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We live in a time where the various food network shows have created TV celebrities out of chefs. Those chefs then get bankrolled to open restaurants all over the country, become spread too thin, and usually produce mediocre food. Bobby Flay’s places keep closing, as do Floyd Cardoz’s. The reviews are not stellar for the spin-off places opened by Emeril Lagasse, Todd English, Guy Fieri, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Andrew Carmellini, and so on, because the chefs are rarely actually cooking.
The problem is so bad, that I usually avoid any restaurant run by a chef with a TV show. I try to find well managed establishment that have a dedicated chef focused on that one restaurant.
Who are some of the best chefs creating great dishes, that you have never heard of because they are not “TV chefs”? Well, I have assembled a list that is far from comprehensive, but represents Downtown pretty well (I have no experience with Brooklyn, Harlem, or Queens).
Robby Cook at Morimoto: Chef Cook (is that the best name ever for a chef?) is the sushi guru at Morimoto who has developed a cult following of diners who request to be seated in front of him at the bar. I know little about sushi, but sat next to an expert who told me all about Robby. Chef Cook trained in Japan and has a Japanese wife. You have not heard of Robby because I believe that his restaurant is trying to keep him a secret in order to prevent him from opening his own place.
Jonathan Oh of Scarpetta: Chef Oh (also a great name) was given the tough task of filling in for a departed chef and reproducing the menu as if there were no change. That is like Snowy White recreating the guitar segments of David Gilmour for The Wall tour. Chef Oh succeeded in spades. The signature spaghetti dish is still great.
Taylor Weldon at Hillstone: This restaurant group is very private and shies away from the press. I had to become a spy just to get Chef Weldon’s name. He is the senior-most chef at the Park Avenue and 28th Street location. Everything at Hillstone is of high quality and tasty, while not succumbing to the usual trendy mistakes that plague so many Manhattan restaurants.
David LaForce of El Vez: Chef LaForce was moved up from the Philadelphia El Vez to Battery Park this year. He too has a tough job, because there were way too many chefs in the kitchen when El Vez first opened. Now that LaForce has more control over things, he is creating very flavorful dishes. No one in the city can build a better burrito than LaForce, and even the basic chips and salsa are a delicacy. For unknown reasons, the Stephen Starr conglomerate has also kept LaForce out of the limelight. I was actually set to film him, and then the shoot was cancelled. (Note: The El Vez delivery packaging destroys his food, so you really have to go sit down in order to get the proper impressions. Don’t be a Seamless junkie).
Isao Yamada of Brushstroke: Chef Yamada runs the kaiseki side of Brushstroke (the warm cooked food, not the sushi side). He has won a Michelin star, so he is not as much of a hidden gem as the others. Chef Yamada does not speak an ounce of English, which adds to his credibility as a Japanese chef, I think. He uses ingredients so elaborate, so complex, that few chefs have ever heard of them.
Soulayphet Schwader of Khe-Yo: Chef Schwader opened Khe-Yo this year and won recognition from the Michelin system and other papers. His food is a great change of pace from the more commonly found cuisines, without being too spicy.
Please post comments for any of your own favorite chefs that we did not mention.