From bread bakers to bottled cocktail creators, noodle gurus to nightlife impresarios, this year’s crop of young food and drink talent represents everything that’s great about the LA dining scene right now. The feats of these chefs, bartenders, beer experts, sommeliers, entrepreneurs and front-of-house all-stars are making us feel seriously unaccomplished. Here are the 30 to watch in 2016 — and beyond.
-Story by Lesley Balla, Cinemagraphs by Casey Curry
Or Amsalam, 28Owner and Baker, Lodge Bread Company
Thanks to summers in Israel and his mother’s Middle Eastern cooking, Amsalam learned early that great food equals quality ingredients and passion, both of which are paramount to the breads and pastries he and co-owner Alex Phaneuf make at their small, funky Culver City bakery. Part of a new wave of bread specialists in LA, the two — who met at Goldie’s on West Third Street — have become known for their wild-fermented, dark, crusty, whole-grain country loaves, sticky cinnamon rolls and more. The cafe menu, with tartines, cookies and Sunday pizza nights, are now as popular to neighborhood regulars as the breads. Luckily for everyone else, Lodge recently launched a truck to bring more of his goods to the LA masses.
Gregory Baumgartner , 26Pastry Chef, 71Above
Creating desserts that are as eye-catching as the view from 950 feet above Downtown LA is no easy feat. But Baumgartner has achieved it with beautifully plated arrangements of lemon curd and rhubarb, chocolate cremeux with burnt yogurt sorbet and even ocean plants. He credits his father, a master chef from Austria, for instilling in him a strong work ethic and a passion for creativity in the kitchen. “And the desire to achieve greatness,” he adds. After working with Lincoln Carson and Michael Mina Group restaurants in Baltimore, Baumgartner landed in LA on the opening pastry teams for E.P. & L.P. and Spring, and his talent is on the rise (literally) at 71Above.
Katherine Benvenuti, 26Pastry Chef, Rose Cafe-Restaurant
Benvenuti’s love of baking came from interning at Chez Panisse, where she learned not only how to work magic with peak-season ingredients, but also what a great chef can teach guests about environment, politics and nutrition through cooking. By the age of 20, she became head pastry chef at San Francisco’s legendary Zuni Cafe, and then came to the LA area to work with Sweet Rose Creamery and Superba Food + Bread, where she met Rose chef Jason Neroni. At the popular Venice restaurant, her desserts, like apple crostata with brown butter ice cream, stand out in their simplicity. “Kat is a great team player and an inspiration to even me, a chef of 20 years,” Neroni says. “She makes me want to work harder."
Andrea Borgen, 27Owner and General Manager, Barcito
Having spent summers in Buenos Aires with her family, Borgen brought Argentinean hospitality to life at Barcito. You taste it in cold and hot picadas and plancha-grilled specialties, in sips of sangria or habanero-spiked palomas. But it’s also the general vibe instilled in the space, a welcoming haven found in the bustling South Park neighborhood in Downtown LA. Borgen is turning the industry on its head with her successful tip-included policy, which ensures higher pay and health insurance for her employees. It’s all about community for her. “I can't walk down the street without saying hello to a handful of familiar faces, and that’s just what I'm trying to achieve with Barcito,” she says.
Matt Bostick , 26Beverage Director, Baldoria DTLA
The hospitality industry courses through Bostick’s veins (his mother was the general manager of a hotel), but it was while studying abroad in Italy that he fell in love with wine. When he worked at Osteria Mozza, the always dapper Bostick was a finalist in GQ’s Best Dressed Sommelier contest; today, though, the party vibe and bottled cocktails at Little Tokyo’s Baldoria keep life a bit more casual. His work is no less creative, with techniques like nitro-muddling and rapid infusions that result in the restaurant’s innovative drinks. The best part? The fact that bottled cocktails can be served faster than anything shaken or stirred, making happier customers, quicker. “That’s the beauty,” Bostick says.
