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Flavor Faves: Le Cirque, Jean Georges

Dining is becoming a new entertainment experience–and chefs like Sottha Khunn and Rick Bayless are the stars

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In the ’70s, it happened to fashion designers. In the ’80s, to Hollywood agents. Now, the Fates of fame are elevating a new group of creative professionals to star status: the country’s great chefs.

Suddenly, culinary artists are hot — largely because they’ve gotten out of the kitchen. On the TV Food Network, round the clock; on dozens of websites as elaborate as French service; and on the tops of the best-selling book charts, chefs are proving that they’ve mastered marketing as well as market shopping to become bona fide celebrities.

And they’re entertainment celebrities, at that. In restaurants crafted to be theatrical experiences, a new generation of star chefs is following the success recipes of Paul Prudhomme and Wolfgang Puck, expertly balancing artistry and showmanship. Here, EW Metro picks the 10 most important names in American dining today.

SOTTHA KHUNN
LE CIRQUE, NEW YORK CITY

Sirio Maccioni, the owner of America’s most prestigious restaurant, Manhattan’s Le Cirque, was once asked: If you could have two meals before you died, whom would you ask to cook? His reply: Paul Bocuse and Sottha Khunn.

Bocuse, the legendary French chef, is well-known. But who is Khunn?

This April, every food lover will know Khunn, when the relocated Le Cirque opens in the New York Palace Hotel. Born to a prominent family in Cambodia, Sottha Khunn (pronounced So-tah Koon) trained in several of the world’s best restaurants, including the renowned Troisgros in Roanne. In 1984, Khunn and his friend Daniel Boulud moved to New York City, where Boulud became chef at the Hotel Plaza Athene’s Le Regence; in 1986, Boulud was lured to Le Cirque and brought Khunn with him as sous chef.

The shy, diminutive Khunn so impressed Maccioni that when Boulud left to open his own restaurant, Khunn was offered the top job at Le Cirque. But the famously retiring Khunn, 46, turned down the position. ”I’m a cook, not an administrator,” he demurred. When the position came up last year at the new Le Cirque, Maccioni would not relent. ”He’s a genius,” says the boss. ”Why should I look all over the world?”

JEAN-GEORGES VONGERICHTEN
JEAN GEORGES, VONG, JO JO, NEW YORK CITY

In this diet-conscious age, achieving spectacular flavors and textures with little if any butter or cream has been the grail of many young chefs. One has mastered it: an intense Alsatian with the tongue-tying name Jean-Georges Vongerichten (pronounced Vong-her-eesh-tin).

A protege of Louis Outhier, chef of L’Oasis on the French Riviera, Vongerichten (below) came to New York in 1986 and soon opened his elegant bistro, Jo Jo. Drawing upon his years working for Outhier in Bangkok, Vongerichten later launched the sprawling Vong, serving explosively flavorful Thai-inspired French fare and cross-cultural creations like Muscovy duck breast with a spicy tamarind-sesame sauce. But the 40-year-old chef’s most ambitious venture opened this month in the extravagant new Trump International Hotel. Called Jean Georges, it is a minimalist 64-seat room (with a 60-seat cafe and lounge adjoining) that will bring back the all-but-lost art of formal tableside carving.

“The food we serve smells so good,” the normally reticent Vongerichten says in his staccato tones. “We enjoy that in the kitchen, but the people who are paying get none of it.”

RICK BAYLESS
FRONTERA GRILL, TOPOLOBAMPO, CHICAGO

An academic and gastronomic scholar of Latin American culture, Bayless, 43, is showing Americans that Mexican food isn’t just cardboard tortillas and iceberg lettuce. At his widely hailed Chicago restaurants—Frontera Grill, a casual space serving contemporary Mexican fare, and Topolobampo, a more formal setting—Bayless blends flavors and textures to create a multidimensional sensation on the palate.

“People think that chilies are just heat,” says the professorial Bayless (above). “But each has a different flavor that can add something special to a sauce.” These flavors are reflected in Bayless classics such as wood-grilled pork tenderloin with a spicy sauce of cascabel, guajillo, and ancho chilies.

