Editor's Note: This article is part three of Thrillist's year-end look at the best of America's food and drink scene in 2016. Below, you'll find our pick for the year's top chef, but don't miss our coverage of the best new restaurants from around the country.
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W W hen I visited chef Jason Vincent's Giant in Chicago this past October, someone fucked up the fish.
Now I'm pretty sure Chef Vincent was just falling on the sword for a cook on his staff, but, one of the first things he mentioned to me as he came around greeting tables, was that there was a fish-related issue he was attempting to resolve. "Give me about 30 minutes," he said, "I'm turning it into something else."
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).
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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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's national writer-at-large, and only remembers vague details about most things. Teach him memory exercises @KAlexander03.