In anticipation of announcing a new class of winners at the end of June, Eater is taking a closer look at the 2016 Young Guns semifinalists. A vanguard of professionals in an industry which thrives on innovation, these semifinalists own their promise to achieve tremendous accomplishments in their near futures. Semifinalists were selected from hundreds of nominees will be celebrated when finalists are announced in Los Angeles in just under two weeks. Look into the lives of the South’s star bartenders, chefs, operators, and connoisseurs who have made their mark this year.
Susana Querejazu, executive pastry chef, Odd Duck and Barley Swine, Austin, TX:
Austin-native Querejazu had her eye on joining the newly reestablished Barley Swine in addition to holding a position at sister restaurant Odd Duck, helping the restaurant clinch Eater Restaurant of the Year in 2014. But not to worry — Querejazu doesn’t spread herself thin, she says, because of the family-like atmosphere shared at both Odd Duck and Barley Swine.
On improving her craft: "I put my head down and work everyday, write everything down, read, have my eyes open all the time, take everything in."
Favorite industry trend: "I love the whole grain appreciation and attention given, also masa and nixtamalization. I hope that the trend to create everything in-house/using local produce keeps growing in Austin."
Favorite food scene in a show: "I will never forget when Liz Lemon shotguns a pizza."
Shuai Wang, chef and co-owner, Short Grain Food Truck, Charleston, SC:
Wang hit the ground running with food truck Short Grain, bringing his A-game to Charleston after spending time as a chef at Chez Sardine in New York’s West Village. While he claims that he nurtured his culinary skills at American bistro Joseph Leonard, his talent in inventive Japanese cuisine has earned him the respect and adoration of Charleston’s budding gastronomists.
Post-shift meal: "Currently we've been doing a lot of pop-ups and we love hitting up Waffle House after! It's a southern classic and a must."
On his worst meal: "Sea cucumbers. I can't stand them! It's like chewing on a warm, gooey Dr. Scholl's insert that magically disappears in your mouth — yuck."
On his greatest influence: "My mother, she's the best cook I know. I can try and try to recreate her dishes, but there's just something about her unorganized, zero-recipe cooking that triggers off a million senses. My mom has taught me that food brings people together: it's not just substance, but a celebration of life."
On his future plans: "We're constantly looking for a brick and mortar. That's our ultimate goal. It's been hard but we haven't given up."
On improving his craft: "I eat a lot — my wife Corrie and I have been trying to travel a little more as of late, and we plan our trips around food. We go to cities and we pretty much eat 6 meals a day, and I think that's the best way to learn. To really experience it, to taste it, to be in that environment."
Kaelin Ulrich Trilling, head chef, Bajo Sexto Taco Lounge, Nashville, TN:
Having been born into the business through celebrated cookbook author and restaurateur Susana Trilling, Ulrich Trilling lived up to family expectation when he secured his first position as head chef at only 22 years old. He was 18 when he broke into the business at San Antonio’s Las Canarias and then Houston’s Hugo’s before he landed at Bajo Sexto, where he says he strives to create the best restaurant experience in Nashville.
On his greatest influence: "My mother, Susana. Growing up in the Mexican countryside and at her cooking school instilled a deep appreciation of food and built a foundation for the proper flavors and seasonings needed for each ingredient to shine."
Favorite food city: "San Sebastian or Barcelona, Spain — I love the lifestyle and idea of eating lots of small tapas dishes, eating dinner later, and enjoying the majority of the menu."
Least favorite food trend: "Many cooks no longer wear chef coats and cook in whatever they feel like. I like the structure and honoring of culinary heritage by dressing like a chef when I am cooking."
On his worst moment: "When I was working in San Antonio, I was making brisket with the main executive chef — he was so busy he didn’t have much time to help train us. I was just starting out, and we prepped the brisket and made it Texas-style. It was gorgeous. We put it in the oven for 6 hours. The timer went off, and the executive chef came over to help me check. We opened the oven and it was stone cold. We forgot to turn the oven on — the chef looked at me and walked away. I will never forget to turn an oven on again."
Philip Powers, assistant pit master, Lewis Barbecue, Charleston, SC:
Powers and his wife, Katy, recently left New York for Charleston despite the promise of a professional future in the city. For Powers, Lewis Barbecue is a chance to make Charleston the most prominent barbecue destination in the US with the available capacity he has as well as plans to expand soon. Alongside Katy, who is the pastry chef at McCrady’s, Charleston is a chance for his family to have a backyard, too, Powers says.
His most overrated ingredient: "Barbecue sauce."
Least favorite food: "Probably leftovers. Who wants to eat the same thing twice in a row?"
On his biggest challenge: "Overcoming the notion that barbecue is a 'cheap, inexpensive’ food. Brisket typically loses 45 to 50 percent of its weight after trimming and cooking, making what was an inexpensive cut cost as much as a ribeye."
On improving his craft: "Building barbecue cookers with John Lewis. Understanding the construction of the pit allows for unique insights into the nuances of barbecue."
Victoria Dearmond, pastry chef, Underbelly, Houston, TX:
Five years can seem like a lifetime, especially considering Dearmond was hired by Underbelly’s owner Chris Shepard at just 20 years old. While she’s officially the pastry chef, there’s nothing that Dearmond won’t step up to — including the sous chef role in the morning hours and closing the restaurant’s dinner service at night. Quite a resolve, especially at 25.
