2017 Los Angeles Rising Stars: Why They Shine

2017 Los Angeles Rising Stars: Why They Shine

It’s a momentous time to be young and at the helm of a kitchen, bar, wine program, or food business in Los Angeles. There’s an infectious energy from the hills to the beach. Adventure, risk and reward are up for grabs, on any block, in any neighborhood, awaiting someone with vision, savvy, skills, and the right team. 

A casual cool pervades. Fine-dining sensibilities are dressed down and trotted out on ceramic pottery (cue the sunshine bathing a composed salad in warm light). And exceptional, chef-driven concept restaurants are cropping up all over the city, making good food more accessible—whether it’s Korean barbecue, tacos and tater tots, or luscious lox.

The beverage community is pushing fun. Poolside crushers, endless margarita variations, and whimsical concoctions rule the L.A. bar menus. And a few select somms are taking advantage of liquor laws to open up wine shops and launch wine clubs, bringing dining room pouring and pairing finesse to the people. 

Since last August, StarChefs met with more than 125 industry professionals in Los Angeles County (with a dip into OC), and we found chefs, artisans, and beverage professionals who are driving nation-wide trends, working joyfully and fearlessly, and leading the country in creativity. Here are the best of the best, presenting the 2017 StarChefs Rising Stars and why they shine.     

Chef: Vartan Abgaryan, 71Above

Vartan Abgaryan has a better view than you. He has a sweet 30-year lease and a killer line-up of cooks. And at 71Above, he’s cooking with finesse and confidence. Abgaryan’s plates belie the obsessive fine-tuning and technical detail he works into every dish. A Caesar salad riff gets a hit of funky-sweet flavor from preserved lemon jam. Pan-seared, sous vide asparagus spears get dolled up with uni aïoli and house XO. Like his restaurant, Abgaryan’s cooking is refined but accessible, and his crew is sending out three-, four-, and more-course meals to hundreds of diners each night. Born, raised, and trained in L.A., Abgaryan is building a dining destination and institution for his hometown.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Barbecued Octopus, Persimmon Barbecue Sauce, Pickled Persimmon, Meyer Lemon, and Mustard Seeds, and Mustard Greens
  • White Asparagus, Uni, XO Sauce, Sea Beans, and Basil
Chef: Tristan Aitchison, Providence

Tristan Aitchison is a Michael Cimarusti loyalist, who has worked for the pioneering chef since his days at Water Grill. Now, Aitchison runs Cimarusti’s Providence, producing hyper-creative, visually stunning tasting menus with a clear culinary voice. Aitchison is a skilled editor, boiling dishes down to their essentials. Think geoduck, razor clams, pickled nasturtium pods, and nasturtium leaves, or a welcome-to-spring plate of Delta asparagus, ramp relish, king crab, and coastal green onion aïoli. There’s a rhythm to his dishes of which precious seasonal produce, local seafood, and refinement are the pillars. Aitchison is running one of Los Angeles’ most important restaurants with a vision, a deep sense of commitment, and the shear talent to lead his brigade and the city. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Santa Barbara Spot Prawn Tartare, Golden Osetra Caviar, Finger Limes, Fermented Apple, Radish Flowers, Gold Leaf, and Spot Prawn Rice Crackers
  • Live Sea Scallop en Croute, Scallop Jus, Truffle Butter, Australian Black Truffle, and Lemon
Chef: Gareth Evans, Gwen

Gareth Evans is an unassuming presence in one of L.A.’s most hyped and typed about restaurants: Curtis Stone’s Gwen. By virtue of its size, status, and format (pre-fixe/tasting menu/wood-fired steakhouse/butcher shop/charcuterie counter), Gwen is an ambitious project—one with a technical assassin as its lead. Evans’ intricate plates are finesse defined. Steak au poivre drops its bistro uniform for a new look of coffee- and spice-crusted venison, smoked artichokes, and black trumpet mushroom powder. The all-American salad with ranch gets a smoky, fermented update with grilled lettuce, kraut, pickled onions, and buttermilk. While he may not be the face of the Gwen brand, Evans is pushing forward cuisine in Los Angeles in a restaurant whose substance matches its hype. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Wagyu Tartare, Wasabi Greens, Shaved Bone Marrow, and Fennel-cured Egg Yolk paired with Champagne Larmandier-Bernier, Rosé de Saignée, Premier Cru
  • Steak au Poivre, Smoked Artichokes, and Black Trumpet Mushrooms paired with Aglianico, Tourasi, Riserva, 2006
Chef: Sarah Hymanson and Sara Kramer, Kismet

