10 Southern Chefs to Watch

By Kelly Dobkin  |  March 12, 2014
Credit: Olivia Rae James

Something very unique is going on right now in America's Southern cities, something perhaps even more exciting than the culinary goings-on in bigger markets like Chicago, San Francisco or NYC. Redefining what it means to be a Southern chef, a new crop of über-ambitious, forward-thinking cooks are working closely with local farmers and growers and are setting the tone for what you can expect from a restaurant in places like Charleston, Nashville, Austin and Dallas. After traveling to the Charleston Wine & Food festival this past weekend, where we met many of these talents, we put together this list of 10 pioneering chefs who you can expect big things from in the not-so-distant future. 

Pictured: Josh Walker of Xiao Bao Biscuit in Charleston, SC

  • Matt McCallister, FT33, Dallas, TX

    The backstory: The Scottsdale, Arizona, native dabbled in visual arts and struggled with drug use in his younger days but was always curious about the culinary world. He worked as a short-order cook at a Jewish deli, always with the conviction that one day he would have his own high-end restaurant. In 2006, he began working under famed Dallas chef Stephen Pyles, rapidly climbing up the ranks to sous chef and eventually executive chef. After traveling and working under the likes of Grant Achatz, Jose Andres and Marc Vetri, McCallister opened his first solo venture FT33 in 2012.

    Why he's one to watch: McCallister has gained national attention for his modern approach to hyper-seasonal cuisine. "It’s very nature-inspired," McCallister tell us of his cooking philosophy. "My plating style is kind of whimsical and it’s not super structured and perfect. It tends to be a little messy, but it’s like contrived messy. It looks like it just carefully fell on a plate." Last year, he earned the title of “People’s Best New Chef Southwest” by Food & Wine Magazine, and this year, he's up for a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest. McCallister and his wife also founded Chefs for Farmers, a local organization that puts farmers and growers in close touch with the Dallas food community. 

    Upcoming projects: McCallister tell us that he is currently working on another restaurant project: "It’s in the works. It’s under wraps, and it’s kind of a secret. I’ve been looking at negotiating spaces." He also hints that the new eatery will be a super progressive concept: "FT33 was kind of my trial run, and I’m wondering if I can get even more progressive and open something really small and crazy?"

  • Credit: Olivia Rae James

    Joshua Walker, Xiao Bao Biscuit, Charleston, SC

    The backstory: Josh Walker worked in art and design for three years before making the rounds at NYC kitchens, including an unpaid stint at Momofuku Ssam Bar. After meeting wife Duolan and getting married, Walker eventually made the move down to Charleston after frequent visits (his family had a nearby farm). Upon arriving, Walker met Xiao Bao partner Joey Ryan who brought in wine and beverage knowledge. The trio began playing around with Asian comfort-food profiles, and Xiao Bao was born, initially as a pop-up. "We wanted this idea of this comfort food that you kind of crave," Walker tells us. "Simple can be the hardest thing to pull off, but that kind of comfort is what you come back for."

    Why he's one to watch: Eventually, Xiao Bao Biscuit established permanent residence in a former gas station, and its menu is doing something unlike any other restaurant in Charleston and, as Walker says, in even bigger cities like SF or NYC. "Charleston had such a good food community, but it was so fine-dining focused," Walker tells us. "We thought we could offer something new and unique." With spins on Asian comfort staples like Japanese okonomiyaki, mapo dofou (a take on Sichuan mapo tofu) and Thai pad kra-pow, Walker's food has garnered national attention for its originality and, of course, its flavors. 

    Upcoming projects: XBB will potentially expand to another Southern city, Walker tells us, but the details are hush-hush for now: "Until these things happen, you never know if they're really going to happen." Indeed.

  • Jason Stanhope, FIG, Charleston, SC

    The backstory: Stanhope grew up in Kansas but got bitten by the chef bug and moved to SF to attend culinary school. After a detour in Peru, he returned to Kansas to cook at Forty Sardines (now closed) before taking a job at Mike Lata's FIG in Charleston (a crucial opening in the Southern city) six years ago, after turning down a job at Boston's No. 9 Park. "I wanted to work for Barbara Lynch," Stanhope tells us. "She’s such a badass. But then I came to Charleston in March and saw the sundresses and pretty girls and awesome restaurants, and that was it. Charleston it was."

    Why he's one to watch: Stanhope is Mike Lata's right-hand at FIG and has a less-is-more approach when it comes to food. He describes his philosophy: "It’s not forced or precious. Our garnishes are thoughtful and edible and delicious. Everyone uses the word simple. Simple is kind of overplayed, I think. Our food is focused and finessed. If you’re going to do simple, it better be the hardest thing you’ve ever done."

