The best chefs don’t merely cook food—they serve memories. Because once your palate has been titillated and your appetite assuaged, what lives on is the memory. You may not remember everything you ate for a specific meal—perhaps only the crispness of a deep-fried basil leaf, the crunch of the batter, the aroma and textures of the meat, or the colours of the sauce will remain—but you will always remember the satisfaction you felt at the end of it. What makes their cooking so special is the care and attention they put into every element on the plate, from the colour to the texture, to the smell and the taste.
Then there are those chefs who change the very paradigm of cooking and what diners can expect at their restaurants. They are committed to using the best, the freshest local produce, using ingredients that would otherwise be ignored, ensuring that everyone in the food chain is respected and gets a fair deal. And always, always that you leave experiencing something new and exciting.
They are trendsetting, inspirational chefs whose restaurants other chefs are dying to eat at.
New York, U.S.A.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, there’s no way you could have escaped Cronut mania. This devilishly original idea of combining the croissant and the doughnut set off a worldwide craze and a global quest for the next hybrid pastry.
The New York-based, French-born pastry chef opened his eponymous bakery in 2011 after working with award-winning restaurants in both France and New York. He is one of the most awarded pastry chefs in America and has also been named the World’s Best Pastry Chef by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Among his other well-known creation are Frozen S’mores, the DKA (Dominique’s Kouign Amann: a flaky and tender bread with caramelised layers), the Chocolate Chip Cookie Shot and Blossoming Hot Chocolate.
Seoul, South Korea
Jeong Kwan is not a chef, has never written a cookbook, and she doesn’t run a restaurant. She is a Zen Buddhist nun who cooks for her fellow nuns and monks at the Baekyangsa Temple in the Naejangsan National Park in South Korea. And though the temple is a four-hour-drive from Seoul, it has not deterred chefs and food writers from across the world from making the journey for a taste of Jeong Kwan’s magic.
The vegan food Kwan makes would put some of the best restaurants in the world to shame. Kwan does not use any meat or dairy, nor does her food contain garlic and onions. Everything is sourced from a garden she carefully cultivates and nurtures. Nicknamed the ‘Philosopher Chef’ by The New York Times, her food philosophy, which is based on the Buddhist principle of non-attachment, is nourishing but does not leave you craving for more. Every meal she serves is different; there are no signature dishes, and no fixed menu. Her preparations could vary from pickled lotus root, sea trumpet and white radish to Korean pear slices with pickled herbs and a citrus sauce glaze.
São Paulo, Brazil
Some say he’s the best chef in Brazil, others in South America, but no one disputes that Brazil’s indigenous food is finally being recognised thanks to Alex Atala. A powerful voice in the world of global gastronomy, Atala started life as a punk rocker and DJ. It was only after moving to Europe that he enrolled in a cooking course in Belgium. He quickly realised that while he may well master European cuisine, no one could cook Brazilian food as well as he could, and he returned to São Paulo.
In 1999, he opened D.O.M. (meaning Deo Optimo Maximo, or “To God, most good, most great”, where he combines European techniques with indigenous produce.
On his menu are Amazonian ingredients such as priprioca, an aromatic root used in cosmetics, with which he flavours a milk pudding , and one of his signature desserts features a single cube of pineapple topped with a saúva ant.
Of Japanese-Peruvian descent, Lima-born Mitsuharu Tsumura has been passionate about food and cooking since childhood. His degree in culinary arts was followed by a stint in Japan, where he spent many months washing dishes before learning how to cook rice and make sushi.
Today, Tsumura is acknowledged as one of the leading practitioners of Nikkei, a cuisine that combines traditional Japanese cooking with Peruvian ingredients. It is his playful layering of the core components of Nikkei—lime with chilli and soy sauce—with other ingredients like miso dashi and nori that has catapulted his nine-year-old restaurant Maido to the top of the global food scene. Some of his signature dishes include grilled, miso-marinated codfish served with Brazil nuts and slow-cooked Wagyu short rib with Amazonic chilli.
Chef, restaurateur, author and television presenter Kylie Kwong was born into a second-generation Chinese-Australian family. After learning the basics of Cantonese cooking from her mother, she developed her professional skills at some of Sydney’s finest restaurants and with Australia’s most respected chefs including Neil Perry, Stefano Manfredi and Bill Granger.
A visit to a traditional Shanghai-style teahouse served as inspiration for her restaurant, Billy Kwong, which opened in 2000.
Her food philosophy reflects the lessons she learnt from her mother: cook from your heart, make food you love to eat and source the freshest and best quality ingredients possible. A firm believer in making ethical, sustainable food, since 2005, Billy Kwong has only served organic and biodynamic produce including meat, poultry and noodles.
