A lot has changed in the 11 months since our last Rising Stars report. The coronavirus pummeled restaurants and forever altered the trajectory of both the sector and the people comprising it. Many up-and-comers lost their jobs through no fault of their own, while others had to put big projects on hold.
At the same time, the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19 also galvanized these nimble chefs, restaurateurs, managers, consultants, sommeliers, and others to dare the impossible. Whether starting a new venture, organizing relief for those in need, or throwing out the old rules and creating a fresh operating model, these 29 Rising Stars are demonstrating that they, and the greater industry, are tougher than we could’ve imagined.
Paola Velez (pictured above)
Executive Pastry Chef / Founder / Cofounder
Maydan / La Bodega Bakery / Bakers Against Racism
Although Paola Velez just turned 30 in December, she has the wisdom of a much older soul—not to mention, the resume of a seasoned restaurant veteran.
Early last year, Velez was a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Rising Star, and by autumn she won a Rammy Award for Pastry Chef of the Year from the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. Food & Wine called her the “empathetic leader the industry needs,” and Washingtonian magazine included her in its “Heroes of the Crisis” series, which also spotlighted healthcare workers and social-justice activists, among others.
Chef and Owner
Tracy Chang’s Japanese-meets-Spanish tapas concept PAGU has earned the chef legions of dedicated guests and fans and plenty of industry recognition, including her most recent appearance on the James Beard Foundation’s short list for Best Chef: Northeast. During the pandemic, Chang has expanded the scope of her influence through two nonprofits. Project Restore Us redeploys restaurant employees to pack groceries for essential workers. The second initiative, Off Their Plate, fundraises on behalf of restaurants severely impacted by COVID-19 so that they can keep staff employed and in turn cook meals for food-insecure communities.
Founder and CEO
Rahi, Adda, Biryani Bol, Dhamaka
New York City
Roni Mazumdar has been behind such lauded establishments as Rahi and Adda Indian Canteen, the latter of which nabbed two James Beard Foundation nominations in as many years. He also partnered with artist Mattia Casalegno to create Aerobanquets RMX, a seven-course, multi-sensory virtual reality dining experience at the James Beard House.
During the pandemic, Mazumdar launched the ghost concept Biryani Bol and opened restaurant-market combo Dhamaka.
Rebecca Monday was slinging drinks as a bartender before she moved into a more managerial role. Early in her tenure at VASO Dublin, she doubled the cocktail options while also challenging her team to innovate seasonal specials and other fresh twists on classic libations. When the pandemic began, Monday spearheaded the shift to digital menus and established a cocktails-to-go program, which included a curated playlist of songs to bring as much of the dine-in experience back home with guests.
Co-owner and Head Cidermaker
While recovering from two traumatic brain injuries from his tour in Afghanistan, Jason Duren began brewing his own cider. That hobby led to Cider Corps, which he opened with his brother in 2017. Two years later, the cidery took home gold at the U.S. Open Cider Championship. Distribution has expanded, and plans are underway to open a production-only facility. Beyond grenade-shaped glassware, Duren honors his military roots by fundraising for nonprofits and creating styles—like the award-winning Mango Foxtrot—that are dedicated to the armed forces.
Chef and Owner
Southern Belle and Georgia Boy
After working with all-star chef Kevin Gillespie for a number of years, first at Woodfire Grill and later Gunshow, Joey Ward struck out on his own in 2019 to open a pair of concepts. Sister restaurants Southern Belle and Georgia Boy are connected by a secret passageway, with the former specializing in curated cocktails and global “New South” bites and the latter featuring a reservation-only, multi-course tasting menu. Last year, Southern Belle received the honor of Best Snacks and Cocktails from Atlanta magazine.
Vice President of Training & Team Member Activation
Buffalo Wild Wings
Minneapolis & Atlanta
For all the passion and creativity that Damian Hanft brings to his role as vice president of training at Buffalo Wild Wings, he’s not especially fond of the semantics.
