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The Bay Area's Rising Star Chefs of 2019

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 9/27/2019 By Soleil Ho

This year, our Rising Star Chefs are the ones who changed our minds.

The chefs on this list are pushing their respective cuisines forward; they’ve made us question our assumptions about barbecue, Thai cuisine and California cuisine through their infectious excitement for their chosen genres and willingness to research, experiment and write their own narrative. We also sought out chefs who, in addition to their talent in the kitchen, actively work to change the way we experience the food world, whether through advocating for fellow food workers or educating the public about the history of the Californian food system. The chefs here aren’t necessarily tied to traditional restaurants, an indication of the many ways the basic task of making food for the public has shifted in the Bay Area. Some aren’t interested in opening restaurants at all, while most earned fans by hosting their own pop-ups around the bay. As in previous years, all of them have five or fewer years of top-of-the-chain management under their belts.

— Soleil Ho,


Meghan Clark


1625 Post St., San Francisco


Pushing Thai cuisine forward in America

Meghan Clark was working as a chef at a butcher shop in Melbourne, Australia, when she got the call from Pim Techamuanvivit in 2016. The chef de cuisine position at Kin Khao had just opened up. Years earlier, Clark had subbed in at the restaurant as a line cook, just briefly, but the chef-restaurateur remembered her well.

In 2014, Clark was working at Aster, the Michelin-starred restaurant where she was the opening sous chef under chef Brett Cooper. While the restaurant was under construction, Cooper suggested she work at Kin Khao to help them out and occupy her time. Clark had impressed Techamuanvivit with her keen palate and thoughtful suggestions. “I was obviously overqualified for the line cook job,” Clark admits.

Years later, Techamuanvivit’s call had caught her at a pivotal moment: The Bay Area native was about to apply for permanent residency in Australia. “It was perfect timing,” Clark says. From there, Clark took the position as Techamuanvivit’s right hand, zipping between the Bay Area and Thailand to implement the chef’s modern Thai menus at both San Francisco’s Kin Khao and Nahm, the Bangkok restaurant which the restaurateur took over last year. When Nari opened in Japantown this summer, Techamuanvivit installed Clark as its chef de cuisine.

In her time as a cook, Clark has delved into Mediterranean, Californian and Italian food, learning as much as possible about each cuisine before moving on to the next. “I bore easily,” she says. “But Thai food is a rabbit hole: Every time I think I have a grasp on what Thai food is as a whole, I learn about a new region that does things very differently. I’m still as infatuated as when I first started eating it.”

During her trips to Bangkok, Clark was trained by renowned culinarians like cooking teacher Nantana Chitman, who opened her up to the more complex side of Thai food. On one trip, she learned how to make khao chae, an incredibly labor-intensive rice dish that is emblematic of imperial cuisine. “Americans often think Thai food is just street food,” Clark says. “And that’s not even the best part of it. Thai food has a lot of rich history of beautifully prepared meals. Getting to experience some of that was really mindblowing.”

Her love for the cuisine is in full effect at Nari. The food is stunning and full of seafood-centric deep cuts of Thai-Californian flavor: raw Kumamoto oysters flavored with pineapple and the playful je-ne-sais-quoi of water beetle aroma; local stone fruits, chopped and served on broad betel leaves with fish sauce caramel and trout roe; curried pork dip with Early Girl tomatoes and chicharrones; and a hush-inspiring take on bua loy that features raspberries and warm globs of glutinous rice flour in a cooling soup of coconut milk colored moss-green with pandan oil.

The plethora of surprising Californian ingredients on the menu is the result of Clark’s and Techamuanvivit’s collaboration. When the chef presents Clark with a classical Thai recipe, she’ll ponder how to achieve the same combinations of flavors with what’s right in front of her. “I really see my job as figuring out ways to achieve the same flavor a dish should have using local ingredients, not importing everything from Thailand.” Where’s the fun in that? she asks.

— S.H.


Vincent Medina & Louis Trevino

Cafe Ohlone

2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley

The couple showcasing their true California cuisine

Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, the couple behind the year-old Cafe Ohlone pop-up, aren’t given to big pronouncements or bombasticism. Even after their project received regional and national coverage in New York and Los Angeles, the men have kept expansion to a thoughtful minimum, hiring just a few tribal members as extra hands. The most ambitious idea they have for the cafe is to expand into the reading room of University Press Books, to stain the floor with red ochre, paint the walls with a mural and improve the ambience with chandeliers made of California Indian-made baskets. That’s still under negotiation, but Medina and Trevino also have a lot of quieter ideas in the works.

