From a hot-sauce sommelier to a food-truck trailblazer serving up social justice, this year’s crop of young food-world talent is making us feel ridiculously unaccomplished. In our fifth annual list to date, we also honor a Smorgasburg mozzarella master who’s (quite literally) blowing up the street-food game, a former band manager who brought quality fish to North Brooklyn, and a 24-year-old sommelier who’s defying fine-dining stereotypes. Read on and learn more about these 30 rising stars, so you can say you knew them “when.”
-Story by Kelly Dobkin, Justin Hartung and Patty Lee. Photos by Liz Clayman
Emily Acosta, 29Cheesemonger, Eataly
Cooking was an essential part of Emily Acosta’s childhood, as the granddaughter of Cuban immigrants who worked in the biz. But initially Acosta decided to pursue music, and then business at NYU. After taking a casual cheese class at Whole Foods, Acosta was intrigued by the idea of food as a career. After an internship at Murray’s Cheese, she was hooked. She now works at Eataly, and last year, she became the first woman (and New Yorker) to win the 2014 Cheesemonger Invitational. You can also hear Emily on the Heritage Radio show, Cutting the Curd.
Suchanan Aksornnan, 28Executive Chef/Founder, Baoburg
The kitchen life is a family affair for Chef Bao Bao (her nickname means “baby”): on one side of her tiny Williamsburg spot is her father’s restaurant, Ramen Yebisu, while on the other is her mother’s, Chai Thai. Her own menu offers creative fusion fare. She applies the formal French technique she learned at the ICC (and working for Jean-Georges Vongerichten) to dishes that mix Asian and European influence. But her mom, she says, is every bit as important an influence, and she reserves a single word to describe her as a mentor: “kickass.”
Andrew Black, 25Chef/Co-Founder, Black & Bolyard
Black’s one-night stage at Eleven Madison Park turned into a three-year stint, during which he rose through the ranks to sous-chef. In 2013, Black and fellow EMP alum and business partner Eric Bolyard both left to travel Southeast Asia. Upon returning to Brooklyn, they launched an underground supper club and uncovered a hit ingredient — brown butter — that’s now the focus of Black & Bolyard. It’s part of the duo’s goal to “bridge the gap between professional and home kitchens,” says Black, who’s a chocolatier at Mast Brothers by day. “We as chefs know about this simple delicious thing, but home cooks may not.”
Janine Booth, 27Co-Owner/Chef de Cuisine, Root & Bone
This love story ends with fried chicken: Perth native and Top Chef star Janine Booth got her start early in her father’s restaurants, but make no mistake — he did not want her entering the biz. So Booth, who was eager to explore the world, steered toward a career in PR at the University of Miami. But she couldn’t deny her passion for cooking. After meeting chef Jeff McInnis at his then-restaurant Gigi, the pair became inseparable. Booth worked with McInnis at Miami hot spot Yardbird before moving to NYC to open the ragingly popular Root & Bone.
Hannah Cheng and Marian Cheng, 29 and 27Co-Founders, Mimi Cheng’s Dumplings
Mom isn’t just their culinary role model — she’s the namesake of the sisters’ East Village shop, where they’re giving dumplings a fresh, high-quality makeover. And just like mom — who entrusted her daughters with the secret recipe to her spicy dipping sauce — the sibling entrepreneurs aren’t afraid to get creative, rolling out innovative monthly specials (think chicken parm or green curry) that set this potsticker joint notches above the rest.
Esther Choi, 29Executive Chef/Owner, mŏkbar
When she opened mŏkbar last May, Choi had one goal in mind — to introduce diners to her grandmother’s Korean cooking using an easy-to-recognize vehicle: ramen. The clever concept earned Choi one of the most coveted storefronts in New York City — a stand inside Chelsea Market, where the ilili and La Esquina vet slings bowls topped with gochujang-marinated pork, made-from-scratch kimchi and other traditional ingredients. She isn’t just riding the trendy mash-up wave, though. “It’s my goal to educate people about my culture,” says Choi. “I want to make my family proud.”
Christine Collado, 29Sommelier, Daniel
From a Florida deli-counter girl at 16 to sommelier at one of the swankiest spots in NYC, Collado has always been passionate about hospitality. But it wasn’t until her 20s that the Brooklyn native took an interest in wine after working FOH at Buddakan. After snagging a gig at Terroir Tribeca, Collado frequently poured for industry vet Daniel Johnnes, beverage director at Dinex Group. That friendship led to a job at Bar Boulud, and eventually, Daniel. Her dream is to someday work as a wine director or even open her own bar in BK.
