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Best Chefs Awards 2015

 Six hard-driving, taste-making talents who have conquered our hearts and palates.

Ravi Kapur, Chef of the Year

SLIDESHOW

Ravi Kapur.

(1 of 5)

Ravi Kapur, Chef of the Year

Scott Baird (left) and Josh Harris.

(2 of 5)

Ravi Kapur, Chef of the Year

Sarah Bonar.

(3 of 5)

Ravi Kapur, Chef of the Year

Thomas McNaughton.

(4 of 5)

Ravi Kapur, Chef of the Year

Katianna Hong.

(5 of 5)

A gymnast turned fine-dining all-star, a pair of lavishly bearded cocktail savants, a chef who mined his upbringing for culinary gold, a former army sergeant who found the city’s sweet spot, and an enterprising empire builder. Chosen by San Francisco’s Best Chefs Academy, this year’s winners have earned the respect of their peers—not to mention the gratitude of the ravenous dining public.


CHEF OF THE YEAR

Ravi Kapur
Liholiho Yacht Club

The tiles in Liholiho Yacht Club’s entryway spell out “aloha,” but Ravi Kapur isn’t running a Hawaiian restaurant. In his view, his menu—with its tuna poke on nori crackers and twice-cooked pork belly with pineapple—is just the latest incarnation of California cuisine, or, as he says, “the next shift in immigration.”

Kapur grew up on Oahu, where a pan-Pacific pantry and the flavors of his Chinese grandmother’s cooking heavily influenced his palate. The dishes at Liholiho draw from that upbringing, as well as from his later experiences cooking at Prospect and Boulevard. “The heart of it is just being delicious and fun,” the chef says of his menu. “The work and technique that go into the food lay the foundation, but they don’t ask for your attention.”

Although housemade Spam, a traditional Hawaiian favorite, can be ordered off-menu, Kapur is still debating how to introduce flavors from the islands while avoiding tropes like luau stew and loco moco.


BEST BOOZE GURUS

The Bon Vivants
Scott Baird and Josh Harris, Founders

Before Josh Harris and Scott Baird founded the Bon Vivants, they were both tending bar at 15 Romolo, the North Beach saloon where Baird was a partner. But when Harris got a call to consult on a new bar, he realized something: “We could say we’re a company, and we’d be one because we said so. We could just see what happens.”

So they did, launching their cocktail, hospitality, marketing, and design firm in 2009. Today, Harris and Baird are the proprietors of Trick Dog, one of the city’s most influential bars. They recently partnered with Ne Timeas to create the cocktail program at Aatxe and to relaunch Café du Nord. They also continue to consult for liquor companies and bar and restaurant groups. 

Trick Dog has been the duo’s true baby, a manifestation of “every single thing we ever thought we would do,” Harris says. That means cocktails made with fresh juices, high-quality spirits and tinctures—and reasonable wait times.

Between creating new drink programs and revamping Trick Dog’s cocktail menu, it’s been a hectic few months for the pair—and that’s fine with them. “We’re not pumping the brakes anytime soon,” Harris says. “We’re always open to new opportunities.”


BEST PASTRY CHEF

Sarah Bonar
Frances and Octavia

While you won’t find eggplant or kale lurking in the dessert menus that Bonar oversees as pastry chef at Frances and Octavia, you will find creations remarkable for both their clarity of flavor and their execution: Think a stone fruit and frangipane tart with honeycomb candy and buttermilk sherbet, or a nectarine float endowed with yogurt whey, mint, and lavender.

Growing up, Bonar says, she wasn’t “one of those precocious children who always knew they would be a baker.” Her family didn’t have a lot of money for college tuition, so she followed the lead of her father, a career army soldier, and joined the military. Honorably discharged as a sergeant after five years stationed in San Antonio, Texas, as a Spanish linguist, she attended culinary school on the GI Bill; after graduation, she landed her first industry job at Frances’s pastry station, working for chef-owner Melissa Perello.

