The New Orleans Rising Stars Winners: Why They Shine

by Caroline Hatchett with Antoinette Bruno and Will Blunt
Antoinette Bruno and Will Blunt
February 2012

New Orleans knows tragedy and destruction. She’s seen flood waters, racial tensions, oil spills, and corruption. But through it all, New Orleans’ chefs keep cooking, bartenders mixing, and sommeliers pouring. This city’s food culture has at times been the bedrock of its survival, and the culinary community we met this year isn’t just resilient, it’s brilliant.

In this post-Katrina landscape, New Orleans offers much more than traditional Cajun and Creole cuisine. Chefs are exploring the avant-garde, celebrating international flavors, and changing the paradigm of regional cuisines. At the same time, they’re digging deep into the city’s culinary history as a road map for the future. New Orleans’ charcuterie scene is on par with the best in the nation, thanks in large part to Cajun sausage traditions, and chefs are fully embracing Americana—diners, hot dog stands, and burger joints are popping up all over town. The city’s cocktails, too, share this dual new- and old-guard approach, with mixologists using New Orleans’ storied drinking past as inspiration for a thoroughly cosmopolitan cocktail movement.

This year we tasted savory dishes, desserts, cocktails, and wine pairings from more than 80 talented chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers in New Orleans. Only 17 earned the title of Rising Star. So what makes them shine?

Rising Stars have attributes that make us believe they will be the future leaders of the country’s culinary scene. Put simply, they’re not just surviving the New Orleans restaurant industry, they’re defining it with exciting cuisine, pours, and culinary concepts. So without further ado, our 2012 New Orleans Rising Stars: who they are, why they shine, and how they're shaping the future of American cuisine.

Alon Shaya

Chef: Alon Shaya, Domenica

Alon Shaya proves that the future of food both can be dug up from the past and pushed forward through innovation. To open Domenica, his high-style Italian restaurant, Shaya spent a year cooking in Emilia-Romagna, learning from old-school chefs, artisans, and nonnas alike. He’s taken those lessons—on firing pizza, rolling al dente pasta, and aging Prosciutto—and updated them with technology and an otherworldly drive for perfection. For Shaya, food is not just passion but also a scientific quest (he’s a healthy mix of his mentor, John Besh, and a hyper-technical Dave Arnold type). Giving diners the best of the New and Old Worlds, Shaya’s work defines the future of American cuisine.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Charcuterie Board: Culatello, 24-month Prosciutto, Salami, Lonzo, Lardo, Coppa, Mortadella, Sopressatta di Toscana, and Torta Fritta
  • Octopus Carpaccio, Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette, Chilies, Chives, Satsumas, Arugula, and Fennel
Nathanial Zimet

Chef: Nathanial Zimet, Boucherie

Nathanial Zimet is the New South. His food at tiny Boucherie will at once intoxicate you with its slow, familiar drawl and energize you with new, fresh flavors. He’s making the most exciting food in town, plates full of eccentric touches and grounded by solid technique. This North Carolina native knows his pork and smoke, and he gives new life to collard greens. And while getting a table at Boucherie can be a challenge, Zimet also shares his talents through high-volume catering and occasional spins in his “big purple truck”—the venue-on-wheels that launched his career here. After surviving a near-fatal shooting last year (and returning to the line in less than six months), we’re convinced there’s nothing stopping Zimet from becoming the next standard bearer of Southern cuisine.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Mussels Steamed with Collard Greens and Crispy Grits Crackers
  • Crispy Corn Pudding: Cornbread Stuffed with Creamed Corn, Smothered Okra, and Buttermilk
Ben Hammond

Chef: Ben Hammond, Cochon

Ben Hammond was destined to conquer pork. And from our first bite of his salty, melting Country Ham, we knew this chef had lived up to his namesake, and to that of the kitchen he leads at Cochon. Fostered by our 2003 Rising Star Chef Donald Link, Hammond's talent has helped refine and redefine Southern classics. Aforementioned Country Ham could compete with any Iberico, and he’s taken trotter from the muck of the pigpen to the height of gelatinous, briny perfection. With devotion to local product, supreme command of acidity, and the presence of a leader, Hammond and his golden, porky idol will undoubtedly fly.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Smoked Ham Hock, Farro, Ham Hock Consommé, Pickled Squash, and Bitter Greens
  • Sautéed Jumbo Gulf Shrimp, Black-eyed Peas, Brussels Sprouts, Crushed Herbs, and Whipped Goat Feta
Sue Zemanick