“I actually hate the word ‘training,’ which always makes my team and the folks I work with laugh,” he says. “It’s not the actual word that I’m upset with; it’s the idea it draws when people talk about training. I think training becomes overly task-focused versus the bigger picture that we’re trying to accomplish, which is shaping people’s lives.”
The nuts and bolts of preparing dishes, serving guests, and balancing P&Ls are important but so are building relationships with employees and bringing them into the BWW culture. Hanft views his work as that of a translator, wherein he and his team communicate leadership’s goals to the store and individual levels.
For example, if the brand offers a limited-time menu item, sharing details, such as how the dish was developed and what makes it special, empowers staff members to be a part of the conversation rather than mere messengers. This leads to more genuine customer interactions because servers aren’t reciting a script; they’re explaining it in their own words.
“That translation is such a key piece. Oftentimes folks just look at it as the functional piece that’s directly in front of them. And that’s where the culture component really comes into play,” Hanft says. “The success that we’re judged on is whether or not people are able to change, adapt, and become what it is that we first set out to do.”
Hanft joined BWW in 2018 following its acquisition by Inspire Brands. Prior to that, he’d worked for Inspire sister chain Arby’s, where he started in talent procurement and leadership development and rose to the senior director of learning.
He was also the creative force behind Brand Champ, an innovative employee engagement initiative that educated staff on the “why” behind Arby’s and its various programs. Brand Champ turned the focus on store-level employees by training managers to connect with their team members and encourage their growth—even if that future lay beyond the restaurant.
When Hanft moved to BWW, he brought Brand Champ with him. Before launching, the initiative was revised and tailored to match the mission, tone, and values of the new restaurant.
Amid the chaos, Hanft has found another silver lining, namely a new virtual series called What’s Hot at B-Dubs, which has garnered a great deal of positive feedback. Once a month, employees can tune into the live show, which features interviews and conversations with leaders in the company and beyond.
“A really key piece for all of us is to keep current with our craft, not just within our brands but also outside,” Hanft says. “I think we just get into a tunnel vision and then when a crisis hits, we’re unaware of what could be versus what is.”
Director of Operations and Wine
Rolf & Daughters, Folk
Aria Dorsey always knew her future lay in hospitality, and while studying hotel administration at Cornell University, she zeroed in on food and beverage. After cutting her teeth at DBGB Kitchen & Bar, in New York and Washington, D.C., Dorsey moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where she now serves as director of operations and wine at sister concepts Rolf & Daughters and Folk. During the pandemic, she’s worked to take the restaurants’ signature hospitality off-premises through curated playlists, handwritten birthday cards, and DIY meal kits with wine pairings.
President and CEO
Orange Park, Florida
Daniel DeLeon purchased the floundering Grumpy’s Restaurant in 2017 and has since righted the ship and paved the way for expansion. Located just south of Jacksonville, Florida, Grumpy’s has racked up local accolades under his tenure including Best Overall Restaurant by the Florida Times-Union and Best Place to Work by the Jacksonville Business Journal. DeLeon also established a franchising program, which debuted its first location (second systemwide) last October and has another slated for this spring.
Maryam + Company
Maryam Ahmed works to bridge that gap between the restaurant industry and the general public through a variety of platforms, including curated forums, multi-day events, panels, podcasts, and more. Prior to establishing her own company, Ahmed was the director of public programs at the Culinary Institute of America’s California offices. To keep people connected and ideas flowing during the pandemic, Ahmed launched a monthly virtual dinner series featuring different chefs, winemakers, and purveyors, with the proceeds benefiting local organizations.
Owner and Cofounder
New York City
Restaurateur Amelie Kang has proved that traditional flavors can pair nicely with trendy, modern environs. Kang spent her formative years in mainland China before earning her bachelor’s in management at the CIA. Her two-location dry pot concept MáLà Project serves authentic Sichuan fare in a setting reflective of its hip East Village and Midtown neighborhoods. Her work bringing authentic dry pot to the forefront of New York’s dining scene landed Kang on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list last year.
