There will always be the powerhouse chefs and their empires; but when a lesser-known chef serves up an ambitious concept and stellar food, people get excited. This year's fresh faces are breathing new life into the NYC dining scene, bringing upscale Korean steakhouses and breezy Mexican all-day cafes that are changing the way city-goers dine out. Here are those under-the-radar chefs you should know.
A little over a year ago, Victoria Blamey — an alumna of impressive spots like Corton, Upland, and Atera — turned the revival of Chumley’s — the iconic, 1920s-era speakeasy — into a restaurant worth caring about, with ambitious dishes that drew from her Chilean heritage, like crab chupe “pot pie,” a comforting aji dulce-spiked Chilean stew served in a crab shell, or fried chicken al Cognac with pickled mushrooms. She left the restaurant last month, and our eyes are on what she plans to do next. (She recently staged a pop-up at Fort Greene asado spot, Metta.) Rest assured, no matter what it is, there will be food worth talking about.
Diego Garcia, Executive Chef at Gloria
The neighborhood fish restaurant, Gloria, was one of 2017’s quieter openings — but it was also one of the most exciting. At this tiny Hell's Kitchen spot, chef Diego Garcia serves up seafood dishes that channel the best of the restaurants where he's worked as a sous-chef — the elegant minimalism of the tasting menu den, Contra, and finesse of the fish-centric Le Bernardin. Garcia's culinary sensibilities, which take inspiration from Napa and coastal Mexico (where he grew up), have made Gloria your best bet in the city for fine-dining-level seafood in an accessible, casual setting.
Hugo Vera, Chef de Cuisine at Atla
At only 27, Hugo Vera is already making huge waves in the New York City food industry, as the chef de cuisine of the Mexican all-day cafe, Atla, one of last year’s most buzzed about restaurants. After moving to the U.S. at age 19, Vera began his culinary career making bread at Normandy Farm Artisan Bakery in Charleston, South Carolina, and soon caught the eye of top chefs like Shay McDonald and Sean Brock. He moved to New York to stage at Cosme, eventually becoming an indispensable presence in the kitchen. With Atla chefs-partners Daniela Soto-Innes and Enrique Olvera taking on more high-level strategy roles within Atla and its sister restaurant, Cosme, Vera is now running the day-to-day food operations, and keeping the menu exciting and fresh with dishes like ceviche verde, pambazo (bread dipped in pepper sauce and filled with potatoes and chorizo), and a dark chocolate and tonka bean mousse.
Simone Tong, Chef-owner at Little Tong Noodle Shop
When Little Tong opened last March, people tended to compare it to its neighbor, the restaurant powerhouse Momofuku Noodle Bar, located just a few doors down. But thanks to chef-owner Simone Tong, Little Tong has established itself as a totally distinct force to be reckoned with, due to its thoughtful preparations of Yunnanese mixian, a type of flavorful rice noodle. Tong is no stranger to the industry — she cut her teeth at wd~50 and the sushi institution 15 East before going on a three-month research trip to the Yunnan province. Her dedication to the regional Chinese cuisine paid off, as her Grandma Chicken mixian, with a complex chicken broth, black sesame garlic oil, tea egg and edible flowers, is one of the most compelling (and beautiful) bowls of noodles in the city right now.
Aidan O’Neal and Jake Leiber, Chefs-Partners at Chez Ma Tante
Combining the rustic pleasure of M. Wells, and the airy simplicity of Café Altro Paradiso — both places where chefs-partners Aidan O’Neal (a Vancouver native, who spent several years cooking in Montreal) and Jake Leiber have put in time — Chez Ma Tante is the every occasion, easy-to-love French bistro. That’s all due to O’Neal and Leiber’s impressive instincts in the kitchen, which yield stripped down but utterly delicious versions of dishes like Caesar salad, roasted pork shoulder and pancakes (one of the best brunch dishes you'll find). The two say they were inspired by the stripped-down, classic London dining destination, St. John — and early indications suggest the place has all of the same minimalist appeal, with an eclectic Greenpoint flair. The duo has created the platonic ideal of what a neighborhood restaurant should be, and both chefs are ones to watch this year.