Margo Cardenas , 24General Manager, HomeState
Like many before her, it was working for Nancy Silverton that started her beautiful relationship with the hospitality industry, the path she chose over medicine. Originally hired as an intern at the Austin-inspired breakfast taco hub, it was her innate sense of the business, and her skills with both staff and customers, that got her notice from the Los Feliz shop’s owner, Brianna Valdez. Cardenas was quickly promoted to general manager, where she strives not just to serve the best food, but to create an experience for everyone who walks through the door. “Margo’s standards are high, her integrity deep and her work-ethic unstoppable,” Valdez says. “She’s a huge part of what makes HomeState feel like an extended family for our neighborhood and beyond.”
Chris Chi, Philip Moses and Gemma Matsuyama, 26, 26 and 27Chefs and Pastry Chef, Pico House
Only in LA can three young chefs with amazing culinary pedigrees turn out inspiring cuisine from a food truck. Moses and Chi went to high school together; Chi and Matsuyama met while cooking at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York; and all three worked at Bestia. Could any of them be superstars and any top restaurant in town? Yes. But with the truck, they have the independence to create healthy and addictive grain bowls and “ugly fruit” sodas, which puts skipped-over produce from the farmer's markets to great use. Via her sweets company Heavy Cream, Matsuyama raises the food-truck pastry bar with things like cardamom beignets and seasonal cream puffs. And it’s not just a truck: Pico House is the name of the house where they all live, along with other PH partners and chefs Qudoe Lee and Mavis J. Sanders.
John Cho, 29Chef de Cuisine, The Bellwether
Cho got where he is by watching a lot of the original Iron Chef, reading cookbooks and recipes online, and working just about every station at restaurants like Water Grill, where he met executive chef Ted Hopson. Having eschewed his math degree from USC for restaurants, he garnered more experience in kitchens around LA and San Francisco before landing his current role at the bustling Studio City spot. Hopson says Cho is invaluable in the kitchen, especially in helping develop new dishes, and touching on his Korean heritage for the menu. He is, after all, the reason things like kimchi and ssamjang show up as ingredients, and help make The Bellwether one of most dynamic new spots in the Valley.
Emely Cubias , 27General Manager, The Raymond 1886
Cubias has been steering the ship at this Pasadena mainstay since the age of 24, and she’s accomplished a lot in those three years. Not only was she instrumental in launching new menus and dining programs after a sweeping (and much-needed) restaurant renovation, but she also works diligently to keep the cocktails flowing at a good pace in the 1886 bar, where the innovative drinks could easily land a bartender in the weeds were it not for deft, motivational leadership. “One of my biggest accomplishments has been unifying our staff and homing in on the creativity and talent of our entire team,” says Cubias. “It’s at the forefront of what makes The Raymond 1886 so unique.”
Denis Dello Stritto, 29Chef de Cuisine, Culina Modern Italian
Stritto, who comes from three generations of butchers in Italy, has been working around food since he was 14. So, even at 29, he already has 15 years behind him in the industry, and has worked in restaurants around the world, making him something of a veteran — at least on this list. These days, Stritto’s passion for Italian food and California ingredients are given two outlets to shine: at Culina and at the new Vinoteca Bar, both in the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills. Tomato season is probably his favorite time of year — he’s completely smitten with local varieties — and they’re put to good use in Vinoteca’s Neapoltian-inspired montanaras (fried pizzas topped with San Marzano sauce) and other Italian street-food specialties.
Jeremy Fall, 26Owner, Nighthawk: Breakfast Bar, Tinfoil: Liquor & Grocery, Easy's Burgers
Fall has already been in the nightlife game for more than 10 years — he promoted fashion shows and birthday parties as a teen — so segueing into the food realm only seemed natural. The prolific entrepreneur recently opened Nighthawk: Breakfast Bar, a genius concept of breakfast foods served at night with cocktails and cereal-milk punches, in Venice and soon Koreatown. Partnering with Eggslut’s Alvin Cailan, he opened Easy’s Burger, currently a pop-up at Unit 120 in Chinatown, and Tinfoil Liquor & Grocery, a Highland Park liquor store that serves sandwiches from a secret window. That’s just the beginning.
