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Chefs on the Rise

Meet the next generation of culinary whiz kids—proteges who are already masters.

Joe Flamm

Joe Flamm wears a magenta short-sleeve button-up, $310, by Etro; blue scarf, $835, by Loro Piana; linen blue blazer, $2,895, by Ermenegildo Zegna; all at Neiman Marcus Michigan Avenue. Belt and pant, stylist’s own.

Styling by Theresa DeMaria; grooming by J. St. Jaimes 

Joe Flamm

Spiaggia’s Bistecca alla Fiorentina is a dry-aged porterhouse served with truffle hollandaise, potato and ramps.

Photo courtesy of Spiaggia 

Joe Flamm

Executive chef Ken Biffar is at home in the Siena Tavern kitchen, which he’s helmed since 2015. Recently, the Loop restaurant debuted its largest menu change to date. 

Joe Flamm

Ryan Pfeiffer props up against Blackbird’s iconic white interior.

Pfeiffer styling by Morris & Sons

Joe Flamm

Albacore tuna with a falafel crust, one of Ryan Pfeiffer’s earlier dishes as Blackbird’s chef de cuisine

Photo by Sandy Noto 

Joe Flamm

“My workspace is out in the open,” says Kyleen Atonson, “so I get a little obsessive about needing to keep it clean and organized.” 

Joe Flamm

Acadia’s comfortable dining room.

Interior photo by Anthony Tahlier 

Joe Flamm

“I learned very early on that you have to eat,” says Andres Padilla of growing up in a food-focused family, “and you have to cook to eat. So I learned to cook.” 

Joe Flamm

Seafood Pozole Verde from Leña Brava, where you can often find Andres Padilla manning the fires.

Photo by Jose Olguin

Joe Flamm

“I really love monochromatics,” says Sarah Rinkavage, “so I will build dishes based on color. Like the art at the MCA—the way I see food, it might seem simple, but when you taste it, it becomes open for interpretation."

Joe Flamm

The fried quail with cashew butter and smoked-date honey at Marisol

Photo by Jeff Marini

Joe Flamm

With murals by artist Chris Ofili, Marisol befits the museum environment it lives in.  

Photo by McCaugherty - Hall + Merrick Photographers

JOE FLAMM
Executive chef at Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia, winner of Top Chef season 15

Now that word is out on Joe Flamm’s Top Chef victory, he finds himself with about 2.7 million new friends. “People come up to me on the street and say ‘Thanks for bringing it home,’” Flamm says. The South Sider embodies the sweet home Chicago mindset; he earned his culinary stripes at bellyQ and Girl & the Goat, among others, before arriving at Spiaggia in 2014 and then becoming executive chef under chef-partner Tony Mantuano. While Flamm had been largely focused on bold, over-the-top flavors, Mantuano wanted finesse. “Italian food is really about restraint and simplicity. You can’t just keep throwing things at it,” Flamm says. Having Mantuano as his mentor provided not only a teacher and sounding board, but a devoted friend. “He did everything he’s wanted to do and still not compromised who he is and what’s important in his life,” Flamm says. And while Flamm looks forward to following in Mantuano’s footsteps with his own restaurant someday, he’s content for now to be back at Spiaggia after the show. “I’m just riding this huge wave and enjoying my time,” he says. “Everybody feels like we brought this win home together, and that’s an awesome feeling.”

Favorite restaurant of the moment 
Cafe Marie-Jeanne. I probably go there once a week.

Favorite comfort food
I always go back to Italian sausage and rigatoni. It always reminds me of growing up. I swear, my mom’s house always smells like Italian sausage.

Best advice you’ve gotten
Bill Kim once told me something Charlie Trotter told him: In 20 years, nobody remembers the food you put out. It’s the people, that’s the important thing. That’s why Charlie was so famous; he produced so many great chefs.

 

KEN BIFFAR
Executive chef at Siena Tavern

Since his first week in the United States, master Italian chef Fabio Viviani has had Ken Biffar at his side—at least metaphorically. When Viviani’s L.A. restaurant underwent an overhaul four years ago, he sent Biffar to Chicago to “keep busy.” The California native has been here ever since. “People always ask when I’m moving back, and I just don’t see that happening,” says Biffar, who has been executive chef at Siena Tavern since 2015. Biffar has relished the challenge of reinventing the River North eatery’s menu in ways that satisfy both his boss and the diners. “It all comes down to the quality of ingredients,” he says, citing the duo’s fixation on fine-tuning the gnocchi as one example. “We’ve been working on it for years.”

Essential cooking utensil
A good knife. I have a knife that was made for me by a friend in Japan. It’s sharp as hell.

Favorite summer produce
The hearts of palm we’re getting from Hawaii are phenomenal.

Best Chicago market or grocer
Paulina Meat Market. Great quality.

