If there's just one thing we at MNN have learned since publishing our first round of talented, sustainability-minded "40 chefs under 40" last year, it's that MNN readers have an insatiable appetite for more. After we asked you to tell us about your favorite young chefs from across the country working magic in the kitchen with local and organic produce, humanely raised meats, sustainable seafood, and everything and anything artisanal, you enthusiastically responded. And now we're back to deliver the goods.
As with the first crop of 40 chefs under 40, you'll find that with these mostly nominated-by-you (with a few MNN picks thrown in for good measure) sustainable young chefs, diversity is indeed the spice of life. From an upscale, contemporary French restaurant in Dallas to a laid-back bar and grill outside Detroit to an award-winning Brooklyn pizza place, sustainability can find its way into any kind of kitchen. And although this installment of 40 chefs under 40 features restaurant chefs aplenty, you'll also find eco-minded caterers, bakers, spa chefs, cheese mongers, bacon fanatics, activists, educators, entrepreneurs, and perhaps a couple familiar faces from TV.
So without further ado, we invite you to saddle up and dig into this fresh crop of sustainable 40 chefs under 40. Bon appetit!
Greg Balch, 25
Executive chef, Ratcliffe on the Green
As the newly named executive chef of Ratcliffe on the Green in Charlotte, N.C., Greg Balch is making a name for himself in an industry that has employed him for as long as he can remember. A native of Raleigh, Balch spent countless hours at the feet of his grandmother and mother in the catering business they ran, and he has stayed immersed in the culinary industry ever since.
Balch began his formal education at Johnson & Wales University in Florida before transferring to the Charlotte campus, where he earned his degree in culinary arts. Upon graduation, he continued to work in catering, this time in the hotel industry, before moving to independent restaurants. He opened the critically acclaimed NoFo on Liz in Charlotte before joining Ratcliffe on the Green as chef de cuisine in January 2007. Now that Balch has taken over the kitchen at Ratcliffe, he's generating industry buzz with his innovative creations and commitment to using locally grown, seasonal ingredients.
Balch's passion is getting people to try new things and pushing the envelope in the kitchen. He's not afraid to experiment with flavors, a fact evident in some of Ratcliffe on the Green's recent menu items. From maple-brined quail with local organic vegetables to braised local pork shank with Moroccan couscous, Balch mixes cuisines from around the world with locally grown ingredients to create classic dishes with a modern twist. He says he enjoys collaborating with his staff when coming up with new ideas, and the result is what he loves most about working at Ratcliffe on the Green — "creating memorable meals with the freshest ingredients available" while evoking warm memories of his past.
Bradford Briske, 28
Executive chef, Gabriella Café
Santa Cruz, Calif.
California native Bradford Briske began cooking in 2004 when, in pursuit of a snowboarding career, he realized he had to find a way to pay the bills. At the time he was a strict vegan and spent most nights cooking his own food. He didn't want to butcher a chicken (or deal with any animal meat), and thought he could never make it through a school like the California Culinary Academy or the Culinary Institute of America. But a friend helped him find the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, a vegetarian cooking school dedicated to whole foods and nutrition, and Briske soon enrolled in classes.
After graduation, Briske missed the California sun and decided to do his internship under chef Eric Tucker at Millennium, an organic and seasonal-focused restaurant in San Francisco. He spent the next two years working his way through every station at Millennium while attending farm dinners and volunteering at the Ferry Plaza farmers market, sampling seasonal veggies in exchange for produce for his home.
Briske eventually left Millennium to visit his sister in Spain, and when he returned, his friend Sean Baker offered him a "sous chef in training" job at Flea St. Café in Menlo Park. Having never cooked meat before in his life, his first night on the grill involved cooking steaks, pork chops and lamb loins — "It was disastrous," he says. Baker soon left his position as chef at Flea St. Café but encouraged Briske to stay on, which he did. Briske spent the next year running the kitchen and, as a vegetarian, never tasting a meat entree he prepared. Shopping weekend mornings at the farmers market in Palo Alto was the start of his many personal friendships with local farmers.
Six months later, Baker offered Briske a sous chef position at Gabriella Café in Santa Cruz. The selling point for Briske was the restaurant's relationship with Lindencroft Farm, a nearby organic farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains that Briske describes as "most beautiful farm I've ever seen."
Shortly after Briske was hired, Gabriella Café hired side cook Chris Laveque, who had previously worked with a community butcher. And so the kitchen began butchering whole pigs and making salamis. "That was the turning point to my carnivorous beginning," Briske says. Baker left after a year and, once again, Briske was left to run the kitchen. He shops every Wednesday and Saturday at the Santa Cruz farmers market, handpicking the produce for the week. The Dirty Girl Produce farmers also stop by every other day.
