Back in July, we paid tribute to 40 young American farmers who rise early, tend to their crops and livestock all day, fill CSA subscriptions, attend farmers markets, and even take the time to field e-mails and phone calls from an environmental news website. We were impressed with and inspired by this crop of energetic, eco-minded agrarians. And so were you. So much in fact, that in September we brought you "40 farmers under 40: Readers' choice."
Yet through it all, we felt something was missing. Initially, what exactly "it" was eluded us, but our grumbling stomachs led us to the answer: chefs. After highlighting the work of exceptional farmers, the concept of "farm to fork" comes full-circle with our sampling below of "40 chefs under 40."
From Memphis to Montpelier and Providence to Peoria, these young chefs delight picky palates with a range of cuisines and concentrations — soul food, sushi, pub fare, molecular gastronomy, street-cart snacks and much more. Whether they work in four-star restaurants, private homes, events or even at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., they all have one thing in common: Whenever possible, they support the farmers who got us so excited — and hungry — in the first place. One of our favorities, Kevin Gillespie of Woodfire Grill, chopped his way to the final round of Bravo's Top Chef in Las Vegas.
By working with locally produced, seasonal and sustainable ingredients in the kitchen, these chefs make dining a memorable, eco-epicurean experience. Some even transcend the "farm to fork" concept by focusing on sustainable seafood. And, like the farmers, these chefs aren't just chefs: They're educators, entrepreneurs, authors, activists, TV personalities and even farmers themselves.
We salute these sustainable chefs under the age of 40. They've opened our eyes to the diversity of low-impact eating and made us hungry in the process. Let's dig in, shall we?
Did we miss one? Enter a comment below on a chef you think should have been nominated, and we'll consider him or her as part of a future feature.
Chef, Bookhouse Pub
Julia LeRoy may have worked in Atlanta's best kitchens, but her culinary inspiration is more likely to come from an old Southern family or church cookbook than from the latest foodie trend. Although her process is meticulous and involves combining dissimilar ingredients, the end result is something closer to a meat-and-three than to molecular gastronomy. Her curation of sustainable ingredients comes from being raised with family meals (often prepared by her) that stressed healthy, fresh ingredients. Over time, she has discovered that just as seasonal, local ingredients are only part of the cooking process, so too are they a part of an individual's, a community's and the Earth's overall health and sustainability.
When she was 21, LeRoy was hired by Guenter Seeger to work the line in his eponymous Atlanta restaurant. But continuing to develop her skill and knowledge was LeRoy's top priority, and she took leave to go through the associate's degree program at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. After graduating, she moved on to work in Seeger's previous home, the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, under yet another top Atlanta chef: Bruno Ménard. From all of these experiences she absorbed a desire to pay uncompromising attention to the minutia in ingredient quality and cooking methodology.
Then, after searching long and hard for her place in Atlanta's culinary landscape — and being so industrious as to create the movable feast that was "LeRoy's Bootleg Baked Goods" — LeRoy connected with friends who were opening an upscale pub. The owner and the manager of Atlanta dance club MJQ Concourse were planning what would become the Bookhouse Pub, and decided that LeRoy should finally have her own kitchen. From the beginning, it was clear that she would be dealing in the currency of pub fair, but the drive toward sustainability began to weave its way through the menu.
Soon, LeRoy created Locavore Mondays, a weekly event that creatively employs the freshest of available local products. Each week culminates in a different menu of four or five courses available a la carte. On any given Monday, there may be fresh pork from Riverview Farms, cheeses from Decimal Place Farms or seasonal vegetables from a variety of local farms. The result is a cooking and dining experience that pays homage to all that is local, seasonal and sustainable in Atlanta. The menu is always creative and delicious, all the while supporting the well-being and sustainability of local farmers, the local economy and, of course, the diner.
2) Marisa Baggett, 32
Sushi chef, Tsunami Restaurant
At the California Sushi Academy, Marisa Baggett studied the delicate arts of sashimi, nigiri-zushi and makimono under restaurateur, sushi master and sake sommelier Toshi Sugiura, as well as respected sushi master Nobuo Kishimoto. In addition to classroom time, Baggett assisted with recreational sushi classes, helped cater sushi for high-profile L.A. events and spent time working with head sushi chefs in Venice Beach and Hermosa Beach. Upon completing her training, Baggett became the first African-American female graduate of the school.
