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Best Chef Awards 2018

Scott Lucas, Jacqueline Quach, and Luke Tsai | July 20, 2018 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink News and Features

Read more from the August 2018 Food Issue here.

There’s the pastry chef who doubles as an amateur astronomer. The restaurateur who sees herself as a de facto urban planner. The onetime community organizer who’s helping put Palestinian food on the map. The Hawaiian chef with an anti-colonial mindset. And the cocktail guru who practices “snout-to-tail” mixology. Chosen by 36 previous Best Chef Awards winners, this year’s Bay Area culinary stars are a smart, eclectic, hyper-talented, and hungry bunch. To a person, they told us that on days off, or when they get off their shift, it isn’t the stuff of fine-dining tasting menus that they crave. To show what inspires our most inspiring chefs, we asked them to take us to their favorite neighborhood spots. They were happy to oblige—and brought their heartiest appetites.

Chef of the Year: Reem Assil
Dyafa, Reem's California
To say that Reem Assil’s rise to the top in the food world has been meteoric is to traffic in understatement. Two years ago, Assil’s business—Reem’s California—was still just a little-known farmers’ market stand. Last May, it morphed into a full-service Arab bakery in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, and ever since, Assil has enjoyed a cavalcade of honors and milestones: a James Beard Award nomination, a Food & Wine nod for best new restaurant, and, this spring, the opening of the even more ambitious Oakland eatery Dyafa, centered on Arab hospitality. Assil admits that she’s susceptible to a touch of “imposter syndrome”—say, when hobnobbing with titans of gastronomy at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. After all, she doesn’t fit the usual profile: When other chefs were staging at Michelin-starred restaurants, she had a whole other career as a community organizer. She’s also a woman and a daughter of Syrian and Palestinian immigrants in an industry dominated by white men. “I don’t want to be written off as a placeholder for the sake of diversity,” Assil says. Fortunately, her cooking speaks for itself. Whether it’s Dyafa’s version of the intricately layered Palestinian rice casserole known as maklouba; the falafel she serves wrapped around a runny-yolked egg, Scotch egg–style, at Reem’s; or the fresh-baked man’oushe, an Arabic flatbread, that has become the chef’s calling card, Assil is making some of the most exciting food around—all the more so because it carries the full weight of her culture with it. Back in school, Assil studied to become a diplomat, and she never lost sight of her desire to reach across borders. “We survived in the desert all those centuries by inviting strangers into our homes, even our enemies—you feed them,” she says. “We have the responsibility to do that cultural work.” —Luke Tsai

Rising Star Chef of the Year: Chris Yang
Since this past November, ‘aina, the intimate Hawaiian eatery on the corner of 22nd and Minnesota Streets, has featured an exciting addition: a six-course tasting menu—served at the chef’s counter, which seats only six guests at a time—cooked on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights by Chris Yang, the restaurant’s young chef de cuisine. In a sense, Yang has been preparing his whole life for the opportunity given to him by ‘aina chef-owner Jordan Keao. Born and raised in Berkeley, Yang peeled green beans and made rice for his Chinese mother and grandmother, who cooked family dinner every night. And he was exposed to a wide range of cuisines early through his father, who worked for Hilton Hotels and traveled often—especially to Hawaii. At ‘aina, Yang brings his technical skills and playful cooking approach to bear on the long, and often contested, history of the island state. Take one of his recent creations: North Shore street corn. It’s Brentwood-grown corn served with umami mayonnaise and smoked sesame powder. Yang smokes sesame oil over kiawe wood, shipped weekly from the islands, and turns it into a powder with tapioca maltodextrin. “Eighty percent of it is real food and 20 percent modern gastronomy,” he says. About the only thing he won’t serve is pineapple. “It’s the symbol of colonialism,” he says. “The pineapple plantations, the owners, overthrew the monarchy.” At ‘aina, Yang hopes to serve guests not just traditional Hawaiian ingredients such as taro root but also mo‘olelo, or stories. The tasting menu is one part rollicking dinner party, one part consciousness-­raising seminar. “It’s honestly not only Hawaii. All cultures, every single culture has been bastardized,” he says. Even with its handful of fine-­dining flourishes, Yang is making sure that’s not the case at ‘‘aina. Not on his watch. —Scott Lucas

Pastry Chef of the Year: Riley Redfern
Riley Redfern was an 18-year-old aspiring premed student at the University of Colorado when she read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. The next day, Redfern dropped out and enrolled in culinary school. Before she knew it, she was learning how to make buttercream frosting in an abandoned-looking hotel kitchen in Colorado Springs. (“It was really about as ratchet as you could possibly get,” she recalls.) She showed enough of a knack, though, to brave a move to San Francisco, eventually landing pastry gigs at some of the city’s finest restaurants: Jardinière, Quince, and, in the beginning of 2017, three-Michelin-starred Coi. (She left that position in July and is still plotting her next move.) For Redfern, pastry carries the power of being “that last chance to really make an evening special,” she says. “I get to really give that last one-two punch.” Her desserts feature bright colors and bold, nostalgic flavors: “If you eat something and you’re like, ‘Oh, I know this flavor, and I fucking love it, and I want more,’ then I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.” Yet Redfern is still a scientist at heart. A self-­identified “astronomy hobbyist,” she conceptualized her first dessert at Coi as a “praline in space”: three planetlike spheres of hazelnut praline and mandarin orange placed in a circular formation and connected by a swirl of hardened sugar. Like any good scientist’s, Redfern’s R&D process can span week after week of trial and error. But the fruits of her labor are self-evident: In the pastry world, Redfern has become a star in her own right. —Jacqueline Quach

