Can you imagine being a judge on The Food Network? Or a food critic in the restaurant-packed streets of New York City? Sure, these sound like absolute dream jobs: you get to eat the delectable creations of the world’s top chefs, and someone is actually paying you to do it. But what happens when you have to judge a bowl of pasta against miso-glazed scallops or fried eggplant?
This is the very challenge StarChefs, a Brooklyn-based organization and magazine, is tasked with each year as it scours four markets to find the most promising up-and-coming chefs for its Rising Stars Awards.
This week, StarChefs honored the 25 recipients of its 2019 New York City Rising Star Awards with a ceremony and tasting gala on the Lower East Side.
“I feel incredibly humbled and honored to be recognized by StarChefs,” says Simone Tong, the chef and owner of the East Village and midtown’s Little Tong Noodle Shop and one of the 2019 Rising Stars. “They are such a well-respected organization with an impressive knack for recognizing and rewarding some of the brightest up-and-coming culinary talent in New York City and beyond.”
Finding the best of the best
The road to the Rising Star celebration was paved with an arduous selection process. In the six months or so leading up to the announcement of 2019’s awardees, StarChefs worked to identify the city’s most impressive young chefs, meeting with more than 120 chefs, bartenders, artisans, sommeliers and restaurateurs. A network of more than 1,100 Rising Stars alumni nominates recipients who are under 40 years old (unless they’ve changed careers) and have worked as an executive chef for less than 10 years. These hospitality professionals, whom former honorees can also recommend via StarChefs’ social media and website, additionally must have menu control at their respective restaurants.
“We look for chefs who are leaders, who have sound technique, business savvy, love for their community, who are progressive, and who their peers can learn from,” says Antoinette Bruno, StarChefs CEO and editor-in-chief.
Once the outlet has compiled a list of chefs it will consider, an editorial crew of two people spends roughly two hours at each chef’s venue, where they taste and photograph the nominee’s creations and scrupulously interview him or her. Bruno explains that the Rising Chefs Awards criteria are based on national standards. “If a chef wins in Philadelphia, it’s not because they’re cooking some of the best food in Philly,” she says. “It’s because they’re cooking some of the best food in the country.” The judges evaluate dishes on “presentation, creativity, taste and execution.”
For many of these nominees, a visit from StarChefs is akin to a visit from Andrew Zimmern or a Michelin Guide inspector. “I was very meticulous while preparing for their visit,” says Manuela Sanin, a pastry chef at Flatiron’s Eleven Madison Park and one of this year’s Rising Stars. “I had an itemized prep-list for all the mise en place and a timeline broken down by the hour. I made sure everything was set up, organized and ready to go by the time they showed up.” All of Sanin’s nervousness soon diminished, though, and once the StarChefs crew arrived, she said, “it was very fluid and fun.”
Perhaps the toughest part of StarChefs’ job, however, is having to compare what looks like apples to oranges — that is, weighing the different calibers and specialties of so many chefs against one another. “Anyone with an appetite can have an opinion about food. That’s the joy of food. Everybody eats. It’s universal, and we all have our own tastes,” says Bruno. “The StarChefs staff includes professionals who have been in the industry for years, most of their lives. As a team, we have culinary degrees, we are former chefs, and we have been eating across the country and the world for decades. But most of all, we love food, the people who cook it, and the industry as a whole.”
What a ‘Rising Star’ means in the culinary solar system
Although it is one of the newer organizations in the food and hospitality industry, StarChefs has quickly become a well-respected and influential resource, and receiving its Rising Star Award comes with the clout and acclaim that can help launch a chef to new heights.
“Often the StarChefs Rising Stars Award is the first major award or national recognition a chef, sommelier, bartender, or artisan may receive,” says Bruno. “Because StarChefs is on the ground in restaurants interviewing and tasting with hundreds of chefs across the country every year, we have insights into the hospitality industry on a micro level.”
Previous winners of the Rising Star Award include big names like Wylie Dufresne, Jonathan Benno, Marco Canora, and Jean-Francois Bruel, who all received the honor early in their careers and have gone on to garner esteemed reputations in the restaurant world. Many of this year’s honorees hope that the Rising Star Award will have a similar effect on the shaping of their own futures.
“It offers a sense of satisfaction knowing that people are beginning to recognize there’s something special here,” says Rising Star Eric Bolyard, the head chef at La Campagnie de Vins Surnaturels in SoHo. “It reinforces that staying authentic to my food and sense of hospitality is working [and] will only encourage further evolution of the foundation we’ve already built.”
The complete list of award recipients can be found here.