 

RYAN PFEIFFER
Chef de cuisine at Blackbird

“I believe Ryan Pfeiffer is the future of Blackbird, from a culinary standpoint,” says titan Paul Kahan of the chef helming the restaurant Kahan helped start 20 years ago. “He cooks with his heart.” After working in California for a few years, Tinley Park native Pfeiffer returned to Chicago—and he had Blackbird on his radar from the beginning. “It has the perfect balance of what I was looking for,” he explains. Working his way up from a sous chef, Pfeiffer was Kahan’s first choice for the top chef position in 2015. Pfeiffer has brought Blackbird back to its rustic roots, challenging his staff to strengthen their culinary skill sets with old-school techniques and long-forgotten recipes. “Now we’re open to the possibility of anything,” Pfeiffer says, “because we have that foundation, but more importantly, we have it together as a team.”

Favorite dish you ever made
We had this gently smoked hamachi belly with whipped schmaltz, mushrooms and a ginger consommé. Super simple, but definitely a pinnacle in my quest for cleaner and more focused food.

Chef role model
[Smyth owner-chef] John Shields is a chef I look up to a lot. He is able to take seemingly very abstract concepts and make them delicious and approachable.

First thing you ever cooked
Macaroni and cheese from a box with sliced hot dogs.

 

KYLEEN ATONSON
Executive pastry chef at Acadia

“I was probably too young to be using a stove,” Kyleen Atonson says of her culinary start. “But my parents worked and I wanted to make things.” She started making cakes to earn extra cash, creating her first wedding cake at 16. “When it came to school, I kept thinking, ‘I don’t need to learn history—I want to be a chef,’” she recalls. As she dove headfirst into food, Atonson became an expert at multitasking, working a second job to make ends meet. She hit her stride last summer at the now-shuttered Honey’s and then found a home at Acadia, thanks to chef-owner Ryan McCaskey. “He remembered my desserts from Honey’s,” she says. “I never even had to do a tasting. It’s been such a good push for me to cook weirder stuff and try new techniques.”

First thing you ever cooked
After school, I would watch Everyday Italian, then Barefoot Contessa, then 30 Minute Meals—I would decide which I liked best and have my mom take me to the grocery store. We’d end up eating dinner at, like, 10 at night.

How you balance work and personal time
I moved to Nantucket, Mass., for a seasonal pastry job, and I learned to not have so many jobs and take time for myself. Everyone there did yoga—I fell in love with it.

Favorite dish you’ve ever made
There was this blueberry dish I made at Honey’s. I got a bunch of PVC piping and formed the dish that way. I love those moments when you don’t know if food is going to react the way you want it to, but you just hope it will.

 

ANDRES PADILLA
Culinary director for Rick Bayless’ restaurant group

“My family always came together over food,” says Andres Padilla, who grew up in the Southwest, “but I never considered it as a career.” In college, he studied hospitality management, but it was restaurant classes that got him excited. “I had to push myself to not just drop out and go to culinary school,” Padilla says. That training did happen, in Arizona, and then came restaurant jobs, and then, just nine months after a move to Chicago, he was interviewing for a sous position at Topolobampo. “Rick [Bayless] still says it’s one of the shortest interviews he’s ever done—20 minutes, maybe,” Padilla says of his mentor. In four years, Padilla worked his way up to chef de cuisine at Topolobampo. Today, he’s a partner of the company; he’ll celebrate a decade working with Bayless this summer. “I’ve been able to see the world because of this job,” he says. “I couldn’t dream a better dream.”

Favorite seasonal produce
There’s something very special about spring when the ramps start popping up. All that green—it’s a glimpse of things to come.

First thing you ever cooked
My mom taught me how to fry an egg. I considered myself a wizard when I learned to flip an egg without breaking it. 

Essential cooking utensil
I love my knives. One of my favorite things to do is to break down fish and focus on the cuts. If you mess up, it shows—there’s something very Zen about that.

 

SARAH RINKAVAGE
Chef de cuisine at Marisol

Sarah Rinkavage admits she didn’t eat many things until she was a teenager working a job at a cafe in her Connecticut hometown. “I was hired as a barista but would hang out in the kitchen all the time,” she says with a laugh. She spent so much time there that, eventually, the chefs started giving her tasks to do. “I had a lot of fun, and for whatever reason, it just felt right—so I kept going with it,” she says. After a move to Chicago, she stumbled upon Jason Hammel’s Logan Square institution, Lula Cafe. In seven years, she worked her way up the ranks until she felt she had hit the ceiling. At the same time, Hammel was planning his next move: the first restaurant in the Museum of Contemporary Art. He convinced Rinkavage to make the leap with him to Marisol. “As a boss, he’s right by your side all the time, and he’s not above any task in the kitchen,” Rinkavage says. “In my eyes, my dishes are never quite finished until he tastes them and gives that last bit of advice—that’s how we meld our efforts together.”

Favorite dish on the menu
The octopus. It’s inspired by when I was in Barcelona, so it’s really special to me. 

Favorite comfort food
Tom Kha Gai or anything with coconut milk and fish sauce. Especially in the winter.

Chefs who inspire you
The guys at Logan Square’s Cellar Door Provisions—their concept is kind of like a dream for everyone, but they put a lot of hard work and emotion into creating their dream.