Millennial Chefs Who Are Changing the Face of the Industry
Be warned: reading about these 12 millennial chefs might send you into a downward existential spiral. It's hard not to feel a little green when you stack the accomplishments of these culinary wunderkinds against your own, but look, not everyone can run an iconic kitchen in their mid-20s, or design a genre-changing menu from the ground up before they can rent a car. Just take a moment to recognize the ingenuity, dedication, and back-breaking work ethic this budding dozen employed to rise in an uncompromising, notoriously brutal industry -- and try to learn from it.
Presented here are some of the youngest names in the restaurant world today, all with personal insight on how the game is changing, the challenges they face in the workplace, and how they aim to leave a lasting impact on the food landscape. Does this mean our generation has finally redeemed itself for six seasons of Teen Mom? Almost.
Laura Meyer, 27Head chef and pizza maker at Tony's Pizza Napoletana
According to Meyer, pizza -- maybe more so than any other culinary niche -- is a man's game. And she should know, as she's the woman who oversees the kitchen at legendary pizza-maker Tony Gemignani's San Francisco staple. Not content with just making the pizzas, Meyer also acts as the school administrator at the International School of Pizza, where students from around the globe come to study and perfect their artistry.
She was the first female and the first American chef to take first place at the World Pizza Champion pan-pizza division in Parma, Italy (2013), as well as a previous first-place winner at the International Pizza Expo (2014). Yeah, in case you were wondering, she knows her shit.
Do people you work with underestimate you, or not give you the required level of respect, because of your age?
"I've definitely come into contact with that in my career -- most of the people I work with in terms of training, competition, and the like, don't now my age right off the bat. But when they do find out, sometimes there is kind of a push back, they might assume because of my age I don't have a lot to offer. But from my perspective, I've learned the best way to make my age a non-issue is to not only show I have the skill and the talent to work with other people, but also that I have the ability to teach. To show them I not only can keep up with anyone, but I can do one better and teach you something along the way."
Kei-Ichi Kurobe, 30Executive sous chef, Hinoki & the Bird
Born and raised in New York, while his father -- a native of Japan -- worked at the United Nations, he was introduced to cooking in his family’s kitchen, and got his start in the professional world at Le Pollen, a French restaurant in the decidedly un-French city of Tokyo. Next up was the Michelin-starred Campton Place in San Francisco in 2004, where he worked under his idol and mentor, chef Daniel Humm.
After a stint at the St. Regis Hotel’s sashimi bar Ame, he worked at Michelin-starred Restaurant Sant Pau, which punctuates Spanish Catalan-style cuisine with local Japanese ingredients. Now, he continues his eclectic approach to food as executive sous chef at the acclaimed Hinoki & the Bird in Los Angeles.
Does the average diner care more about what they are eating than a diner from 10-15 years ago?
"Food -- especially in the US -- is so farm-driven now; where you get your produce from, where you get your fish or meat from, people want to know. When I was growing up, you would rarely see that in a restaurant. It just wasn’t a big deal. I think people are a lot more involved in their food. Even since I started in the game. It’s an aspect that has changed the game a lot. At that end, it also gives people a higher expectation of what they’ll get at any given restaurant. It’s a harder market for chefs. But overall, it inspires higher quality, and creativity. It’s is a lot harder to please your crowd. It’s a lot harder to get your guest’s attention, to get them involved. But overall, that’s what makes chefs better."
Joey Scalabrino, 25Head chef at Lighthouse BK
One of the most distinct young maestros in Brooklyn's ever-expanding restaurant scene, Scalabrino opted out of culinary school and instead decided to go the "trial by fire" route. After working at NYC's La Esquina in 2008 under chef Akhtar Nawab, as well as chef Ryan Tate's Michelin-starred Le Restaurant, he took his first head-chef gig at Iris Cafe at the tender age of 23. The New Yorker raved, the Village Voice crooned, and now he runs the kitchen at Lighthouse BK.
What are the advantages of being a head chef at such a young age?
"There are really two ways to think about it: on the one hand, you have so much more time to learn and grow with your craft, and really make something special. On the other hand, being in a stress-filled position at such a young age can lead to burnout at a young age. Most people don't get control of their first kitchen till much later in life. I think overall, the younger guys being in charge inspires more original food -- maybe it's just a response from naivety, but I think it's just the new energy being present in kitchens."
Asia Mei, 34Head chef/owner at Moonshine 152
Growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley, Asia Mei knew she didn’t want to be an office drone -- but cooking wasn't always in the picture. She got a degree in economics and biology while working as a stuntwoman in LA during the summer, but ended up skipping her graduation ceremony to search for a job in Boston that would teach her how to cook.