Bayless and his wife, Deann, have written two award-winning books—Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From the Heart of Mexico (1987) and Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen: Capturing the Vibrant Flavors of a World-Class Cuisine (1996)—and are working on their next book, about chilies. And, like many leading young chefs, Bayless is launching his own line of food products: Mexican salsas that will be distributed by Neiman Marcus and Crate & Barrel.

ROBERT DEL GRANDE
CAFE ANNIE, RIO RANCH, HOUSTON

At his groundbreaking Cafe Annie in Houston and his four-year-old Rio Ranch, both featuring what he calls “cowboy cuisine,” this handsome and articulate 42-year-old Texan (right) has transformed chuck-wagon fare to a level of Mercedes sophistication.

What is cowboy cuisine, anyway? “Well, I kind of made up that term,” Del Grande says. “Our food is steeped in the history and traditions of northern Mexico but then given a modern twist.” One of his most savory trail rations is fillet of beef coated with coffee grounds and served with sage aioli (a garlic mayonnaise).

Del Grande arrived at chefdom with the serendipity of a tumbleweed. Armed with a Ph.D. in biochemistry and postgraduate ardor for a young woman in Houston, he headed straight to Texas in 1981. “I wanted to see Mimi [his then girlfriend, now wife], and it turned out that her sister and brother-in-law owned Cafe Annie,” he recalls. “So I started fooling around in the kitchen.” Del Grande took to cooking so fast that within a year, he was named chef. The two couples now co-own the restaurant.

ALLEN SUSSER
CHEF ALLEN’S, AVENTURA, FLA.

Call his style New Floridian, New World Cooking, or Gulf Stream Cuisine. The Brooklyn-born Susser (left) is the skipper of an adventurous skiff, exploring new culinary ports of call at his north Miami restaurant, Chef Allen’s. A warm, soft-spoken man, Susser stands at the forefront of one of the most exciting regional food frontiers: South Florida, where experimental cooks are combining Caribbean and European traditions with Latin American secrets.

Susser’s cooking is suffused with the bright flavors of mango, star fruit, and mamey sapote (a sweet, granular football-shaped fruit), and features regional fish like wahoo and cobia. “It’s all a question of balance,” he says.

After graduating from New York City Technical College in Brooklyn, Susser, 40, attended Florida International University. His classic cooking pursuits took him to Paris’ Bristol Hotel and Manhattan’s Le Cirque, neither of which was inclined to extravagancies like star fruit. Carrying an Escoffier suitcase, Susser returned to Florida and in 1986 he opened Chef Allen’s, near the Hollywood, Fla., home he shares with his wife. Allen Susser’s New World Cuisine and Cookery was published in 1995, immediately gaining him praise for codifying, for the first time, a new cooking avenue along the Caribbean.

JOACHIM SPLICHAL
PATINA, LOS ANGELES

When the German-born Splichal was cutting his culinary teeth in kitchens throughout Europe, he spent one summer as a cook on a kibbutz in Israel.

“I was so ashamed of my background that I told them I was Dutch,” Splichal, 42, says. Today, as the preeminent chef in Los Angeles, he has no such identity crisis. Splichal (above) is respected on both sides of the Atlantic for his brilliance at melding classic European techniques with the rich kaleidoscope of California products.

Along with his French-born wife, Christine, he runs a small empire of restaurants: Patina, one of Zagat’s highest-rated restaurants in L.A.; Pinot Hollywood and the Martini Bar in Hollywood, Calif.; Cafe Pinot in downtown L.A.; Pinot Bistro, a Parisian spot on Ventura Boulevard; Patinette, in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; Pinot Blanc in the Napa Valley; and Pinot at the Chronicle in Pasadena, where the couple lives.

If Splichal has a professional leitmotiv, it’s his crackerjack quality. The nationally known chef puts a surprise on every plate—often a deft textural sleight-of-hand or a surprise ingredient.

