There’s no doubt the past 18 months have been a period of adversity for the restaurant industry, and this year’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen recognized and celebrated the perseverance of leaders in the industry, arguably more than ever before.
Prior to the weekend of the benchmark event, Food & Wine Magazine restaurant editor Khushbu Shah spent months traveling across the United States, dining in as many cities as possible to discover, uncover and shed light on the chefs and restaurant owners building the industry’s backbone in a time when it seemed to be crumbling.
“It’s such a heartbreaking time for the industry, but at the same time, it was so heartening to see the number of ways people were working through it, figuring out solutions and how creative people were getting — how determined they were to survive and to still provide food and a great experience,” Shah said. “And these Best New Chefs are super representative of that. I mean they managed to shine in the middle of the craziest, hardest times of their careers. This is a testament to them and their leadership.”
On Sept. 9, the 33rd class of Best New Chefs came together for the first time to celebrate their leadership and kick off the 2021 Food & Wine Classic weekend. The Best New Chefs event, which typically takes place in New York City, was a spirited evening held in the outside garden of Hotel Jerome.
“To be honest, this is the first time I’ve seen some of my teammates in person in 16 or 17 months, so that’s amazing,” Food & Wine Editor in Chief Hunter Lewis said. “But to be able to see the Best New Chefs in person and not on a Zoom camera, and to see the entire industry come together, it means the world. There’s great energy tonight — I think people are just very, very grateful.”
The energy at Thursday night’s event was indeed palpable, and as this year’s diverse group of 11 Best New Chefs came to Aspen from across the country to share this exciting moment in their careers, they expressed what it meant to be there and what they hope to see moving forward.
Best New Chefs Trey Smith and Blake Aguillard, co-owners of Saint-Germain in New Orleans, Louisiana, reflected on the range of emotions that comes with celebrating this accomplishment amidst a time of catastrophe. Considering the pandemic and recent natural disaster in New Orleans, Smith explained how the swell of support from people back home was particularly high.
“We have a lot of restaurant family and friends back home who are so excited for us,” Smith said. “I’ve gotten so many texts today from other restaurant owners in New Orleans — who just went through a hurricane — saying, please, have so much fun for me.”
Ji Hye Kim, Best New Chef and owner of Miss Kim in Ann Arbor, Michigan, also said she’s received multiple messages from friends in Ann Arbor telling her to “enjoy the ride.”
“The restaurant industry is already really tough, and the pandemic brought a whole set of other challenges. And you try to do the right thing, you try to keep going, you just don’t know if it’s actually working or being acknowledged,” Kim said. “So to have this recognition, it means a whole lot.”
Paola Velez, Best New Chef who started Bakers Against Racism in Washington, D.C., uses food as a lifeline to explore her identity as a first generation American, as well as a way to preserve her family’s history and heritage — something that has often been pushed to the side for survival, she said.
Through the “soul-crushing” pandemic, Velez was running a restaurant program and micro pop-up bakery — an exhausting yet rewarding experience.
“Being here this weekend, it’s surreal. I’m a young woman from the Bronx who grew up with not a lot and works in D.C. now, and I’m the daughter of an immigrant. So right now, I feel like, how is this even happening to me?” Velez said. “A lot of people would be like, I worked so hard to get here; for me, it’s like wow, my mom sacrificed everything and now she’s able to see those rewards from her lifetime.”
Following the well-deserved celebratory evening and Food & Wine Classic weekend, this crop of Best New Chefs and the Food & Wine team are looking toward the industry’s future, learning from the hardships of the pandemic and finding new ways to continue supporting and strengthening the culinary world and restaurant sector.
Velez, who is on the board of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation (RWCF), is currently working with the organization to advocate for equal treatment and transparency in the industry.
“There’s so many people who are the backbone to this industry — the industry is what it is because of these folks sacrificing their nights, weekends, family days,” Velez said. “And we should be able to treat them better, pay them equitably and respect them as human beings.”
Kim echoed the sentiment, mentioning how there are so many good, smart, qualified people in the restaurant industry yet she feels they are undervalued and underestimated.
“We should start recognizing and treating each other as the professional and skilled individuals that we are,” Kim said. “I want the public to understand that as well. This is not a gig for everybody; this is an actual career and it takes a lot of skills — I want people to understand it in that way and have the industry be transformed in that way.”
While the Food & Wine Classic highlights the skills of these talented individuals, this year’s festival put an even greater emphasis on the importance of the industry’s leaders, and Food & Wine is working to support those leaders, Lewis, the magazine’s editor, said. He explained that in 2021 for the first time, organizers put on two private programs for the Best New Chefs: one was a mental health session and the other was the Best New Chefs Mentorship program.
“It’s not enough to just award an accolade anymore, we’ve got to support them and their career growth,” Lewis said in an interview at Thursday night’s event. “So we’re bringing past Best New Chefs together and other leaders in the industry to talk to them about business and failure and setbacks, and how you bounce back and how you navigate being a Best New Chef.”
After traveling cross country and experiencing takeout, delivery and dining under difficult circumstances, Shah hopes the reckoning and re-evaluation within the industry continues, foreseeing more equitable kitchens and greater appreciation from people in terms of the labor that goes into a meal and the overall dining experience.
“From coast to coast, the 2021 class of Best New Chefs is reinventing what it means to lead in the kitchen while cooking the food that matters to them most,” Shah writes in a Food & Wine article. “Restaurants may no longer look the same, but with this class of chefs at the helm, I am excited to see — and eat — what the future holds.”