Sarah Hymanson and Sara Kramer moved from New York to L.A. without money, a restaurant location, or partners. But they had a vision, and it’s unfolding on the plate and before the city’s eyes. The duo started strong with fast-casual falafel concept, Madcapra, where they’re using Northern California chickpeas and selling up to 600 sandwiches a day. In short order, Hymanson and Kramer launched 45-seat Kismet in Los Feliz, as an outlet for detail-racked, Middle Eastern-inflected, everyday food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Charred broccoli toast gets a funky lift from house-fermented kefir, and seemingly simple Persian cucumbers are laced with parsley seed za’atar. Together, the Sara(h)s are taking on L.A, and we can’t imagine the city without them front and center, driving the next wave of honest, impeccable cuisine.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Lemon Chicken-Pine Nut Pies, Mint, Dill, and Tahini
  • Broccoli Toast, Labneh, Pumkin Seeds, and Citrus
Chef: Holly Jivin, The Bazaar by José Andrés

Holly Jivin has immersed herself in the playful, high-volume, and ultra-technical world of Bazaar by José Andrés. Jivin has a world of influences and product at her fingertips, and she laser-beam focuses on flavor, satisfaction, and hospitality. Jivin rocks croquetas and paella hard. She’s inspired by ceviches from Peru and isn’t afraid to deploy hibiscus “air” when necessary. Jivin came up through the ranks, absorbed the company ethos, and developed a style all her own. And she’s giving back by bringing young, inexperienced cooks into her kitchen and giving them the skills they need to grow. Jivin is a leader, who’s bringing style and substance to one of America’s greatest culinary brands. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Kushi Oyster, Passion Fruit, Finger Lime, Vanilla Oil, and Hibiscus Air
  • Rossejat: Fideo, Cuddlefish Soffrito, Squid Ink, and Shrimp
Chef: Joe Johnson, Charcoal Venice

Joe Johnson is a master of heat, flame, and smoke, and at Charcoal Venice, he’s making refined dishes that rely on wood fire and charcoal for their character. Vegans, vegetarians, and meat lovers can all have their fill under his care. From a spot-on swordfish fillet (with funky-rich radish juice jus) to the best baked potato the world has possibly ever known, Johnson is playing on a higher technical level. He’s moving product from grill top to beds charcoal to a combi oven to the plate, manipulating and optimizing texture and flavor along the way. It’s a skillset any chef would envy—and one that will propel Johnson’s career from a low smolder to red hot.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Grilled Swordfish, Braised Beans, Bean Purée, and Radish Jus
  • Coal Roasted Potato, Creme Fraice, Beurre de Baratte, Aged Gouda, and Chives
Chef: Alison Trent, Ysabel

Wrap together training at Providence, The French Laundry, and Bouchon with a garden-lovin’ Australian force of nature and you have Alison Trent, executive chef of Ysabel and Laurel Hardware. Trent’s dishes, like the restaurants she runs, balance familiarity and technical precision with style and creative flair. A lovely little avocado salad incorporates Middle Eastern dukkah and Indian papadums, and a luxe bowl of truffle cappaletti gets an unexpected, wild hit of acid. Details matter to Trent, who pushes her 50 cooks to collaborate and constantly update menus for their bustling West Hollywood restaurants. She represents the full potential of fine-dining, when it’s made accessible and done exceptionally well.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Hamachi Crudo, Sushi Rice, Orange, Avocado, Miso, Mustard Blossom, Nasturtium, Chile, and Ridish\
  • Ricotta-Truffle Capeletti, Morels, Pickled Ramps, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Minor’s Lettuce, and Nasturtium
Chef: Johnny Zone, Howlin' Rays

Does the world really need more fried chicken? Wait in line at Howlin’ Ray’s, sink your teeth into a thigh of Johnny Zone’s Nashville hot chicken, and tell us what you think. Zone is running a mighty little brigade-style kitchen full of baller cooks, who are cranking out 500 chicken sandwiches a day—not to mention wings, thighs, breasts, and sides. He’s also sourcing like a fine-dining chef, picking out birds whose flavor can stand up to the heat. Zone’s chicken is an experience—one for which Angelenos are willing to endure hour-plus waits. It’s food that’s been done before, but Zone is doing it better, and establishing the deep-fried foundation of a hot chicken empire. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Chicken Sandwich, Slaw, Comeback Sauce, Pickles, and Buttered Bun
  • Nashville Hot Chicken, Collard Greens, and Macaroni Salad
Concept: Micah Wexler, Wexler's Deli