Chef: Sue Zemanick, Gautreau's

Sue Zemanick’s food has soul. This Gautreau’s chef relies on the purity of ingredients and back-to-basics cooking to make food that recalls a sense of place—we found an elegant ladies’ lunch, a retro diner, and a campfire sing-along in her dishes. But she’s not reaching back in time so much as pulling from deep within her cheffy self to bring joy and simple pleasure back to the table and her loyal legion of diners. A meal at Gautreau’s won’t lead you down the rabbit hole of mystery (What’s that spice I taste?) or through the prism of modern cuisine (Yes, I’ll take my oyster gelée over dry ice.), but it will make you purr with pleasure, close your eyes, and linger for an awkward moment with your spoon. Zemanick has found our weak spot, and she’s bound to exploit it with unparalleled success in New Orleans and beyond.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Citrus-poached Gulf Shrimp, Hearts of Palm, Radishes, Watercress, and Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette
  • Sautéed Red Grouper, Cauliflower Purée, Oyster Mushrooms, Grilled Radicchio, Jumbo Lump Crab Meat, and Truffle Beurre Blanc
Phillip Lopez

Chef: Phillip Lopez, Root

A world-traveling child of the army, Phillip Lopez brings a distinct world view to the menu at Root, his newly opened restaurant in the Warehouse District. Defying any regional or national stereotypes, he’s cooking loosely defined “American” food—basically anything he loves—and celebrating the diversity of our 50 hungry states with technical acumen and an inventive pantry. Lopez is one of the few chefs taking big risks in this market, betting that enough diners will pass on local staples and instead dine on his delicious amalgam of North American, Asian, European, and South American flavors. (Continents cross-pollinate in his dishes without crossing the fusion line.) Lopez is giving this restaurant all he knows, every chef-driven fiber of his being. And we can’t wait to see how deep his roots will grow.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Foielly Pop: Foie Gras Mousse, Strawberry Pop Rocks, and Foie Gras Cotton Candy
  • Aloo Gobi: Crispy Potato, Cauliflower, Baby Eggplant, Cumin, Corn Nuts, and Toasted Indian Spices
David Slater

Chef: David Slater, Emeril's

After years of toiling behind the burners of Emeril’s, Chef David Slater inherited creative control of one of New Orleans’ most iconic restaurants. Even though Emeril’s could fill seats on name alone, Slater is making some of the city’s best, most boldly flavored food (there’s more than a hint of “Bam!” in his dishes). Slater may follow in Chef Emeril Lagasse’s footsteps (those are some mighty large shoes to fill), but he treads new ground by bringing ethnic and international influences to this temple of Cajun and Creole cuisine. And he does it all with a refreshing dose of humility. Slater says he’s a company man, but he’s a force in his own right and will surely shape the future of the Emeril’s empire.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Mussels Etoufée and Carolina Rice Grits
  • Sorghum-smoked Duck Breast, Dirty Fregola Sarda, Red Cabbage Choucroute, and Truffle Pâté
Kelly Fields

Pastry Chef: Kelly Fields, Restaurant August

Kelly Fields is leading the modern dessert movement in New Orleans. You might not know it glancing over her Restaurant August menu—banana pudding, ambrosia, and rum cake all make appearances—but Fields pushes these familiar concepts to their limits with texture, plating, and craftsmanship. Her desserts maintain truth to timeless flavors: Nilla Wafer Ice Cream could have been pulled from the yellow and red box of your childhood. But that’s where her deference to the past ends. Fields laces her pastry with just enough sweet to satisfy and plenty of salt and acid to prevent palate fatigue (you’re going to want to finish every morsel). And as leading pastry lady for the John Besh Restaurant Group (that’s nine restaurants, and counting), Fields is making her mark not only on diners, but also on the city’s young pastry-chefs-in-waiting.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Toasted Marshmallow, Banana Pudding, Peanut Butter Powder, Caramelized Bananas, Nilla Wafer Ice Cream, and Banana Meringue
  • Satsuma Creamsicle: Buttermilk Cake, Buttermilk Foam, Local Citrus, Vanilla Meringue, and Satsuma Sorbet
Rebecca Cohen

Pastry Chef: Rebecca Cohen, Stella!

