5 Brilliant Chefs That Inspire Us

By Vansh Panjabi August 31, 2016
Massimo Bottura. Image: Pinterest.com

Food is the best and simplest way to learn about a culture. The knowledge of food and its traditions and techniques are known by very few – the flag bearers, the maestros, the chefs themselves – all forming a world of extensive knowledge. This hidden world raises a lot of curiosity in us, and there’s no better way to satisfy ourselves than to know more about the best eats in the world.

These are five unconventional chefs that have gone to extraordinary lengths to produce spectacularly tasting food, a product of their unique ideologies and perspectives on the world. This listing is nothing like any other, and isn’t constructed for rankings, restaurant ratings or hipster cooking shows.

This is a personalized selection of the movers and shakers of contemporary cooking, compiled by personal research and genuine, personal admiration.

Seiji Yamamoto
Restaurant: Nihonryori RyuGin (Tokyo, Japan)

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Yamamoto in action. Image: nihonryori-ryugin.com

Yamamoto worked in European and Japanese kitchens for over 12 years before cultivating his own mastery of Japanese Kaiseki cuisine. Kaiseki is a multi-course meal in Japanese cuisine, which due to its similarity to the artful ‘tasting menu’ style of contemporary restaurants is wrongly thought of as a Western-influenced style.

Legends around Seiji Yamamoto involve sending a freshwater eel for a CT scan to view a detailed breakdown of its anatomy. That’s the degree of his determination to use all produce for utmost flavor. Similarly, his restaurant in Tokyo is known for having a menu that is altered daily, as Yamamoto only chooses to serve the freshest available meats that meet his standard.

Most of his fish – since he specializes in seafood – has a rod inserted into its spine upon being captured, which tricks the nervous system into believing the fish is still alive. Hence, at the point of cooking his meat, the fish in store produces the freshest flavor, which symbolizes Yamamoto’s unalterable strive for perfection.

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Signature Fish at Nihonryori RyuGin. Image: qlitravel.com

What makes Yamamoto a pioneer is not just his challenge to traditional Japanese elements by reinventing his Kaiseki menu, but his attention to detail leading to uniquely perfectionist food. When a chef is capable of representing their personality on a plate in an accurate fashion, the experience of eating at their given restaurant is one to remember, like it is as RyuGin.

Every dish brought to the table will be in absolute unison and consistency as the other plates, in terms of the portion, balance in flavor and presentation. Every slice of meat will be the same size despite being knifed by different sets of hands, much like the equal spreads of puree on plates or a soupy reduction. Yamamoto’s perfection on a plate, hand in hand with his Western/European influences make for a uniquely contemporary setting at his NihonryoriRyuGin in Tokyo.

Dan Barber
Restaurant: Blue Hill (Manhattan, NY); Blue Hill at Stone Barns (Pocantico Hills, NY)

Dan Barber at his farm. Image: cheunglab.wordpress.com

It’s safe to say there are perhaps no other chefs with an ideology much like Dan Barber’s, which paired with his originality, makes eating a meal at either of his restaurants a unique experience.

In our times, sustainability is an issue that cannot be ignored, especially in the fine-dining world where local produce is literally in the hands of top chefs. Barber’s unique vision consists of breeding produce – be it a jackfruit, a carrot or horseradish – to deliver the highest level of flavor, a request no farmers receive from restaurants. His farm-to-fork restaurant theme boasts only the freshest vegetables, meat from animals that were alive no less than a day or two ago and a ‘grazing, pecking and rooting’ tasting menu that offers close to 30 bits of dishes solely from his farm.

Barber is bringing change in society, instead of simply advocating sustainability at the summit of the culinary world. It’s visible in the pork served at his restaurant, blatantly called ‘pig’, in order to reduce the disconnect between the dish and the animal.

He has appeared on a TED Talk for the sustainability of fish farming and aquaculture, as well as the unethical implications of force-feeding duck to serve Foie Gras. Due to the uncertainty with the sustainability of fish, Barber chooses not to serve seafood at his Blue Hill restaurants and yet manages to serve spectacular food with great flavor, while still doing good for the environment.