Micah Wexler is L.A.’s new Pastrami King. He also happens to be the Lord of Lox, and along with business partner Mike Kassar, he’s bringing Los Angeles exceptional, traditional Jewish deli foods. The duo founded Wexler’s Deli in Grand Central Market in 2014. Since then, they’ve built a reputation for a bangin’ breakfasts, silken smoked fish, house-fermented pickles, and fatty, unctuous pastrami. With a new Santa Monica outpost, complete with buy-by-the-pound fish, Wexler and Kassar are preparing to scale. They have new locations on the horizon, and (hopefully!) Wexler’s lox will soon be sold by a fine foods purveyor near you. Wexler and Kassar are building on the bones of a time-honored cuisine and dropping its dishes into a modern, chef-driven restaurant concept that’s reinvigorating the classic Jewish deli.

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Bagel and Lox
  • The O.G.: Pastrami, Mustard, and Rye Bread
Community: Carlos Salgado, Taco María

Taco María is a revolutionary restaurant with a prescient mission: put Mexican culture and cuisine on a pedestal. A pastry chef who dropped the sugar to embrace his heritage, Salgado now dons chef whites at his Orange County restaurant. Southern California has long loved Mexican cuisine, but it’s largely defined by guacamole, inexpensive tacos, and carne asado. Salgado and his crew of first- and second-generation Latino cooks are out to change that through the language of fine-dining and their five-course tasting menus. Taco María is a social institution, where the staff reinforces its values every day through sourcing, paying fair wages, and cooking with heart. When you add that up and then place it in a high-end shopping mall (seriously), you begin to understand the impact—and potential change—a restaurant can make in a community.  

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Fideo y Flor: Spaghetti Squash, Tomato, Sprout, and Grana Padano
  • Callo Gratinado, Scallop, Queso Chihuahua, Squid Ink Crumbs, and Chile Ancho
Sustainability: Javier Ramos, Sqirl

Javier Ramos intuitively knows how to lock in and build flavor. And his work in Chicago—where farm production halts for a few months each year—instilled in him the value of preserving ingredients, each corn kernel or cherry tomato, until they’d return in the summer. Now, in Los Angeles as a chef de cuisine of Jessica Koslow’s Sqirl, Ramos applies the same level of care in a city (seemingly) teeming with agricultural abundance. Ramos builds sustainability into each plate at Sqirl, whether its dehydrating all the veggie scraps that come into his kitchen or, more radically, culling arugula from the menu because it sucks up too much water from the California water table. The result: thoughtful, original food whose limitations are a creative starting point for L.A.’s leader in sustainable cooking. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Roasted Heirloom Carrots, Cantina Nuts, Mole Negro, and Nigella Creme
  • The Holy Quail: Kong's Pan-roasted Quail, Santa Rosa Plum Char Siu, Thai Chile, Meyer Lemon, Dandelion, and Fried Rice
Pastry Chef: Gregory Baumgartner, 71Above

Greg Baumgartner has creative energy pulsing furiously beneath the surface. At 71Above, his desserts have drama. They tell a story—whether it’s about his mom’s upside-down cake or the creative challenge of making an acid-forward chocolate plate. They’re also drop-dead gorgeous with an organic architectural style that harmonizes with the restaurant and Chef Vartan Abgaryan’s food. Baumgartber edits and adjust his crowd-pleasers so they’re smart, engaging, and downright delicious. A caramel custard with truffle almonds, coconut sorbet, vanilla, white soy, and pork powder is salty, sweet, creamy, crunchy—with a big hit of funk. Having worked for formidable chefs, Baumgartner is now in a position to lead his own pastry crew, adding depth, comfort, and promise to the L.A. pastry scene. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Kobocha Squash Mousse, Pumpkin Ice Cream, Brown Sugar Muscavado Fluff, Rye Graham, Candied Fried Pecans, and Brown Sugar Vinaigrette
  • Caramel Custard: Truffle-Praline Almonds, Young Coconut Sorbet , Vanilla White Soy Gelée, and Pork-Maple Powder
Pastry Chef: Jessie Liu, Providence

