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Best Chef Awards 2017

It’s time to induct the newest class of San Francisco food-world powerhouses, chosen by a jury of their peers.


Kyle Connaughton, SingleThread.

(1 of 5)

Sara Hauman, Octavia.

(2 of 5)

Robert Hac, Sons & Daughters.

(3 of 5)

Ryan Cole, Jason Halverson, Tai Ricci, and Jason Kirmse of Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group.  

(4 of 5)

Paul Einbund, the Morris.

(5 of 5)

Read more from the August 2017 Food Issue here.

A pastry chef who turned a teenage obsession with cheesecake into a lifelong calling, a restaurant group that makes fine dining affordable, a chef who sold the Bay Area on microseasonal cooking, an unrepentant traditionalist, and a sommelier who doesn’t blink at pouring a glass from a rare bottle. These culinary heroes of the year—selected by the previous award winners in San Francisco’s Best Chefs Academy—help make this city the ever-replenishing bounty of new ideas and old favorites that keeps us coming back for seconds. And thirds. And fourths.

Chef of the Year: Kyle Connaughton

Kyle Connaughton was nine when he decided to be a chef. It was on a father-son outing to a sushi restaurant. “Watching the chef, eating the food, at that moment I knew, ‘Whatever this is, this is what I want to do,’” he recalls. Thirty-two years later, he and his wife, Katina, have made their Healdsburg restaurant-farm-inn, SingleThread, one of the buzziest openings of the year by organizing everything around the Japanese concept of shun, or the peak of the season. Rather than follow four seasons, Katina (who is the farming half of the couple) harvests according to 72 microseasons of about five days each. “We’re trying to capture that fleeting moment” when things are in their shun, says Kyle, who built his résumé cooking abroad, first at Michel Bras Toya Japon in Hokkaido and then at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in London. 

Though SingleThread’s tasting menus are shot through with NorCal produce, Kyle Connaughton learned the discipline of perfecting his kitchen skills from cooking in Japan. “The aspect of craftsmanship through doing things over and over, getting better through incremental improvements, that’s very instilled in Japanese culture—and it’s led to the way we do a lot of things at SingleThread,” he says. “We spend a lot of time running trials on specific techniques, like testing for various types of viscosity on tofu that incorporates sea urchin. Those projects may take weeks or months.” Next to a microseason, the expertise that’s built into SingleThread looks like eons.
—Lamar Anderson

Rising Star Chef of the Year: Sara Hauman

Back in 2009, Sara Hauman knew she’d had it with her kitchen job—at an upscale San Diego spa—when she was instructed not to make the mashed potatoes taste too delicious (lest diners be corrupted by adequate amounts of salt and Earth Balance). “I thought, ‘OK! I can’t work here anymore.’”

So she moved to San Francisco, where a friend of a friend introduced her to Brandon Jew, then about to help launch Bar Agricole. Hauman’s simple, classic approach to food jibed with Jew’s fixation on knowing his farmers and the origins of his ingredients, and she signed on as sous-chef. After two and a half years, her curiosity sent her on her way again—first on a jaunt cooking in Spain, then back to S.F. and into her first head chef role, at Huxley, where her rustic approach and killer avocado toast found critical acclaim in 2015.  

After another stint with Jew—this time at the farm-to-table Chinese restaurant Mister Jiu’s—Hauman became chef de cuisine at Melissa Perello’s Octavia,where her preference for classic flavors and combinations fits right in. “My first idea isn’t to Cryovac it and put it in a circulator,” she says. “My idea is, ‘Oh! Let’s get a pan and melt some fat and submerge it and braise it really slowly in the oven.’” To Hauman, Octavia feels like home. “Finally I’ve found a place where I can see myself in three years,” she says. We just hope she stays longer than that. 
—Alex Orlando

Pastry Chef of the Year: Robert Hac
Sons & Daughters

Robert Hac has been making desserts since he was a teenager, obsessively turning out batches of chocolate chip cookies and cheesecakes in his parents’ Visitacion Valley kitchen. “I made a cheesecake almost every other week,” Hac recalls. “It was one of my all-time favorites.” 

A few years out of culinary school, Hac tried his hand at the baker’s life; in 2008 and 2009 he worked under Cheryl Storms at the now-defunct Pinkie’s Bakery in SoMa. But early mornings weren’t for him, and he soon felt the pull of pristine plated desserts. After stints with Scott Howard’s Five Restaurant in Berkeley and Keiko à Nob Hill, Hac came into his own in 2014 when he signed on as pastry sous-chef at Mark Liberman’s now-shuttered AQ. “He provided chefs with an atmosphere where they could explore and grow,” Hac says.

