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Food + Cooking

Rising Star Chefs

Published in Gourmet Live 09.14.11
The country’s best chefs can’t do it alone. Among the many talented cooks in their kitchens are some chefs that are sure to be big names on their own in the next few years. Here, five to get to know.

Adam Plitt, Executive Sous-Chef
Le Bernardin, New York City

“I love working with raw fish,” says executive sous-chef Adam Plitt, the 30-year-old native of Newton, Massachusetts, who has been riding shotgun in Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin kitchen for more than six years. Case in point: a recent collaboration that resulted in a hamachi tartare with citron vinaigrette, shichimi togarashi (a sauce of red chile, sesame seeds, orange peel, nori, and other spices), thyme, scallions, and Japanese cucumber.

“I’ve always loved to cook,” says Plitt, who at age 14 jumped into a gig at a gourmet sandwich shop near Boston, then moved on to a country-club kitchen and a full-service restaurant before taking on formal studies at the New England Culinary Institute. Ripert saw something special in the young chef during his stage (a form of internship for chefs), which was set up by Plitt’s mentor, chef Michael Schlow, of Boston’s Radius. “Adam really knows how to cook,” says Ripert, who cites Plitt’s gift for cooking seafood, from a crusted red snapper to a poached halibut, and his knack for pairing fish with sauces, such as a bacon and Persian-lime-scented truffle broth. “He has a great palate. We all collaborate to develop dishes, and Adam is creative. He also knows that you lead by inspiration, that you don’t have to have a temper.”

Plitt is the first to tell you he’s the chef he is today because of Schlow and Ripert. Thanks to Schlow, whose tasting menu changed daily, Plitt says he mastered French style and attention to detail; and from Ripert, he learned not only the intricacies of seafood and sauces but also the importance of sustainability and of creating that spirit of collaboration in the kitchen. “Leading a team comes naturally to me,” Plitt says. “But when you’re young, you get frustrated with other cooks. Chef taught me that it’s better to be calm; what works is having people understand you.” For now, Le Bernardin is exactly where Plitt wants to be. “For the sauces alone! We prepare fresh sauces every day, even every couple of hours. The sauciers are the best I’ve ever seen.”

Erling Wu-Bower, Sous-Chef
The Publican, Chicago

When chef Paul Kahan (Blackbird, Avec, the Publican) opens his artisanal butcher shop late this fall, he’ll have one of his top charcuterie men, Erling Wu-Bower, at the helm. The 27-year-old Publican sous-chef, says Kahan, has serious chops when it comes to creating prosciutto, smoked sausages, and other salumi. Wu-Bower says his most important lessons came from Kahan and Brian Huston, the Publican’s chef de cuisine, as well as from reading former Chez Panisse chef and curemaster Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand, and the late Richard Olney’s Simple French Food. “It doesn’t hurt that we get amazing pork from Slagel Family Farm,” he adds. “My proudest moment was in making a really unique blood sausage. Not a boudin noir, not a murcilla, which doesn’t contain enough blood—I ditched it all and experimented until I came up with something great, just the right blood content, mixed with onions and sherry.”

That Wu-Bower hit the books to perfect his art isn’t surprising. The Notre Dame graduate in philosophy and Dante studies brings intellectual rigor and, well, a philosophical approach to his cooking, combining his Chinese and Cajun roots (his mother is food writer and chef Olivia Wu; dad is University of Notre Dame professor emeritus Calvin Bower), with an appreciation for, he says, “the simplicity and brutal honesty” of Italian cooking. “I’d love to have my own restaurant one day, with an Italian pace, and great pasta and fish, but with Cajun and Chinese accents. You might have ravioli but you’ve got to also have some Chinese tripe in there.”

Wu-Bower’s first cooking experiences were in the kitchens of chef Rick Bayless. “He trained me, and I learned about flavors and fire and hearth,” says the young chef, who after leaving Bayless’ restaurants spent three years on the line at Kahan’s Avec. “Paul and Brian and I work together so well because, despite our different personalities, we have ridiculously intense food passions that underlie everything.”

“He’s insane about fish,” says Kahan, to which Wu-Bower replies, “It’s true. I’m a fisherman first and foremost, and an accidental chef. I once worked as a commercial salmon fisherman. Now I get this wild California salmon, sand dabs, and little baby albacore tuna. I do a confit of albacore, and, yes, I’m going to say it, a tuna fish salad, with olives, capers, green beans. Paul Bertolli said once that the easiest way to be a chef is to have a garden. Well, my garden is the ocean.”

Devin Knell, Executive Sous-Chef
The French Laundry, Yountville, California

In the Napa Valley, the chefs from the French Laundry now have a special off-site curing shed, what chef Thomas Keller calls an “archive of hams,” including hams from a half dozen heritage varieties of pigs, some aged up to three years. “When you get to that length of time, you get a meat that melts in your mouth.” For those hams (whose nutty taste recalls the pigs’ diet of acorns or walnuts), along with sausages and lardo and a wealth of charcuterie, Keller has Devin Knell to thank.