Jessica Liu is the rarest of pastry chefs. Her desserts are as bowl-scrapingly good as they are beautiful. Liu is a standout in a long line of exceptional pastry talent that has emerged from Michael Cimarusti’s Providence, where she has put her own joyful imprint on the program. Her compositions are complex yet familiar in way that still yields awe. Based on memories of Napa, where she attended culinary school, Liu composed a summer bowl of chamomile panna cotta, lemon curd, pistachio, fennel pollen, honeycomb, and honey mustard ice cream. In creamy dishes, she drops acid and salt in the form of ume or pickled green strawberries. Liu is a smart, modern pastry chef, with a knack for flavor and unexpected flourishes, and she’s leading one of the country’s most exciting pastry scenes. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Chamomile Panna Cotta, Lemon Curd-Pistachio Crumbs, Fennel Pollen, Caramel Bites, Honeycomb, and Honey Mustard Ice Cream
  • Mascarpone, Roasted Strawberry, Pickled Green Strawberry, Wood Sorel Sorbet and Black Pepper Meringue
Artisan: Andy Kadin, Bub & Grandma's

Andy Kadin is a bread outsider, who jumped into flour and slow-fermentation from a career in writing. Through hands-on learning, an insatiable curiosity, and a commitment to the craft, he has launched Los Angeles’ most exciting bakery, and he’s selling bread to the city’s best restaurants—Kismet, Here’s Looking at You, and Bestia among them. Kadin works with a mixture of local wholegrain flours and King Arthur, and he and his team take the products and techniques that go into each loaf seriously without the self-seriousness common in baking world. Bub & Grandma’s is strictly wholesale—for now. Kadin is feverishly working to open a bakeshop with breakfast, lunch, and retail operations, further positioning Bub & Grandma’s as leader in the West Coast bread scene. 

Loaves that clinched it:

  • Sesame Bread
  • 100% Whole Wehat
Roaster: Zayde Naquib, Bar Nine

Zayde Naquib has roasting down. At Bar Nine, with the majority of his beans sourced from Ninety Plus Coffee, his roasting and extraction makes for a clean and sweet cup. He’s also committed to sustainability: his Culver City shop is partially solar-powered and serves to-go orders in glass jars. Most remarkable, though, is his work to change how we define freshness in specialty coffee. Naquib—along with icons like George Howell and Tim Wendelboe—nitro-flushes his beans, meaning they taste vibrant for weeks after roasting. But he goes a step further by flushing pre-ground coffee for use in hot brew, cold brew, Japanese-style iced coffee, and concentrates. He’s giving cafes and restaurants the convenience of Folgers with the care, integrity, and flavor that defines the country’s best third wave roasters. 

Coffees that clinched it:

  • Derar Ele, Ethipoia, Heirloom, Natural
  • Nitsu Ruz, Ninety Plus Estates, Guji, Ethiopia, Heirloom, Washed
Artisan: David Menkes, LetterPress Chocolate

David Menkes is on an obsessive quest to express terroir through his LetterPress Chocolate. He buys beans that require a three-day canoe ride from the cocaine-riddled jungles of Peru. When he ran out of Trinidadian beans for his mint chocolate bar, he air-freighted the latest crop (before anyone else in the world) to fill the void. And when those beans arrive in his L.A. commissary, he touches every step of their transformation—from grinding the cacao to hand-wrapping 2,500 bars a month. If you haven’t guessed, Menkes style leans away from inclusions (with the exception of crunchy amaranth and mint) and goes heavy on pure chocolate flavor. It’s chocolate born of origin, fermentation, and craft, and it’s educating consumers and palates on the nuances of artisan chocolate. 

Chocolates that clinched it:

  • Ucayali
  • Tanzania
Sommelier: Kevin Caravelli, Maude

Kevin Caravelli flips his wine list every month to accompany the tasting menu at Chef Curtis Stone’s modern-granny-chic, tasting-menu-only Maude. He adds a whole new slate of wines to cozy up to dishes that are based on a single variety of produce—carrots, garlic, chicories, plums, etc. With his selections, Caravelli practices what many sommeliers (somewhat emptily) preach: he always puts food first. Over several years, he’s organically built one the most compelling wine lists in the country by holding on to a few bottles and cases at the end of each month. In the spectrum of programs—from wild natural wines to deep-pocket Barolos—Caravelli’s occupies a singular niche.  His list tells the story of Maude as a model for the ever-evolving conversation between sommelier and chef. 