A Mississippi native, Baggett longed to return to the South to share her passion for sushi with fellow Southerners. She settled in at a small sushi bar in Memphis where she gained local, national and international recognition for her Southern twist on sushi. After a few years, she decided to focus on sharing the art of sushi by teaching sushi classes at various gourmet food markets and private homes. Her website, In the Kitchen with A Southern Sushi Chef, features instruction on how to make different types of sushi.
Baggett is currently the "tsushi" chef of Tsunami Restaurant in Memphis, where her sushi reflects the restaurant's Pacific Rim theme while making use of ingredients local to the South. Since Tsunami is also a Project Green Fork-certified restaurant, Baggett and her co-workers help chef/owner Ben Smith in upholding the basic requirements of the program (kitchen composting, recycling, energy conservation, pollution reduction) and pledge to add new green initiatives each year — part of a step-by-step program to become fully sustainable and make use of locally farmed products.
3) Brittany Baldwin, 30
Chef/owner/farmer, Portland Home Chef
"Portland Home Chef" Brittany Baldwin caters events and cooks delicious, nutritious meals for families throughout the greater Portland area. Her clients savor farm-fresh eggs and seasonal fruits and vegetables from Baldwin's garden, and rave both about the taste and value of the meals she prepares (less than $200 a week for nightly dinners that feed a family of four).
Founded on a zero-waste commitment, Portland Home Chef only buys food that's grown locally from as close to the source as possible, then composts and recycles everything — resulting in reduced food miles, fuel emissions and waste. Clear environmental values, immaculate customer service and memorable meals are the secret recipe for success; without ever advertising, Portland Home Chef has established a solid, long-term customer base and currently has a six-month waiting list.
Baldwin grew up in Denver, where she worked for her mother's landscaping business and honed her culinary craft in Boulder before making her way to the Pacific Northwest. While attending Portland's Le Cordon Blue Culinary Academy, she first conceived the idea of pairing her love of cooking with her family's roots in gardening. Within a few years of establishing Portland Home Chef in 2004, Baldwin rented an old farmhouse on the outskirts of town, established a thriving kitchen garden and began raising chickens and quail. As the only chef/farmer within a 30-mile radius of a major metropolitan area, Baldwin is redefining the personal chef paradigm by bringing the farm to her clients' tables.
4) Jose Garces, 38
Since opening his first restaurant, Amada, in 2005, Jose Garces has emerged as one of the nation's most gifted young chefs. He's opened five additional restaurants in Philadelphia and Chicago, authored a cookbook called Latin Evolution, won the James Beard Foundation's prestigious "Best Chef Mid-Atlantic" award in 2009, appeared on Food Network's Iron Chef America, and is a contestant on this season of The Next Iron Chef.
Garces' five Philadelphia restaurants form his eponymous Garces Restaurant Group. He's the owner and executive chef of all five, and each is counted among the city's most acclaimed — Amada, an authentic Andalusian tapas bar; Tinto, a wine bar and restaurant inspired by Europe's Basque region; Distrito, a spirited celebration of the culture and cuisine of Mexico City; Chifa, a Latin-Asian restaurant named after the Peruvian restaurants of the same name; and Village Whiskey, a classic American bar with more than 80 whiskies and bar snacks. Garces is also the executive chef at Chicago's Catalan restaurant Mercat a la Planxa, where he works in collaboration with Sage Restaurant Group.
An American chef born to Ecuadorian parents and raised in Chicago, Garces began his culinary training in his grandmother's kitchen. In developing his personal cooking style, something he says is an ongoing pursuit, Garces spent years perfecting different cuisines in top-rated professional kitchens. Whenever possible, he uses the best local ingredients available, such as mushrooms from Irwin Mushrooms in Kennett Square, Pa., and greens from Blue Moon Acres in Buckingham, Pa.
5) Sean Brock, 30
Executive chef, McCrady's Restaurant
Chef Sean Brock began his professional career as chef tournant at the Peninsula Grill in Charleston, S.C., after graduating from Johnson & Wales University and apprenticing with chefs Rick Tramanto, Gale Gand, Grant Achatz and Paco Roncero of La Terraza del Casino in Madrid. He next moved to Richmond, Va., to serve as executive sous chef of Lemaire Restaurant at the Jefferson Hotel, and in 2003 was promoted within the Elite Hospitality Group to executive chef at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tenn.
Brock was back in Charleston before long, however, taking a position as executive chef at McCrady's and developing a 2.5-acre farm on Wadmalaw Island. Rather than relying on others to fill the needs of the kitchen and the demands of an increasingly sophisticated food community, Brock wanted to create a true field-to-table experience, not only for his guests but for his staff. McCrady's culinary, service and management teams now work the farm together, producing 90 percent of the restaurant's vegetables. The personal relationship to the food grown on the farm serves as inspiration for everyone working at McCrady's, Brock says, from the front door to the back.
