10 Under-the-Radar Chefs to Know in the SF Bay Area

SF's secret culinary rock stars revealed
January 29, 2018
by Trevor Felch

The Bay Area is home to some of the most recognizable names in the restaurant industry. However, for all the Alice Waters', Dominique Crenn's and Thomas Keller's, there are many incredible chefs whose names you probably don't know —​ but should. Nyum Bai's Nite Yun never knew the homeland of her parents but is now schooling the Bay Area on Cambodian food. Meanwhile, Scott Clark gave up the highest level of fine dining for burgers by the sea, and Ethan Mantle is changing the catering world with a start-up's mindset of innovation. Get to know these local chefs who continue to make the Bay Area such a special place to eat.

Rachel Aronow at The Alembic

Last fall, Aronow was one of the first Bay Area chefs to put together a donation drive for North Bay fire victims. The fires literally hit home for her — the farm where she grew up in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood was one of the many structures that tragically burned down. Aronow’s gracious gesture also reminded us of the new talent at the craft-cocktail legend.

Like the cocktail roster, Aronow's menu is creative and wide-ranging. Her dynamic cooking style is shaped from a lifetime of eclectic experiences, from serving as a cooking instructor for the U.S. Coast Guard to co-writing a cookbook for cancer patients. Now in the Upper Haight, along with The Alembic's original standbys (like jerk-spiced duck hearts and bone marrow with toast), you'll find her creations like tea-smoked pheasant and whiskey shoyu-poached octopus with verde gel.

Signature dish: Aronow says, “My greatest romance is watching my imagination come to life.” You'll see plenty of that imagination in dishes like “pigs in a blanket” with panko-fried boneless hog tail, black garlic and smoked strawberry.

1725 Haight St.; 415-666-0822

Nigel Jones at Kaya and Kingston 11

Mid-Market is a world away from Kingston, Jamaica, where Jones was raised mostly by his grandmother and learned the island’s traditional cooking techniques as a kid (before migrating to the Bronx to live with his mother). Now he's San Francisco's foremost voice on Caribbean cooking after partnering with Daniel Patterson's Alta Group for Kaya. Not just a gifted chef, Jones has become heavily involved with community improvement issues. His original restaurant in Oakland, Kingston 11, is known as a meeting spot for community leaders and change makers. In addition, Jones met Patterson through their involvement with Restaurant Opportunities Center United. When he's not pleasing diners with fried plantains and jerk chicken, Jones gets most excited “when a kid comes to eat with their parents and they see people of color working and managing the restaurant." He adds, "My hope is that they think that maybe they too can work in or own their own restaurant one day. That is success!”

Signature dish: Oxtail stew at Kaya; saltfish and ackee at Kingston 11

1420 Market St.; 415-590-2585
2270 Telegraph Ave., Oakland; 510-465-2558

George Meza at Onsen

The Tenderloin’s Onsen created its own tranquil niche of profound health-minded Japanese small plates. It’s a tricky concept to pull off, but Meza was ready for it. His strong résumé began in the Napa Valley as a dishwasher at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and included stops at some of the world’s greatest restaurants like Eleven Madison Park, Saison, Manresa and Extebarri in Spain. Meza’s shift towards wholesome vegetable-centric cooking came as sous-chef at Akasha in Los Angeles, a pioneer of the genre. Meza's career then brought him back home as he returned to run the kitchens of San Francisco’s now-closed Urchin Bistrot and Oro. Though he ran the kitchen nightly at those two restaurants, both were owned by prominent chefs who received all of the attention. With the backdrop of an urban bathhouse, the spotlight is now on Meza.

Signature dish: “I love impressing guests with the complexity of flavors," he says. "While many of the dishes I prepare at Onsen are simple in their presentation and can be somewhat unassuming, diners are often excited by the layered flavors that unfold as they eat.” Try the mushroom dumplings in katsuoboshi broth and you'll know exactly what he means.

466 Eddy St.; 415-441-4987

Morgan Song at Ambience

The question of the most impressive tasting menu is a tricky one for savvy Bay Area diners. While most would say Manresa or Lazy Bear, the answer is in quaint downtown Los Altos, thanks to one of Northern California's longest tenured and least known fine-dining chefs. Longtime Zagat readers might remember Rodin, a restaurant on Lombard Street from the 1980s. Well, Song was the chef-owner there when it was named the fifth best restaurant in the Bay Area in our 1988 survey (for the record, Chez Panisse was sixth and Stars was eighth). His style of Nouvelle French cuisine lost steam among diners in the '90s and Song left the Bay Area to open different concepts in Marin and Sacramento. But, five years ago Song quietly returned to the Peninsula and his cooking has emerged as powerful and more ambitious than ever.

Signature dish: Song says, "Throughout my years as a chef, I've worked with Korean, classic French and New American cuisines. With Ambience, I am marrying all three to create a cuisine that takes the best of what each culture has to offer." Diners can usually count on a luxurious French preparation of butter-poached lobster with crispy tarragon.

132 State St., Los Altos; 650-917-9030

Alana O’Neal at Les Arceaux

Here are two vital things to know about the chef at one of Berkeley’s hottest restaurants: She wants you to like vegetables and she absolutely adores the South of France. For the former, just give the root vegetable cassoulet a try — you won’t regret it. For the latter, there is definitely a Julia Child element to O’Neal’s story as she left the U.S. to live in the South of France and spent her time there translating and cooking recipes. Last year, O'Neal and her business partner, Mikha Diaz, had to close their beloved book-themed bar and restaurant, Two Sisters, in Hayes Valley. But it’s not a sad ending, as O'Neal appreciates working for Les Arceaux’s completely different audience in Berkeley and now can more fully channel Provence on the menu. Regardless of where she’s cooking, O’Neal loves how it lets her “stay perpetually curious and engaged with ingredients, seasons and flavors" and "share that with our staff and guests."