Christina Lecki, Executive Chef at Reynard
Reynard, restaurateur Andrew Tarlow’s spot inside the Wythe Hotel, was, for so long, a pleasant but ultimately forgettable restaurant. That all changed when he installed Christina Lecki (formerly of The Breslin and White Gold Butchers) as the restaurant’s new executive chef this past July. She gave the restaurant a purpose and identity, with a focus on simple but deeply complex wood-fired cooking: a crispy roast chicken served with a rich, spiced whipped pumpkin, or a tender, fig leaf–wrapped mackerel with olives and preserved lemons. She’s also a leader in sustainability at the restaurant, heading up zero-waste initiatives like pushing for purveyors to minimize packaging, and reusing boxes for produce.
Sirichai Sreparplarn, Head Chef at Ugly Baby
Ugly Baby was the wild card opening of 2017 — the tucked-away spot in Carroll Gardens that people soon realized was churning out some of the best Thai food in the city. The chef responsible is Sirichai Sreparplarn, who made a name for himself in New York with the acclaimed Thai spot, Kao Soy, which shuttered in 2015. His fiery, no-holds-barred approach to Thai food and his deft use of chiles and spices in dishes like tom som pla kra pong (red snapper in ginger and tamarind broth) has earned fans far and wide, and made Sreparplarn the new crown prince of Thai cooking in New York.
Clare de Boer and Jess Shadbolt, Co-executive Chefs at King
Clare de Boer and Jess Shadbolt (along with general manager Annie Shi) took a big leap in moving from London — where de Boer and Shadbolt had worked at the famed River Café — and opening up a restaurant of their own in SoHo. But the chefs’ thoughtful and intensely seasonal dishes have managed to captivate New York diners. The daily rotating menu comprises the kind of food you might be served at a classy dinner party — hand-cut pasta with nettles and Parmesan, wild halibut with lentils, sorrel and asparagus — and every component is executed with intense precision, under de Boer’s and Shadbolt’s careful eye. They’ve managed to bring the charms of European culinary sensibilities to the bustle of New York City dining — in a setting that feels more like a home than a restaurant.
David Shim, Executive Chef at Cote Korean Steakhouse
New York is a city that’s saturated with Korean barbecue joints, so it’s impressive that Cote has managed to not only stand out, but become one of the most sought-after reservations in the city. That’s because chef David Shim — an alumnus of the meat-centric M. Wells — has totally reimagined what a Korean barbecue spot can be — upping the ante on the quality of the meat, having an in-house dry-aging room, offering a robust wine list and making the place feel like an upscale steakhouse. Shim's skills shouldn't come as a surprise: He has worked at fine-dining spots like Gramercy Tavern and L'Atelier de Robuchon, as well as the meat-centric M. Wells, and the high-end, now-shuttered Koreatown spot, Kristabelli. Guests can’t get enough of Shim’s Butcher’s Feast, which comprises a selection of USDA prime and American Wagyu beef that guests can cook tableside on a smokeless grill, built especially to ensure every morsel of meat is juicy and tender — a trick inspired by Shim's days at Kristabelli.
Gabe McMackin, Executive Chef at The Finch
One of New York’s most surprising and lesser-known Michelin-starred spots is The Finch — a quaint, seasonally driven Clinton Hill neighborhood spot. The quiet force churning out showstopping dishes like squid ink spaghetti with shrimp, saffron and Brussels sprouts, and aged duck breast with parsnips and red wine is Gabe McMackin, who has worked at famed farm-to-table institutions like Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Gramercy Tavern. At The Finch, McMackin brings the same sort of exacting attention to detail and ambitious but unpretentious preparations of local ingredients; but adds in a strong sense of community and warmth that makes the place the kind of spot you could frequent multiple times a week.
Joe Tarasco has been Danny Meyer’s secret weapon for years, having started at Union Square Hospitality Group essentially straight out of culinary school. He began as a line cook at Gramercy Tavern, and after a brief stint working for restaurateurs Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli's dining hot spots, Frankies Spuntino and Prime Meats, returned to USHG to open up Maialino in the Gramercy Park Hotel. He worked his way up in the company, eventually becoming executive chef of the pizza-focused Marta. Now, Tarasco is leading the charge as executive chef of all of Meyer’s Roman-focused restaurants, which include Marta, along with the casual Caffé Marchio and the wine bar Vini e Fritti. Tarasco’s dedication to Italian cuisine and easygoing style have made all three restaurants classic Manhattan standbys.