Rebecca Cohen is a pastry star on the rise. This self-taught cook approaches desserts and life like an adventure-filled lesson, and every ingredient and technique an opportunity to build a sweet shrine. With the intensity, curiosity, and joie de vivre of an artist, she constructs modern, naturalistic compositions for diners at Chef Scott Boswell’s Stella! Cohen burrows into an idea. She molds flavors into elegant desserts at one of the city’s few true fine-dining destinations. Only a few years into the industry, Cohen’s raw talent and drive define her current success. And in a few years' time, her desserts will be the model for success for pastry chefs across the country.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Frozen Chevre Parfait, Toasted Almond Financier, Vanilla- and Black Pepper-poached Pears, Madeira Reduction, Pomegranate Syrup, and Caramel Croquant
  • Ice Box Pie: Meyer Lemon Cream, House-made Graham Cracker, Graham Cracker Dust, Blackberry Gelée, Fresh Blackberries, and Elderflower Syrup
Bart Bell

Artisan: Bart Bell, Crescent Pie & Sausage Company

Sausage and pie. It’s all in the filling for these two foods that transcend culture and class. And whether they’re high- or low-brow, traditional or modernist, it takes an artisan to coax out just the right texture, snap, and crumb. Bart Bell is one such chef, and he’s building his reputation and livelihood on the backs of a good andouille and savory tart at Crescent Pie & Sausage Company. It’s an honest concept executed with love, craftsmanship, and a deep respect for regional foodways (we met him serving a pot of gumbo for 200). In the process of realizing his dreams and perfecting his formulas, Bell’s feeding one of New Orleans fastest growing (but culinarily underserved) neighborhoods, Mid-City. But we bet it won’t be long before this chef supplies the whole of Crescent City with his links and pies.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Chaurice Sausage, Macaroni and Cheese, and Braised Kale
  • Bad Bart's Black Jambalaya
Adam Biderman

Concept: Adam Biderman, The Company Burger

Adam Biderman is betting that the all-American hamburger will soon supplant (or at least share equal billing with) New Orleans’ king of sandwiches, the po’ boy. And his juicy, crispy, griddled patties at The Company Burger make a strong case for his argument. Sold from his modern, streamlined restaurant off gentrifying Freret Street (and cooked to order by a bandana-clad team of cooks), Biderman’s burgers could compete in flavor and quality with the country’s most formidable gourmet burger chains. With the technique of a fine-dining chef (Biderman earned his chops under 2007 Atlanta Rising Star Chef Linton Hopkins), a devotion to product, inventive toppings, and a mayo bar (you can slather your meat six ways to Sunday in the stuff), Biderman’s concept has the legs to grow into a superlative chain.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Lamb Burger, Chili-Mint Glaze, Basil Mayonnaise, Feta, and Red Onions
  • Turkey Burger, Green Goddess Dressing, Tomato Jam, and Arugula
Michael Stoltzfus

Hotel Chef: Michael Stoltzfus, Sweet Olive at the Saint Hotel

In New Orleans, there's long been a disconnect in what locals seek out for dinner and what tourists expect to eat when they come to town for a weekend of boozing, sightseeing, or conference going. Finally, Chef Michael Stoltzfus has bridged those two worlds at Sweet Olive in the newly opened The Saint Hotel. Known for his elegant, independent Coquette—a longtime Garden district favorite—Stoltzfus has brought the same care and charm to the hotel’s restaurant, bar menus, catering, and room service. Stoltzfus' farm-to-table cuisine gives guests a proper introduction to the Crescent City and its nearby agricultural bounty. And with his expanded reach, Stoltzfus is primed to play a major role in this market, and up the ante for hotel food everywhere.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Fried Poulet Rouge Breast with Truffles and Forcemeat, Cabbage-Chicken Roulade, Hedgehog Mushrooms, Turnips, Chicken Jus, and Cauliflower
  • Pickled Gulf Shrimp, Green Curry, Watermelon Radish, Boston Lettuce Ribs, and Pickled Jalapeno
Brian Landry

Community: Brian Landry, Borgne

After BP bequeathed the Gulf of Mexico with over 200 million gallons of crude oil, New Orleans, the Gulf, and its fishermen needed a serious advocate. They found one in Chef Brian Landry. Though its seafood—long central to Louisiana’s culture and economy—was deemed clean by scientists, Landry had the mammoth task of convincing chefs and consumers that Gulf waters were open for business. After a year of tirelessly trekking across the country and Bayous and heralding the miraculous comeback kid of Louisiana seafood, Landry opened his own pulpit, from which he preaches the virtues of local bivalves, crustaceans, and fish. At Borgne, his partnership with Chef John Besh, Landry strongly makes the case that Louisiana seafood is the lifeblood of this culinary community.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Oysters and Spaghetti: Gulf Oysters, Gulf Bottarga, Oyster Liquor-Vermouth Cream Sauce, and Pecorino Romano Romana
  • Garlic Clove Shrimp: Gulf Shrimp, Shrimp Stock, Local Cherry Tomatoes, Sherry, Fennel, Piquillo Peppers, and Fried Garlic Chips
Chris Hannah