Beverage Director of the Year: Nicolas Torres
True Laurel
When Nicolas Torres opened True Laurel, the first offshoot of the restaurant Lazy Bear, in December 2017, the bar director thought long and hard about garbage. He and his partner, the chef David Bar­zelay, wondered if they could cut down on the amount of produce that a bar normally throws away at the end of each night. “It’s like snout-to-tail cooking,” Torres says. Instead of tossing the rinds of Meyer lemons, for instance, he soaks them in fino sherry. And instead of discarding the leaves, he blends them in oil. The resulting liquids, spiked with vodka, go into the Shaker Lemon Stirred, one of a rotating cast of intricately thought-out cocktails at the bar. It’s that combination of back-to-the-land and back-to-basics that made True Laurel stand out in a city well into the second decade of its cocktail renaissance. That’s not to say that Torres doesn’t tinker with the classics. “It’s easy to be inspired by those old recipes,” he says, “but a lot of bartenders will admit candidly that they don’t always taste so good.” His Mai O Mai, on the other hand, might be the standout of True Laurel’s menu. It’s the mai tai’s art school cousin. He pours in a milk wash, Panamanian rum, pistachio orgeat syrup, curaçao, and a mixture of coffee and more rum. It’s still recognizable, but thoughtfully upgraded. Torres isn’t experimenting for its own sake—“I’ll never smoke anything just to smoke it,” he says—but he’s willing to rebuild his drinks from the ground up. Torres has also filled the True Laurel space with works inspired by Isamu Noguchi and Man Ray, showing a thoughtfulness that extends beyond the highball glass. “It’s not just about the cocktails,” he says. —S.L.

Restaurateur of the Year: Dominique Crenn
Bar Crenn, Petit Crenn, Atelier Crenn
You could never accuse Dominique Crenn of running just a restaurant. In March, the native of Brittany opened Bar Crenn, an intimate wine bar offshoot one door over from Atelier Crenn, the two-Michelin-starred eatery, now in its eighth year, where each day’s menu is a poem written by Crenn. At her newest spot, the chef evokes the kind of intimate Parisian salon that, for most Americans, exists only in their reveries: Elegant chandeliers frame a bar surrounded by overstuffed sofas and flea market bibelots. The wine list is equally Gallic, including a Krug Grande Cuvée, a Pierre Matrot Premier Cru from Burgundy, and a Château Redortier from the Rhône Valley. The menu pays homage to the French chefs from whom she draws her inspiration, including a tarte flambée à la Alain Ducasse. Crenn is also deep in planning for Boutique Crenn, an ambitious mélange of patisserie, boulangerie, and art space opening later this year in Salesforce Tower. ““Engagement is the key,” she says. “We live in a world of instant gratification. We don’t ever think anymore. That was the idea behind the Boutique. I want a place where there is food but also art and fashion. It’s going to be a place for people to reengage.” With the number of restaurants bearing her name soon growing to four—there’s also the more laid-back Petit Crenn—the now 25-plus-year Bay Area resident has become a local institution, fishing for halibut and striped bass in Half Moon Bay one day and hanging out with politicians, like the late Ed Lee, the next. In this phase of her career, Crenn is as much an urban planner as a cook. “The tech companies are great, but we need to find balance,” she says. “San Francisco is very special. I hope that the new mayor of the city understands its richness and history.” —S.L.

The 2018 Best Chefs Academy
The roster of former winners who voted on this year’s inductees.

Stuart Brioza Chef of the Year, 2013
Melissa Chou Pastry Chef, 2010
Ryan Cole Restaurateur, 2017
Kyle Connaughton Chef of the Year, 2017
Brett Cooper Rising Star, 2013
Michael Gaines Rising Star, 2014
Jake Godby Pastry Chef, 2009
Yoon Ha Sommelier, 2012
Robert Hac Pastry Chef, 2017
Josh Harris Booze Guru, 2015
Gerald Hirigoyen Chef of the Year, 2003
Katianna Hong Rising Star, 2015
Brandon Jew Chef of the Year, 2016
Laurence Jossel Chef of the Year, 2009
Ravi Kapur Rising Star, 2012 (tie); Chef of the Year, 2015
Christopher Kostow Chef of the Year, 2012
Nicole Krasinski Pastry Chef, 2005; Chef of the Year, 2013
Dennis Lee Rising Star, 2012 (tie)
Geoffrey Lee Rising Star, 2016
Belinda Leong Pastry Chef, 2012
Shelley Lindgren Wine Director, 2005
Thomas McNaughton Rising Star, 2010; Empire Builder, 2015
Greg Mindel Pastry Chef, 2016
Daniel Patterson Chef of the Year, 2007; Restaurateur, 2016
Michelle Polzine Pastry Chef, 2006
Stephanie Prida Pastry Chef, 2013
Richard Reddington Rising Star, 2003
Evan Rich Chef of the Year, 2014
Sarah Rich Chef of the Year, 2014
Ceri Smith Booze Curator, 2013
Louisa Smith Wine Director, 2016
James Syhabout Rising Star, 2007; Chef of the Year, 2010; Restaurateur, 2013
Michael Tusk Rising Star, 2004
Claudio Villani Wine Director, 2003
Anna Weinberg Restaurateur, 2012
Debbie Zachareas Wine Director, 2001

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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