The re-Africanized fried chicken at Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster
This highly idiosyncratic list is based entirely on my own dining predilections, and only includes chefs whose work I’m reasonably familiar with. Certain figures have been excluded from consideration — Thomas Keller, for example — since they really belong to other parts of the country. Tom Colicchio is not in the running because he’s now much more television leading man (and a good one) than chef. Without further ado, here are my choices.
Red snapper in green curry at Harold Dieterle’s Kin Shop
17. Harold Dieterle — Anyone who says Top Chef is incapable of producing a chef worth shit has Harold Dieterle to contend with. This first-season winner has opened two substantial restaurants in Greenwich Village since the show — Perilla and Kin Shop. Both are conscientiously small-scale and hands-on on Dieterle’s part, with a very high success rate among dishes, and just the right balance of careful conservative cooking and wild experimentation. At Kin Shop, he’s added recipes to the menu that might be mistaken for authentic Thai, which is high praise.
16. Jean-Georges Vongerichten — Our most gilt-edged chef is nothing if not peripatetic when it comes to the focus of his cooking. His first bistro in town, JoJo, and his casual-dining spot on the Hudson River, Perry St, remain my favorite restaurants of his, while Vong, 66, and Spice Market represent his failed fascination with Asian food. The eponymous Jean Georges is the most ambitious (and expensive) restaurant the city has yet seen from this Alsatian-born chef, raising high the banner of French gastronomy.
15. Zak Pelaccio — The gustatory bad boy of Gotham helped define the Brooklyn dining scene early on at Chickenbone, glorifying the city’s dark corners and proving that you don’t have to go to cooking school to have an impact. His path has been a strange one since then, consulting and also opening his own places, some of which have turned out duds. Pelaccio’s obsession with Malaysian food has elevated that cuisine in the popular imagination, and the idea of mixing Texas barbecue and Malay flavors is perhaps one of the weirdest notions in the annals of culinary endeavor. Somehow, it totally works.
14. Wylie Dufresne — Our most famous molecular gastronaut may be no Grant Achatz, but his temple of science chefdom, wd~50, has become a bona fide landmark on the restaurant scene, worth dropping in on from time to time to see what the mutton-chopped mad scientist is concocting. Some of the dishes tank, while others are entirely successful, but it’s the sense of constant experimentation and a menu always in flux that make his establishment exciting.
Sunday night’s magical barbecued pig head at Fatty ‘Cue, Brooklyn
Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster
13. Marcus Samuelsson — Let’s ignore his missteps, like the badly conceived Riingo. Samuelsson (born Kassahun Tsegie in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden) is one of the city’s most beloved chefs, and his current project Red Rooster has put the cooking of the entire African diapsora into focus, while bringing together diners from all walks of life to rub elbows in what is, for better or worse, the new Harlem. And let’s not forget his stunning early work at Aquavit.
12. Anita Lo — This Birmingham, Michigan, native and French scholar revolutionized New York dining with her Korean-influenced menu (and décor featuring tiny TV screens!) at Mirezi, then went on to found the entirely feminist Annisa (“The Women” in Arabic). Though she’s taken a flier with some of her recent projects — I’m thinking of her dumpling mini-chain and her Bleecker Street gastropub — she remains one of our greatest chefs, as evidenced by the recent revamping of her flagship Annisa.
11. Saul Bolton — Reinventing charcuterie in Brooklyn terms, with plenty of delectable homemade sausages (including kielbasy, of course), Bolton is the spark that has ignited the Prospect Heights dining scene with the Vanderbilt, while his Cobble Hill joint, Saul, remains a local favorite, one of only three places in Brooklyn to garner a Michelin star.
10. David Chang — The Changster is the East Village’s own chef-hero, turning a plebeian bowl of noodles into a bona fide event. In doing so, he’s gone from being a modest, self-effacing fellow into a department-store model, handily jumping the shark in the process. Still, he’s one of our most creative and compelling chefs — we love you, David!
Play it again, ssam, at David Chang’s Milk Bar.
The party rolled out into the street in the final days of Peter Hoffman’s Savoy.