Francisco J. Flores, 28Chef de Cuisine, Bar Amá
Chef Josef Centeno singled out Flores to run the day-to-day operations of Bar Amá for many reasons: the SoCal native’s understanding of local ingredients, his fine-dining training with the catering arm of Wolfgang Puck’s empire, his experience overseeing a large kitchen team and his own particular breed of talent for combining flavors from around the globe. Deferring to Centeno’s lead but offering unique ways of enhancing and expanding the menu at the Downtown spot, Flores has helped to reinterpret Tex-Mex cuisine in a way that has a decidedly Los Angeles edge. “He’s caught on quickly and has really taken off here,” Centeno says of the young chef. “And he runs a tight ship.”
Walter Greenwood , 27Chef
Although from South Florida, working in New Orleans is where Greenwood discovered flavors and techniques that he uses in his kitchens every day. Having worked with master chefs like Tony McPhail at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, as well as Paul Bartolotta in Las Vegas, the chef fused his love of high-quality ingredients and global flavors for menus at places like the expansive new 1212 in Santa Monica, a post he recently left. “I admire chefs who take the time to teach but still be taught,” Greenwood says of his journey so far. “One thing I love about cooking is you can never stop learning.”
Joe Johnson, 28Chef de Cuisine, Charcoal Venice
When he first started cooking at fine-dining temple Melisse in Santa Monica, Johnson found mentors in Josiah Citrin and chef de cuisine Ken Takayama; they taught him to constantly strive for excellence in everything he did, and to always consider the guest, no matter how stressed he was or how tough the job. Today, those lessons inform his work at Citrin’s Charcoal, where he mans the fires of various grills for charred meats, seafood and vegetables. Along with his buddy Gary Nguyen, a fellow 30 Under 30 honoree, Johnson is also the co-founder of Cork District apron company, which makes functional, sturdy chefwear for places like Alma, Leona and Charcoal.
Charity Kay Johnston , 27Bar Manager/Mixologist, ROKU Sunset
When Johnston started working at Katsuya in Hollywood, she knew nothing about spirits — she wasn’t even old enough to drink. Then a hostess, she became immediately hooked on the hospitality industry, and hoped to jump behind the bar one day. She started mixing virgin drinks to start, eventually getting more comfortable and audacious with spirits, tinctures and mixing techniques. “They gave me a chance. I asked a lot of questions and used flashcards for long time,” she recalls. Johnston went on to create elevated drinks that truly meshed with the brand. At ROKU in West Hollywood, her savory Shōchū Tomato is a huge hit: It’s a clean, Japanese-inspired Bloody Mary made with shōchū, cherry tomatoes and fresh basil.
Ari Kahan, 27Founder and Owner, Mainland Poke Shop
With so many poke shops popping up around LA, Mainland stands out for its use of whole sushi-grade fish (not just the off cuts traditionally used in the Hawaiian staple), which are broken down in-house. Kahan is unwavering in his devotion to quality, and to cultivating relationships with fishermen and fishmongers to ensure consistency. His passion for serving people a great product in a chic space is just one reason why the first outpost on West Third Street has such a devoted following. After barely a year, the brand is already expanding: The latest outpost just opened in Glendale, with a third coming this fall to Marina del Rey. Look for even more locations around Los Angeles within the next year.
Margarita Kallas-Lee, 27Pastry Chef and Owner Scratch Bar & Kitchen, Oh Man! Ramen, Woodley Proper
Although Kallas-Lee spends most of the day working with her husband Phillip Frankland Lee — the pair own Scratch Bar & Kitchen, the innovative, open-kitchen spot in Encino — they rarely have time to kick back and hang out. Except when they’re creating dishes together. “Our styles are very different, which in turn complements the way we view food,” she says. Kallas-Lee has had a curious palate since childhood; she loves to play with ingredients like pandan and finger limes, and mesh savory and sweet flavor profiles in her desserts. This year Kellogg’s asked her to make a creation using their cereal, which will be featured on the Taste Talks website this fall. Also on deck for the Lees are Oh Man! Ramen and Woodley Proper, two more Valley ventures with chef Luke Reyes slated to open in the coming months.
Julian Kurland , 29Beer Director, The Cannibal Beer & Butcher
An LA native who moved to New York to pursue a culinary career, Kurland has a renewed love of his hometown now that he’s back. At The Cannibal in Culver City, the certified cicerone — a certified beer expert, much like a sommelier is to wine — curates the collection of 450-plus bottles at the restaurant and retail shop, and works directly with guests to find just the right brew to pair with their meaty meal. Having grown up in Hancock Park, Kurland is excited to be back in LA and a part of the city’s newly evolving food and beer scene. “Because of all the cultures it encompasses, it’s much more dynamic,” he says.