Signature dish: Les Arceaux might be southern France focused but it's an Alsatian specialty — quiche with bacon, chard and comté cheese — that steals the show every lunchtime.

1849 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; 510-705-1399

Ian de Leoz at High Treason

Even with an endless by the glass wine list for grape geeks, de Leoz gives diners plenty of reasons to visit the hip Inner Richmond wine bar for food alone. Backed by a diminutive kitchen, de Leoz manages to take the concise menu in a variety of directions from pappardelle with braised short ribs to lobster brodo-based shellfish and housemade chorizo stew. His career started at a trio of SF fine-dining hits: Range, Bar Crudo and Ame, followed by his own Southeast Asian–inspired sandwich pop-up, POP, in Oakland. Then he returned to the permanent kitchen world but without the fine-dining attachment as the chef at FiDi cocktail bar, The Treasury. He learned a lot at that last stop about cooking in a small space, telling us, “Given High Treason is a wine bar, I need to consider how my food interacts with wine, which puts parameters on the scope of the ingredients and flavors I employ in my cooking. It pushes me to be creative.”

Signature dish: Most tables seem to have as many orders of de Leoz' fried chicken sliders as glasses of wines.

443 Clement St.; 415-742-5256

Nite Yun at Nyum Bai

The next chapter for Yun’s ode to her homeland, Cambodia, will soon be written. Later this year, she will open a restaurant in Oakland’s Fruitvale Station after working through La Cocina via pop-ups in San Francisco and a kiosk in the Emeryville Public Market. In Oakland, she’ll have her first dedicated space to serve her versions of Cambodian dishes like kampot peppercorn fried chicken wings. This culinary journey was inspired by a different and deeply personal one, after Yun traveled to Cambodia to learn about her parents’ heritage. Her family escaped to California from the Khmer Rouge and Yun was born in a refugee camp across the border in Thailand. For Yun, the opportunity to create Nyum Bai was more than just about cooking: "With food, I am able to share my story of being Cambodian-American and also honor my parents' stories of being refugees in a different country.”

Signature dish: Kuy teav Phnom Penh, a rice noodles and pork soup with a pork and shrimp broth

5959 Shellmound St., Emeryville

Scott Clark at Dad’s Luncheonette

Surf, cook burgers and hang out with your wife and young daughter — that’s the main trifecta that led Clark from our local temples of fine dining to Half Moon Bay. After a year and a half at Benu and three years rising through the ranks at Saison, the usual next step for a chef is to establish his own tasting menu stalwart. That idea just wasn’t right for Clark and his family. Instead, he basically created the complete opposite of Saison, aside from an emphasis on the highest quality ingredients. He’s serving a menu of essentially three sides, a hamburger “sandwich” and a mushroom sandwich in a renovated train caboose. For Clark, “This is a space to have fun, enjoy each other and relax while eating unfussy friendly food.” Sure, it’s a different world than high-end gastronomy but the stress is much lower — and the surfing is far, far better.

Signature dish: Hamburger sandwich with melty cheese, Dad's sauce and soft egg on white bread

225 Cabrillo Hwy. S, Half Moon Bay; 650-560-9832

Roberth Sundell at Pläj

If it weren't for love while traveling, San Francisco might still not know anything about Swedish dishes besides herring. Luckily the Stockholm native, Sundell, met his wife (and Pläj co-owner) Andrea while backpacking through the U.S.; she was in town from Arizona. The rest is culinary history. Phew. At the hidden restaurant in the back of Hayes Valley's Inn at the Opera, Sundell — a cook since the age of 20 when he quit painting for the kitchen — doesn't cook any forced fusions. Each dish is rooted in Sweden and finished in California, like gravlax cured with beets and served with sea buckthorn sorbet. Looking ahead, the Sundells' will soon open Pläj’s first sibling, a fast-casual Swedish and Turkish street foods project appropriately called Stockhome, in the family's current hometown of Petaluma.

Signature dish: Sundell tells us, "Every day, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for being able to offer a taste of the area of the world that shaped my own palate and share my culture with so many people who may only experience it through my food.” His "taste of herring" is an absolute must-order, served in three preparations with a saffron sauce, a mustard-dill sauce and the fried "Grandma's classic."

333 Fulton St.; 415-294-8925

Ethan Mantle at Componere Fine Catering

Here’s something you don’t usually hear at the beginning of a fine-dining chef’s biography: It all started at a national park. For Mantle, the chef-owner of one of the Bay Area’s most in-demand high-end catering companies, his culinary career started as a dishwasher at Yosemite’s legendary Ahwahnee Hotel. There, he caught the cooking bug that sent him to work at Georges Blanc’s eponymous restaurant in France, The French Laundry and Fleur de Lys. In 2005, Mantle and his wife, Tisa, started Componere catering instead of a fine-dining restaurant. “I like doing a wide variety of things, and this is a much more creative outlet.” The team unintentionally disrupted the old-fashioned industry by functioning as a destination-worthy restaurant and garden — except, without a restaurant.

Signature dish: Every menu is custom made and dishes rarely repeat. However, guests can expect elaborate dishes full of ingredients from the Novato farm, like scallop carpaccio with fennel, grapefruit and nasturtium.

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