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Dan Barber’s Chocolate Pork Liver. Image: thisguysfoodblog.com

In terms of his food, Barber is an outlier as a chef due to his unblemished representation of serving the perfect blend between science and nature. On his farm, carrots will taste like no other, turnips will explode with juicy flavor upon each bite, and tomatoes will be double their usual size, which are all instances of his brilliance in balancing sustainable yield and producing the highest possible level of flavor. Barber as a chef realized, that no farmer was cultivating crops for taste, only profit.

Thereafter he vowed to source produce and serve food that is genetically bred for taste and flavor. Having eaten at his restaurant in Manhattan, I can proudly say Barber is an engineer for cultivating ultimate flavor in natural produce while still being sustainable, making him a true contemporary genius in the kitchen. No other place will ever serve me Pork Liver sandwiched between two slices of Dark Chocolate that has such an immense flavor and balance in texture, while still being all-natural and of sustainable yield.
Keep up with Dan Barber on his Instagram.

Leah Cohen
Restaurant: Pig &Khao (Manhattan, NY)

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Leah Cohen at Pig and Khao. Image: firstwefeast.com

Half Filipino and half European-Jewish, Chef Leah Cohen’s culinary experience is a blend of cultures represented on a plate of Southeast Asian food. Bickering between Thai and Filipino primary influences, Cohen’s experience of travelling through Asia and eating everything from street food to fine-dining cultures makes her experiential knowledge hard to match.

In further talk of her experience, Cohen featured of Bravo’s Top Chef as a contestant, which initially nurtured her abilities to cook under pressure and understand the dynamics of the professional kitchen. After her travels and countless tasting all over the Asian continent, Cohen opened Pig &Khao in the Lower East Side of Manhattan to become a standout chef in a city packed with culinary brilliance.

Being a flag-bearer of Southeast Asian cuisine in a city as diverse as New York, Pig &Khao poses as a Western representation of Southeast Asian influences through its uniquely flavorful dishes. Cohen’s Banana-Leaf wrapped Cod is one of such dishes, using the Asian influence of steaming and wrapping fish in a Banana Leaf, but using North Atlantic produce such as Cod. What separates her from most chefs is her blend of Eastern and Western culinary cultures whilst the loyalty to her ethnic roots is accurately reflected through her food. Even though she uses North Atlantic Cod from the freezing cold waters of the American East Coast, the Banana-Leaf steaming is the hero of her dish. Taken that no restaurant in ‘The World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ of 2016 is owned or run by a woman, Leah Cohen deserves more recognition for her boldly challenging ideology, and mega-achievement all by the age of 26.

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Cohen Banana Leaf Cod. Image: Flickr.com

“Young people doing Asian cuisine…that are kinda hip”, were Cohen’s words on a CBS interview when her culinary style was described as ‘Asian Hipster Food’. She creates a fine art in the balancing of Asian styles and Western produce, to cultivate unique flavors and symbolize a coming together of divergent cultures; food that undeniably goes beyond the table.
Get this chef’s dose on Asian Hipster Food here.

Magnus Nilsson
Restaurant: Fäviken (Järpen, Sweden)

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Chef Magnus in the snowy Swedish landscape. Image: newness.com

Serving Rustic Scandinavian produce as New Nordic cuisine at Fäviken – where Nilsson is head chef – has the challenge of lacking local produce, at a location where no vegetation grows for half the year. Overcoming it daily is only part of Magnus Nilsson’s achievements. He is deep-rooted in belonging to the Nordic setting, something that reflects in his warm, cottage-like setting in isolated Järpen, which can only be reached through a flight followed by a long drive from Stockholm. Earning two Michelin Stars and being ranked 25th Best Restaurant in the world in 2012, Nilsson has received an array of critical acclaim, all by the current age of 32.

