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The Northeastern and New York Eater Young Guns Semifinalists

Inspirations, industry trends, and what they do to keep improving

Over the course of the next couple weeks, Eater's taking a look at the 2016 Young Guns semifinalists. These individuals are changing things up for the restaurant industry — they're the ones people should be looking out for, chefs and bartenders and restaurateurs who will go on to do great things. The semifinalists were selected from hundreds of nominees, and winners will be announced on June 27 at a gala in LA. Here, now, look into the lives of the Northeastern and New York chefs, bartenders, wine experts, and more.

Irene Li

Irene Li, chef, Mei Mei, Boston, MA

It's a family affair for Irene Li, who works with her older brother and sister running the Mei Mei empire, which includes a brick-and-mortar restaurant, a food truck, a shipping container restaurant, and a new line of sauces. Li is more than a chef in all this — she's responsible for a huge portion of the administration of the whole enterprise, and she's a force when establishing relationships with local farmers.

On her first dream job: I wanted to be a Supreme Court justice. I loved telling people when I thought they were wrong — turns out you don't need the robes to do that!
Favorite food city: After two weeks eating my way around Maui, I strongly recommend it to ANYONE. Who wouldn't hate shave ice, grilled spam, and 80-degree weather.
On her biggest influence: Our friend Sebastian Villa — a very inspired chef who operated the now-closed Mexeo and Xeo in Ithaca, NY. He prioritized local food and was uncompromising — watching him taught me a lot.
Her thoughts on current industry trends: I love how restaurants are thinking about compensation in different ways, especially in the front of house. I'm not sure there's a solution that's one-size-fits-all — so watching people experiment with new models is very exciting.

Katrina Juliet Jazayeri, owner, Juliet, Boston, MA

After working in the pop-up world, including a seven-month residency at a speakeasy-style venue in Boston that acts as a culinary incubator, Katrina Jazayeri now owns her own restaurant with partner Josh Lewin. She oversees the multiple facets of the European-style Juliet, where she has implemented a service-inclusive pricing system for the restaurant, eliminating tipping and offering staff profit-sharing incentives.

On her biggest influences: My family has always encouraged and supported me in developing a career I'm passionate about — my sister found me my first industry job — but if I hadn't met Josh Lewin, there's no way I'd be where I am right now.
Favorite cookbook: My sister gave me a cookbook written in the 1940s. It's a compilation of favorite recipes from classic Hollywood stars written in their own handwriting — that sums up what I'm looking for in a cookbook, more story than recipe.
On where she finds inspiration: I draw a lot of inspiration from my travels: the people I meet and the windows into other ways of life. I also really like going into the past, through old movies and books, for ideas.
On the challenges of the industry: The biggest challenge is that you can put the time and thought into making a really great plan, but because so many things can change in an instant, you never get to use the plan. Now I make plans B and C.
Food trend: I'm really happy that we are starting to talk about and rethink compensation in restaurants. I think this is the kind of "trend" we should be putting our attention behind.

Laura Higgins-Baltzley, co-chef, The 41-70, Cape Cod, MA

This Cape Cod native has returned home with years of restaurant experience behind her, and along with her husband (and brand new baby daughter in tow), she's overhauling Cape cuisine at The 41-70, introducing foraged local ingredients into the menu and bringing a taste of original flavor to the often-tourist-centric restaurant scene.

Favorite post-work drink: 10 months ago it was Jim Beam neat; now, I'm the drink.
Favorite food city: Copenhagen. Last October my husband and I did a spontaneous combustion dinner with Matt Orlando at Amass. I ate the whole gamut, tacos to whole wild duck to reindeer dicks.
On sources of inspiration: An ingredient's natural surroundings is where my mind goes first. Where an ingredient comes from, what season it grows in, what that season reminds me of, an experience I've had that the ingredient conjures up.
On her future plans: Creating food in my hometown again. I left awhile ago to learn more than the Cape had the ability to give. But I recently moved back, had a baby last month, and became co-chef with my husband. Being able to share good food with family so close and all these people who I've known for years is really something special. I've always loved getting to cook for people for that one hedonistic moment of indulgence they feel when they eat that continues to resonate until the next meal. It's cool I'm going to be able to share the experience with people who've helped me so much along the way.

Retno Pratiwi

Retno Pratiwi, chef/owner, Kaki Lima, Boston, MA

Indonesian cuisine takes center stage when Retno Pratiwi is cooking. Pratiwi and her husband have been running pop-ups of Indonesian street food for the last few years, and they're now working to open their own restaurant.