On her first dream job: "My love for sugar was very strong as a kid, so my pastry chef dreams started quite young. But my first 'dream job’ was to be a professional singer."
On her professional inspiration: "My or other people's childhood loves. I try to get my desserts as close to your grandma's as possible."
On a career defining moment: "When I got (drunkenly) introduced to Chris Shepherd as his new pastry chef."
On her greatest challenge: "My age got me in quite a bit of trouble starting out."
Spencer Gomez, sous chef, Gunshow, Atlanta, GA:
With nearly a year and a half under his belt at Gunshow, Colorado-native Gomez has been a creative force at the Atlanta restaurant that blends Brazilian churrascaria and dim sum into a mobile dining experience. Heading eastward into Georgia has been a huge deal for Gomez, and while he says his feet is solidly planted in Spanish cuisine, his susceptibility to dabbling in multiple territories will serve him well in the future.
Favorite food scene in a movie: "The egg sandwich in Spanglish with Adam Sandler."
Best career advice he’s received: "I was told early on that hard work had to come before skill. By working hard, you develope the knowledge and skill. "
The moment that defined his career: "Moving to Atlanta from Athens was a huge leap of faith. I was chef de cuisine at The Branded Butcher and decided that the next step was [cooking in] the city. I accepted a sous chef role at Gunshow, and have learned so much in my time here."
His least favorite ingredient: "Banana runts."
Alex Negranza, bartender, Anvil Bar and Refuge, Houston, TX:
It’s surprising to think that Negranza found his start as a barista in Seattle, a world away from the eight months of training he committed to at Houston’s Anvil Bar and Refuge — a position that has seen him create more than 1,000 cocktails a week, on average. He’s in for the long haul, however, and says that the bartender lifestyle isn’t going to get to him: He quit smoking, got a gym membership and began eating a clean diet after starting at Anvil, part of his grand scheme to be happy at work.
His first dream job as a boy: "Garbage man. Now hear me out here: I remember waking up to that rumble of the garbage truck at 6 a.m., a sound that I'm all too familiar with nowadays that serves as a reminder that it's time to go to bed. When I was 6, I would run across the house into my mom's room and jump on to her bed to scramble to the window that I would abruptly open to make sure my mother was awake to enjoy the weekly miracle we were about to watch — the removal of the trash using sophisticated mechanical jaws that would clench a garbage can and thrash it around as if it were an apex predator conquering its prey. The garbage man, certainly seeing my excitement and joy, would wave and smile before moving to the next house."
His first job in the industry: "In coffee, my first job was as a barista at a cyber cafe for gamers."
Go-to breakfast: "Double shot of espresso and an iced americano. Oh you said breakfast? Yeah. Double shot of espresso and an iced americano."
On where he finds inspiration: "My peers. It's amazing to see what we are all doing. If you walk into the room thinking that you can't learn something from every single person there, then you are completely wrong."
Charles Zhuo, executive sous chef, Barley Swine, Austin, TX:
A former neuroscience major, one of Zhuo’s major strengths in the kitchen at Barley Swine is his appreciation for science and its connection to food — which is apparent in his all-vegan menu at Barley Swine. Zhuo also oversees various fermentation projects at the restaurant, including experiments in cultivating miso, tempeh, vinegars and kombucha.
His favorite food trend: "My favorite trend in the industry is the amount of attention that fermentation has gotten. However, the downside of that is people who ferment things without understanding the science behind it. Entomophagy [eating insects] is definitely a future trend."
On local sourcing: "Because I work in a kitchen so dedicated to sourcing within our surroundings (i.e. all our produce, seafood and meat are from around the restaurant), I despise seeing a restaurant claim to be local or farm to table but are serving obviously foreign or out of season ingredients."
On his greatest challenge: "Hiring quality people and keeping them. Partly because it's hard to make a living wage as a cook as the general public is unwilling to pay extra for good food. Partly because every culinary graduate thinks he/she can be chef of a restaurant without putting in any work or gaining real experience."
On plans for the future: "I hope to run a very high-end tasting menu that's down to earth and fun to eat with many interactive elements Incorporated throughout."
Madelyn Kay, bartender, VOX Table, Austin, TX:
Fresh off her Miss Speed Rack Texas win in January and competing nationally in New York last month, Madelyn Kay has learned a lot since she started bartending in Austin at 21 years old. Considering her time spent bartending in Melbourne, Australia, Kay said she’s a travel enthusiast at heart and plans to travel throughout Asia in the immediate future.
On industry horror stories: "Most of them are incredibly inappropriate. I'll just say that I've learned that people really like to touch each other in public. On a less inappropriate note, I once had our dishwasher go out during peak service on a busier than usual Friday with only one other bartender and no barback. That was fun."
Favorite food city: "Penang, Malaysia. The food in that city is insane. The cuisine is heavily influenced by Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures, and the variety is just incredible."
On her double life: "I'm a certified yoga teacher, although I never have time to teach. I'm pretty into health and wellness and try to be motivational when it comes that kind of stuff because I know it's really hard in this industry to be healthy. I'm never in your face, and I definitely party, but I try to keep a balance."