She landed an entry-level gig at Hamersley’s Bistro, and was sous chef by the time she left, four years later. Chef Mei now owns and acts as the executive chef at her soulful solo venture, Moonshine 152.
Do younger chefs today have a different approach to food, as opposed to older generations?
"There’s definitely more of an emphasis on making things more accessible to the masses -- good ingredients, creative dishes, just quality food. We are bringing these kind of values to neighborhood spots that might have not been considered before, with dishes and ingredients available on tasting menus at smaller places, that might have only been employed at black-tie restaurants. We’re making this food available for people, without making them spend their whole paychecks on one meal. I think people care more about food now, in some ways, and we are trying to fuel that."
Bobby Will, 31Executive chef, Saltaire Oyster Bar and Fish House
The New York Times gave Bobby Will’s Port Chester oyster bar, Saltaire, an “excellent” rating, lauding the chef’s “unexpected yet harmonious flavors” and “knack for making old flavors new and exciting." That's some big-time praise for the pastry chef-turned-seafood master, who makes sure his ingredients come fresh from Fulton Fish Market.
Is this an exciting time to be a young chef in the industry?
"I think right now in the restaurant business, especially with chefs my age coming into their prime, it’s an interesting time to be a chef. Some people think fine dining is dead. I think millennials are in a place where we bring a lot to the table, but the food game itself is becoming... I don’t want to say difficult... but it is challenging to present new and fresh ideas in the business, while still maintaining the elegance and balance that’s needed to maintain the line between being creative and being successful."
Scott Grewe, 28Executive chef at Sutton Inn
Prior to his current station, Scott Grewe landed a gig at the legendary Jean-Georges on the Upper West Side by calling Jean-Georges himself every day until the chef finally agreed to meet with him.
The man's worked his way through every kitchen job imaginable, from washing dishes at a retirement home as a teenager in Florida to now running his own upscale Upper East Side eatery a decade later.
Are millennials doing anything differently in the kitchen that previous generations didn't do?
"I feel like -- and this is especially true of fine dining -- in the past it was always about long, elaborate preparations, very intricate. Now, I think simplicity is key. And of course, that doesn't sacrifice quality. It's about simple, good ingredients, done well. And cooking for younger generations -- a large percentage of millennials would probably consider themselves 'foodies,' and be interested in maybe something they've never heard of before, ingredients they never heard of, preparations they haven't experienced. Simplicity, and quality. These two aspects are now a much bigger focus for us... as chefs, and guests."
Andrew Wiseheart, 32Co-owner and chef at Contigo and Gardner
A native of San Angelo, Texas, he started in the food world as a teenage cook for his childhood summer camp (he felt he was too irresponsible to be a counselor at the time). Eventually he ditched the bunk beds and bug spray for classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, and after graduating, took a job at Michelin-starred Napa restaurants La Toque and Angele.
Then he wandered around Europe (as millennials do), working on farms and at restaurants. He now owns and cooks for two wildly popular East Austin eateries, Contigo and Gardener, and was named Eater Austin’s "Chef of the Year" in 2014. He’s known for melding classic Texan and European flavors.
How would you describe the food landscape right now?
“We’re at a gap in time that won’t last forever. I feel like the Internet boom in the 1990s is a good parallel to the generation rising up in the food industry. Early in my childhood, we didn’t have access to the Internet, now it’s obviously everywhere. When I came up in the food industry, food TV wasn’t here, food wasn’t really mainstream pop culture. This tornado of pop-culture, food TV worship -- the celebrity chef movement -- it’s going to define what’s next. There's a lot of attention on food that wasn't there before. It's a good thing now, but I’m curious and nervous as to how we come out the other end.”
Ashley Shelton, 26Executive chef at Pastaria
Ashley Shelton is the first to concede that running a popular, high-volume restaurant in St. Louis isn't easy, but under the guidance of iconic chef Gerard Craft, she's quickly becoming one of the most interesting industry players.
What's the biggest challenge for young chefs, currently?
"We are in a transitional period where a lot of young chefs -- like myself -- are in a position to hire a staff. A lot of the people coming in are older, and have a lot of experience in the industry, and it can be hard to have someone who is much older than you respect you, and understand you, and learn from you. I think finding that pool of people who are still willing to learn from you, no matter what your age is, is incredibly difficult. Striking that balance is hard, and it's a managerial role that maybe a lot of young chefs who love to cook aren't prepared for, at first. That being said, I don't see a whole lot of disrespect from older people in the kitchen, per se -- maybe some pet names here or there. Just please, don't do that."
