The nation’s capital has produced a number of nationally recognized culinary superstars – from frontrunners like Michel Richard and José Andrés to new school breakouts such as Mike Isabella and Aaron Silverman. But who is going to be the next big thing? Who will capture the hearts and bellies of District diners with their cooking? Inspired by the South, Southeast Asia, and many points in between, these talents are crafting cuisine that’s taking the dining scene to new heights. Here are the 10 hottest DC chefs whose food you need to eat right now. Yes, right now.
Harper McClure of Brabo
Keeping an eye on classic culinary technique – while never failing to add his own show-stealing touches – this artful chef de cuisine puts out plates that honor the past while looking to the future. Wow-worthy dishes of recent memory include bacon-style sturgeon with pickled red pearl onions and Concord grape puree and an espresso braised boneless short rib dusted with cocoa powder and crowned with crunchy cocoa nibs. McClure’s résumé reveals a rich culinary pedigree, including stints at Vidalia, Equinox, and Marcel’s, where he worked for executive chef Robert Wiedmaier, who ultimately placed him in charge of Brabo. Nominated for a RAMMY Award for Rising Culinary Star last year by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, he is a talent to watch. Make a reservation at Brabo.
Brittany Frick of Doi Moi
After earning her degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and further pastry training at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, Frick began her career at Red Velvet Cupcakery at the height of the cupcake boom, helping bake 3,000 of the sweet treats a day. From there, she worked under executive chef Haidar Karoum at Estadio before moving to his Southeast Asian standout down the street, where she commands the chef de cuisine position. Whenever she composes a new dish for the restaurant – like fried whole porgy amped up with chili rich kapow sauce – she tries to include five elements: salty, sour, bitter, spicy, and sweet. “It’s simple, flavorful food,” she says. “There’s very little fuss behind the preparation. You just let those flavors shine.” Make a reservation at Doi Moi.
Alex McCoy of Alfie’s
You might recognize the fresh-faced talent from Food Network Star. But before he hit the small screen, he was making big waves in D.C. as the chef at the East London-styled Duke’s Grocery in Dupont Circle. Now he’s the chef-owner of Alfie’s, a Southeast Asian joint in Petworth inspired by McCoy’s numerous trips to the region and his longtime love of its food. Two dishes that epitomize the fare are khao soi – a Burmese coconut curry soup with homemade egg noodles and your choice of beef short ribs or chicken wings – and intensely spicy tom saap soup made with leftover offal and plenty of aromatic herbs. This is just the beginning for McCoy. He and his partners have another dozen restaurant concepts in mind and hope to open their next one in about a year and a half. With such an ambitious schedule, will he find time to return to reality television? “The TV thing is fun, but I’m a chef,” he says. “I belong in the kitchen.” Make a reservation at Alfie’s.
Brad Deboy of Blue Duck Tavern
Chef de cuisine Brad Deboy has had it with modernist cooking. “We’re moving away from foams, sous vide, and stabilizers,” he says. “Now we’re doing a lot of curing, smoking, pickling, and preserving. I want to go back to the basics.” To that end, he and the team here are making kimchi, vinegars, and charcuterie. He’s clearly having fun. Fried Brussels sprouts are tossed in sriracha-style hot sauce vinaigrette and served on pimento cheese. “It’s inspired by chicken wings,” he says. “We call it ‘Redneck Delight.” Another example of his lightheartedness is the lobe of foie gras served s’mores style on a housemade graham cracker with toasted marshmallow, a square of half-melted dark chocolate, and jalapeno-infused candied grapefruit segments. Make a reservation at Blue Duck Tavern.
Thomas Harvey of The Partisan
Following stints at Fabio Trabocchi’s Casa Luca and Palena under Frank Ruta, Harvey now presides over the Penn Quarter meatopia and butchery. He loves having access to the shop’s primest cuts. “It’s not often you get a phone call saying there’s a 180-day aged ribeye available. Would you like to work with it?” says Harvey. “It’s like a playground.” The menu is equally playful. Take his seared duck breast served with Old Fashioned cocktail gastrique. “Mixologists say they get most of their ideas from chefs, so I thought I’d turn that around and get some inspiration from them,” he says. Want to continue the dining experience after you leave? You can take home a breakfast basket, which includes half a pound of house-cured bacon, six farm eggs, four tigelle (Italian griddle-cooked breads not unlike English muffins), and honey hot sauce. Make a reservation at The Partisan.