Founder and Producer
“Line Cook Thoughts”
Niagara Falls, New York
Following graduation from the CIA, Ray Delucci created “Line Cook Thoughts,” a podcast featuring interviews with veteran chefs, as well as those just starting out in their careers. With more than 100 episodes and counting, “Line Cook Thoughts” delves into career advice, personal stories, and broader trends. Delucci worked as a line cook himself before moving into a managerial role at Hillstone Restaurant Group and then food e-commerce.
Executive Chef and Co-Owner
Bedford Post Dining
Bedford, New York
A previous “Chopped” winner, Roxanne Spruance served under a number of star chefs, including Dan Barber and Wylie Dufresne, before forging her own path. In 2017, her French-American concept, Kingsley, was named Zagat’s Top Newcomer and Top American Restaurant in New York. Spruance recently moved upstate to the Hudson Valley where she is the executive chef and co-owner of Bedford Post Dining at the Relais & Chateaux property, The Bedford Post Inn.
Cofounder and Managing Partner
Last year may not have been an ideal time to open a new business, but that’s exactly what Rick Arline did. In November, Fellow Traveler made a splash in West Hollywood with a selection of natural wines and chef-created bistro bites. True to its name, the wine bar features bottles from far-flung wine regions, as well as lesser-known California varieties. Part of Arline’s mission is to demystify wine and make it more approachable to the average imbiber. A certified sommelier since 2012, Arline has worked at LA mainstays like Hotel Bel-Air, Georgie, and most recently Auburn.
Wilmington, North Carolina
In 2007, shortly after graduating from college, Matt Piccinin and cofounder Sean Cook opened the very first Shuckin’ Shack, which, true to its name, was a modest 900-square-foot space. Since then, the casual eatery and oyster bar has expanded to 16 locations across five states. In recent years, Piccinin has focused his efforts on cultivating relationships with Shuckin’ Shack operators as franchising remains the primary growth vehicle for the brand.
Chef and Founder
Last year marked a number of milestones for Diane Lam. Not only did the classically trained chef enter a new decade, she also started a new business in Portland, Oregon.
Prior to the pandemic, Lam and business partner/bartender David Sigal had hosted two pop-ups called Sunshine Noodles. Despite the adverse conditions of 2020, the pair took the plunge and opened the concept as a full-time restaurant last July.
“We knew we had something, but we weren’t sure what, … so there was that fear of not knowing what would come out of it,” Lam says. Those worries quickly dissipated. In fact, business was booming so much that Sunshine Noodles expanded to include dinner and obtained its liquor license.
Sharing a space with the bar Psychic, Sunshine Noodles operates out of a converted Victorian house with ample al fresco seating, including a covered patio and outdoor bar.
The advent of colder days and more dine-in restrictions has slowed business and led Lam to do a delivery/takeout model only for the time being. The plan is to renew the lease and resume on-site dining in March while also helping to reopen and manage Psychic.
Prior to the pandemic, Lam served as the chef de cuisine at Revelry, a trendy, Korean street food concept under Relay Restaurant Group, owned by chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi. In fact, Lam was spearheading its rebrand as Revelry Noodle Bar before COVID-19 forced the restaurant to permanently close. Thanks to her years with Relay, she was ready for the next big challenge.
“Chef Rachel was such a great mentor and businesswoman. Revelry really helped me in what I’m doing now,” Lam says. “By the end of my time there, I was able to manage the front and the back of the house, just as if I owned the business.”
Like the operation itself, the menu at Sunshine Noodles has remained adaptable during the pandemic. Many of the dishes, such as the Phnom Penh Noodle Soup and Lort Cha (stir-fried pin noodles with tofu and egg), are inspired by Cambodian cuisine.
On a personal level, Sunshine Noodles reflects another transformation for Lam. Despite encouragement by Yang and other mentors, she had resisted leaning into Cambodian cuisine. She found that Asian-American chefs were often expected to deliver “authentic” dishes, which would hamper her creativity. Lam also worried those so-called authentic dishes didn’t reflect who she was. But movements like Black Lives Matter and an uptick in conversations around race and identity have led her to reexamine that reluctance.