Will Foden, 38Chef de cuisine at Visconti Ristorante at the Hotel Granduca Austin
Depending who you talk to, Will Foden might not be considered a millennial, but we're going to talk about him anyway. Since he is a bit older, he's got the experience to talk knowledgeably about how some of his younger peers are shaking things up.
His killer resume includes Garbo’s in Austin, 83 ½ in New York, and BiNA Osteria & Alimentari and Restaurant Dante in Boston, but he also spent time in Italy at the Michelin-starred Relais & Châteaux Restaurant and Winery. Currently he’s working directly under the Hotel Granduca Austin’s renowned executive chef, Tom Parlo, to develop and perfect its signature Northern Italian restaurant in Westlake, Austin.
In your opinion, do younger chefs in the industry share a common ethos or energy that separates them from previous generations?
"I think younger chefs are more bent on creative freedom -- more focused on using good ingredients, rare ingredients. A lot of younger chefs bring young creative passion, and a big ingredient-focused outlook on the food world that may have been lacking before. It’s not so much who they are working for, it’s more about what they are working with -- that’s what has taken precedence. Gone are the days of working for chefs with no compassion, giving no respect. Restaurant workers now have more respect, more compassion. It’s a more positive, energetic, confident atmosphere. Especially for younger people."
Fabian von Hauske, 25Owner/chef at Contra and Wildair
Despite being one of the youngest on this list, Fabian von Hauske already has incredible restaurants like NYC's Contra and Wildair under his belt. Fabian and his business partner Jeremiah Stone wanted to create an unpretentious space that serves high-quality food with basic, refined ingredients for a knowledgeable and involved audience.
What is it like to own and help shape the menu at two restaurants before you hit your mid-20s?
"I feel that before, you wouldn’t really see young people opening up restaurants and having this level of control in big cities -- maybe you’d see some places owned by younger guys in small towns and smaller cities, but never Paris, New York, or London. It’s become more common to see young people opening spots up in more challenging places, which is great for the food world. It’s always been a young person’s game though, I don’t think that has changed. People care about food more, and young people have the energy to facilitate and nurture the food culture, especially for our generation. Hopefully we -- both myself, and our generation of chefs -- will have a lasting impact."
Megan Potthoff, 30Executive pastry chef at WP24 by Wolfgang Puck
A recent entry in Zagat’s 2015 30 Under 30 list, Potthoff is an alum of several Wolfgang Puck eateries. She attended the prestigious Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Pâtisserie -- where she worked under her culinary idol, Sherry Yard -- before leading the pastry program at CUT by Wolfgang Puck at the Beverly Wilshire hotel.
She continues to make a name for herself in the pastry world at WP24, where she is the architect behind its modern takes on traditional desserts that are peppered with Asian flair.
Do you think today's chefs are more creative than their predecessors?
"In pastry, you have a little bit more room to be creative. With savory dishes, it's more straightforward, sure. In dessert it's a little more playful, and a little more whimsical. Personally speaking, I strive to experiment at all times. I'm trying to forge my own path, my own style -- as opposed to a little here and there and relying on more traditional takes. But, the chefs coming up today are still learning from the chefs who came up 20 years ago, and a lot of what we do still comes from the individuals we learn from, so it's really on a case-to-case basis. I wanted to take my influence and branch out on my own, but that's not always the case."
Joanna Stachon, 24Executive chef at Ada Street
She didn’t decide to be a chef until “she was a little older,” which is kind of a crazy thing for a 24-year-old to say. A native daughter of the Second City, Stachon took the reins of the kitchen at Ada Street after serving as sous chef.
Her secret weapon is her extensive butchery knowledge, which she plans to use to her advantage in the American-Mediterranean joint she's now tasked with shaping.
How did you manage to rise in the industry so quickly at such a young age?
“To put it bluntly, I worked my ass off. I tried to make it a point to learn about every different aspect in the food world, and really tried to immerse myself in my profession. As great as it all has been, there definitely have been some downfalls along the way -- definitely haven’t had a lot of time outside of work. But I try to know everything I can, to read every single thing that I can, and do whatever I need to do to make it all happen. I mean, I wanted to learn about butchering, so I got a second full-time job butchering to really develop that skill. The biggest thing for me, is just a lot of hard work. That’s it.”
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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. Personally, he can't even make grilled cheese without burning one side. Follow him: @wilfulton.