Daniela Mercado, 29Pastry Sous Chef, Bestia
Mercado is an anchor in the Bestia kitchen, known not only for her spectacular desserts, but also for her leadership skills: She kept the pastry team grounded while owners Genevieve Gergis and Ori Menashe took time off after the birth of their first child. Her early start in professional kitchens was more directed to the savory side of things, but she has since evolved from her childhood days of burning pre-made chocolate chip cookies, and learned to master Bestia’s famed chocolate budino tart, panna cotta and seasonal desserts. Consistency and high-quality ingredients are chief among Mercado’s must-haves: She favors locally milled Grist & Toll flours for her desserts and doughs, and is currently helping to develop a housemade pita for Menashe and Gergis’ upcoming Middle Eastern project.
Ted Montoya , 28Chef and Owner, Caló Provisions
Pozole means everything to Montoya. It’s what he always requested on his birthdays, what his grandmother taught him to make, and what he now considers the signature menu item at his weekly Caló Provisions stall at Smorgasburg every Sunday. His pozole has a fusion twist, though: It’s made with a chicharon dashi broth and an egg — almost like ramen, but just as soul-warming as the pozole of his upbringing. His other Asian-Latin specialties, like open-faced tamales, are similarly distinctive. Having worked with Alvin Cailan on the original Eggslut truck, and alongside Eduardo Ruiz at Corazon y Miel, Montoya knows a thing or two about creating bold flavors on a two-burner stove. His goal? To open his own brick-and-mortar restaurant some day.
Gary Nguyen , 26Executive Chef, Westbound
Downtown’s Arts District is the perfect place for Nguyen’s super-creative bar food: gravlax and goat cheese in charcoal cones, oysters with grilled watermelon ice and the ultra-decadent “foie and waffles.” It’s the sort of cooking we’d expect from a young chef who’s cut his teeth in two critically acclaimed LA restaurants, Melisse and Alma, but who’s not afraid to spin his own background and experiences into fun, not-too-serious finger food. When he’s not at Westbound, Nguyen is running The Pink Lady pop-up series, and overseeing Cork District, the apron company he started with fellow 30 Under 30 honoree Joe Johnson. You’ll see their functional designs on the staffs at Westbound, Charcoal, Leona and at Bagatelle in Dubai.
Zen Ong, 26Pastry Chef, E.P & L.P.
Having grown up in Mount Colah, a small suburb north of Sydney, Ong’s earliest memories revolve around his mother’s Indonesian cooking. Channeling his love and understanding for Southeastern Asian cultures and flavors, the chef combines his heritage and local flair for each new dessert at the West Hollywood hot spot. The “Street Cart,” for instance, is an ode to the fruit sold from carts on many corners around LA, with Tajin-seasoned watermelon and lychee, cucumber jelly and watermelon-coconut ice cream. “The fact that a dessert can be presented with different textures, color variations, temperatures and flavor combinations is highly motivating,” he says.
Darwin Pornel, 26Lead Bartender, Faith & Flower
Pornel got a bug for bartending while working as a busser at Paiche in Marina del Rey. It was there that he was introduced to the Julian Cox school of cocktails, an intensive training program that goes hand-in-hand with restaurants under the Sprout group umbrella. At the time, he had been moving toward med school, but the taste of serious mixology piqued his interest enough to convince him to change course. He’s been stirring and shaking ever since. At the Downtown powerhouse, where the bar is as important as the dining room, he works with Ryan Wainwright to create exciting new libations like the Parade Route, a sparkling rosé and rye sipper, and the Shiso Easy, with tequila, shiso and cucumber.
Diego Ruiz de Porras, 28Restaurant Director, The Belvedere
Working at the posh Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills means Ruiz de Porras could be serving water bowls to a four-legged guest while simultaneously pouring a glass of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti for the pup’s owner. With a quick smile and friendly demeanor, plus years of experience working in luxury hotels and resorts, he was handpicked to usher in a new direction at The Belvedere, which recently underwent a complete overhaul in menu and decor. As the hotel celebrates its 25th anniversary, he’s helping create new services and amenities to commemorate the occasion. “We re-opened with a brand-new look and a more relaxed approach toward luxury service,” he says.