“So much has happened this year that’s really shifted my perspective,” Lam says. “It dawned on me that it was important that I embrace this side of me. … After all this change and conversation, having that perspective does shine a positive light on my future and how I view what we do at Sunshine Noodles.”
Executive Sous Chef / Founder
Plum / Jam-Sesh
Durham, North Carolina
Chris Rogers has honed his craft at restaurants across the country and currently serves as the executive sous chef at Plum Southern Kitchen & Bar in Durham, North Carolina. During the pandemic, Rogers started his own venture as a way to help local farmers through the crisis. Jam-Sesh is a small-batch canning and preserving operation that sources produce from independently owned farms. Rogers has also collaborated with mixologists to create one-of-a-kind cocktails using Jam-Sesh products.
Cofounder and Managing Partner
The pandemic has done little to slow Derek Gibbons. Although he and business partner Tim Lu had only established Glu Hospitality in 2019, they quickly adapted their various properties with hacks, like converting an existing concept to an open-air restaurant and introducing igloos for al fresco dining in colder months. The new year promises to be even busier for Gibbons, with Glu introducing its first breakfast concept, a new Italian restaurant, and four more ghost kitchens with future brick-and-mortar potential.
Chef and Owner
Inspired by the fresh soba her grandmother would make, Mutsuko Soma opened Kamonegi in 2017, and the accolades quickly followed. Kamonegi landed on the best-of lists for numerous publications including The Seattle Times, Bon Appetit, and Condé Nast Traveler, while Soma herself became a two-time semi-finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest. During COVID-19, the chef once again looked to her family for inspiration—this time in her role as a mother—and added family-friendly items and portable snacks to the takeout menu.
Cofounder and CEO
While still in college, Danielle Zighelboim and her brother Mike started a fruit company that has since evolved into a craft rum line. Inspired by her childhood in Central America, Zighelboim looked to the region’s bounty of coconut water, coffee, and cacao in developing her recipe. Coconut Cartel’s flagship spirit features Guatemalan rum aged in American white oak and infused with fresh coconut water. Zighelboim is quickly growing the brand’s footprint as more restaurants stock their bars with Coconut Cartel.
Corporate Executive Chef
Twin Peaks Restaurants
As a classically trained chef, Alexander Sadowsky can be credited with bringing an elevated approach to the menu at Twin Peaks—but not at the expense of efficiency. In just the two years since he joined the company, Sadowsky has streamlined the menu and operations; introduced the family-sized Peaks Party Packs; and developed various “phased” menus to facilitate quick pivots in the face of changing COVID-19 regulations. Prior to joining Twin Peaks, Sadowsky had worked at Front Burner Restaurants group.
Chef and Owner
Carrboro, North Carolina
Gabe Barker comes from a remarkable restaurant lineage; his parents Ben and Karen Barker operated the James Beard Award–winning Magnolia Grill for more than 25 years. In 2016, they helped their son—a talented chef in his own right—open Pizzeria Mercato. Barker’s rendering of Neopolitan-faithful but North Carolina–sourced pizzas has earned the restaurant and the chef national recognition. He made Eater’s Young Guns in 2018 and was a two-time semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Rising Chef.
Chef and Owner
Carrboro, North Carolina
After working in fine-dining kitchens in D.C., and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, Teddy Diggs moved south to lead the AAA-rated Four Diamond Il Palio restaurant within the Siena Hotel. During his tenure, Diggs was invited to cook at the James Beard House. In 2018, he brought his passion for Italian cuisine to a restaurant of his own creation. Specializing in Roman-style pies, Coronato Pizza has quickly won fans for its extra-thin, crispy crusts.
Park City, Utah
As the restaurant manager at Utah mountain resort Victory Ranch, Giro Messeri’s keen approach to budgeting and business strategy has boosted the property’s foodservice sales by more than 80 percent in a single year. On the people side, Messeri has been commended for his leadership style, which has engendered loyalty among team members and earned him the Manager MVP at Victory Ranch last year.