Well before the world discovered organic food or coined the term “locavore”, Alice Waters had already embraced both. Her style of cooking and vision of food, which emphasises local fresh ingredients paired with international flavours, made her a pioneer of Californian cuisine.
Waters’ love for food blossomed while studying in France in the 1960s. She shopped at food markets and cooked simple dishes with the freshest ingredients, but when she returned to San Francisco, she found it difficult to procure the same fresh, high-quality ingredients. Much of the produce at the time was industrially grown with an abundant use of pesticides; supermarkets were the norm. She then turned to local farmers and producers, working with organic and seasonal foods.
Some of the world’s top chefs, including David Lebovitz and Noel McMeel, cut their teeth at Chez Panisse, her iconic restaurant in Berkeley. The menu changes nightly, and includes dishes like slow-baked wild California king salmon with coriander flowers and shaved spring vegetable salad, and spit-roasted Becker Lane farm pork loin with hazelnut cream, asparagus, and chino ranch mustard greens.
Ana Roš hadn’t stepped into a kitchen until she was 30. Fluent in five languages and a member of the Slovenian ski team, she was studying international relations and preparing to be a diplomat. But when her future husband Valter Kramar’s parents gave over their family restaurant Hiša Franko to him, she took over the kitchen without any formal culinary training.
Roš’s style of Slovenian cuisine is intensely personal and rooted in tradition. Her “zero kilometre” approach to cooking means that vegetables come from a kitchen garden, cheese from a local cheesemonger, and wild mushrooms, herbs and honey are foraged from the forest nearby.
Her culinary wizardry is enough to attract diners to the remote village of Kobarid, in Western Slovenia, three kilometres from the Italian border. The six, eight or eleven-course menu changes every month and currently features a starter of Acacia flower, buckwheat, kefir and pollen, and a main of trout, whey, roasted poppy seeds, beets in Tonka vinegar and wild watercress.
Colombo & Galle, Sri Lanka
Ministry of Crab needs no introduction. Everyone in Colombo, visitors and locals alike, have it on their must-eat-at list. And with good reason too. Dharshan Munidasa’s other restaurant, Nihonbashi, which serves traditional Japanese food, is not as well-known, but is unquestionably one of the best Japanese restaurants in south Asia. Both restaurants are perfect examples of the half-Japanese, half-Sri Lankan Munidasa’s love for detail and commitment to using the best local produce—whether it’s crabs from Negombo’s lagoon for his iconic Chilli and Black Pepper Crabs or tuna from Colombo’s fish markets for his tuna nigiri.
Much of his cooking is influenced by the simplicity of Japanese food, though he doesn’t shy away from embracing the robust flavours of Sri Lankan cuisine. For a taste of Modern Sinhalese cuisine, a meal at Munidasa’s restaurants is a must.
One of the most influential chefs in the world, Pierre Gagnaire has spent most of his distinguished career collecting Michelin stars. Born in Apinac, France, into a family of restaurateurs, he started his culinary journey at 14 at a summer internship at Paul Bocuse in Lyon. The rakish 65-year-old Gagnaire, who could easily be mistaken for a painter, was one of the first chefs to embrace the idea of food as art. He even catalogues his culinary “eras” by name and year, just as a painter would.
The food at his eponymous restaurant in Paris draws on unusual sources: Parfum de Terres, a foie gras soup with lentil gnocchi and balsamic onions is inspired by Terre d’Hermes Parfum. Hervé This, one of the fathers of molecular gastronomy, is a frequent collaborator, and together they have created dishes like a dessert consisting of apple jellies, lemon granita and caramel wafers, containing only their pure chemical flavours.
Lough Erne, Ireland
There are very few chefs in the world who would dare to refuse the menus from the kitchen teams of eight of the world’s most powerful leaders. Fiercely committed to Irish ingredients, McMeel insisted on using only regional foods like Boxty (a traditional Irish potato pancake) made by a local producer when the G8 Summit was held at the Lough Erne Resort in 2013, where he’s currently executive chef.
Growing up on his family dairy farm in Northern Ireland, he was heavily influenced by his mother’s cooking. After graduating from culinary school, he trained locally before moving to U.S.A. to work at various restaurants including Le Cirque in New York, and Chez Panisse in San Francisco. His style of modern Irish cooking is rooted in Northern Irish produce and emphasises pure, clean flavours. One of his signature dishes, Lough Erne Pork, is a tribute to artisanal butcher Pat O’Doherty from Lough Erne who’s famous for his Fermanagh Black Pigs, and uses pork fillet, belly and cheek.
Antoine Lewis lives to eat and writes to live. As a journalist, he’s spent the last twenty years digging through culinary histories, sniffing out emerging food trends and eating his way through the world's best, and worst, restaurants.