Ciera Coyan, 27Bartender, The Pony Bar
The Bay Area native has been hooked on craft beers since her first sip at 21. But it wasn’t until her first waitressing gig in the East Village that Coyan realized she knew much more about beer than the average drinker. That eventually landed her at The Pony Bar, where the sour-beer enthusiast turns New Yorkers on to quality American brews without the usual hopshead snobbery. “I love when we get people who aren’t super into craft beer,” says Coyan, because it gives her a chance “to get them involved and excited.”
Angela Dimayuga, 29Executive Chef, Mission Chinese Food
When Danny Bowien decided to move NY’s Mission Chinese to a bigger venue and develop an ambitious, expanded menu, he knew he’d need an ace alongside him at the stoves. When he was introduced to former Vinegar Hill House chef Angela Dimayuga, it was a culinary match made in heaven. The Northern Cali native was hands-on with everything from the restaurant’s design to its menu’s positive critical reception (including a recent two stars from the Times). Just back from a career-defining MCF pop-up at Noma, Dimayuga is excited to experiment further at home in NYC.
Matt Gallira, 26Founder and CEO, The Atlantic Ave. Company, and Co-Founder, Big Mozz
Gallira’s red-sauce recipe is modeled after his grandmother’s, from the San Marzano tomatoes straight down to the wooden stirring spoon. “When you cook them in this time- and labor-intensive way, you get so much more depth and complexity,” explains the Dartmouth grad. When he’s not making sauce, you’ll find him and high-school classmate Elliot Anderson stretching fresh mozzarella at their popular Smorgasburg stand Big Mozz, where the signature dish — a cheese “bomb” injected with pesto — mixes classic Italian technique with a dose of whimsy.
Adam Geringer-Dunn, 29Executive Chef/Co-Owner, Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co.
Before Greenpoint Fish & Lobster came to town, you couldn’t buy a decent piece of fish in North Brooklyn, according to this honoree. And if the waits at his perpetually packed restaurant/market are any evidence, the neighborhood agreed. The NJ native, who worked as a booker at Pianos, teamed up with entertainment lawyer Vincent Milburn, whose family just happened to be big into the fish game. Between expert sourcing and the team’s commitment to sustainable (and often rare) fish, they’re slinging some of the best seafood in the borough (including a killer fish sandwich).
Eli Hariton, 29General Manager and Beverage Director, Randolph Brooklyn
Hariton barely got his initial gig as coffee bartender at Randolph; now he’s a partner, beverage director, GM and an integral part of the company. Hariton studied industrial design at Syracuse but maintained a lifelong passion for food. After stints serving and working at a brewery in his home state of CT, Hariton applied to work at Randolph. A true jack-of-all-trades, his influence has been crucial to beverage, service, branding and design ever since. “In hospitality, there’s always someone who’s doing something better,” Hariton notes. “It keeps you on your toes.”
Elise Kornack and Anna Hieronimus, both 28Chef-Owner and Owner, Take Root
What began as a backyard supper club hosted by this powerhouse couple has morphed into one of the most acclaimed dining experiences in Brooklyn. And it still feels personal. Hieronimus runs the show in the 12-seat dining room while Kornack prepares a stunning 11-course, vegetable-forward menu that was lauded in the NY Times as a “gift.” The accolades continue to pile on: this spring, Kornack (a Boston expat who worked previously at Aquavit) was nominated for Rising Star Chef at the James Beard Awards. Note: Take Root is on hiatus in August, but will return this fall.
Deuki Hong, 25Executive Chef, Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong
While most high-school sophomores go out for the hockey team or Model UN, Hong dabbled in a slightly less typical extracurricular: working in the kitchen of Aaron Sanchez’s now-shuttered Centrico. At 18, the Jersey native enrolled in the CIA and found work at Momofuku and Jean-Georges, where he picked up the culinary know-how to redefine the Korean BBQ experience at Baekjeong. Hong’s mission to spread the Korean-food gospel isn’t done yet — the chef has a cookbook coming out in 2016 that highlights recipes from Koreatowns across the country.