Director of Marketing / Cofounder
Barcelona Wine Bar / Conserva Culture
New York City
The dynamic nature of the restaurant industry makes it fertile ground for innovation, fresh ideas, and a lot of turnover—and not just at the store level. So it’s a testament to Drew McConnell’s skill that Barcelona Wine Bar has maintained a strong brand identity amid C-suite shifts.
“Transitioning from operations to marketing, Drew ensured the public brand voice of Barcelona remained true and engaging through multiple changes of ownership,” says CEO Adam Halberg.
Although McConnell has spent his whole career in the restaurant industry, he did not make a beeline for the corporate office. Instead he cut his teeth at the store level, working managerial roles, first at industry powerhouse Darden and later Barcelona.
During his time as general manager at Barcelona’s Nashville, Tennessee, outpost, McConnell demonstrated his ability to get a read on a market and, in turn, use that insight to shape the restaurant’s vibe. During International Sherry Week, McConnell created the fictional character of Aunt Sherry to add a playful, more approachable twist that could entice guests to try the often overlooked beverage. To dispel any stuffiness associated with the fortified wine, Barcelona Nashville hosted a special party that featured a new sherry cocktail program, serve-yourself small plates, and a performance by five local drag queens.
“I’m a big believer in obsessing over whatever reality it is that you want your restaurant to be. If you do that, everything else will follow,” McConnell says.
In his first year helming Barcelona’s social media, McConnell helped boost conversions from Instagram to the website by 900 percent. He says that discontinuing sponsored posts made that possible but acknowledges such a move might not be feasible for other restaurants.
“I intrinsically don’t believe that my role is to drum up business. I think if you approach brand management that way, you put the emphasis in the wrong place. The right place is empowering these incredible chefs, managers, bartenders, servers, line cooks, etc., and giving them the ability to have a really compelling restaurant,” he says. “It’s my role … to show little glimmers of the kaleidoscope that exists within.”
When COVID-19 struck, McConnell once again took an unconventional approach to engage guests and help Barcelona and its partner importers, producers, and craftspeople weather the storm. McConnell and vice president of creative Gretchen Thomas cofounded Conserva Culture, an e-commerce platform that sells everything from pantry items like artisanal canned goods, condiments, and spices to serveware, centerpieces, and art.
“Conserva really became a great way to lean into our better angels and the things that we’re most comfortable with but also push ourselves to go a new way,” he says.
Bar Director / Cofounder
Etta River North / H Bar
As the creative force behind pop-up series H Bar, mixologist Kyle Smith puts as much care into crafting menus of speakeasy-style cocktails as he does into creating one-of-a-kind experiences across various Chicagoland restaurants and bars. Smith is also the bar director at beloved neighborhood spot Etta and is helping plan a new location in California. During the pandemic, he worked to develop a socially distant model for H Bar while also serving as brand ambassador for Westward Whiskey.
Senior Vice President of Operations
New York City
In an industry churning with overturn and in age when few professionals grow long-term within the same company, Al Hank stands as an exception. Since joining Famous Dave’s in 2005 as an hourly team member, he has risen through the ranks and now serves as the senior vice president of operations. Even before COVID-19, Hank and the Famous Dave’s team had been laying the groundwork for more robust off-premises business including drive-thru locations while also streamlining the dine-in experience with counter- and bar-centric store layouts.
Director of Operations
Enzo Palombino may have come up in the restaurant industry (his father, Tony, has founded a number of restaurant concepts including BoomBozz), but he brings a fresh perspective that’s proved especially vital this past year. When the pandemic first struck, Palombino implemented a new initiative, CCD (Care, Curbside, Delivery). By integrating these services into BoomBozz’s operations, the company was able to keep most of its staff employed throughout the crisis.
Mayank Istwal’s culinary career has taken him around the world. In addition to working at hotels and resorts across his native India, the chef spent three years at sea on a luxury cruise line. Even his current, more stationary role as executive chef at newly opened Musaafer brought an element of exploration. The restaurant proprietors sent Istwal on a journey through the 29 states of India to better understand each region’s unique culinary traditions and then translate that knowledge to the menu at Musaafer.