The rustic element of Nilsson’s uniquely located restaurant emerges from its local produce and the element of storage in Fäviken. Meat and vegetation alike are stored in various shapes and forms for long periods of time to create exquisitely bold flavors, catered from a town with freezing cold temperatures post-summer until late spring. Fermented mushrooms, five-month aged Rib Eye and other ingredients are bottled, pickled, cold-stored and preserved to trigger specific flavors that no other restaurant is quite capable of carrying out.

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Scallop and Juniper at Faviken. Image: PBS.org

Keeping with Nordic traditions of dishes centered on meat, of which the flavor is elaborately reinforced through complementary local produce, Nilsson’s wooden, cabin-like interiors create an ambience like no other at Fäviken.

His Scallop cooked over burning Juniper Branches is a stand-out dish which is presented with a holy charm: Sea Scallop served in its large shell, surrounded by smoking Juniper Branches on a platter like incense sticks to subtly give the melting scallop texture a charred, herbal flavor. Taking a cuisine that is traditionally so bare and raw in its art, to a more contemporary, fragile and delicate point of intricately calculated flavors is where Nilsson’s art lies. Sourced from the tundra, stored in the tundra and delivered to the table with an inventive, creative edge.
Keep track of Nilsson’s starkness here.

Massimo Bottura
Restaurant: Osteria Francescana (Modena, Italy)

Massimo at Osteria Francescana. Image: lesaucier.it

Italian cuisine is perhaps the world’s most conservative and conventional form of cooking that firmly grips its traditional roots, roots that are established from numerous grandmothers’ kitchen recipes. So for an Italian to challenge these culinary norms by boldly representing Italy’s most preserved tradition – its food – would be considered unholy by the locals. But how unholy could your food be, when your restaurant is named best in the world? Massimo Bottura’s “tradition in evolution” as he calls it, is stirring no less than a revolution in the culinary world, and for all the right reasons.

After living, cooking and marrying in the USA, Bottura brought all of his international experience back to his hometown of Modena, along with his American wife, to conjure a restaurant that truly reflected his persona. Osteria Francescana has a menu like no other, with deconstructive styles that are presented in simplicity but are exercised by a complex mind. Aiming to abstain from nostalgia and the past, Bottura aims to respect tradition but still look into the future: a recurring theme reflected on each of his served plates of food.

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5 Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano. Image: Bloomberg.com

Using only the ingredients of Parmesan Cheese and Time, Bottura’s dish ‘5 Ages of Parmesan Reggiano’ puts more than one critic at a loss of words. Consisting of five differently aged versions of Parmesan Cheese, Bottura plates the dish with each age of cheese in a vastly different texture, going from a creamy, melty cheese to a scoop and even a foamed, young version of Parmesan. An ingredient so vital and pivotal to Italian cuisine all throughout history is simply recreated to be the standout, since it’s the only ingredient going into the dish. He makes the past his hero, by presenting it in the most futuristic form possible.

Similarly, Bottura’s ‘Oops! I Dropped The Lemon Tart’ is presented as a shattered plate with broken, overturned chunks of lemon cake, which when brought together in a bite theatrically assembles into a devilishly flavorful lemon tart. However, his dish ‘The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna’ best symbolizes his Neo-Italian culinary movement. Nostalgically looking back at his grandma’s lasagna, Bottura remembers how he loved the crunchy top the most, which he has recreated as deconstructed lasagna. Making the hero of the dish the cracker like crunch, followed by creamy richness at the base, this dish re-renders childhood nostalgia into contemporary art.

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Oops! I Dropped The Lemon Tart. Image: Pinterest.com

Bottura’s brilliance can be seen on a plate through his flavor, ideology and presentation, however his genius is portrayed through his theme of recreating the past, challenging long withstanding tradition, diversifying the rigid and exploring the contemporary future. And like the other four chefs mentioned in this piece, Bottura executes his personalized style with a suave of smiles and appreciation for what he does, a genuine infatuation with his ideology and a yearning love for passionate, contemporary art.
Massimo’s playful inventiveness has earned him and Osteria Francescana the #1 spot at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants for 2016. Follow his life and work here.

Are there any chefs whose innovation or food inspire you? Tell us in the comments!