Last month, the up-and-coming chefs that are shaping New York’s culinary landscape—also known as StarChefs’ 2019 Rising Stars—gathered at the Symrise roundtable to talk about the latest trends in the restaurant industry, the flavors that excite them most, and how they innovate in their respective kitchens.
Oxomoco’s Chef de Cuisine Matt Conroy, Cosme’s resident pastry chef Isabel Coss, Oxalis’s Executive Chef Nico Russell, Win Son’s Trigg Brown, and the Aviary’s Bar Director Aidan Bowie made up the incredibly insightful panel. Emmanuel Laroche, VP of Marketing and Consumer Insights at Symrise, moderated the discussion and made sure to get all the delicious details.
A major point that the chefs brought up was the importance of really understanding the basics of both the ingredients they’re working with, and the history of the cuisines they’re paying homage to before being innovative with their culinary creations. As chefs, Isabel Coss explained that “authenticity” is difficult to achieve. “People will always think their grandmother’s cooking is better,” she said. So their goal is never really to stick to tradition, but add twists, take from it and break from it, but also honoring it and being respectful.
The chefs all agreed that there’s a need to fully grasp the basics and learning about the foundation of what it is they are trying to master, so that they are able to build upon, improve, and put their own spin on things. This is especially applicable for chefs who don’t necessarily grow up with the cuisine they’re cooking.
Matt Conroy, who hails from Boston, needed to start by understanding everything that goes into making basic mole and salsa before he could go on and make dishes like Beet “Chorizo” or Masa Tempura Shrimp tacos. Meanwhile, Trigg Brown had to learn all about Taiwan not only from his partner Josh Ku, but also through history books, reading about Taiwan’s culture, its people, and what it means to be Taiwanese.
Win Son values a “recipe that tells a good story,” and “cooking techniques paired with a history lesson, or a memory.” And Aidan Bowie does the same with his drinks, especially when it comes to the high end, experimental, and more theatrical cocktails at the Aviary.
RELATED: StarChefs' D.C. Rising Stars Find Flavor Inspiration in "Controlled Spoilage"
For Nico Russell, it’s also important to “understand what’s happening to the food” as it interacts with other ingredients, how it changes when it’s cooked a certain way, or how differently it tastes in different conditions. At Oxalis, his goal is always to highlight the produce by preparing it simply and “adding less,” allowing the main ingredient’s natural and organic flavors to come through.
Which brings the panel to another important point in their discussion: health. These days, people are more conscious about what it is exactly that they’re eating. Even a BuzzFeed video entitled, “Gen Z’ers Try 90’s Snacks” shows, even kids are becoming more aware of healthy eating habits. Russell said that he wants diners to “leave excited,” and to leave with a bright feeling as opposed to feeling “disgusting,” which is exactly why he tends to add less to already amazing ingredients.
Coss said that getting only the best ingredients, and making sure their dishes have nutritional value (and aren’t just all sugar) is a chef’s responsibility. So she uses healthier alternatives to refined sugar for her pastries, like raw sugar, agave, and honey. And while Brown says that he doesn’t feel a responsibility to manage his customer’s diets—after all, many people go to them for their fried chicken—he emphasizes that there’s a need to be thoughtful with food quality and ingredient use.
When it came time to discuss specific flavors, one of the audience members asked the chefs what they’d like to taste if they were to come up with their own chocolate candy flavor. Brown said he’d be excited about a combination of persimmon and black sesame, while Conroy said chilis and Oaxacan chocolate was his dream pair. Bowie said he has an affinity for coconut, while Coss prefers more citrusy fruits like kumquat, and Russell likes the added texture of rice in treats—toasted or puffed.
The roundtable wrapped up with a question from Laroche, asking whether the chefs keep Instagram in mind when making their dishes. They all agreed that plating and presentation, of course, is an important art all chefs need to learn. For the part of mixologists, Bowie acknowledged that we all first “eat and drink with our eyes.” That’s why some interactive performance factors in bars and restaurants, and all the small details draw a lot of attention from people.
But, again, at the end of the day what the chefs value most is creating food that adds something to the conversation. And while innovation is a priority in the craft of cooking, it’s been clear throughout the whole panel discussion that they also put a huge importance on respecting culinary tradition, fresh ingredients and their natural flavors, and their customers.