While most pop-up chefs and operators would be drawing up plans for a brick-and-mortar or courting investors, Cafe Ohlone just isn’t about that. It’s the forward-facing aspect of mak-’amham, an organization led by Medina and Trevino. When they’re not serving food at the cafe, they bring Ohlone children and elders into the hills of the East Bay, to village sites, and identify plants by their native names: yerba buena is čawrišim; bay laurel is sokoote; Indian lettuce is rooreh. They’re also hoping to get Bay Area acorns recognized as a protected culinary resource by Slow Foods International.

Accordingly, the two men have kept their four-day-a-week food service format mostly the same: Over platters of acorn breads, foraged salads and smoked mushrooms served in the back of a bookstore in Berkeley, Medina patiently walks diners through the history of the Ohlone people, from pre-contact to the establishment of the missions to the current day.

Whenever he talks about Ohlone traditions and recipes, Medina is careful to emphasize words like “living” and “alive.” For a community that has fought for recognition, both political and cultural, being relegated to a historical artifact would be akin to a death sentence. For too long, Medina says, Ohlone people have been kept out of the story of California. Much like their work reviving their respective native languages, introducing Ohlone recipes into the canon of what we now call California cuisine is part of their work toward self-determination.

“What we’re trying to do is educate people by showing how much we love and respect our culture — and showing that unabashedly,” Medina says. For as long as they can, Medina and Trevino will work to expand non-Indian people’s understanding of why Ohlone food matters. “There’s more to this story than what they’re being told. It’s the first culture of this place, and a testament to our strength.”

— S.H.


Laura & Sayat Ozyilmaz


2001 Fillmore St., San Francisco


In Pacific Heights, a forward-thinking restaurant in more ways than one

Laura and Sayat Ozyilmaz are the wife and husband team behind the food at Noosh, a stylish restaurant on Fillmore that redefines so much about Bay Area restaurants, from both culinary and operational points of view.

At Noosh, their eastern Mediterranean dishes might appear simple — a yogurt broth, a flatbread, a falafel, a pita sandwich — but each reflects the Ozyilmazes. That $6 yogurt broth is their version of a Turkish regional soup, endemic to the rustic countryside. It comes with a potency and elegance that would give it a place on a tasting menu. That $16 mushroom flatbread is spiked with ajika, a sauce that incorporates marigold flowers from Laura’s native Mexico. The list goes on.

But first, their story.

Laura was born in Mexico, where cooking was always life: “I wanted to be a chef since I remember,” she says. “I was 14 and said this is what I wanted to do.” She enrolled in culinary school in Mexico, and then went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where she met Istanbul-born Sayat. He was a career-changer, a Dartmouth College-trained engineer lured in by the promises of food. “When you amalgamate all the reasons I chose cooking, it was basically a way to self-express and also a field where I could be entrepreneurial,” he says.

The two young cooks fell in love, sharing (among other things) an interest in fine dining restaurants, quickly filling up their respective resumes with some of the world’s top restaurants: Café Boulud, Eleven Madison Park, Mugaritz, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Le Bernardin, Husk, Pujol.

They eventually landed in some of San Francisco’s most innovative modernist restaurants: Laura at Saison and Sayat at Mourad. Here, they made a name for themselves through a recurring pop-up named Istanbul Modern.

“It was a way to connect with our culture,” says Sayat, who grew up in a blue-collar Armenian family in Istanbul. He saw minorities’ cultures like his own pushed aside; what if he and Laura celebrated those traditions instead? They looked to Armenia, Georgia, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey. “We based a concept around cultural exploration — an eastern Mediterranean that could’ve been.”

That idea became Noosh, a casual restaurant in Pacific Heights that is a forward-thinking model for future restaurants in more ways that one.

The restaurant space itself is brightly colored and on-trend, breezy and buzzy. But it’s the vegetable-centric menu that is particularly masterfully designed. It’s both novel and approachable — many of the items are unique to Noosh, the result of the chef-owners’ journeys. But look more closely, and you’ll see the details: Many of the offerings are individual components, which limits plating time, and there’s not a lot of customization options, another boon for the kitchen. The menu’s static nature lends itself to scalability as well. There is an on-trend Georgian wine program. There are creative cocktails. There is online ordering. There is delivery. It’s a smart restaurant for 21st century San Francisco.

“We wanted to provide a progressive experience,” says Sayat of Noosh’s format. “Plates shared across a table, that’s the Middle Eastern way of doing things. That’s how people have sat across the table with families as they have for millennia. That’s where we think dining needs to go to offer value.”