    Upcoming projects: Stanhope is happy where he is for now but notes that he does have a career bucket list of sorts. "I have a sheet at home and I’m very open with Lata about it," he tells us.  "A lot of people leave their current situation in such a terrible way. I do want my own place one day. I know that Chef Lata and his business partner are on my side. I don’t see myself anywhere outside this organization, but I’d definitely like to have that at some point."

  • Laura Sawicki, upcoming Launderette/Angry Bear, Austin, TX

    The backstory: Sawicki used to be an NYC art gallerina before taking a job at City Bakery and discovering her love of pastry. Sawicki attended the famed CIA culinary school in Hyde Park, New York, and worked in NYC kitchens like Marlow and Sons and Craftbar before relocating to Austin after being lured down by former NYC chef Rene Ortiz, who would have her run the pastry programs at his former restaurants La Condesa and Sway. 

    Why she's one to watch: Sawicki's use of savory Mexican ingredients in pastry sets her apart from the pack and earned her a Food and Wine Best New Pastry Chef for her work at La Condesa. "Really it’s a stream of consciousness." Sawicki tells Zagat Austin of her creative process. "One idea leads to the next and the next and the next. It’s a springboard. It’s super important that there’s that continuity from the start of the meal to the end of the meal. So a lot of it is really exploring what the savory side is doing." After announcing her departure from both restaurants, Sawicki and Ortiz are working on two new concepts together.

    Upcoming projects: According to Zagat Austin, Ortiz and Sawicki plan to open Launderette in the former Kleen Wash laundry space on Holly Street, a neighborhood cafe and companion grocery, and a neighboring Szechuan takeout concept called Angry Bear. 

  • Jarrett Stieber, Eat Me Speak Me currently popping up at The General Muir, Atlanta, GA

    The backstory: Before becoming the pop-up king of ATL, Stieber got his start young, at age 15, by working at a local bakery, before attending culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu. After interning at a slew of local top-notch restaurants he eventually snagged gigs at Abattoir and Empire State South (via Atlanta magazine).

    Why he's one to watch: Stieber's semi-permanent pop-up restaurant in the back of the Candler Park Market caused a lot of buzz last year, and his involvement in the series of restaurant-within-a-restaurant projects at Gato Bizco are still going strong. "Food is a trade and a skill set, but also a medium for expressing artistic license that comes with interesting food," Stieber tells Zagat Atlanta of his affinity for pop-ups. "In the confines of a brick-and-mortar place with four walls, things can be kind of rigid. Pop-ups give me the freedom to try a lot of different things."

    Upcoming projects: His Candler Park pop-up is behind him, but you can find Stieber behind the deli counter of The General Muir on Wednesdays through Fridays, from 10:30 AM to 5 PM, with a focus on Israeli food.

  • Randy Evans, Haven, Houston, TX

    The backstory: The Texas native frequented his grandfather's farm as a child, visits that would later influence his locavore cooking sensibilities. While studying biology at Baylor University, Evans realized he was more interested in cooking, so he moved his studies to the Art Institute of Houston and eventually snagged a gig at Brennan’s of Houston. Working his way up from station to station, he became executive chef in 2003. Then in 2009, Evans opened his own place, Haven, working with 20 small farms, artisanal cheese makers, ranches and other small Texas producers.

    Why he's one to watch: Evans' local seasonal sourcing reinterprets "modern Texas cuisine" and draws on influences from many different cultures that have settled in the state, including Vietnamese, Mexican, Acadian, German, Czech and Polish.

    Upcoming projects: Evans recently opened a restaurant within a restaurant - Cove Cold Bar - inside Haven, run by his chef de cuisine Jean-Philippe Gaston. No upcoming projects have been announced.

  • Dylan Fultineer, Rappahannock, Richmond, VA

    The backstory: Fultineer apprenticed under Chitown mega-chef Paul Kahan at Blackbird in Chicago from 1999 to 2006. He gained critical accolades while working under Kahan's tutelage, then moved to Santa Barbara to run a second outpost of Suzanne Goin's LA seafood spot, The Hungry Cat. After a few years, Fultineer was ready to relocate. "California was a very satellite location for me because I grew up on the East Coast, " Fultineer tells us. "Once my daughter came along it was kind of time to move. In looking at places to go, I had known the Croxton cousins for a long time and I always knew that they would venture into the restaurant side of things." After reconnecting with Rappahannock Oyster Co. founders Travis and Ryan Croxton (whom he used to get oysters from in Chicago), the chef made the move to Richmond to run the stoves at Rappahannock.