Erin Clarke of Casa Luca
When Erin Clarke first began working at Fabio Trabocchi’s legendary Maestro in McLean, Virginia, she did little more than prep tomatoes. From there she handled butchery, pasta and fish, working her way up through the kitchen and honing her skills. When the restaurant shuttered, she followed Trabocchi to New York City where he opened Fiamma. She decided to get out of the restaurant business when he closed that venture in 2009. However, he lured her out of retirement to be the executive chef of his chic Italian eatery inspired by the Marche region. The menu rotates constantly – get the smoked gnocchi with duck ragu if it’s available – but you’ll always find her spot-on rendition of spaghetti carbonara. “You can’t take that off the menu because people would riot,” she says. “It’s a five-ingredient dish, so it’s all about knowing how to do it. It’s pure technique.” Make a reservation at Casa Luca.
Keith Cabot of Evening Star Café
Hitting the links got Keith Cabot into the kitchen. Growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, he took a job washing dishes at his local country club in high school, so he could practice his golf game for free on their course. That gig ignited an interest in cooking. After attending culinary vocational school and a degree from Johnson & Wales University, he took jobs at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc in Napa Valley, Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, and New York City’s Eleven Madison Park under Daniel Humm. Finally, he moved back to the area for gigs at Table, Menu MBK, and Sotto before taking over the kitchen at Evening Star Café, where he’s focused on “simple, clean, approachable flavors.” A prime example is his brined and braised pork belly with Brussels sprouts glazed in apple cider reduction accompanied by ancho chili harissa. No matter what season you stop in, many items on the menu include produce grown on the restaurant’s 1,200 square foot rooftop garden. Make a reservation at Evening Star Café.
Jonah Kim of Yona
Locals first got a taste of Kim’s cooking when he headed up Michael Mina’s much-lauded Japanese izakaya Pabu in Baltimore, which closed in 2014. Now Kim is showcasing his talents at his no-holds-barred noodle joint with stellar small plates. Begin with the super sticky, spicy-sweet, dry-fried wings, and waffles crowned with taramasalata, roe, and briny tongues of uni. For the main, the regent-worthy ramen crowned with king crab is the way to go, though you wouldn’t be underserved by cheekily titled miso porky ramen. It’s well worth the drive across the Potomac to Arlington. Trust us, and then thank us (and chef Kim, too.) Make a reservation at Yona.
Jeremiah Langhorne of The Dabney
Having worked for Sean Brock at McCrady’s in Charleston and Renee René Redzepi at his “Best Restaurant in the World” winner noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, Langhorne knows more than a thing or two about working at a hyper-hyped restaurant. His Blagden Alley eatery began earning big buzz before it even opened, thanks to a series of stories about the opening process written by Tim Carman in the Washington Post. The build up was worth it. Langhorne crafts dishes that reach back into time to celebrate long forgotten techniques, antebellum recipes, and heritage ingredients, but he places them in a contemporary context. Call it neo-colonial cuisine with a Southern accent. A perfect example is his 12-hour braised short rib that comes apart with just the tines of the fork, which is topped with pickled ramp relish and accompanied by an endive charred over the open hearth. Make a reservation at The Dabney.
Ryan Hackney of Bibiana
After graduating with a degree in political science, Hackney spent four years grinding at a D.C. non-profit. “I got sick of being stagnant at a desk with emails and conference calls,” he says. Attracted to the rush of the kitchen, he took a job at Marcel’s under Wiedmaier for “two years of culinary boot camp.” From there, he worked at Iron Gate, Nonna’s Kitchen, and Charlie Palmer Steak. Several months ago, he took over the kitchen at the Southern-minded Macon Larder & Bistro as executive sous chef. “I want to take this comfort food based in love and tradition and elevate it with my fine dining background,” he says. Most recently, he joined Bibiana as sous chef, where we’re sure he’ll continue to grow and make his mark. Make a reservation at Bibiana.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell.
Photo credits: Laura Hayes (Alex McCoy); Greg Cebulka (Jeremiah Langhorne); Greg Powers (Jonah Kim); Marissa Bialecki (Keith Cabot and Thomas Harvey).