That he did. His on-the-fly remix was a fish chowder, one of the best fish chowders I've ever tasted in my life (and, being from New England, I take that sort of thing seriously). It takes a certain amount of humility as a chef to admit to messing up. But it takes a truckload of skill as a chef to turn that mistake into an unforgettable dish, prepared in the heat of the moment, as a way to salvage it. That combination of skill, creativity, and bald honesty is a big part of why we've selected Jason Vincent as our chef of the year. Oh, and also this: He might just have opened the best restaurant in the country (an easy pick for our Best New Restaurants 2016).
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Vincent's background checks all the necessary boxes.
Longtime love of food and being in the kitchen: first worked cooking pizzas in his native Cleveland when he was 15.
The serious formative years: degree from CIA, time spent cooking at Spain's three-starred Michelin darling Arzak, James Beard-winning Fore Street in Maine, and legendary Commander's Palace in New Orleans.
Accolades when he finally breaks out on his own: Food & Wine's "Best New Chef" and a Beard nomination while running the kitchen at Nightwood.
However, things diverged from that track in 2014, when Vincent stepped away from the kitchen to become a stay-at-home dad to his two daughters. Such a move is seldom seen among high-level chefs in the thick of their prime, but to return from said hiatus and somehow reach even greater heights? That's virtually unheard of.
The food is described as "simple, unpretentious Midwestern fare," which speaks to Vincent's tendency to grossly undersell himself.
But in addition to the family time, Vincent used the break to re-evaluate what he truly wanted to do with his food. What he and his chef co-collaborator Ben Lustbader came back with was Giant -- a 44-seat restaurant that he claims is a neighborhood joint, but good luck trying to find another neighborhood joint doing Jonah crab salad sitting atop perfectly golden waffle fries. Or its own version of the famous 100-layer lasagna at Del Posto. Or a fry-bottom apple pie with sour cream sorbet (there was also a creamy, Thai chile-spiced sweet corn dish with mint and matchstick potatoes that's no longer on the menu because corn isn't in season that I still lust after nightly).
The direction Vincent landed on after his break appears to have been, quite simply, "cook innovative, showstopping, deceptively simple food." In the wrong hands, when a restaurant tries to wholly disregard genre it can feel disjointed at best and downright messy at worst. At Giant a liquified fried uni shooter perched atop soy-kissed cucumber coexists seamlessly with Mexican-influenced bay scallops (given a balanced kick of chipotle and cotija) and soulful pecan-smoked baby back ribs and somehow everything feels like it absolutely belongs.
And yet, on the Giant website, the food is described as "simple, unpretentious Midwestern fare," which speaks to Vincent's tendency to grossly undersell himself. In a recent conversation (related to an altogether different story), he was candid and honest about every single topic we parsed. At one point during our talk he paused long enough to make me wonder if he'd hung up. "Hello?" I asked.
"I'm still here," he said. "I'm just not sure your story is that interesting."
"Well," I said, clearing my throat nervously. "How do you think I could change that?"
He laughed. "You could start by getting off the phone with me. No one cares what a washed-up chef in a tiny neighborhood joint is doing."
We'll have to agree to disagree on that, chef.
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Chef Jason Vincent, a former Food & Wine Best New Chef, is behind Giant, a tiny 40-seat restaurant in Logan Square. The upscale Midwestern-inspired menu is unpretentious and hearty in nature (opening menu dishes included pecan-smoked baby back ribs, garlic buttermilk potatoes, and biscuits with jalapeno butter) but nonetheless exciting and unexpected. The bite-size fried uni shooters are a standout, made of a crispy, golden exterior and rich, silky interior. The space itself is reflective of the food: quirkily designed but comforting.