Pairings that clinched it:

  • Rare Wine Co., Savannah Verdelho, Madeira, Portugal, NV paired with Golden Beets, 'Nduja, Saffron, Marcona Almond, and Pepper 
  • Christian Venier, "Le Clos des Carteries,” Loire Valley, France, 2015 paired with Borscht, Bone Marrow, Brisket, and Dill
Sommelier: Helen Johannesen, Helen's Wine Shop

Helen Johannesen is building a neon pink, California cool brand, along with her dream career. She joined Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo when they were getting Animal off the ground and now manages beverage programs for six restaurants. If you’re a savvy L.A. restaurant-goer, you have experienced Johannesen’s hand in your dining experience. Most recently, she dived into the retail world, opening Helen’s wine shop in the back of casual, Italian Jon & Vinny’s. She’s also reaching consumers through her monthly wine club (whose levels include “Step into the Realm” and “2 Dope Wines”), regular classes at the restaurant, and gift packages (one of which includes a bottle of wine and a Fujimax camera). Johannesen brings entrepreneurship and a greater sense of possibility to the world of wine. 

Pairings that clinched it:

  • Petite Arvine, Vigne Rovettaz, Grosjean Freres, Valle d'Aosta, Italy, 2013 paired with White Lightning: Mozzarella, Ricotta, Garlic, White Onion, Pickled Jalapeño, Parmesan, and Oregano
  • Sanviogese, Le Trame, Le Boncie, Tuscany, Italy, 2013 paired with Spaghetti, Six-hour Bolognese, and Parmesan
Bartender: Chris Amirault, Otium

Chris Amirault has mastered the element of surprise. His cocktail program at Otium is quirky, provocative, and in perfect stride with Chef Tim Hollingsworth’s kitchen. Peruse his menu, and you’ll find some head scratchers: a PB&J Negroni flip; a Piña Colada made with milk-washed and tea-infused Scotch; and a surf-n-turf Bloody Mary with smoked tomatoes, clams, and pork. That kind of unbridled, kitchen-influenced creativity can be downright scary in a cocktail glass, but even Amirault’s most outlandish cocktails are balanced and successful—not to mention fun. In a sea of spirit-driven programs, Amirault sets himself apart with culinary acrobatics and pure whimsy, expanding the notion of what a “serious” bar program can be. 

Drinks that clinched it:

  • Piña Colada: Sencha-infused and Milk-washed Famous Grouse Scotch, Lime Juice, Pineapple Juice, Mahina Coco Liqueur, Tiki Bitters, Laphroaig Spritz, and Sencha Powder
  • PB&J: Peanut Butter-washed Campari, Raspberry Sweet Vermouth, Gin, Lemon, Grenadine, Angostura, and Egg White
Bartender: Yael Vengroff, The Spare Room

If Yael Vengroff were a drink, any drink, she’d be a shot of over-proof tequila. She’s a no-bullshit live wire on a mission to make drinking in L.A better. In a town where bartenders seem to hop from one hot program to the next, Vengroff has put down roots at The Spare Room. She’s building a program and a team to last, and to properly fuel the fun of about 300 guests a night. To accommodate the high-volume rush, Vengroff makes her menus approachable … at least on the surface. Her current spicy margarita includes tequila, yuzu, plum wine, Chartreuse, elderflower, jalapeño, and Thai basil. Like her drinks, Vengroff is ambitious. She wants to own a music venue and several bars. She thinks about the entirety of the drinking experience, and she will no doubt change it and elevate it in L.A. and across the country.

Drinks that clinched it:

  • The Sex Wax: Mezcal, Bittermens Grapefruit Cream Soda Syrup, Cappelletti, Cocchi Rosa, Watermelon Juice, Chile Salt
  • Lucky Smoke: Nikka Japanese Whiskey, Smith & Cross Rum, Banane du Brésil, Vanilla Syrup, and Bitters


Restaurateurs: Armando De La Torre Jr., Guisados

Guisados is a Los Angeles institution built on freshly made corn tortillas and belly satisfying braises. With Armando De La Torre Jr. at the helm of its business operations, Guisados has also evolved into a mechanism for community building. Lawyers and construction workers share the dining room at the DTLA spot—one of five locations. De La Torre also makes a point to hire from his original and under-served Boyle Heights neighborhood and supports local artists with rotating installations in each of the restaurants. De La Torre and his father, Armando Sr. (who masters the signature braises), built Guisados as a family business, one store at a time, and now he has grown into a leading example of young, purpose-filled entrepreneurship. 

Dishes that clinched it:

  • Quesadilla con Chorizo
  • Pescado Taco, Sour Cream, Black Beans, Tomatoes, Onions, and Cabbage