“It’s unreal to me that this [award] is happening,” says Bonar, who is 30. “I’ve just kept my head down and worked hard—I didn’t really understand that other people were noticing.”


BEST EMPIRE BUILDER

Ne Timeas
Thomas McNaughton, Cofounder

Since 2009, the Ne Timeas Restaurant Group has grown from a single restaurant—the Mission’s Flour + Water—into a small empire that includes Central Kitchen, Aatxe, Salumeria, and Cafe du Nord. “I’ve been involved in construction or onsite for the last six years,” says Thomas McNaughton, the group’s executive chef. “We’ve grown really fast.”

But there is no formula to that growth, says McNaughton, who founded Ne Timeas with partners David White and David Steele. Salumeria, for example, stemmed from the need for a larder for Flour + Water (where McNaughton is also executive chef), while Central Kitchen came about because Salumeria’s landlord had a space available.

Which isn’t to say that the partners haven’t fielded a lot of offers to expand: Over the years, they’ve turned down some 50 suitors. Their current plan is to slow down, stay in the Bay Area, and focus on quality. “My dream—my passion project—is a working farm,” McNaughton says. “For now, we want to polish our stones. But never say never.”

 

RISING STAR CHEF
Katianna Hong 
The Restaurant at Meadowood

Katianna Hong found her love for food when she could finally eat it. Her childhood, she says, was spent pursuing a gymnastics career, and she “had to follow a really strict diet.” That changed when a tailbone injury in her early teens closed the door to the Olympics but opened the door to the world of food. Suddenly, she recalls, “I had the freedom to eat whatever I wanted.”

That appetite led Hong to culinary school and an externship at Los Angeles’ Mélisse, where she first worked in fine dining, a realm with certain parallels to gymnastics. “I liked the discipline and the intensity,” Hong says. “You’re always trying to be better, cleaner, and more creative.”

Today, Hong is channeling that drive into her position as the Restaurant at Meadowood’s chef de cuisine. Working alongside executive chef Christopher Kostow, she collaborates on new dishes and consults with Meadowood’s gardener and forager-preservationist to plan menus seasons in advance.

One thing Hong doesn’t pay much attention to is her status as the only female chef de cuisine at an American three-Michelin-starred restaurant. “There haven’t been many women in the kitchens that I’ve worked in,” she says. “But I like hanging out with the boys.”


The 2015 Best Chefs Academy 
A roll call of previous winners who voted on this year’s inductees.

Jessica Boncutter, Rising Star Chef, 2008
Stuart Brioza, Chef of the Year, 2013
Melissa Chou, Pastry Chef, 2010
Brett Cooper, Rising Star Chef, 2013
Janet Rikala Dalton, Pastry Chef, 2004
Greg Dunmore, Rising Star Chef, 2006
Yoon Ha, Sommelier, 2012
Laurence Jossel, Chef of the Year, 2009
Christopher Kostow, Chef of the Year, 2012
Nicole Krasinski, Pastry Chef, 2005/Chef of the Year, 2013
Renée-Nicole Kubin, Wine Director, 2000
Dennis Leary, Empire Builder, 2014
Belinda Leong, Pastry Chef, 2012
Shelley Lindgren, Wine Director, 2005
Michael Mina, Chef of the Year, 2005
Rajat Parr, Wine Director, 2009
Daniel Patterson, Chef of the Year, 2007
Michelle Polzine, Pastry Chef, 2006
Stephanie Prida, Pastry Chef, 2013
Evan Rich, Chef of the Year, 2014
Sarah Rich, Chef of the Year, 2014
Eric Shelton, Pastry Chef, 2001
Ceri Smith, Booze Curator, 2013
Craig Stoll, Rising Star Chef, 2000
Claudio Villani, Wine Director, 2003
Thad Vogler, Bar Manager, 2008
William Werner, Pastry Chef, 2014


Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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