On her biggest influences: My mother and grandmother have both had a huge influence on me. From a very young age I was helping them in the kitchen, preparing meals for the family. As a baby, my grandmother carried me in a sling as she cooked. I can still remember all the sounds and smells of that kitchen. From them I learned what good food tastes like, and how to get the most of out the best ingredients. But I should also say my husband. He is the one that encouraged me to go all in toward my dream of starting my own business.
Best career advice she's received: You can't please everyone. Indonesian food is often spicy. Some people like that and some people don't. There's no good way for making both groups happy. So I just make the food the way that I think is good. So far that has worked out for us.
On future plans: I'm excited to open my own space! We've been doing pop-ups around the country for three years now. We've learned a lot. And I think we are now ready for own place. I'm excited to be an ambassador of Indonesian food and culture in the United States. We have a lot of projects in the works to help introduce and popularize this exciting — but often unknown — cuisine in the United States.

Robert Gonzalez bistro du midi

Robert Daniel Gonzalez, pastry chef, Bistro du Midi, Boston, MA

This physics major-turned-chef hasn't abandoned science completely. He loves the chemistry behind the craft, and his eye-catching pastries reveal a nuanced attention to detail.

On his dream job as a kid: I had always wanted to become an astronaut but I wasn't too fond of space food.
Favorite industry trend: How interactive the industry has become with its guests over social media. There has been a huge boom in food photography and a want for more food articles to be written on current restaurants, chefs, and food trends. It has been a fantastic to be able to interact with and view what other chefs around the world are currently doing. Nothing pushes you or motivates you more than those in your industry.
Source of inspiration: Following the world's leading chefs on social media as well as my enormous and ever growing collection of cooking books. I am always looking for the next book, dish, or ingredient that will create that spark to create my next dessert.
Best career advice he's received: Taste everything. Knowing how something is or is not suppose to taste is the key. Do not take anything for granted. Even if you have made a recipe a thousand times, you always want to taste for consistency. Your reputation is only as good as your last dessert.

"Nothing pushes you or motivates you more than those in your industry."

Malik Abdul Ali, sous/pastry chef, Restaurant Neuf, Philadelphia, PA

At 25, Malik Ali finds his inspiration in the kitchen when he lets his mind wander and allows his creations flow forth. He researches new foods and techniques he has never used before so he can keep developing his craft and build both his confidence and abilities as a chef.

Best career advice he's received: You don't make a lot of money in this business but the joy of people loving your food keeps you going.
Biggest challenge: Gaining the trust to be able to run a kitchen.
Career-defining moment: When I started to believe that this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Future plans: Hopefully one day opening up my own restaurant and allowing everyone to enjoy the food I made.
On confidence: Since I was young I never had too much confidence in myself. I always felt like I would never achieve anything because I thought I wasn't good enough. Now I'm totally believing in myself, especially since this moment has come into my life.

Vic Christopher & Heather LaVine, co-owners and operators, Lucas Confectionery/Twenty-Two Second Street Wine Co./Peck's Arcade, Troy, NY

This duo met while working for the Houston Astros minor league affiliate in Troy, NY, and are now the proprietors of a handful of operations in town — with another restaurant on the way. Together, they manage to innovate and inspire, with Christopher overseeing construction and handling media and promotions, in addition to DJ-ing at Peck's Arcade, and LaVine serving as the wine buyer for all three businesses and managing the staff.

Favorite food trend: Natural wine — it's fun, not stuffy, and it's all about the land and the people who are making the wine. We love sharing these stories with our staff and guests.
On their biggest influence: Our team. Everything is a collaborative effort. We're the opposite of micromanagers. It's kind of like a never-ending conversation with executive chef Nick Ruscitto and general manager Charlotte Guyton. We get excited about implementing new concepts, like our food cart with a rotating menu and different pop-ups that transform the restaurant. Outside of our business, we constantly reference Aaron Silverman of Rose's Luxury and Pineapple and Pearls in DC. He is a genius. Not only with his food, but his entire production.
On a career-defining moment: Opening Lucas Confectionery in 2012. Downtown Troy was a different city back then. The naysayers told us that a wine bar was a stupid idea, and that it would never work. But it was busy from day one, and because we built it ourselves, we were able to recoup our investment quickly and acquire the building next door for additional space and, eventually, a full-service restaurant, Peck's Arcade.

"The naysayers told us that a wine bar was a stupid idea, that it would never work"

Britney Ziegler, owner, VP brands, marketing and development, David Burke Group, New York, NY

The David Burke Group includes fourteen restaurants and lounges, and Ziegler is in charge of overseeing all of them, in addition to supervising new concepts. She's a planner with a mind for strategic development, and she handles all this responsibility in a changing climate for restaurant structures and business models.