After a trip to Buenos Aires for a fellow chef's weeding, Briske changed to a smaller, beef-heavy menu. His favorites dishes now are ricotta pork-blood gnocchi with pork heart bolognese and slow-roasted lamb neck guazetto with Pie Ranch papperadelle. This once-staunch vegan is now a "full-blown charcuterie nerd" who slaughters chickens for community events, butchers whole pigs and serves small plates of offal.
Louis Caponi, 29
Chef, the Emory
Chef Louis Caponi works alongside head chef Charlie Jozwiak at the Emory, an eco-minded bar and grill in Ferndale, Mich., with a straightforward American bar-food menu — pizza, burgers, sandwiches, salads and the like — and a remarkable commitment to using fresh, local ingredients and observing other eco-friendly business practices. Prior to helping open the Emory in 2006, Caponi worked in the kitchen at the popular Ferndale microbrewery Woodward Avenue Brewers. Like Woodward Avenue Brewers, the Emory is owned and operated by the Johnston family.
Menu items at the Emory, such as the black bean burger, have a "home-style attitude" and are based on Johnston family recipes. In the kitchen, Caponi and Jozwiak work with premium ingredients sourced from small, local producers, whether it's the hamburger buns or dried cherries on the salads. Beer-battered menu items are made with beer that has traveled a great distance — from across the street at Woodward Avenue Brewers.
In addition to the menu, Caponi and the rest of the crew at the Emory keep day-to-day operations as green as possible. The converted biodiesel vehicle used for supply pick-up runs on waste fry oil from the kitchen; the restaurant has funded its own comprehensive recycling program to minimize waste; all take-out containers are compostable; and in the near future, solar panels will be installed on the restaurant's roof. What's more, much of the interior — including chairs, stools, windowsills and the back bar — is crafted from reclaimed wood saved over the years by the Johnston family. And true to keeping it farm-based and in the family, the restaurant itself is named after Emory Johnston, a farmer from the Toledo area.
Seth Caswell, 39
Caswell moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2005 to revisit the local ingredients with which he'd grown familiar a decade earlier, when he graduated from the Dubrulle Culinary Arts Program at the Art Institute of Vancouver. He spent three years as executive chef of the Stumbling Goat Bistro in Seattle, where he began shopping at local farmers markets and visiting farms, fisheries and cheesemakers to learn about Puget Sound's unique products. His knowledge of local food economics has grown even more during his tenure as president of the nonprofit Seattle Chefs Collaborative, which he has led since 2006 in an effort to foster networks and food webs for local farmers and chefs.
Caswell participates in fundraising efforts for organizations such as Slow Food USA, FareStart, Cascade Harvest Coalition, Community Alliance for Global Justice, Alzheimer's Association, and Sustainable Seattle. He has volunteered for educational endeavors such as Beecher's Cheese's Pure Food Kids Workshop, the University of Washington's Food and the Environment, and Washington State University's CAIRN school. His newly opened restaurant, emmer&rye, is targeted at people who live and work in close proximity, but also aims to be a destination for diners from all over the region and world who share Caswell's ecological ethos of supporting local farmers and food producers.
Amanda Cohen, 35
Chef/owner, Dirt Candy
New York, N.Y.
Amanda Cohen graduated from the Natural Gourmet Cookery School Chef's Training Program in 1998, and went on to do everything from interning in the pastry kitchen of Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill to working on the line at DinerBar, an East Harlem diner. She was the inaugural cook at TeaNY, Moby's Lower East Side vegan teahouse, and then became the executive sous chef at raw-food restaurant Pure Food and Wine. Later she became the chef de cuisine at Heirloom, a short-lived vegetarian fine-dining restaurant on Orchard Street, and consulted for vegan restaurant Blossom as well as Broadway East before opening Dirt Candy, her award-winning, nine-table, vegetarian restaurant in the East Village.
Dirt Candy is a laboratory for vegetables, a restaurant dedicated to making them the center of every meal. Ignoring politics and health fads, refusing to use seitan or tempeh, it's a place where Cohen does nothing more (or less) than make vegetables shine. As the chef and owner, she's there every night, busing tables, serving customers and cooking in the kitchen, doing her best to break down the wall that has sprung up between chefs and the people who eat their food.
Made entirely of recycled and/or sustainable materials, and with as many omnivorous customers as vegetarian, Dirt Candy is a place where you don't have to brag about your lifestyle, hold certain political beliefs or do anything besides eat all your vegetables.
