When you think about what defines a hot chef, how do you gauge their temperature? Is it their success? Talent? Relevance? Accolades? Yes, yes, yes and yes. There is no formula for success, as long as diners leave with that “I just experienced something special” feeling.
It’s probably no surprise that in the midst of the current restaurant boom, many of Seattle’s hottest chefs are helming their own place for the first time. RockCreek’s Eric Donnelly, who had previously cooked at Toulouse Petit, gained immediate praise from food writers and regular diners from day one. Less than one year after opening RockCreek (Fremont, 4300 Fremont Ave. N; 206.557.7532; rockcreekseattle.com), the 39-year-old was named a 2014 Best Chef Northwest James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist. His globally sourced seafood is arguably the best in Seattle, and his dishes remain creative and consistent, even now that his Fremont restaurant has passed the honeymoon phase.
Like Donnelly, Derek Ronspies is enjoying being a first-time restaurateur. He has stepped out of the shadows of his brother, Dustin, with whom he cooked at Wallingford’s Art of the Table, to open nose-to-tail gastropub Le Petit Cochon (Fremont, 701 N 36th St., No. 200; 206.829.8943; gettinpiggy.com). In August, Ronspies dropped the “Le Petit” and adopted a more playful menu with twists on mainstream favorites, such as fried oysters and chicken and waffles, in hopes of losing the “fine dining” stigma he inadvertently attracted when he opened last October.
The six-course chef’s tasting menu is still intact; there’s just not as much offal. While it may seem everyone is doing whole animal butchery, Ronspies, 37, takes it up a notch. With the ability to make even pig hearts and lamb testicles taste good, Ronspies is equal parts chef and magician. We just hope his neighborhood of Upper Fremont is ready for his vision.
Other chefs in this group are not as new to the spotlight, but continue to surprise us with their talent, such as hot shot 28-year-old Blaine Wetzel (not pictured) from Willows Inn (Lummi Island, 2579 W Shore Drive; 360.758.2620; willows-inn.com) and 36-year-old Rachel Yang from Revel (Fremont, 403 N 36th St.; 206.547.2040; revelseattle.com) and Joule (Wallingford, 3506 Stone Way N; 206.632.5685; joulerestaurant.com). Already a 2012 Food & Wine Best New Chef, Wetzel picked up his first James Beard medallion as 2014’s Rising Star. His gastro-impressive 18-course farmed and foraged meals match his Lummi Island surroundings: majestic and unspoiled. Yang is not as refined with her technique as Wetzel—that’s not her thing—but she continues to push the pack. By reinventing Joule (opening in a new location with a Korean steakhouse concept in 2012), she has kept her restaurant relevant for six years.
And with her newest project, Trove—a four-legged treasure box: noodle counter, bar, grill and parfait window—she’s bringing her approachable Korean cooking to Capitol Hill.
Manu Alfau, 33, is also dipping his toe into the (often chilly) waters of restaurant ownership. After years of trying to find a location for his Caribbean sandwich shop La Bodega (Pioneer Square, 100 Prefontaine Place S; 206.682.2175; labodegaseattle.com), the former Ethan Stowell cook arrived in Pioneer Square last December on perhaps the sketchiest block in the neighborhood. But if anyone can make that location sing to the tune of a steel drum, it’s Alfau. He’s a risk taker. And he’s been very successful at adding life to the street where his little purple cult eatery proudly sits.
Fresh ideas are rare in the restaurant business, which is why when Eli Dahlin, the former chef de cuisine of Renee Erickson’s enthusiastically celebrated Walrus and the Carpenter announced he was leaving to run his own kitchen, our anticipation for an innovative new restaurant soared. In June, the 33-year-old opened Damn the Weather (Pioneer Square, 116 First Ave. S; 206.946.1283; damntheweather.com), with owner and former Rob Roy barman Bryn Lumsden.
While it’s yet to be seen whether Dahlin’s exemplary technique will successfully translate at his new Pioneer Square restaurant, it’s already clear that there is a playful mastermind in charge of the food in a neighborhood that hasn’t seen this level of creativity since Matt Dillon opened Bar Sajor in February 2013. Dahlin’s menu, dotted with dishes such as a Caesar salad sandwich, squid ink omelet, and drinking caramel with salt and pepper gelato, is about as demure as the neighborhood his restaurant calls home. His goal is one of maintained relevance, not a trendy flash in the pan.
Speaking of Bar Sajor (Pioneer Square, 323 Occidental Ave. S; 206.682.1117; barsajor.com), Dillon’s chef Edouardo Jordan, 34, who was rightfully nominated for Food & Wine’s People’s Best New Chef in 2014, regularly takes the heat in front of the large, wood-fired oven. Jordan loves what he does—just look for that ear-to-ear grin.
Thwarting the pretty-presentation bandwagon, Jordan lets the fresh ingredients of his dishes speak for themselves with a rustic display. Gawky-looking gooseneck barnacles sit unsauced with roasted potatoes atop a smidge of aioli and a couple of edible flowers; goat shoulder roasted with Walla Walla onions and equally beige chanterelles and honey are topped with raw goat’s milk. He isn’t willing to forgo his own vision of what foraged, fished and farmed food should look like in order to satisfy a trend, and there is something very hot about that.
Ditto for Rachael Coyle. The baking and pastry wunderkind is prepping to open a permanent home for her successful pop-up, Coyle’s Bakeshop (Greenwood, 8300 Greenwood Ave. N; Facebook, “Coyle’s Bakeshop”), which she had operated out of Book Larder for about a year. But the 32-year-old isn’t just rolling out muffins and cinnamon rolls to appease a massive sweet tooth; she’s spearheading the seasonality of pastries—something she’s been drawn to since her days as Jerry Traunfeld’s pastry chef at The Herbfarm. Coyle is also a marketing maven, using social media to communicate with her adoring fans. Her Internet presence has launched her to another level of success, as her sold-out baked goods will attest.
READ NEXT: Local Chefs to Watch