On her biggest influence: My CEO, Stephen Goglia. He has given me trust and empowerment within our organization and truly allows me to be who I am without asking me to change. He has given me the opportunity to interact in relationships with our most important partners and always gives me a voice at the table.
Favorite food city: Lyon. Although this is a very difficult question to answer, I say Lyon because it is the birth place of French cuisine. There is no other place in the world to enjoy such classic techniques in a way that Paul Bocuse does. 
Go-to breakfast: Typically yogurt as I am usually on the run. However, scrambled eggs and bacon is the best option — with a side of syrup and hot sauce.

Daniel Pucci, cider director, Wassail, New York, NY

Not too many places specialize in cider, but at Wassail, Dan Pucci has it figured out. The unassuming cider master bustles around the restaurant, full to the brim with knowledge about the flavors, processes, and nuances behind each beverage the restaurant serves. He's also studying for his advanced sommelier certification.

Favorite food city: The most influential food city for me is Budapest. It was the first time that I lived in a place with a different food culture and relationship with food. It is a changing city that is embracing the future, while trying to hold onto some of its food history roots.
Favorite chain restaurant: White Castle. Those little patties are steamed to supernatural perfection.
On his biggest influence: Everyone I have ever worked with has pushed me to be better. From wine directors and servers to bussers and delivery guys. Their high expectations of me has always been a driving factor to succeed.
Future plans: Professionally, I have a few cider-related projects in the works for the next year. One of the most exciting is the upcoming Urban Cider Project. It is a collaboration with Wayside Cider, harvesting and producing cider from fruit found within the five boroughs. We have about 275 500ml bottles to be released in early summer. We are partnering with a nonprofit for 2016 so hopefully we will have more cider for next year. We are planning outreach and community pressings and it is a totally new way for New Yorkers to engage with a drink from fruit to glass.
Source of inspiration: The producers, farmers, cider makers, winemakers, and chefs. Talking to them daily about their work gives me pride and excitement to represent them everyday. There is no better way to learn than through conversations with makers. I hope to bring a fraction of their enthusiasm and excitement to my guests. Cider makers are easily among the most passionate people I know since no one goes into the apple business for the money.
On improving his craft: I try talk to someone who is smarter than me everyday.  Passionate people are generous with their knowledge.

"There is no better way to learn than through conversations"

Daniela Soto-Innes, chef de cuisine, Cosme, New York, NY

Growing up, Daniela Soto-Innes wanted to own a bakery, and as of last month she's a James Beard Award-winning member of the team at Cosme. She's a fervent advocate of tacos who uses travel as a way to hone her craft.

Post-shift meal: Mezcal and a tecate, plus tacos
Favorite food city: Mexico City and Oaxaca — to me, I am the happiest when I am there.
Best career advice: Everyone has something that you can learn from.
On her career-defining moment: Yes, when my mother had a cooking school for little kids, all I wanted to do was to be like her (I was 7). I wish one day to be as great as she is.

Jamie Tao, sous chef, Wildair, New York, NY

His first industry job was as a barista for Bouchon Bakery, and now Tao spends his days in a Lower East Side kitchen, churning out inventive dishes alongside chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske. Tao has his own methods for sharpening his skills, including seeking different and innovative ways to produce better results.

On his biggest influences: It wouldn't be fair to specifically name anyone as having been the biggest influence in my career; I have learned something (whether right or wrong) from every person that I've met in the industry.
Sources of inspiration: I can be inspired by nearly anything that piques my interest. Sometimes just taking a stroll through the streets can give me a meaningful idea or an inkling of one.
Food city to travel to: I would want to go to Taiwan, considering how much of their agriculture has developed throughout the last decade and to find my roots and discover the kind of cuisine that grew from there.
Biggest challenge: It's still a challenge that I am facing and it's trying to keep a peace of mind. Mental stability, if you will.

Sumaiya Bangee

Sumaiya Bangee, pastry chef, New York, NY

Sumaiya Bangee started out working at a shop called Crumbles Cookies in California, and then became an inspiring member of the team at Atera, where she landed after cutting her teeth at the Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park. She's recently left the restaurant but is recognized by her peers for her passion, as well as her decision-making and leadership skills.

Her dream job growing up: To be totally honest when I was a kid all I wanted was to be a mom and bake pies, cookies, and cakes for my family.
Favorite food city: Hands down my favorite food city is Los Angeles, because that's where I began my career and it has an amazing concentration of international cuisines in the US.
Favorite industry trend: I really appreciate that restaurants are being much more conscientious about where they are getting their ingredients from, using local farms and supporting smaller companies.
On her biggest influences: There have been a few people who have influenced me in significantly different ways in my career, the first being the first pastry chef I ever worked for, chef Nathaniel Reid who is so young, humble, and talented. He really showed me being a bad-ass chef didn't mean you had to be an asshole. Next chef Micheal Voltaggio really taught me to open my mind to creativity, and lastly chef Renata Ameni. She taught me to be a strong woman in the kitchen, to always hold my ground, and do it with grace.


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