Patrick Connolly, 31
Executive chef, bobo
New York, N.Y.
Patrick Connolly first unearthed his talent for culinary creativity in 1999 while working in a pub kitchen in his hometown of St. Louis. Inspired by Thomas Keller's seminal work, The French Laundry Cookbook, Connolly moved to Rhode Island in 2002 to attend Johnson & Wales University and to work at Empire in Providence.
Within a year Connolly's hard work earned him a position at the world-class restaurant Radius in Boston; by 2004 he was named executive chef, and in 2006 was awarded four stars by the Boston Globe. Connolly's meteoric rise received national attention the following year, when he was nominated for the James Beard Foundation's "Rising Star Chef" award. In 2008, Connolly achieved one of the industry's top honors, winning the James Beard "Best Chef Northeast" award. Following this win, Connolly moved to the country's biggest culinary stage and took charge of the kitchen at the New York restaurant bobo.
As executive chef at bobo, Connolly has earned a passionate local following and praise from New York's top critics for his inventive greenmarket-based cooking. His recent nomination as a "Rising Star" by StarChefs marks yet another highlight in an already spectacular career. Connolly is entering his prime at just 31 years old, and given his dedication, creative talent and humble nature, one can expect Connolly will quickly become one of the nation's most respected and beloved chefs.
John Critchley, 32
Executive chef, Area 31
Chef John Critchley graduated in May 1997 from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He was born and raised in Scituate, Mass., a small suburban fishing town on the south shore of Boston. It was there that he grew fascinated by the sea while enjoying water sports and surfing.
Critchley has worked closely with some of the nation's top restaurateurs and chefs. Most notably, he was responsible for several high-profile restaurants alongside chef Ken Oringer. In 2005, Critchley and Oringer opened Toro, a Boston tapas bar. He ran the 55-seat restaurant for more than two years and was responsible for the elaborate Spanish-style menu. Critchley soon found himself with an array of various awards and recognitions, including a near-perfect score from Zagat. Several esteemed chefs, including Thomas Keller and Jacques Pepin, visited Toro to experience Critchley's famed morcilla recipe.
Critchley's latest venture, Area 31 at Miami's EPIC Hotel, is a sustainable seafood restaurant named after a fishing area (including but not limited to the Gulf of Mexico, the coastal waters of Florida and the Caribbean Sea) designated by the United Nations as a place of ecologically sustainable development. Whether wild-caught or farmed, Critchley ensures all the offerings on his ocean-to-table menu are sustainable by observing stringent Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch standards. Non-seafood items appearing on the menu include seasonal organic produce as well as organic beef, pork and poultry. Area 31 is committed to the environment in various other areas as well, including a robust recycling program, the use of recycled glass dinnerware, and the recycling of cooking oils and grease into biodiesel.
William Dissen, 31
Chef/owner, the Market Place Restaurant
From his upbringing in the mountains of West Virginia, chef William S. Dissen has always been in touch with the outdoors and nature. Spending time on his grandparents' farm — watching his grandmother cook bountiful meals straight from the garden to the kitchen table — has been a major influence on his style of cooking, as well as his beliefs in sustainable agriculture and local cuisine.
After graduating from West Virginia University, studying English and French, Dissen had grander aspirations to work in the culinary arts. Studies of French language and culture led him toward the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and after honing his skills under the country's top chef instructors, Dissen graduated with honors and was ready to begin his career as a chef.
His first stop was the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where he worked under certified master chef Peter Timmins. Moving next to the Lowcountry of Charleston, S.C., Dissen was introduced to another native West Virginian — Donald Barickman — owner and chef of Magnolias.
After sharpening his skills under Barickman, Dissen moved to Columbia, S.C., to continue his education by attaining a master's degree of hospitality, restaurant and tourism management at the University of South Carolina. It was there that Dissen began his dream of opening his own restaurant, but the mountains and fields of Appalachia were soon calling him back home. So Dissen moved to Asheville and founded the renowned Market Place Restaurant on historic Wall Street.
As executive chef and owner, Dissen tries to create "innovative farm-to-table cuisine" with ingredients from less than 100 miles away. "There is no cuisine without gardens and farmers," he says. "We provide farm-fresh ingredients to entice our guests with simple yet explosive flavors that both delight and enhance the experience of dining."
Joey Dunscombe, 34
Weary Traveler Freehouse chef Joey Dunscombe started cooking at the age of 14; his first "fine dining" experience came at the age of 20 while working at the 2510 steakhouse in Wausau, Wis. "The real training started at 2510: angry grill cooks, crazy waitresses ... I was hooked!" Dunscombe says. "This was to be my life. I was going to school for welding and metal sculpture, not knowing the whole time that cooking was my future."