Community: Chris Hannah, Arnaud's French 75

Ask any New Orleans barman where to go for a drink, and he’ll point you toward Arnaud’s French 75, where Mixologist Chris Hannah has held court over this elegant space for almost a decade. Hannah’s bar is a throwback to a more civilized way of drinking; despite its just-off Bourbon location, Arnaud’s French 75 is designed to be a pre- and post-dinner stop for classic cocktails (with a Hannah spin, of course). And when he’s not busy making punch on New Year’s Eve for the homeless, listening to regulars, or getting group tattoos with fellow mixos, he readily shares his cocktail philosophy and knowledge with his immediate and ever-growing Tales of the Cocktail community. In a town largely defined by its drinking culture, this is the man at its center.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Rebennack: Maker's Mark Bourbon, Averna Amaro, Strega, and Peychaud's Bitters
  • Ameritinez: Boodles London Dry Gin, Luxardo, Amaro, and Orange Bitters
Leon TouzetLeon Touzet

Restaurateurs: Aaron Burgau, Leon Touzet, and Pierre Touzet, Patois and Tru Burger

In New Orleans, restaurateurs like to keep it in the family. Leon and Pierre Touzet are members of the original the Galatoire’s clan; they watched their grandfather work endlessly and passionately at the New Orleans classic. The Touzets and cousins have a smattering of restaurants with overlapping ownership all around town. But what the Touzets and Chef Aaron Burgau (no relation) struck upon with the opening of Patois was the sort of dynamic magic that happens with truly chef-driven concepts. They created a new family type, familiar to everyone in the industry: the inseparable, convivial restaurant tribe. The chef-restaurateur team pours their (now joint) life into the restaurant, fostering an environment where employees share equal pride in this modern-day New Orleans standard. In return, the Touzets and Burgau have started to open new restaurants, including addictive Tru Burger, so employees can move up within the company. Theirs is a family tree—a strong Southern oak—whose branches will continue to grow.

Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Crispy Kobe Beef Belly, Sweet Onion-Herb Salad, Lime, and Soy-Ginger Dressing
  • Pan-seared Snowy Grouper, Crispy Parsnips, Spinach, and Pernod-scented Leek and Fennel Oyster Stew
John Mitchell

Sommelier: John Mitchell, Stella!

John Mitchell pours wine pairings like stories, like journeys from a two-top in Stella! to small-production vineyards in Burgundy and Lebanon. But it’s more than the art of storytelling that defines Mitchell’s somm aptitude; he has serious wine knowledge and access to some of the city’s best bottles, which he adroitly pairs with Chef Scott Boswell’s nouveau American cuisine. Hailing from the South, Mitchell is a natural fit in the Big Easy, and his easy-going, fluid pairing style doesn’t play favorites with New or Old World wines. Instead he goes for boutique bottles that tease out nuance in both the wine and Boswell’s dishes; his pairings have a tale to tell, a lesson in the great possibilities of the perfect union and food and wine.

James Ives

Mixologist: James Ives, Cure

In town for less than a year, Mixologist James Ives thrives on the collaborative bartending spirit of Cure, namely because he has so much to contribute to New Orleans’ modern cocktail den. Ives believes in pairing big with even bigger flavors, and his drinks lead to wholly entertaining and delectable wallops in the mouth. On the opposite side of the potable spectrum, he knows how to structure nuanced cocktails, letting floral notes and aromatics sing in soft chorus. Ives’ Cure experiments involve fewer pyrotechnics and more blending of odd couple spirits (mezcal and crème de violette, anyone?). If the combinations weren’t so successful, they’d be strange. But Ives has the palate and aptitude to master any formula he sets out to conquer. He’s the New Orleans drinking man’s newest cure.

Drinks that Clinched It:

  • Vixen’s Heart: Cynar, Glenlivet "Nadura" Scotch, Lazzaroni Amaretto, Salt Tincture, Smoked Grapefruit Oil, and Grapefruit Zest
  • North Star: Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Ransom Old Tom Gin, Punt e Mes Vermouth, Fernet Branca, Vanilla Syrup, and Perique Tobacco Bitters