9. Lidia Bastianich — She’s the greatest cooking-show host of all time, sweetly showing us how to sauté and steam, presenting the regional fare of Italy as the be-all and end-all of culinary endeavors, and single-handedly turning the nation on to the delights of Fruilian cuisine. Her Felidia remains one of the city’s most satisfying Italian restaurants, and her influence is keenly felt throughout Eataly.
8. Peter Hoffman — Put him in a wig and dress, and Hoffman is our Alice Waters. And he started his own version of the farm-to-table ethos about the same time as the Grand Doyenne of Fresh and Sustainable. His flagship, Savoy, may have sputtered to a stop after two decades, but his style lives on at Back Forty, and other projects are reputedly in the works.
7. Eric Ripert — The man thinks, breathes, and sleeps with the fishes. Obsessed like Ahab, he can cook nothing else. He’s one of the world’s best seafood chefs, and NY is lucky to have him. So what if he’s taciturn during TV appearances? It’s the cooking that counts, and the fact that he does it in a French classic vein is an added plus. Too bad his menu is so damn expensive — but you’ve got to admire him for refusing to dumb it down in bargain offshoots. You won’t find him peddling lobster rolls from a truck.
6. Gabrielle Hamilton — This culinary anti-imperialist is content to stay in the East Village and keep on keepin’ on. No spin-offs for her. At the same time, her cooking at Prune — a really awful name for a restaurant, suggesting loose stools the next day — remains fresh and inventive, as a recent lunch there attested. And plenty of surprises are still in store from Hamilton.
Matzo ball soup revamped with parsley, radish, and crisp chicken skin at Garbrielle Hamilton’s Prune
David Pasternak has his way with sardines at Esca.
5. David Pasternack — Notice that this dude is ahead of Ripert on the list, which makes him the city’s greatest piscatorial master, a veritable admiral among captains. He’s from a Long Island fisher-family, making him a local hero, too. His crudo was one of the greatest gustatory inventions of the ’90s, a reshaping of raw seafood within Western traditions, pairing fish with olive oil and delicate tidbits of garnish.
4. Cesare Casella — As a boy, his parents owned an osteria in the Maremma and he read Zane Grey novels, later incorporating them into his signature Tuscan cowboy cooking, an invented genre if ever there was one. He’s cooling his heels at an Upper West Side Italian charcuterie (Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto) at the moment, where he’s deliciously micro-scaled his life’s work, but look for further great things in the future from this guy who wears a sprig of rosemary in his tunic.
3. April Bloomfield — Though her origins lie in cooking Italian in London, Bloomfield has very much become a New York chef. Her long list of accomplishments here include siring one of the very best restaurants of the new millennium’s first decade (the original John Dory), the introduction of the gastropub to the city (the Spotted Pig), and the creation of her own Brit dream-pub (the Breslin) in the Ace Hotel. I would crawl on my knees through glass to eat her lamb burger there.
2. Daniel Boulud — More than any other chef, Boulud has stuck to his vision of creating a French empire in the city, working the high end (Daniel) and upper middle, too (DBGB, Bar Boulud, and DB Bistro Moderne — where he was totally on top of the modern hamburger craze). His best place remains Café Boulud — a nostalgia project harkening back to his parents’ small restaurant in France, while the new Boulud Sud mines the Mediterranean Rim with great success.
The brilliant gazpacho at Boulud Sud.
Babbo is often regarded as Mario Batali’s greatest restaurant.
1. Mario Batali — The orange-clogged dynamo seems to have been laying back lately, content to let others do his cheffing for him. But in the last 15 years or so, he’s provided more megawatt dining excitement than any other toque (or maybe I mean toker) in the city. He hit the ground running at Po; blew us away with Roman fare at Lupa; distracted us with Spanish tapas at Casa Mono, igniting a craze and proving he wasn’t a one-trick pony; reinvented the Italian railroad station at Otto; had a couple of kids along the way to Babbo and Del Posto; and recently returned to form at Eataly’s ground floor Manzo and rooftop Birreria. Along the way, he created an entire school of cooking, mixing savory and sweet, regaling us with organs, mining for deep flavors in the Italian canon, infusing his every dish with background narrative.
Follow the elusive orange-clogged man!