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The Best Chefs Of The Year

Carolyn Alburger and Sara Deseran | July 26, 2013 | Story Restaurants

Since 1988, San Francisco has been anointing the city’s best chefs. But this year, for the first time ever, we assembled an academy made up of over 30 former Best Chef winners dating back to 2001. Rather than select the 2013 winners ourselves, we asked the academy members to cast their votes for the Bay Area’s newest superstars.

Then it was time for some Academy Award–worthy glitz and glamour! None of this chef’s-whites-and-dead-pig-over-the-shoulder stuff. Instead, we spray-painted six plastic artichokes gold, outfitted the winning chefs (and a sommelier) in some finery, loosened them up with stiff drinks courtesy of Roka Akor, satiated them with 4505 Meats hot dogs, and got them out of the kitchen and into an after-party setting that would have made Vanity Fair proud. The soirée might have been simulated, but the celebration was legit.

Best Chefs
Nicole Krasinski and Stuart Brioza
of State Bird Provisions and (forthcoming) the Progress
Bill Corbett (Best Pastry Chef, 2011) of the Absinthe Group remembers the first time that he met Stuart Brioza. “He came into Michael Mina years ago when I was working there and he was at Rubicon. I was told that there was this badass chef at the bar, so I went out to chat with him, and he was disarmingly nice.”

“Nice” isn’t usually a term associated with the hottest chef in town, but in Brioza’s case it applies. And Nicole Krasinski (our Best Pastry Chef in 2005) shares her husband’s lack of pretension—a quality that shines through in their menu of boundary-defying plates, like Peking duck with crepes and plum sauce and sourdough sauerkraut pancakes. Since Bon Appétit gave State Bird the 2012 Restaurant of the Year award, the media attention has created a frenzy. Diners ease the three-hour wait for dinner with fried chicken from a nearby Popeyes.

The Krasinski-Brioza style will gain ground when the pair debut a new restaurant next door called the Progress, set to open in mid-2014. Here, they’ll float “large plates” (mixed grills, whole birds) in a “1980s clubhouse meets Park and Rec” decor. If that doesn’t sound on trend, you’re right, it’s not. But Brioza and Krasinski have been here before, boldly staring at a worn canvas of a space and a pile of lofty expectations. The words of Namu Gaji’s Dennis Lee (Rising Star Chef, 2012) are apropos: “Stuart and Nicole have done a great job of executing a novel concept and handling the hype.”
Carolyn Alburger

Best Restaurateur
James Syhabout
of Commis, Hawker Fare, and (forthcoming) Box and Bells
James Syhabout is a guy known for using his head. “In one word, I would say he’s intelligent,” says Flour + Water’s Thomas McNaughton (Rising Star Chef, 2010). Benu’s Yoon Ha (Best Sommelier, 2012) agrees. “James is a humble and gentle person. He has a sense of calm and a quiet intelligence that shows through in his food.” This is not to say, though, that he’s too cerebral—or too soft. “He’s a little ninja in the kitchen,” McNaughton adds.

Although Syhabout—who initially made his name cooking at Manresa—has received his share of accolades (including Best Chef of 2010 from this magazine), he has not previously been recognized as a budding restaurant mogul. But with his third restaurant, a Rockridge gastropub called Box and Bells, about to open, he’s almost single-handedly made Oakland a national dining destination.

Box and Bells will have a cocktail-laden drinks menu and food like fried chicken and blood-pudding poutine. It’s a big departure from Syhabout’s last restaurant, the casual Hawker Fare, which mixes hip-hop with dishes that his Thai mother cooked for him when he was young. And then there’s his firstborn, the tiny, four-year-old Commis, which won Syhabout his first Michelin star. But when you’re an accidental restaurateur, as Syhabout claims to be, you take things as they come. “It’s always about filling a personal void,” he says. “I just want to do things I like—things I’m curious about.”
Sara Deseran

Read more: Best Pastry Chef and Rising Star Chef

Best Pastry Chef
Stephanie Prida of Manresa

Belinda Leong (Best Pastry Chef, 2012) of B. Patisserie—Prida’s predecessor at Manresa—knows what the pastry chef has gotten herself into since starting at the Michelin-starred restaurant last year. “[Executive chef–owner] David Kinch will come into the kitchen inspired by, say, sea salt, and you’ll have to go with it. Stephanie has to be creatively nimble.” She also has to be tough as nails, says Aziza pastry chef Melissa Chou (Best Pastry Chef, 2010). “It can be difficult for a woman to assert herself in the kitchen.”

Prida, who cut her teeth at the Ritz-Carlton in Las Vegas and just nabbed a Best New Pastry Chef award from Food & Wine, doesn’t want to talk about the challenges and is definitely not into discussing gender politics. “There are plenty of women that I’ve worked with in the kitchen,” she says, “and they don’t give a [expletive].”

Prida might talk like a sailor, but she wants diners to find their inner child in her desserts. Root beer is her current favorite flavor to work with. Ultimately, she’s still soaking it all in—from the surf lessons she gets from Kinch (“I’m terrible,” she says) to picking pea shoots at Love Apple Farms. “It sounds super-corny, but every day I’m still surprised by it.”
Carolyn Alburger

Rising Star Chef
Brett Cooper of Outerlands

In an attempt to articulate the phenomenon that is Brett Cooper, chef Greg Dunmore (Rising Star Chef, 2006) describes the city’s two types of chefs as opposing gangs: one cooking up molecular food—“that heady food that you have to think about”—and the other slinging roast chicken à la Zuni. Cooper, Dunmore says, is an ideal synthesis of the two.

Following in the footsteps of some of his former chef mentors, including sensitive Brioza of State Bird and introspective Daniel Patterson of Coi, Cooper is less a macho chef slinging cockscomb than an earnest guy who can confidently make magic out of asparagus and sprouted seeds.

With his tattoos, he looks like a hipster lost in the Sunset’s outer avenues. “You think, ‘Oh God, this guy must work in the Mission,’” says Dunmore. “But he’s worked for some of the best chefs. I can see him just blossoming.”

This being Cooper’s big year (he has already received a couple of awards), the line to get a taste of his beautiful food is sure to grow longer. The good news? Outerlands is expanding into a space next door in the near future.
Sara Deseran

Best Booze Curator
Ceri Smith of Biondivino

His own massive cellar of fine Italian wines notwithstanding, Quince chef Michael Tusk (Rising Star Chef, 2004) still likes to shop at Biondivino, Ceri Smith’s beloved seven-year-old Russian Hill Italian wine boutique. Praising both her prices and her palate, he says, “Her enthusiasm for wine is contagious.”

Even a real Italian has great things to say about Smith: Claudio Villani (Best Wine Director, 2003), the wine director at Perbacco—he’s opening his own wine bar in Cole Valley this summer—recalls meeting Smith at Incanto 10 years back. “She was in love with Italian wines, with little knowledge but big passion.... Today, Ceri has become an ambassador for the great and small wine producers of Italy.”

Biondivino isn’t the only place where Smith has made her mark. That new wine list at Flour + Water? She created it. And there was Et Al., the little wine bar celebrating rieslings that she ran for a time on Polk Street this year. She has other projects in the works, too, including getting people like her dog walker to see the light. “He’s an example of someone who’s changed,” she says of the guy who tends to Marcello, her shih tzu. “He always liked bigger, bolder, riper wine. Now, barolo is his favorite wine. I’m like, ‘That’s awesome!
Sara Deseran

The Best Chefs Academy: Click here to meet the voters!

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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