— Paolo Lucchesi,


Joyce Conway & Mel Lopez

Pearl 6101

6101 California St., San Francisco


How two best friends created a neighborhood jewel

At Pearl 6101, the all-day Outer Richmond stunner, a marble bar snakes around the light-filled room, eventually leading to a shoebox-size open kitchen. There, flanked by a wood-fired oven and a row of shiny pots, a small crew of cooks works in close proximity, quietly tossing together salads or plating a fish entree, often with a laugh or two.

Chefs Mel Lopez and Joyce Conway are part of the choreography, putting out the kind of food you want to eat every day, but will also happily trek across town to try: Halibut crudo is a study in contrasts, with sweet strawberries dancing with crunchy Marcona almonds, spicy serrano coins and tart nuoc cham. Chermoula-doused cauliflower and slivered almonds come piled on black tahini hummus. Spaghetti is studded with spicy anchovies, confit tomatoes, lemon and garlic breadcrumbs. As Lopez says, “It’s unique, but also very familiar.”

It’s a kind of California cuisine that speaks to the moment, but also to its creators, Lopez and Conway. The two Northern California natives — Lopez is from Stockton; Conway from Hayward — met while working at Bix in downtown San Francisco. Over the next 11 years, they would become best friends. Eventually they would join forces at a monthly pop-up restaurant staffed entirely by women (they called it B.L.U.D.).

Lopez had worked for five years at Richmond District gem Pizzetta 211, so when the adjacent laundromat became available, seven folks from Pizzetta 211 jumped at the opportunity to turn it into Pearl 6101. Lopez brought Conway into the fold, making for eight partners, using the savings they earned from B.L.U.D. as their investment in the restaurant. “It’s definitely not a traditional setup seen in other restaurants,” says Lopez.

Pearl 6101 opened in 2018. Most of the partners have multiple jobs at the all-day restaurant, making for a group of peers where everyone is invested in the enterprise. Lopez is the executive chef, and Conway is the chef de cuisine. Along with sous chef Robin Kloess, the pair have created something special in that little kitchen.

“It’s great,” says Lopez. “We’re like the same person. People think we’re sisters. Our personalities just match perfectly. We’re just, like, one.”

San Francisco has a storied tradition of transcendent neighborhood restaurants, those little bistros that house brilliant cooking in an approachable environment and somehow come to define an era: Firefly, the House, Delfina, Frances, Outerlands, Al’s Place.

Pearl 6101 is the latest in that lineage.

— P.L.

Matt Horn

Horn Barbecue

Scheduled to open in late fall at 2534 Mandela Parkway, Oakland


The man who is putting Oakland barbecue on the map

What makes Matt Horn special in the barbecue world? That is, aside from being a talent in a region devoid of any real barbecue tradition.

Horn’s barbecue affiliation is probably closest to Texas-style behind his use of smoke and flavorful rubs, but in reality it is an amalgamation of various influences.

His brisket, for example, is slowly smoked and caked in a coffee-based, peppery rub. The outer edges have a crunch that gives way to meat that’s tender, almost buttery. The brisket is a wink to East Texas in execution.

Central Texas, meanwhile is evident in Horn’s smoked sausages and hot links, the pitmaster’s most popular item. Prepared in small batches and meant more to complement the brisket (or chicken or ribs) on a barbecue plate, they are unlike any versions elsewhere in the Bay Area.

These meat platters are the primary reason that Horn’s roaming Bay Area pop-up has become the stuff of legend in the last year, vaulting him into the national conversation. These days, Horn Barbecue lines stretch entire city blocks; getting a slice of brisket can take hours. The food always sells out, and some folks bring camping equipment to accommodate the wait.

But there’s good news for barbecue lovers, especially those who want an easier entry point to those perfectly smoked meats.

Horn is in the process of opening his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, in West Oakland, at a small albeit well-known spot on Mandela Parkway — the former home of Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen soul food restaurant, close to the site of his original pop-ups. He does not have a set opening date yet, but after a brief remodel, replacing some equipment and a dash of paint, Horn said he hopes to be open by late fall.

An unspoken rule in the barbecue world is most chefs stick to their regional specialties. But Horn comes from Southern California, a region without barbecue reference points or styles. In its place, he combined a popular Bay Area brand aesthetic — hipster chic with dark colors and dramatic photos — with an otherworldly blending of Texas styles. The result is beautifully confounding, like seeing someone surfing in a cowboy hat.

“This is a new chapter and it’s something I’ve always wanted,” Horn says. “There’s history in the space, there’s history in the area because it’s where I had my start at one point. It all just makes sense.”

— Justin Phillips,


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