Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Best New Chefs

April 4

Try to get on the guest list of the Food & Wine Best New Chefs party. Not only is it a fun event, but also it’s kind of important. It’s a big deal to be named one of the 10 Best New Chefs, and the award has launched quite a few careers.
Food & Wine’s editorial staff does an admirable job scouting out little-known chefs. I always know some of the winners (this year I knew Christopher Lee of Striped Bass in Philadelphia, Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va., and Pino Maffeo of L in Boston), but they always manage to make quite a few discoveries, too.
Sure, we’ve mentioned Douglas Keane at Cyrus in Healdsburg, Calif., a few times, including a full-page profile written by Alan Liddle, and Carolyn Walkup has written up Stewart Woodman of Five in Minneapolis a couple of times, but we’re a trade magazine, we’re supposed to be ahead of the curve.
The party’s also probably the New York City restaurant world’s second biggest social event of the spring, surpassed only by the James Beard Foundation Awards in May. Those awards are probably regarded as more prestigious, but the winners, except for the “Rising Stars,” aged 30 or younger, are already pretty well established.
Chris Lee was last year’s winner of that award, by the way, so Food & Wine doesn’t get credit for discovering him at all.
Food & Wine’s also good at tracking down unusual venues for their party. This year it was at the Battery Maritime Building. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of it. It’s in relative disrepair in a funky-cool way, and someone said that no event had been held there since 1939.
Several people were skeptical of that fact, and the fresh paint job on the balcony, which we doubted was commissioned by Food & Wine, indicated that someone else had been playing there recently.
It was still a great space, though, right next to the Staten Island Ferry terminal.
I had a good time chatting with some of the out-of-town chefs. Randy Lewis, my drinking buddy from the Aspen festival a few years ago, seems well. He was a Best New Chef some years ago. Now he’s a not-so-new chef for Artisans & Estates, cooking for special events for the dozen-and-a-half wineries and vineyards that company owns.
Fabio Trabocchi from Maestro in McLean, Va., was there, too, and as always it was good to see him.
I finally met Shea Gallante, chef of Cru in New York, who was a Best New Chef last year and was cooking at the party this year. It’s Food & Wine’s custom to have a number of previous winners cook at the party. So Scott Conant from L’impero and Alto was cooking. So was Laurent Tourondel from BLT Steak, BLT Fish and BLT Prime — I chatted briefly with BLT Prime’s executive chef, Marc Forgione, whom I profiled last year.
As you can imagine, I’m disinclined to stand in line for food, so the only food I ended up tasting was Shea’s — a little split-pea-and-speck number with foam.
Later, when the food was gone and he could have a drink, I introduced myself to Shea and reminded him that I’d interviewed him over the phone about immersion circulators, which are used in sous-vide cooking. Since that method of food preparation has recently been banned, basically, by the Big Apple’s zealous health department, Shea jokingly denied knowing what I was talking about.
The rest of the evening I spent working the crowd. So did Jennifer Leuzzi.
We greeted each other briefly, and she said “I saw you yesterday,” and moved on. It was true, we had seen each other at the Gallo Awards.
Perhaps you’re thinking Jennifer was rude, but she wasn’t, not at all. She was busy catching up with people, and she and I were already caught up. We both had other fish to fry and we knew it. It’s the sort of New York efficiency of communication that I really like.
Jennifer is married to chef Laurent Gras, who was named a Best New Chef when he was at The Fifth Floor in San Francisco. But she’s also a savvy and very plugged-in food writer in her own right.
I went out to the balcony and had a nice chat with Pete Wells, largely over the furor he created when he wrote about food blogs for Food & Wine. He pointed out in the article that many food blogs were boring, which of course they are.
Those particular food bloggers resented being told so, however, and apparently let Pete know that in no uncertain terms. Pete said the article was 85-percent positive, but people only seemed to read the other part.
Myriad Restaurant Group headman Drew Nieporent grabbed me. “I’ve been looking for you all night,” he said and handed me a card from Proof on Main. “New restaurant,” he said.
“Yes, I know.”
“Why haven’t you come in?”
“It’s in Louisville.”
Drew shrugged, as if wondering what my point was.
Myriad veteran Michael Trenk was there, too. His mother, Penny, is an investor in Myriad, but Michael has moved on and is now general manager of The Capital Grille, in the Chrysler building. He drove me and his folks home from Drew’s 50th birthday party last year. Nice guy.
Institute of Culinary Education owner Rick Smilow told me that he was recently in New Orleans with my colleague Ron Ruggless and Share Our Strength co-founder Billy Shore. Ron wrote about it as a journalist, Mr. Shore wrote about it as the head of a charity, and Rick said he found it interesting to read two reports about his own trip.
Elegant Pavia Rosati from Daily Candy swung by and kissed me on the cheek as I was engrossed in a text message I was returning from my friend Yishane, who had just left the party with one of her colleagues, Time Inc. Interactive executive editor Nancy Hawley. Fearing that Pavia would forever think of me as the sort of dork who text-messages people at parties, I caught up with her and we vowed to speak at the after-party, which we didn’t, but I’m sure we’re both okay with that.
Jennifer and I, having accomplished our missions, ran into each other on the way out and she advised me about where to eat in Paris, where I’m going on vacation in a couple of weeks.
Ben Leventhal, one of the two guys who run Eater, was getting his coat, too, and we exchanged pleasantries. Eater’s a sort of well-managed clearing house of information from avid New York restaurantgoers, and if you want tips on restaurants opening and closing, it’s a good place to go.
I got into a taxi with, among others, Rita Jammet, who for years ran La Caravelle, now closed, with her husband André. We headed to the after-party at the SoHo Grand.
Rita’s technically not in the restaurant business anymore, although few people doubt that she and André will open something again one of these days. They are much loved in the New York restaurant world, and Rita expressed delight that she still gets invited to the good parties.
I spent most of the after-party talking to representatives from Starbucks as the hotel staff showered us in mac & cheese and pizza and so on.
It was a nice way to close out the evening.

The Best New Chefs:
Cathal Armstrong, Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, Va.
Jonathan Benno, Per Se, New York City
Michael Carlson, Schwa, Chicago
David Chang, Momofuku, New York City
Mary Dumont, The Dunaway Restaurant at Strawberry Banke, Portsmouth, N.H.
Douglas Keane, Cyrus, Healdsburg, Calif.
Christopher Lee, Striped Bass, Philadelphia
Pino Maffeo, Restaurant L, Boston
Jason Wilson, Crush, Seattle
Stewart Woodman, Five, Minneapolis

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