The 37-year-old Knell—a suburban Los Angeles native and California Culinary Academy graduate who did a stint with Todd Humphries at San Francisco’s Campton Place—has been with Keller and the French Laundry for 12 years. Working his way up from chef de partie to executive sous-chef, he was recently named head of the charcuterie program for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. The study of cured meats was a desire, he says, to “bring a balance to modern cuisine, to work with that sense of history and the preservation techniques that have fallen by the wayside. You can serve a Japanese clam with seaweed foam in the dining room. But sometimes it’s great to rub salt into something and put it away for two years.”

Knell learned from one of the best, the late charcutier Hobbs Shore, whose applewood-smoked bacon was legend in the Bay Area. “Hobbs was in his 80s at the time,” Knell says, “but came up to the restaurant and showed me the way of dry curing, and later came up regularly to check on how the hams were aging.”

Knell may be doing events like Las Vegas’ All-Star Cochon (in which chefs prepared a “snout-to-tail” menu featuring heritage-breed pigs sourced in their local markets), but he’s far from defined by his preservation skills. He’s currently front man for the London pop-up version of the French Laundry at Harrods (open for ten days, beginning October 1). Keller isn’t worried about Knell handling the gig. “I have the utmost confidence in Devin,” he says. “He sinks his teeth into things and doesn’t let go until he’s mastered them.” For Knell, the respect is mutual: “What’s amazing about working for Thomas is he doesn’t give directives. He lets you make mistakes; valuable mistakes. If I approach him with an idea, like let’s cure all our own meats, his question is, ‘What do you need from me to make this happen?’”

Ken Chong, Executive Sous-Chef
Telepan, New York City

Some chefs come to cooking at a tender age; others, like Ken Chong, executive sous- chef at Telepan, need to ripen before they’re ready for life behind the stove. “My wife calls it my midlife crisis,” says Chong with a laugh. Chong, who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, was in his 30s and working as an electrician when his brother-in-law opened a sandwich shop; Chong pitched in to help. “We cooked most of the meat ourselves, and I realized I enjoyed the prep work and cooking fresh every day,” he says. “After a couple of years, I found that cooking was my passion, and in 2001 I enrolled at the Institute for Culinary Education, and did an externship at Le Bernardin.”

As luck would have it, next door to Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin was Judson Grill, where chef Bill Telepan had won a devoted following for his farmers’ market–driven, seasonal cooking. And he needed another hand in the kitchen. “Kenny came into Judson, and he was just this amazingly hard worker who could always figure things out,” says Telepan, who, after Judson closed and his new restaurant was about to open, invited Chong (who’d been working at Gramercy Tavern) to rejoin him.

After six-and-a-half years together at Telepan, Chong, now 49, is “the rock to my Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” says Telepan, laughing. “He’s always calm. Whenever something comes up, I just say, ‘Ask Ken.’ He knows me so well that if I say, ‘I’m thinking of doing something with this veal,’ with this part or that part, he comes up with ideas. And when we get a pig in and we cure things, like our Mangalitsa bacon, it’s Ken who manages it.”

“Chef taught me how to use seasonal ingredients, to complement them with other ingredients to bring out the taste of the season,” says Chong, who put summer to work in dishes like zucchini “handkerchiefs” of blossoms and ricotta cheese; bucatini and fresh cherry tomatoes amatriciana-style, with house-cured pork, red onion, and garlic; and a roasted trout ’panzanella,’ with arugula, roasted peppers, and a red pepper vinaigrette. If that’s a midlife crisis, we say, bring it on.

Jason Schaan, Chef de Cuisine
Michy’s, Miami

More than a decade spent cooking with chef Michelle Bernstein, as a line cook to her executive chef at Azul, and, later, as Bernstein’s chef de cuisine at Michy’s, has made Jason Schaan a sort of mind reader. “It’s evolved to the point where we can anticipate each other’s movements,” Schaan says. “The beauty of this is that very little needs to be discussed; we know what needs to be done and the best way of doing it.”

Bernstein is on the same wavelength: “Jason is fast and passionate; not only an amazing leader and chef, he happens to be the best cook I’ve ever known. His pasta and gnocchi are ridiculously good; they feel like velvet on your tongue. Stocks and sauces are a fundamental part of our cooking, and he has a true way with them. They make your lips stick together!” Schaan’s ways with pasta abound on Michy’s menu: egg noodle pappardelle with a poached egg, pork belly, and Parmesan broth; ricotta gnocchi with a spring-pea purée and speck; and a rich fettuccine carbonara with smoked bacon, crispy jamón Serrano, prosciutto, and melted St. André.

On his road to becoming Michy’s chef de cuisine, Schaan held every position in the kitchen, including prep, sauté, and grill (a 1999 graduate of Johnson & Wales in North Miami, he’d previously worked at Loews and the Mandarin). “It’s helped me to understand everyone’s role and how important each piece is to the puzzle,” he says. He’s also come to appreciate “the explosion of local farmers and fishermen that have brought new and artisanal products to Miami. Creatively, we have few limitations. If ingredients taste great and work, we use them.”

We’re getting that Schaan is a chef for all seasons. But is there anything he doesn’t do? Bernstein laughs, “OK, he doesn’t love to bake; I said it.”

A former senior features editor at Gourmet, Nanette Maxim is a New York–based writer and editor for Web sites such as Gilt Taste and for special projects at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, among others.