Kelly Runnals, 27General Manager, Shake Shack
Before Runnals was gaining momentum on the management team for Shake Shack, she was stuck at a desk job, craving a life change. A friend introduced her to the company, and it was a lock. Having started at the Harvard Square location in Boston, Runnals was quickly promoted; she moved to LA to help open the West Hollywood location, and she’ll run the day-to-day of the Hollywood outpost when it opens. Not only is she responsible for keeping the staff motivated and customers happy, but she forges new relationships with local non-profit partners, and helps organize on-site and off-property events. And, yes, she helps keep that long line of burger-obsessed Angelenos moving.
Nicolo Rusconi , 25Co-Founder and Partner, Chicas Tacos and BLVD745
Rusconi, along with the team from the development and management company BLVD745, is a visionary working to change the Downtown landscape. He helped transform a tiny decaying restaurant and grungy parking lot into Chicas, a colorful restaurant with a homey interior and Astroturf, picnic tables and an Airstream outside. With an emphasis on organic ingredients and housemade everything, it’s quickly become a favorite among loft dwellers and office workers in the booming neighborhood. Rusconi looks forward to expanding the brand around LA and beyond. “Whenever I complete a project, I sit in the space and simply appreciate what has been built, knowing that it will be a scene for many more experiences to come,” he says.
Darren Sayphraraj , 27Chef/Owner, We Have Noodles
Although Sayphraraj has gone from the French Culinary Institute to some of the best kitchens in New York, namely The Modern, The NoMad and Dovetail, he’s a 626 boy at heart. With Chinese, Vietnamese and Laotian blood running in his veins, noodles are his life. His current concept is a mainstay at Smorgasburg on Sundays, where each week he creates flavorful bowls, like springy egg noodles with sambal-buttered grilled corn, pickled serranos and coconut curry broth. He also does regular Feastly pop-ups. Doing high-level food within limited parameters, like in a tent or a small kitchen space, only makes him stronger. Look for a We Have Noodles brick-and-mortar soon.
Mary Skokna , 29General Manager, AKASHA
Akasha Richmond can’t say enough about Skokna, who started at her Culver City spot as a barista and worked her way up to general manager. Whether she’s helping with the coffee program and cafe menu, creating recipes or overseeing front-of-house operations, Skokna is hands-on with myriad facets of the restaurant. Her pie-making and jamming skills are top-notch too — she’s an ace with a crust and loves a good apple filling. Among the many invaluable things she’s learned from Richmond along the way is how to be a strong leader when it comes to negotiating, compromising and standing up for what’s right.
Holly Zack, 25Partner, Last Word Hospitality
When starting out behind the bar at The Wallace in Culver City, Zack snagged a Time Out award for her Morning Sex cocktail. Today she’s more involved with the operational side of running bars and restaurants than she is pouring the drinks — but that only strengthens her commitment to the industry. As partner with consulting firm Last Word Hospitality, she spends her days elbows-deep in pre-opening budgets and day-to-day expenditures. If that sounds dry, consider this, more glamorous, interpretation: Zack holds the purse strings. The group recently opened Same Same Thai, a wine bar with Southeast Asian street food, with the owners of Rambutan Thai in Silver Lake. Next up: Brack Shop Tavern, a new bar in Downtown LA.
Fahara Zamorano , 29Head Sommelier, Gwen Restaurant
With understated grace and charm, Zamorano is one of those people you can chat with endlessly — about wine, about whatever, really. Her pedigree is beyond impressive: She was previously the head sommelier for Viviane, Terrine and Faith & Flower, and worked at Alinea in Chicago. She came back to LA just in time for the debut of Curtis and Luke Stone’s new meat-centric Hollywood restaurant. Her influence can be seen in the menu’s focus on Santa Barbara County wines. “The history of the region is still young, but the stories that the wines tell made me fall in love with the region,” Zamorano says. She’ll continue expanding Gwen’s wine list with lesser-known producers from the local hills, Australia and New Zealand.