in the Bay Area. Its legacy lives on in the locavore fervor and clean, simple flavors still found at many of San Francisco’s top restaurants. But an alternative take on California cooking has been gaining momentum in recent years, reflecting the state’s fiery, funky demographic stew. Danny Bowien, an Oklahoma-born Korean-American chef, is the new poster boy for this new melting-pot style of cooking, combining flavors from across the Asian Diaspora with his barbecue-belt sensibility. Mission Chinese Food, the restaurant he’s run with partner Anthony Mynt since 2010, may be the city’s most unlikely sensation. The business, which started as a food truck, donates a portion of its profits to charity.

It operates out of a derelict Chinese joint in the city’s Mission District that still looks exactly as it did before they moved in, although the long nightly lines out front attest to the explosive cooking found within. Bowien touches on Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean tastes, but his real focus here is on the incendiary numb of traditional Szechuan cooking. His auteur take on this spiciest of Chinese regional cuisines is not for the faint-of-heart, with five-alarm dishes, like “mouth-watering” chicken and Kung Pao pastrami. Recently Bowien launched a New York branch of the restaurant that may be even more popular than the San Francisco original.

The Crazy Carnivores

Until recently, the Los Angeles food scene at the high-end was much more about preening than eating. The hottest restaurants catered to starlets watching their fragile figures with light salads, cold soups and poached salmon entrées with sauce on the side. Tandem-chef team Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (they met in culinary school in Ft. Lauderdale) snubbed the status quo when they opened up Animal in 2008. The restaurant, serving gluttonous “dude food” with a focus on off-cuts of meat, became an overnight sensation nonetheless. 

 Angelenos, who’d apparently had just about enough of watching their waistlines, piled into the casual venue (with barely a sign on the door), passing around crispy “buffalo style” pig’s tails, veal brains with vadouvan curry and big lobes of foie gras in a Hawaiian-style Loco Moco with quail egg and Spam (before fattened duck liver was banned in the state). The chefs even slipped bacon into dessert. Son of a Gun, their second venture together, opened just up the street from their first spot at the start of the year. It features a gut-busting take on all things from the sea, including alligator schnitzel and shrimp toast with sriracha mayo. The slightly more decked-out new venue, with kitschy clamshack décor, has been packed since opening night.