Regarded for years as a superstar-chef-in-waiting, Conant may have finally arrived with the opening, in April, of his much-anticipated midtown restaurant Alto. His specialties include capretto (braised baby goat), every kind of raw-fish crudo, and pastas bathed in uni broth, among other ethereal ingredients. Conant’s elevated brand of Italian cuisine has become so elevated over the years, some would argue it isn’t really Italian at all. So let’s call him the new Jean-Georges of “Italian-influenced” cuisine.
The executive chef at Danny Meyer’s splashy new restaurant, the Modern, comes to his high-profile job with impeccable big-city credentials. He’s from Alsace, like Jean-Georges. He’s also cooked at Jean Georges the restaurant and, prior to his current post, was executive chef at Atelier in the Ritz-Carlton. He’s a master of all the haughty French classics, and like Jean-Georges, he also has a fondness for the comfort food of his youth (pork cheeks and sauerkraut appear on the bar menu at the Modern, as well as delicate tartes flambées). At the Modern, he has a grand midtown stage. Whether he can move beyond the classics to create a unique, wide-ranging style of his own remains to be seen.
Gallante opened a pizza parlor when he was 19 and worked at a series of Italian restaurants in the city before serving a long apprenticeship as chef de cuisine at Bouley. Like his mentor, he builds flavors with a kind of painterly precision and has a talent for serving up luxury in a variety of subtle, ever-evolving ways. If there’s a criticism to make about Gallante’s cooking, it’s that he’s too Bouley-centric, which, in the end, is no criticism at all.
In preparation for running the day-to-day show at Per Se, Benno spent almost three years at the French Laundry, in Napa, soaking up the precise rituals of Thomas Keller’s famous kitchen. These days, he’s Keller’s right-hand man in Manhattan, and the two are rigging up a satellite hookup so that they can consult whenever the maestro is off tending to his far-flung dining empire. A man of Zen-like efficiency and a maniac for detail, Benno’s also worked closely with other great chefs of the day including Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio, Marco Canora (when at Craft), and Claudia Fleming, the resident pastry genius at Gramercy Tavern. He hasn’t put his name on a restaurant yet, but with his pedigree, it’s only a matter of time.
If you divide the world of chefs into the classicists (Daniel Boulud), the trenchermen (Mario Batali, Tom Valenti), and the mad scientists (Jean-Georges, Wylie Dufresne), then DeChellis is the city’s mad-scientist-in-waiting. He has a fondness for foams and for odd fusions using Japanese ingredients and classic French technique. The dish that put him on the map was a tete de veaux pressé (headcheese would be the less-polite term) served with a small platoon of salty, crisp-fried duck tongues. Right now, DeChellis’s refined, cutting-edge cooking is the equivalent of experimental, Off–Off Broadway theater. His next step is to find an audience on a larger stage.
Like his mentor Tom Colicchio, Canora is an extreme Greenmarketeer, a chef preoccupied with the sanctity of fresh, seasonal ingredients and the purity of taste. It’s been pointed out that the menu at Canora’s popular East Village restaurant, Hearth, borrows more than a few items from the menu at the place where he made his reputation, Craft. But who cares? Craft is the most influential restaurant to open in New York this decade, and Canora has added his own Italian influence. Plus, some of the best dishes at Craft were Canora’s in the first place. Or if they weren’t, he certainly cooks them well.
Like a precocious minor- league pitcher, Pelaccio came to Manhattan last year from Brooklyn, where he earned a sizable underground reputation at a now-defunct restaurant called the Chickenbone Café. At 5 Ninth, in the meatpacking district, he’s more or less lived up to his promise. He’s a mini–Mario Batali, a round, combustible figure who advocates strong, earthy flavors whenever possible and seems to scatter pork products about his recipes the way other chefs use butter. Pelaccio also dabbles fluently in Asian fusion, which is de rigueur these days if you’re setting up for business in the meatpacking district.
Zamarra ran the kitchen during the heyday of Bouley Bakery, before it closed down after 9/11. Now he’s making a reputation at Mas (farmhouse), a precious little West Village establishment beloved to connoisseurs of small-roomed restaurants (like my wife). The menu at Mas is a changeable, seasonal document printed daily and tied together with little bits of recyclable twine. Zamarra is a practitioner of the gentle art of Slow Food, which doesn’t prevent him from putting together one of the more stylish after-hours menus in town, including braised-beef short ribs (with sauce bordelaise) and a perfectly articulated potato tart strewn with bits of applewood-smoked bacon and Gruyère cheese.
It would be quite something if the next Jean-Georges came out of a pastry kitchen—and if anyone could possibly do it, it’s the 31-year-old Mason. He is to stodgy, old-style sponge cakes and soufflés what Jackson Pollock was to Norman Rockwell. Which is to say, he’s a practiced bomb thrower and provocateur. The last time I dropped into the restaurant, batches of edamame ice cream were being brewed up in the kitchen, and the most arresting desserts on the menu were carrot ravioli stuffed with lime, followed by tequila sorbet served with strips of pineapple smoked in tea. They’ve since been replaced with an olive-flavored clafoutis, and parsnip cakes garnished with coconut-cream-cheese sorbet. Mason’s weird confections often look the way they taste, which is to say, like works of art.
Seafood chefs are supposed to be subtle and precise, but the 33-year-old Bronx native is just the opposite. He’s showy, aggressive, even pyrotechnic. Like many of his colleagues, he seems besotted with pork. This means halibut soaked in pork juice, or the finest sturgeon from the rivers of Oregon decked with, among other things, a wheel of pork confit. This kind of stuff may be almost too pyrotechnic, which is why Gallagher is content to stay at Oceana, where he can indulge whims.