Brock has a long list of accomplishments and accolades to his credit, including two dinners for the James Beard Foundation, two features on Food Network, and numerous reviews and local awards. He was nominated in 2008 for the James Beard Award "Rising Star Chef" and was named in 2009 as a semifinalist for James Beard "Best Chef Southeast" and "Rising Star Chef." In 2009, Charleston City Paper named Brock "Best Chef Charleston."
6) Kevin Gillespie, 27
Executive chef/partner, Woodfire Grill
Chef Kevin Gillespie's true passion lies in serving his customers quality food every day. This enthusiasm means incorporating the use of fresh, organic and sustainable ingredients in all of his dishes. His goals as executive chef and partner of Woodfire Grill are to increase the use of local products, make seasonal dishes more exciting and create a youthful atmosphere at the restaurant.
Gillespie, an Atlanta native, began his culinary education at the Art Institute of Atlanta, where he was determined to gain the experience he needed to become a successful chef. While carrying a full course load at the Art Institute, he worked part time at various restaurants perfecting his craft. After graduating with honors, Gillespie went on to hold different positions at several Atlanta restaurants, including chef de partie at the Ritz-Carlton's Atlanta Grill, sous chef at TWO Urban Licks and chef de cuisine at Woodfire. He says he enjoyed his time at each of these places, but found a true connection at Woodfire, where he stayed for two years. In 2006, Gillespie and his wife headed to the West Coast, where he went to work as executive sous chef at the now-closed Fife Restaurant in Portland, Ore. After a year and a half there, they missed their family and friends in the South and returned to Atlanta. Gillespie came back to Woodfire Grill to work for his friend and teacher Michael Tuohy.
In the summer of 2008, Five Senses Restaurants bought Woodfire Grill and made Gillespie the new executive chef. In early 2009, Gillespie became a partner in the restaurant. A current contestant on Bravo TV’s Top Chef, he lives in south Atlanta with his wife, Callie, and is a member of Slow Food Atlanta, Southern Food Ways Alliance, Chefs Collaborative and the Society for the Preservation of Traditional Southern Barbecue.
7) Josh Adams, 29
Josh Adams started his culinary education early, when his mother enrolled him in his first cooking class at the tender age of 10, and the kitchen has beckoned ever since. A native of Peoria, Ill., Adams cooked throughout his childhood with his mom and grandmother, who encouraged his creativity and curiosity. He worked in restaurant kitchens for a while after high school, but ultimately opted to join the family business — although he continued cooking and studying food in his free time.
A turning point for Adams came when, to celebrate his birthday, he dined at the kitchen table at the revered Charlie Trotter's. Seeing a kitchen operate seamlessly at such a high level changed the budding chef's perspective and before leaving, he spoke with chef de cuisine Matthias Merges. Recognizing the potential in Adams, Merges offered him a stagier position that evening — which Adams eagerly accepted.
Committed to a career as a chef, Adams attended the French Culinary Institute as well as Illinois Central College's culinary arts program. In 2007, he began working at Vie in Chicago, a restaurant known for its farm-fresh approach. At Vie, Adams worked under Paul Virant, whose culinary style left a mark on him. Along with Virant, Adams names Heston Blumenthal, Pierre Gagnaire, Alice Waters, Ferran Adria and Charlie Trotter as influences.
These mentors have helped Adams shape his style — a unique blend of farm-direct food and molecular gastronomy. Applying progressive techniques to pristine ingredients, Adams "seeks to preserve and accentuate the natural properties of the ingredients through precision cooking." With his passion for seasonal and locally grown products firmly rooted, Adams left Chicago in the spring of 2008 and returned to his hometown, an area surrounded by farms, to open his progressive, farm-direct restaurant called June.
Having a direct farmer relationship is of utmost importance to Adams. In addition to the multitude of farms he works with, he has partnered with Thunder Valley, a certified-organic farm in Princeville, Ill., to have 80 acres dedicated to growing specifically for June. His goal with June is twofold — on an individual level, he aims to take a few pristine ingredients and transform them into something that can bring a moment of happiness to his customer; as a whole, he hopes to bring a new level of dining to Peoria by raising community awareness of eating locally and sustainably.