His carefully architected, seasonal desserts nabbed him the pastry chef role at Teague Moriarty’s Michelin-starred Sons & Daughters in March. For a recent summery confection inspired by his aunt’s grilled corn, Hac settled on a Bavarian cream with corn purée, poppy-seed cake, and blueberry sorbet—topped off with corn ash to impart a smoky, popcorn-like flavor. Though Hac’s flair for invention may be entirely contemporary, he’s often thinking of the past. For diners, he says, “I hope to spark some kind of memory that they grew up with—and a sense that this is really good.”

Restaurateurs of the Year: Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group

In just four years, the Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group has grown from upstart to local powerhouse by elevating the affordable neighborhood restaurant to the caliber of fine dining. When Michael Mina alums Ryan Cole, Tai Ricci, and executive chef Jason Halverson joined forces with Fat Angel owners Jason Kirmse and Cyrick Hia (who has since left Hi Neighbor) to open Stones Throw in Russian Hill in 2013, they set about putting the impeccable service of Mina’s empire toward the populist goal of giving diners what they want, not making a statement with food. “It’s all about the guest,” Cole says. “If a dish doesn’t work, it’s changed the next day.”

Hi Neighbor followed up in 2015 with Trestle—a San Francisco unicorn for its top-notch three-course prix fixe menu and its affordability (the price hasn’t budged from $35 since the restaurant’s debut). And in 2016 came Corridor, which broadens its reach by offering higher-volume, casual service at the counter (the falafel croquettes go down easy) alongside full-service tables. 

Hi Neighbor pushes costs down not by skimping on quality but by designing efficiency into each restaurant. Trestle’s dining room is so small that it can run on a shoestring staff. “Every person who works in the front can know what the entire room is doing without asking a question,” Cole says. “We liken it to a ballet.”

Beverage Director of the Year: Paul Einbund
The Morris

Paul Einbund wants to untether top-quality wine from the tyranny of tasting menus. As both owner and beverage director of the Morris, Einbund set out to marry a neighborhood restaurant with a dream wine list. “I wanted a super casual place, but I’m a huge snob,” he says. “One hundred percent of the time I want to drink something important.” 

Einbund puts his diners first, opening up top-notch bottles to orders by the glass and using a pay-only-for-what-you-drink policy for his carafes of house wine (servers produce a ruler at the end of the meal and charge $1.50 for each centimeter consumed—about $6 to $6.50 a glass). Early on, Einbund ditched the master sommelier track and followed his own curiosity: “I didn’t get to work under another sommelier, so I defined what I thought a sommelier should be.” At his early restaurant gigs at Tartare and Coi, he did beer pairings. “I’d put hydrosols in the wine or make little cocktails,” he recalls. “If I’d worked under another sommelier, then I would have known that that’s horrible—you don’t do that.”  

Einbund’s wine list at the Morris is an unconventional lot built from his personal collection. Take his Madeira list, curated by an importer friend: “He sent me a list including things he had hand-carried from the island, last bottles in existence, things he’s never sold to anybody,” Einbund says. “That’s how I feel about a wine list: It’s not giant; it’s that it’s super well curated.”

The 2017 Best Chefs Academy

A roster of former winners who voted on this year’s inductees. 

Sarah Bonar Pastry Chef, 2015
Stuart Brioza Chef of the Year, 2013
Melissa Chou Pastry Chef, 2010
Brett Cooper Rising Star Chef, 2013
Michael Gaines Rising Star Chef, 2014
Yoon Ha Sommelier, 2012
Katianna Hong Rising Star Chef, 2015
Brandon Jew Chef of the Year, 2016
Laurence Jossel Chef of the Year, 2009
Ravi Kapur Rising Star Chef, 2012 (tie); Chef of the Year 2015
Nicole Krasinski Pastry Chef, 2005; Chef of the Year, 2013
Dennis Lee Rising Star Chef, 2012 (tie)
Geoffrey Lee Rising Star Chef, 2016
Belinda Leong Pastry Chef, 2012
Shelley Lindgren Wine Director, 2005
Dave McLean Drink Guru, 2014
Greg Mindel Pastry Chef, 2016
Daniel Patterson Chef of the Year, 2007; Restaurateur of the Year, 2016
Stephanie Prida Pastry Chef, 2013
Evan Rich Chef of the Year, 2014
Sarah Rich Chef of the Year, 2014
Ceri Smith Booze Curator, 2013
Louisa Smith Wine Director, 2016
James Syhabout Rising Star Chef, 2007; Best Chef, 2010; Best Restaurateur, 2013
Claudio Villani Wine Director, 2003
Thad Vogler Best Bar Manager, 2008
Debbie Zachareas Wine Director, 2001


Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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