After helping open the South American-focused Restaurant Magnus in downtown Madison, Dunscombe climbed to the sous chef position. When the owners decided to open a new, "more low-key" place, Dunscombe was involved with another round of construction and menu workups. Within time, the Weary Traveler Freehouse was born. At the Weary Traveler, Dunscombe specializes in comfort foods from around the world, leaving him "completely open to cook whatever I want."
Dunscombe buys from an increasing number of local producers. When the Weary Traveler opened, he was ordering from three purveyors, but that number has since risen to around 40. Local sellers include Quince and Apple (preserves), Lange Farms Meats (ground beef for the award-winning burger and "other treats") and Jordanal Farms (pork). "If I can figure a way to get something local onto my menu or into my restaurant without freaking out the regulars with a huge price increase, I do it," Dunscombe says. "Slowly but surely, I'll have the whole neighborhood eating local."
Dunscombe hosted his first "Pork Off" in January, featuring his chef friends cooking "what mostly consisted of pork shoulder and serving it to a long line of hungry, beer-drinking pork lovers." The event benefited local nonprofit REAP's Farm to School program, and since it was a success, Dunscombe says, he plans to host similar events in the future.
Dunscombe is currently looking into setting up a rooftop garden in the neighborhood that would supply the Weary Traveler Freehouse and sister restaurants Magnus, Natt Spil and perhaps Barriques Market.
Randy Evans, 34
Executive chef/co-owner, Haven
"Black-eyed peas, lady creamers, butter beans, zipper cream, purple hull, cream crowder peas ..." Ask chef Randy Evans what his favorite variety of peas is — or any other type of produce — and you receive a passionate, knowledgeable answer. Taking deep and competitive pride in sourcing high-quality, fresh-from-the-earth produce from local farmers and purveyors, Evans often drives out to farms during the day to handpick his produce from the vine, soil or a farmer's pickup truck for that night's meals. The goal: to create dishes that are at their seasonal peak, offering maximum flavor and freshness.
Little wonder, then, that green-certified Haven — Evans' latest culinary endeavor, where he serves as executive chef and co-owner — was Houston's most anticipated restaurant opening of 2009. Haven's farm-to-table menu changes weekly, depending what's best in the fields that week. Everything is local and handmade, and a chef's garden just outside the kitchen instills the importance of using fresh ingredients.
Evans, who grew up near his grandfather's farm eating fresh produce and watching his mother bake countless country desserts, had no intention of becoming a chef. Instead, he studied biology at Baylor University for three semesters, planning to become a doctor like his sister. But after hosting numerous dinner parties and bragging about his latest antique cookbook find to friends, he realized the kitchen was where he truly belonged.
Following completion of the culinary program at the Art Institute of Houston in 1997, Evans joined Brennan's of Houston under the helm of chef Carl Walker. By observing Walker's cooking techniques and leadership, and working his way through every station and rank in the kitchen, he was appointed executive chef in November 2003.
Evans' other big culinary interest lies in organic gardening. "I knew a lot about gardening but wanted to learn more, so I recently completed a course on organic gardening offered by Urban Harvest," he says. "I want to teach my kitchen staff to have respect for the food and ingredients we serve. Our chef's garden will be a natural, sustainable garden, with no chemicals, and cisterns to collect rain water."
Evans received one of 10 national Bertolli Sous Chef Awards in 2003, and a year later was recognized as one of three "Chefs of the Future" by Texas Monthly, named "Upcoming Chef of the Year" by My Table magazine, and won Santé magazine's "Cooking with Spirits" award for the Mountain and Southwest region. He was crowned king at the 2005 Great American Seafood Cook-Off, sponsored by the Louisiana Seafood Board, for his wild-caught Texas shrimp with biscuits and gravy. In July 2006, he was named a "Rising Star" by Restaurant Hospitality magazine.
Evans' cookbook, "The Kitchen Table," received the gold medal in the cookbook category at the 11th Annual Independent Publisher Book Awards. "The Kitchen Table" features a plethora of recipes served over the past 15 years at Brennan's unique Kitchen Table, situated in the middle of its bustling kitchen.
Evans also gives much of his time and energy to a number of philanthropic organizations and events in the Houston area, such as Recipe for Success, Urban Harvest, Share Our Strength, Cancer Counseling, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and more. He serves as a spokesman and consultant for the Texas Department of Agriculture's Shrimp Marketing Board and Texas Department of Forestry and Horticulture.