CHARLES PALMER
AUREOLE, NEW YORK CITY

A country boy from upstate New York, Palmer (below) trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., then worked at Manhattan’s La Cote Basque before taking over the kitchen of Brooklyn’s River Cafe in 1983, where he got immediate attention for his eye-popping presentations and exquisite combinations of American and French ingredients.

“It’s incredible how knowledgeable customers are today about produce, wine, everything,” Palmer, 38, observes. “They read, they travel, they remember. It’s nice to see.” In 1988, he opened Aureole in an elegant townhouse on Manhattan’s East Side, serving creations like his signature sea-scallop sandwich in a crunchy potato crust with citrus juices.

The burly entrepreneur is also a partner in two other New York restaurants, Lenox Room and Alva, and co-owns a small dairy farm in upstate New York. He recently launched a line of boutique foods under the logo Aureole: Good Taste. His cookbook, Great American Food, was published last year and features recipes from his restaurant.

MARY SUE MILLIKEN AND SUSAN FENIGER
BORDER GRILL, SANTA MONICA, CALIF.

You’d have to live in a walk-in cooler to miss the tag-team act of Feniger, 43, and Milliken, 39. Owners of the popular Border Grill in Santa Monica, they’ve parlayed their spunky TV Food Network show Too Hot Tamales into a media smorgasbord, with TV specials, books, a website, CD dinner music, and a radio show.

Their Truth About Cats & Dogs-style image—Milliken, tall, blond, and married, and Feniger, short, dark, and single, often dig at each other on the air—has earned them a national following, as well as long lines at their restaurant. The L.A.-based pair met in 1978 while working in the very male kitchen of Chicago’s Le Perroquet, became friends, and later hooked up in France while each was working there. In 1981 they opened L.A.’s City Cafe, eventually renaming it the Border Grill.

“We love ethnic foods from all over the world,” says Milliken (above, left). “It’s time to break out of our Mexican-only mold.”

TOMMY TANG
TOMMY TANG’S, HOLLYWOOD, CALIF.

Thai food in the U.S. has traditionally been served in dim, hushed, upholstered settings with interchangeable menus from coast to coast. But when the buoyant Tang—coming to L.A. via San Francisco and his native Thailand—opened his kinetic Cal-Asian restaurant, Tommy Tang’s, in 1982, mee krob would never be the same.

Colorful updates of traditional fare and a startling pink-and-gray-decor soon attracted Thai food aficionados and Hollywood celebs alike. The 47-year-old Tang—as colorful as his dishes, with his vibrant headband and wide, toothy smile—works the crowd like a talk-show host, cajoling diners with creations like prawns under a cilantro champagne sauce.

He rankles when purists accuse him of straying from authentic Thai cooking. “My version of Thai food is the way it should be done,” he says, insisting that ingredients, not presentation, define a cuisine. Tang’s adrenal, knife-swirling style seemed a natural for television, and in 1996 he got his chance on PBS, first locally in L.A. and this year nationwide with Tommy Tang’s Modern Thai Cuisine. In April, he goes on location in Thailand for a new show.

EMERIL LAGASSE
EMERIL’S, NOLA, NEW ORLEANS

Call him a clown, an egomaniac, or a consummate communicator—Lagasse is to food what Jerry Seinfeld is to yuppie angst.

“Cooking can be fun—we’re not building rocket ships,” exults the 39-year-old Massachusetts native. On both of his TV Food Network programs—The Essence of Emeril and the new Emeril Live—he stalks the set like a taut, wired boxer, piercing the air and shouting “Bam!” when he makes a point. On his no-holds-barred live show, he’s been known to swig beer, arm wrestle with jocks in the audience, and tug people onto the set.

Lagasse (above) arrived on the national scene in 1982, staking a claim at New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace, previously the home of Paul Prudhomme. Soon after, he opened Emeril’s—featuring “new New Orleans” cuisine—followed by the highly acclaimed NOLA in the French Quarter and, in Las Vegas, the booming Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House.

Bryan Miller’s books include The New York Times Guide to Restaurants in New York City. Miller also leads a zydeco band, the Pinballs.

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