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Dana Cowin on 25 Years of Best New Chefs and the 'Democratization of Amazing Food'

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Continuing Eater Lounge coverage from the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Right now: Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin:

[Photo: Eater]

How's the festival going so far for you? Totally awesome. Every year's the best ever, so it's totally the best ever. The 25th anniversary of the Best New Chefs is amazing because when you look at who that first group of chefs were, they're still stellar. In fact the guys and girls from 25 years ago probably have longer staying power than some of the people in the middle. Like Thomas Keller, Nobu. Those people from 88, 89.... But 25 years of Best New Chefs, you see how the world has changed. Those chefs were doing really elevated, really elegant food, a lot of fine dining a lot of French influence, a little American. Very little that wasn't really at the highest level, that you could tell from walking in the restaurant and knowing it as very special.

Now there are unbelievably great chefs that are now making noodles. The democratization of amazing food is what you see when you look at 25 years of the Best New Chef. Roy Choi was a Best New Chef, he was doing tacos, cooking food from a truck. David Chang has a huge empire, but when he won he was doing updated ramen. Look at Danny Bowien, the creativity that people apply to what would be fast Chinese food, is a beautiful thing to see. He blends the New York style pastrami in these Chinese dishes... So when you look, you see so much excitement, so much change, so much innovation, and so much further to go. I'm happy to have a lot of the past Best New Chefs here, we're doing a dinner with some of the superstars: Daniel, Thomas, John Best, David Chang. And I get to talk to a few of them tomorrow in a conversation. I love these guys, you learn so much, and they say unexpected things.

What are you planning for that conversation? We'll look back at 25 years and also the three people in that panel — Wylie, Eric, and Thomas — they've never done anything trendy, and they've stayed completely current. That's such a trick, and I kind of want to get to the bottom of that. How do you do that? How do you stay completely top of mind, and the best, but do nothing that anyone else is doing? I can promise you that Thomas Keller did not put pork belly or kale on his menu. We'll talk about that and if there's any dish that's lasted, a signature dish, from when they first got that award. I'm curious. On the other hand they've morphed and moved so much.

I had a really good time in the Meat conversation today too, which was Anya Fernald, she has a company called Belcampo in California with a 20,000 acre ranch where she has cattle and a slaughterhouse, butcher shops, restaurant. She owns the entire chain of meat. She has pigs as well. Her and Chris Cosentino, talking about offal, and then Mario Batali. I took notes, I took notes with Mario's orange pen actually. It turns out his orange pen is a signing pen, so it's fat tipped, so I'm trying to take these notes and the letters are all filling in. I'm like, but that was so interesting, and I'm never going to remember!

But one of my favorite things was a quote from Chris Cosentino about Marcus, that Marcus had said: Americans have the best teeth but we hate to chew.

We were talking with Jamie Malone, she was talking about the text message chain that the Best New Chefs have. That's so sweet. It's kind of amazing because class by class, they stay very tight. They stay in touch. they share war stories, they share successes, they share their visions. I don't know if Jamie was part of the group that got stuck in Chicago, but there was an impromptu Best New Chefs reunion because the planes got so messed up. Someone ended up, I think Jenn Lewis, sleeping on the floor of Jason Vincent's place. They all get together, it's great, they face similar problems, many of them, and they're all looking for solutions.

Have you met Viet Pham? I happen to love Viet, and he did the most amazing thing for Best New Chefs. The year he won, he had Sundays and Mondays off, and he would fly out on Sunday and he would stage at every restaurant from the Best New Chefs of his year. And then was back in the kitchen on Tuesday to cook for service. But he just wanted to learn from all these other people. He took pictures the whole way. He's such a bright spirit, he's amazing.

They'll do that, they'll go to each other's restaurants and do dinners, 3 of them, 4 of them. It's so different from 25 years ago, no one was on a plane going to 15 festivals, and no one was going to check out each other's restaurants. No one was sharing. This whole business of sharing and social media, it's changed the world of chefs. Now instead of, "I'm not going to show you my fantastic bouillabaisse," now it's, "Come, you show me yours, I'll show you mine."

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