Victoria James, 24Sommelier, Marea
By just 21, Victoria James was a certified sommelier and working at Charlie Palmer’s acclaimed Aureole, despite being younger than many of the wines she was recommending. But this DC native, who spent time living all over the country (and the world), didn’t come from a family of wine snobs. “My grandmother drinks white Zin on the rocks,” she muses. After opening Michael White’s Ristorante Morini uptown, she now works as sommelier at Marea, the city’s top-rated Italian restaurant, while working toward her Master Sommelier certification. In her spare time, she blogs about her wine travels on Get Your Grape On.
Jordyn Lexton, 29Founder and Executive Director, Drive Change
Jordyn Lexton is changing the world, one maple grilled cheese at a time. The Vendy Award–winning, maple syrup–inspired fare served on the Snowday Food Truck also comes with a side of social justice. Lexton, an Upper East Side kid, taught public high school on Rikers Island after college, and witnessed firsthand how devastating the criminal justice system is to teens in particular, creating a cycle of those same youth winding up back behind bars. Lexton’s awe-inspiring Drive Change org helps formerly incarcerated youth successfully re-enter the workforce by employing about 20 different individuals per year (each one works for about six to eight months). Get an in-depth look at Snowday here.
Theo Lieberman, 26Head Bartender, Eleven Madison Park
At 26, this accidental bartender has worked with more cocktail gods than drink slingers twice his age. While in film school, he became a regular at cocktail den Raines Law Room and eventually began working private parties. Then one day he got a phone call from legend Sasha Petraske, who asked him to help open April Bloomfield’s The John Dory. His work there led to a gig at the “holy grail” of NYC cocktail bars, Milk & Honey. After a stint at cult hangout Lantern’s Keep, Lieberman consulted on new cocktail menus for LGA and Newark airports. For his latest trick? Oh, he’s just head bartender at Eleven Madison Park.
Chris Lowder, 26Bar Manager, The NoMad Hotel
It takes skill to mix a great drink, but it requires both talent and dedication to train a James Beard Award–winning team. At The NoMad, that important task falls to Lowder, a former translator (he’s fluent in Mandarin and Japanese) whose obsession with mixology led him to stints behind the stick at Booker and Dax and Amor y Amargo. In August, the multilingual barman will get to fuse his two passions — cocktails and East Asia — when he moves to Seoul to serve as the bar director for the Four Seasons’ newest hotel.
Thomas McKenna, 27Culinary Trainer and Coordinator, Jean-Georges Management
Training chefs throughout Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s worldwide empire rests on the shoulders of this 27-year-old LA native. Right out of CIA, McKenna began working with the Jean-Georges group, rising through the ranks at both Nougatine and Jean-Georges, eventually becoming sous-chef at the latter. In his current role as culinary trainer, McKenna travels the world making sure chefs within JGV’s kitchens know the systems and protocol, as well as flavor profiles. His next big assignment is to help launch JGV’s long-awaited vegan concept, ABCV, opening this fall.
Tyler McKusick, 27Hot-Sauce Sommelier, Heatonist
With perhaps the most unique job title around, the Vegas-born McKusick fell in love with hot sauce at a young age. After studying music (and later scoring films including Coolio’s Two Hundred Thousand Dirty), he moved to NYC and teamed up with neighbor Noah Chaimberg to open this hot-sauce store and tasting room. And now his career is, yes, in fact, actually on fire. With about 100 varieties in stock at any given time, his sauce knowledge smokes the competition. Bonus tip: according to McKusick, milk really is the best chaser if you can’t take the heat.
Jack Mason, 27Wine Director, Marta
Very few 27-year-olds can call themselves a Master Sommelier, a title held by less than 150 people nationwide. But despite his status, the Texas native, who loves to pair Champagne and pizza, believes that wine should be accessible at all price points. After pursuing a culinary degree at CIA, Mason’s interests turned to wine, which later led to a gig as a somm at Michael White’s Altamarea Group. He only worked there a month when he got the call to became opening wine director at Danny Meyer’s Marta. Mason admits he’s still “coming down from the clouds” about it all.
Jacob Nemmers, 28Chef de Cuisine, Estela
On a whim, Iowa-born Jacob Nemmers decided to drop out of community college and move to Minneapolis to begin cooking— and the leap of faith paid off. After working at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Compose (now Atera), the young chef is making his mark as right-hand to Ignacio Mattos at one of Manhattan’s most important Downtown restaurants. “The biggest thing at Estela is that everyone drives together,” he tells us of the ensemblelike atmosphere. Current NYC restaurant literacy includes the already iconic Estela dishes beef tartare with sunchoke and mussels escabeche.