    Why he's one to watch: Fultineer has already garnered a lot of national attention for his work in Richmond, specifically in using the Croxton's Chesapeake-sourced seafood. "I’m very product-oriented," Fultineer says of his cooking philosophy. "I love oysters; I love the simplicity of just this amazing product that you don’t have to do a whole lot with. It sort of speaks for itself."

    Upcoming projects: For now, Fultineer is focused on Rappahannock and doesn't seek the limelight: "I’m probably a little out of the ordinary. A lot of chefs strive for accolades and awards. I won’t say I couldn’t care less, but they don’t mean a whole lot with me. They’re great for the business, and I will pursue what needs to be pursued. I like to cook good food and that’s generally just my goal."

  • Josh Keeler, Two Boroughs Larder, Charleston, SC

    The backstory: Keeler started his career, like many chefs, as a dishwasher, and graduated from New England Culinary Institute. After school, Keeler worked in Philadelphia with the Stephen Starr group, where he met his wife Heather. The duo opened Two Boroughs Larder in Charleston in 2011, originally as a sandwich shop (a concept that lasted a week), which eventually morphed into a full-service restaurant and mini-market (via Starchefs).

    Why he's one to watch: The food at Two Boroughs has made serious waves not only in Charleston but on a national scale for its focus on local seasonal ingredients (the menu changes daily), and Keeler is even nominated for a James Beard Award this year for Best Chef: Southeast. In a blog post on the restaurant's site Keeler writes, "Thing is... even though our menu is constantly changing, one mainstay is a belief in an ingredient's ability to speak for itself. The farther you are from the ingredient's soil, the more difficult that becomes. Period."

    Upcoming projects: None on the radar right now, but we wouldn't be surprised to see another concept in the works for this husband-and-wife team in the next few years.

  • Philip Krajeck, Rolf and Daughters, Nashville, TN

    The backstory: Krajeck moved to Belgium at the age of 10, a place that broadened Krajeck's palate and influenced him to become a chef. Krajeck then moved to Switzerland to attend hotelier school and work in Swiss kitchens before eventually returning to the States to take a gig at Water Color Inn & Resort’s Fish Out of Water in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, where he earned four James Beard noms. Krajeck opened Rolf & Daughters in the Werthan factory in Nashville's Germantown nabe in 2012, a restaurant that has garnered him critical acclaim and national attention (via Starchefs).

    Why he's one to watch: The European-inspired American fare at Rolf & Daughters has earned the chef “Best New Restaurant” nods from both Esquire and Bon Appétit, as well as the title of Nashville "Chef of the Year" from Eater Nashville. Krajeck also earned a 2014 Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Stars Award.

    Upcoming projects: Nothing has been announced in terms of expansion for Krajeck, but it wouldn't surprise us to see the chef expand his Nashville empire sooner than later.

  • Phil Bryant, Swine Southern Table & Bar, Coral Gables, FL

    The backstory: Bryant grew up in a rural part of Virginia and was exposed to locally farmed food at an early age. At 15, he began working in kitchens before moving to Richmond, VA, to pursue a more serious gig and then eventually Los Angeles to work at a new Norman Van Aken restaurant. Bryant credits his brother, also a chef, with influencing him to succeed, "My brother kicked me in the ass," Bryant tell us. "I was a punk kid/dishwasher, and my brother pushed me to change how my co-workers viewed me. So I started working really hard." Van Aken eventually asked Bryant to move back East to open a project in Key West and then Coral Cables. In 2011, Bryant landed the chef de cuisine role with the 50 Eggs group at Miami hot spot, Yardbird. 50 Eggs then opened Swine Southern Table & Bar in Coral Gables last year and asked Bryant to lead the kitchen as executive chef. 

    Why he's one to watch: Swine has become an instant hit for its updated take on Southern fare, its focus on all things pork and its influences from a variety of cuisines (porchetta di testa, grilled foie gras terrine). "It’s kind of the one cuisine that’s really about the history of this country," Bryant tells us of Southern cuisine. "You really see it in Charleston - it’s still kind of living and breathing in Charleston." Swine also received a three-star review from the Miami New Times shortly after opening.

    Upcoming projects: At present, Bryant is focused on Swine (and adding more vegetable dishes to the menu this spring) but tells us that he one day aspires to own his own place. "I’m not one of those people that says I want to have four or five concepts down the road. I want to do something really intimate that speaks to the community."