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How These 6 Award Winners See Restaurants Changing

Best Chefs in America weigh in on the trends reshaping their regions' dining scenes

Maggie Borden

March 11, 2019


Fox & the Knife interior photo by Brian Samuels
2018 Best Chef: Northeast Winner Karen Akunowicz's new restaurant, Fox & the Knife (Photo: Brian Samuels Photography)

America’s food culture is often described as a melting pot, but we think of it more as a smorgasbord—a spread of distinct dishes coming together on the table as one truly epic meal. This evolution of this ever-changing buffet spurs endless commenting and prognosticating from critics, market researchers, and journalists on what will be the “next big thing.” We decided to skip the middlemen and asked last year’s Best Chefs in America winners what trends they noticed in their regions in 2018. From the rise of food halls in Denver to booze-centric restaurants in New Orleans to the ubiquity of the carrot in Chicago, the one thing these Beard Award winners can agree on is that America’s diners are eating well from coast to coast.


Gavin Kaysen photo Galdones Photography
Photo: Galdones Photography

Best Chef Midwest: Gavin Kaysen, Spoon and Stable, Minneapolis
I think what has continued to inspire and surprise me is the city’s focus on the smaller restaurants that continue to open in neighborhoods across our community. This will help us grow into a better restaurant town, as we get more people to come here. I’m seeing more chefs moving back home to the smaller towns they grew up in, similar to what I did, which will again help add momentum to our region’s growing food scene.  


Karen Akunowicz Photo: Galdones Photography
Photo: Galdones Photography

Best Chef: Northeast Karen Akunowicz, Fox & the Knife, Boston
One trend I have seen is going back to small independent restaurants. We have seen so many monoliths in Boston come into the Seaport, as well as a rise in the rents. It has been awesome to see spots like Celeste, Rebel Rebel, and our own little Fox & the Knife come up the old fashioned way and bootstrap an opening.

Abe Conlon Photo Galdones Photography
Photo: Galdones Photography

Best Chef: Great Lakes Abe Conlon, Fat Rice, Chicago
I don't think that [the Great Lakes region] saw any "surprise" trends necessarily, but there definitely are a lot of vegetable-focused dishes and menus. The carrot was a big star last year. Everyone was doing carrots every which way. Adding CBD to both food and beverages seems popular, as a way for people to relax and have fun with their food. Fermentation has been trending for years, but now the many uses of koji for pickling, preserving, and aging is adding whole new depths to menu items. Lastly, more independent restaurants are emerging with cross-cultural hybrid menus that speak to the mixed heritage of the owner(s) and/or chef(s). 

Alex Seidel Photo: Galdones Photography
Photo: Galdones Photography

Best Chef: Southwest Alex Seidel, Mercantile Dining & Provision, Denver
One trend that we continue to see populate Denver is the experience you find at multi-conceptual food halls. With the addition of the Broadway Market, Denver has more than a half dozen culinary consortiums. Developers keep transforming large dormant spaces into beautiful food halls with creative concepts and great people operating them. On the flip side, we also have our first all tasting menu restaurant, proving that fine dining isn’t dead. And local chefs are embracing their version of French bistro food, elevated by their offerings and ingredients. With so many people moving to Denver, this creates options for everyone living here.

Edouardo Jordan on stage Kent Miller Studios
Photo: Kent Miller Studios

Best Chef Northwest: Edouardo Jordan, Junebaby and Salare, Seattle
I am the worst person to ask about trends. I hate trends and don’t follow them. Trends are like temporary happy points in our industry and I tend to lean toward longterm happy points. classic, traditional, historical, and really good food.

But I have seen some changes: chefs and restaurants in the Pacific Northwest are working harder to be more sustainable and aware of our food system. We are building a more diverse food system—more chefs of color and more female chefs are opening restaurants or running kitchens due to opportunity. We now have a lot of younger, diverse chefs coming onto the scene and opening their own places, like Kristi Brown, Tarik Abdullah, Musang pop ups, Shota with Adana restaurant, and a number of Asian chefs in Seattle. It’s not just same old born-and-raised Seattle chef opening your typical Seattle restaurant anymore.


Nina Compton Photo: Galdones Photography
Photo: Galdones Photography

Best Chef South: Nina Compton, Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro, New Orleans
The dining scene in New Orleans continued to evolve in 2018. While we still have so many amazing restaurants rooted in deep Louisiana tradition, the year brought a host of new talented chefs opening some really unique concepts. International cuisine made a splash in New Orleans in 2018 with the openings of Manolito (Chris Hannah and Nick Deitrich’s Cuban spot in the French Quarter); Bonnets Nola, the new Caribbean restaurant; Alon Shaya’s Saba; and several new French bistros such as Couvant and Justin Devillier’s place Justine.

The year also brought a lot of booze-centric restaurants to the city like Picnic & Provisions, the whiskey-forward restaurant from the Commander’s Palace team; Espíritu, a mezcal-based restaurant in the Central Business District; and Copper Vine, the new wine pub and restaurant in downtown New Orleans.


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Maggie Borden is content manager at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.