Food & Wine online voting for "The People's Best New Chef" ends Sunday

Yesterday's spotlight was focused on the presidential hopefuls. But today there's a much tastier race at stake.

From now through Sunday, Food & Wine is accepting online votes for the People's Best New Chef award. The competition is fierce and features several outstanding local talents.

For 24 years, Food & Wine has bestowed the title of Best New Chef on the industry's most promising newcomers, including culinary royalty like Thomas Keller, Rick Bayless, and Nobu Matsuhisa.

In 2011, a populist element was added: the People's Choice awards. Voting was opened to the public, and Jamie Bissonnette of Boston's Coppa was anointed the inaugural People's Best New Chef.

This year, 100 chefs from 10 regions around the country have been nominated to chase the crown. With a goal of finding new, unique talent, the editors of Food & Wine have handpicked the participants--all of whom have led their own kitchen for five years or less. The top vote-getter in each region will be named a finalist, and the overall winner will become the People's Best New Chef 2012.

Our local contestants are competing in the Midwest region and include four familiar faces from three well-known places.

MIKE BROWN and JAMES WINBERG Travail Kitchen & Amusements

A soup served with cotton candy? Do-it-yourself desserts that bubble and smoke? A meringue with bacon and lime? You've just entered a parallel dining universe called Travail, where the food that may have been frozen yesterday is foamed today, and might be floating by tomorrow.

"We call it progressive food," says Mike Brown of the molecular magic he and James Winberg whip up at Travail. "It's really playful. We're trying to take ideas--whether they're crazy or weird or really refined--and make them happen. In my opinion that's what progressive food is. Not letting anything hold you back."

Since opening Travail in 2010, Brown and Winberg (who first worked together at Porter & Frye), haven't let much get in their way, especially anything that smacks of an everyday restaurant experience.

They've bucked the front and back of the house model, doing away with waitstaff and hosts. Sometimes it creates confusion, but that's by design. "When you walk in, I don't want you to think this is normal," Brown confesses.

By opening up the kitchen, he and Winberg have created an atypical yet interactive and intimate vibe. "The kitchen comes out to you," he says. "There are no servers, it's just us cooks. We cook and we serve. So if you have a question, it's going to be answered in-depth, which really shows off how passion-driven the food is."

The communal setting is enhanced by long tables that encourage strangers to enjoy meals together, as well as a game corner complete with shuffleboard and a makeshift cornhole+skeeball platform. "We're trying to set up a little college party," Brown laughs. "You can sit back, hang out and drink, listen to music, and meet people."

But don't get too comfortable. At any moment, Brown and Winberg may decide to change things up. "Creatively, we're constantly trying to push ourselves to make the experience you have more unique than the last time you were here--whether that's food, something that happens tableside, or, hey, I just built a hot tub time machine."


Since Haute Dish's debut in 2010, we've tried to slap pithy labels on Landon Schoenefeld's inventive cuisine. But the chef himself has a pretty straightforward definition: Modern Midwest.

To develop recipes, Schoenefeld looks to regional oldies but goodies--like chicken and dumplings, and tater tot hot dish--as starting points. But after that, all bets are off: "I want to create something that hasn't existed before."

As new ideas begin to take shape, he often sketches them first, drawing his dishes on a moleskin notepad and mapping out the ingredients later. The resulting amalgamations feel fresh and avant-garde, but wink back to the originals.

When Schoenefeld decided to revamp the classic snack "Ants on a Log," he transformed it into a spring roll with pickled vegetables, cilantro, basil, and mint. He swapped out the Skippy and Jif for Thai peanut sauce and ditched the shriveled fruit-in-the-box in favor of a smoked raisin puree.

When it came time to re-engineer stuffed mushrooms, he shoved aside the breaded button caps that have graced hors d'oeuvres trays since the beginning of time. Instead, he thinly sliced portabellas, rolled them in delicate cigars, and filled them with king crab, gruyere, and tarragon. He artfully plated them with a luxurious blend of macerated tomato juices, olive oil, garlic, and basil, as well as dots of béarnaise mayonnaise and fluted mushrooms.

"I think people liked it because it was completely off their radar," he says of the mushrooms' popularity. "It was so different from expectations."

As he continues to challenge and surprise his customers, he too grows as a chef. Describing one of his latest entrees, Colorado Lamb 3X, he makes the observation: "This is an evolution of style for me." The unorthodox trio--which includes a chop, braised neck, and a pork belly of sorts--demands a series of elaborate techniques. "It shows finesse," he says thoughtfully. "And it's my most ambitious cooking to date."

SAMEH WADI Saffron Restaurant & Lounge

Sameh Wadi's Middle Eastern cuisine is infused with Mediterranean gusto and a touch of Midwestern flare, but he'd never call it flashy. "It's just about good food," Wadi says of his practical, yet sophisticated approach. "In most cases, the food is simple but really complex in flavor."

Since opening Saffron's doors in 2007, Wadi and his brother Saed have carried this philosophy forward as they've expanded the business into a line of seasoning blends (Spice Trail) and added a food truck (World Street Kitchen).

"Right now, I'm really excited about the entire tagine section of the menu," Wadi tells us. "We're doing our take on North African dishes, but in a more modern way."

One of his current favorites is the beef short ribs with potatoes, artichokes, and black truffle sauce. "You don't typically find this flavor combination in a tagine," Wadi explains. "You're more likely to see it in a fine-dining establishment than a Morrocan or North African restaurant." But the seemingly mismatched components work together beautifully--a hallmark of Wadi's cooking.

These unorthodox tagines are just one of the many international offerings that make up his eclectic menu--something that requires his kitchen to have tremendous range. But whether they're taking an ordinary plate of hummus from ho-hum to spectacular or deftly handling an intricately composed foie gras dish, the end goal is the same: Make it flavorful and soulful.

Ultimately, Wadi's cuisine is much more than just the food. "It's about the idea of sharing cuisine. It's about having more than one dish--a series of mezzes--and sharing it with a group of friends," he says. "It's as much a community thing as it is an eating thing."

The winning chef will be announced on March 12 and will appear in Food & Wine's July 2012 issue, alongside the Best New Chefs.

Voting closes on Sunday, March 11. To cast your ballot and view all the nominees, visit

And may the best chef win ... as long as he's from Minnesota.

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