Sam Penix, 29Owner, Everyman Espresso
When the Sarasota Academy recruit starting working in a cafe after graduation, he knew that it was coffee — and not the military — that was his real calling. With just a few hundred bucks, the Florida-born barista moved to New York, working various gigs until an opportunity opened up at Everyman in 2008. Under his leadership, the java joint has become one of the country’s most reputable, the result of Penix’s dedication to his customers and an innovative menu that calls for cocktail-world techniques. “I was bored with adding just milk and sugar and air. Why not take risks?”
Daniel Pucci, 27Cider Director, Wassail
Cider = so hot right now. And we’re not talking about Woodchuck. The Lower East Side’s Wassail is at the forefront of the trend, led by its curator, Daniel Pucci. The Catskills native took an interest in cider after a visit to Basque Country in Spain, having worked in upstate wine shops as well as Eataly and Box Kite. He now leads an exciting program at the vegetable-forward restaurant that highlights mostly domestic producers, many from NY state. Educating consumers who have few preconceived notions about varietals or places (unlike with wines) is a joy for Pucci.
Kevin Scollo, 25Sous-Chef, Bien Cuit
From classically trained percussionist to master baker, Scollo’s journey to the top of the bread pile was a wild ride. Scollo began his career trailing at Michael Symon’s Lolita in Cleveland before eventually moving to NY to trail at EMP and NoMad. While at NoMad he became the nighttime baker where he introduced naturally leavened breads to the program. Now, as sous-chef of high-end French bakery Bien Cuit, he manages bread production, maintaining quality and consistency for more than 120 wholesale accounts, including some of the city’s best restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and Estela.
Michael Shain, 29General Manager, Porchlight
Creating the cocktail menu for Danny Meyer’s first-ever stand-alone bar is a lot of pressure for any barman, let alone a 29-year-old. But by this ripe old age, Shain was a hospitality veteran, having worked his way up through all the FOH posts at Blue Smoke to beverage director. Shain actually never planned to work in hospitality — he studied marketing and communications and hoped to go into entertainment or media. Now he’s running one of the most popular cocktail spots in town alongside mixologist Nicholas Bennett, concocting eye-opening drinks such as the cyan-hued Gun Metal Blue.
Manunya "Maya" Sittisuntorn, 27Executive Pastry Chef, The Dessert Club by Chikalicious
Sittisuntorn sees a connection between her two passions — both racing cars and making desserts require precision and an eye for detail. There’s a high level of finesse to Suttisuntorn’s beautifully plated sweets, but also restraint — the Eleven Madison Park alum believes in letting the ingredients speak for themselves. “You’re not going to see a crazy sugar sculpture. Keeping something in the purest form and executing it perfectly, that’s what I love to do.”
Daniela Soto-Innes, 24Chef de Cuisine, Cosme
Soto-Innes’ most vivid food memories take place in her abuela’s Mexican kitchen. “Since I was little, my grandma would say, ‘Touch it and smell it and think about how it tastes,’” she recalls. Now, the kitchen lieutenant — who put in time at acclaimed restaurants like Nicos in Mexico City and Underbelly in Houston — advises her own team to do the same with the modern Mexican menu that she helped mentor Enrique Olvera create, including one of the city’s most-Instagrammed desserts: Cosme’s husk meringue with corn mousse.
César Vega, 27Founder, Café Integral
Introducing New Yorkers to the nuanced flavors of Nicaraguan coffee was photographer César Vega’s vision when he opened Café Integral in 2012. But for years, the native son swore off java altogether. When Vega decided to start drinking it again, he wanted to find the least jittery, highest-quality beans he could, which led him to explore those from his birthplace, the coffee-laced Jinotega region of Nicaragua. With its balanced flavors, Nicaraguan coffee in the past was used mostly in blends, but Vega’s goal was to put it center stage. Café Integral recently expanded to Chicago, and Vega hopes to build a full-service lab and education center in the future.
Jessica Yang, 29Pastry Chef, Rebelle
Rebelle’s mission — to prove that French food needn’t be stuffy — has a strong exclamation point. That’s all thanks to the desserts from Yang, a vet of Guy Savoy and Per Se who relies on tried-and-true techniques rather than chasing fads. “We present it in a way that’s approachable to help people understand traditional French cuisine,” she explains. So her composed pastries always includes one classic — a Saint Honoré or Paris-Brest, for example. The pull of France continues to drive Yang, who plans to return to Paris some day and open up a restaurant with her husband.