8) Adam Cooke, 29
Chef de cuisine, the Barn at Blackberry Farm
Adam Cooke's culinary interests began when his family moved from their home in Northern California to a valley farm in the Sierra Nevada, aiming to become a self-sustaining household. As a young boy on the farm, his memories of milking cows, gathering eggs and picking fruit from the cherry trees still influence him. After finding inspiration from his family, Cooke was drawn to enter the culinary world as a professional.
From Montana to Nantucket, Cooke moved through restaurants and the New England Culinary Institute, all the while identifying his own style. During this time, his work with chef Martha Beuser led him to find an early enthusiasm for the sourcing of local and sustainable foods. Passionate for the mountains and fishing of Appalachia, and for the resources of Blackberry Farm, he settled in Tennessee to plant his roots.
Cooke joined the Blackberry Farm team in 2005 and opened the newest restaurant at Blackberry, the Barn. He works directly with Blackberry's team of artisans to create dishes using seasonal produce and herbs found in the Blackberry Farm gardens, fields and forests, ensuring a taste of East Tennessee in every course. During much of the year, 90 percent of all the produce Cooke uses will come from the Blackberry gardens. Encouraged by his surroundings, Cooke strives to create the most memorable dining experience for guests by ensuring each evening in the Barn provides a sense of this place.
9) Gerard Craft, 30
St. Louis, Mo.
The chef and owner of Niche, the adjoining Taste by Niche, and the soon-to-open Brasserie by Niche, Gerard Craft began his career washing dishes in a pool hall in Salt Lake City. His love of cooking led him to take a job at Bistro Toujours, one of the city's top restaurants, under Bryan Moscatello.
Craft has also held positions at Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles under Mohammad Islam and the Metropolitan in Salt Lake City under Perry Hendrix. He moved to St. Louis in 2005 to open Niche, which is in a converted warehouse in the Benton Park area. In 2008, Craft was named one of Food and Wine's "Ten Best New Chefs in America" and in 2009 he was a finalist for James Beard "Best Chef Midwest."
Says Craft of Niche's local and seasonal-based menu: "In the few years I have been here in St. Louis, I have been fortunate to build valuable relationships with talented local farmers, purveyors and other chefs who share our pride in delivering the highest quality food 'from the farm to the table' and who each day are key contributors to our success."
10) Sonja Finn, 30
Chef Sonya Finn started her culinary career at 18, when she worked as a prep cook and garde manger at Baum Vivant in Pittsburgh. That fall, she began college at Columbia University but would return during summers to work at Baum Vivant. After graduation, she attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where she received her associate's degree in culinary arts.
After graduation, Finn headed to San Francisco, where she worked through the stations at Zuni Café and then moved on to Neiman Marcus' Rotunda, where she was sous chef before taking over as chef. In October 2007, she returned to the East Coast to help her friend Ian Campbell open Bistro Poplar in Cambridge, Md. In April 2008, Finn returned to Pittsburgh and began work on her own restaurant, which opened Oct. 9 of that year.
Dinette is a restaurant/wine bar in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh with a focus on thin-crust, individual pizzas and small plates. The menu changes daily, and there's a wine list of about 20 frequently changing bottles, all available by the glass or bottle. Dinette's small size and limited menu gives Finn (pictured above, center, with Dinette staff) control to watch over everything, making sure that all of it — food, service, ambiance, wine — is perfect.
Beginning with the restaurant's construction, sustainability was a priority. Finn installed an on-demand water heater, the best-insulated pizza oven available, Plyboo countertops, energy-efficient equipment and other eco-friendly features. The restaurant uses local products, ingredients and suppliers whenever possible. The staff of Dinette not only recycles and uses recycled paper products, but avoids creating unnecessary waste to begin with. For example, the restaurant filters, bottles and carbonates its own water instead of selling bottled water.
Additionally, Finn believes "sustainability" refers to the ability to maintain a staff. Because working in a kitchen is both mentally and physically demanding, she wants her employees to feel appreciated and be able to live comfortably.
"Employees should not leave a hard day at work only to get home and worry about being able to afford rent or avoid going to the doctor because they don't have insurance," Finn says. "I pay a living wage to the back of the house employees and provide health insurance benefits after six months. Employees also receive a bonus on the anniversary date based on net profits for the year. It has worked and of the seven employees who started the first month, five of them, including all of the kitchen staff, have remained."
During the past year, the restaurant has received like three stars from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, four stars from the Pittsburgh City Paper, and was named one of Pittsburgh Magazine's "Top 25 Restaurants." Additionally, Finn was a semifinalist for the James Beard "Rising Star Chef 2008."