Five area chefs are in the running for the title of People's Best New Chef in Food & Wine's online contest, but the competition raises questions about what constitutes newness in the contemporary restaurant world.
Food & Wine
According to a Food & Wine spokesperson, "nominees are all talented innovators who have run their own kitchens for five years or fewer," a technically accurate description of the Washington-based candidates: Madison Park Conservatory's Cormac Mahoney, Spur's Brian McCracken and Dana Tough ("Our nominators were specifically enthusiastic about the chefs' work at Spur; The Coterie Room had not been open long enough for them to recommend it," Rachael Chappa explains), Book Bindery's Shaun McCrain and The Willows Inn's Blaine Wetzel are competing against six chefs from Oregon, Idaho and Hawaii for the Pacific Northwest region win.
The contest was created last year, supplementing the magazine's annual editor-selected Best New Chef awards, to honor "up-and-coming" chefs. Yet the intense focus on young chefs that's become a staple of food media means many of the nominees seem to have already up-and-come.
In Seattle, McCracken and Tough -- who were nominated for the same honor last year -- two years ago picked up new restaurant accolades from the Daily Beast and Food & Wine, along with a host of innovation awards. Beyond the Pacific Northwest, the 100-chef class includes Tre Wilcox, who gained a national following as a Top Chef competitor five years ago; Steven Satterfield of Atlanta's Miller Union, which earned Best New Restaurant recognition from Bon Appetit and the James Beard Foundation back in 2010; Corey Lee, who opened Benu in San Francisco after a French Laundry tenure that in 2006 earned him a Rising Star Chef award from the James Beard Foundation and Washington D.C.'s Mike Isabella, who has one restaurant, two in the works and a cookbook slated for publication this fall.
The evolution from executive chef to restaurateur is now so sped-up that five years feels like too long to wait to salute newness. While it's likely that the nominated chefs will continue to influence their hometowns' culinary cultures, whether or not they're in the kitchen, many of them are as deserving of a "best chef" as "best new chef" designation. Their inclusion in the contest leaves less room for the unknowns and under-30s who could benefit most from recognition.
Voting in the People's Best New Chef contest is open through Sunday. May the least experienced chef win.