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Best of Dining 2015
We pride ourselves in our restaurant coverage. Throughout the year our dining team is busy keeping pace with what is a very active culinary scene. For our December issue, though, we like to sit around the fireplace (well, if we had one we would), look back at the past year and make our picks of the best and notable. The selections on these pages are totally the results of discussions between our food writers and editorial staff. Some were easy calls; some were closely contested; others were worthy of mention but in need of a category. (For the latter we tried to be creative adding our own ingredients as needed.) As in all rankings one could quibble about what is first and what is second. There is no argument though, that all those listed here are top-notch. The buffet is now open.
Restaurant of the Year: Sac-a-Lait
Meet Samantha and Cody Carroll. She prefers “Sam.” They are newcomers to New Orleans from just north of here; Sam is from Gonzales and Cody from Batchelor in Pointe Coupee Parish. They are young, in love, have a beautiful daughter, Malle, and are two amazingly talented people.
Together they’ve devoted themselves to their love for each other and Louisiana cuisine. They met while attending the Louisiana Culinary Institute in Baton Rouge, from which they graduated. Together they created Hot Tails, a destination-restaurant in New Roads, and together they worked to begin a crawfish farming business in Cody’s hometown. And together they won the Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off, a prestigious annual competition among chefs statewide, which had never before had two Kings, much less married to each other.
“We just always felt, in every step of our careers, that if we were truly going to prove how good we were, we had to be in New Orleans,” Cody notes without an ounce of smugness.
They had an opportunity to acquire a spot on Annunciation Street in the Warehouse District. They knew it would work well for their concept. The place had been the site of two previous restaurants, within a massive condominium and apartment building converted from a historic warehouse.
As a side note, the Sous Chef at Sac-a-Lait worked here at one of those no-longer restaurants, joined Cody and Sam in New Roads and now is back. You know how it is: In Louisiana and New Orleans no one ever really leaves.
The design of Sac-a-Lait – the layout of the kitchen, the interior highlights, even the furniture, like the bar and barstools – were all created entirely by them and their families. The place is rustic while at the same time very modern. This is a setting that could only be at home in Louisiana.
As for the food, well, that’s why the community is buzzing. Cody’s family is all about hunting and fishing. Sam’s family is all about creating excellent cuisine using local ingredients in their home kitchen. These are families that were destined to be together without question.
Start with the Alligator and Mirliton, the Turtle Boudin Noir, the gumbo canard, the poisson fume or even chargrilled oysters from P&J. You can’t make a wrong move here. Move on to the snapper, grouper or best Gulf fish at the moment. Meat? Venison backstrap and sweetbreads should suit you, or a pork porterhouse. You might be more of a vegetable person; don’t worry, the freshest of seasonal offerings are at hand.
The wine list is solid but modest. However, the beer offerings are evidence that Cody does like his beer. From all over the region, mostly from Louisiana, Cody brings in what he likes, and no doubt, you will like them, too. Cocktails also possess a local flair with the Damn Thistle, Jetty & The Rocks and Horse’s Ass, among many others. Maybe they ‘ll tell you who that last drink was named for, maybe not.
There is something special, almost ethereal, about Sac-a-Lait. Not many places anywhere can imprint a local stamp on the décor, the cuisine, the beverages, even the staff and be equally successful on all fronts. Yet, this isn’t a restaurant that beats you over the head with “the theme.”
It is all-natural, and every aspect of design and operation has been well thought through. Sam and Cody are not old, experienced restaurateurs; they’re young, energetic, starting a family and setting roots into a food-centric place that has beckoned to them and they heeded the sirens’ call.
They are going to be an important part of the culinary community for many years in our town. Welcome, Sam and Cody.
– Tim McNally
Sac-a-Lait, 1051 Annunciation St., 324-3658, Sac-a-LaitRestaurant.com
Chef of the Year: Alon Shaya
Alon Shaya made a name for himself when he opened Domenica in the Roosevelt Hotel in 2009, which proved a success right out of the gate. Then in ’11, tasting menus began popping up which seemed incongruous with the Italian focus of the restaurant. Pegged to Israeli and Jewish traditions – Passover, for example – they nevertheless proved very popular. It was these specials that foreshadowed what was to come in ’15, when Shaya announced the opening of his eponymous restaurant on Magazine Street. The breakout success of both – the chef and the restaurant – are the reasons we named him Chef of the Year for 2015.
The common thread woven through all his restaurants is travel. “Traveling is the reason that Shaya is open. It is the reason that Domenica is open,” Shaya says, citing his year-long professional immersion in Italy, which laid the foundation for Domenica. Similarly, a visit to Israel in 2011 reconnected him with his roots at a point in his career where he was well positioned for growth. “I hadn’t been there since ’03, and in those years between I had gone through so much personally and professionally that when I went back it was like seeing it all again for the first time,” he says about that trip.
Timing also plays a big role. Interest in Israeli cuisine is ascendant in other food-forward cities like New York, and the sudden availability of the restaurant space (which was formerly Dominique’s on Magazine) fit the theme like a glove. And with it, Shaya also brought to New Orleans a cuisine that’s complex, healthy and relatively unexplored. All these proved to be the perfect precursors for its immediate success.
Most people are familiar enough with the Middle Eastern underpinnings of hummus and pita to cozy up to the menu, but the layering of the flavors, spices and influences that get overlaid atop are what make Shaya exciting and unique, as well as delicious. “Israel is a country that is less than 70 years old,” Shaya points out. “Prior to World War II you were only seeing food from the Middle East there. But today you see food from Russia, Greece, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia, Spain and France, to name just a few.” With the immigration following the establishment of Israel came an influx of national cuisines and traditions. Mix in a couple of religious dietary restrictions and cultural cross-pollination over the course of the last three generations, and what you get is a multifaceted landscape of culinary possibility.
The best way to experience Shaya is to share. Start with a salatim board, an impressionistic array of pickled vegetables, salads and hummus dips united by the excelled fresh-baked pita that continuously emerges from the wood-burning oven. A traditional starting point, Shaya’s is dialed into the locavore scene by the use of regional produce – roasted okra, for example – and local ingredients – Progress Farm’s creamy yogurt is the base for his Labneh.
Shaya also has fun with his recipes, swapping out chicken for duck in his Matzo Ball Soup and rolling in Bulgarian-inspired fare like Borekas (pastry stuffed with feta, duqqa and oregano) in a nod to his grandmother. “My grandmother moved from Bulgaria to Israel in 1948, and now you can find borekas on street corners throughout Israel,” Shaya says. And while Shaya may be Israeli, it’s most certainly not entirely kosher, as evidenced by the Shrimp Shakshouka.
Esquire magazine recently voted Shaya as America’s Best Restaurant. This, plus his 2015 James Beard Award, has made this a destination not just for locals but for people all over the country. So plan ahead for reservations and be sure to come hungry, because each experience here will likely make you hungry for more.
– Jay Forman
for the table sampler including baba ganoush, hummus, lutenitsa, tabouleh and ikra
Shaya, 4213 Magazine St., 891-4213, ShayaRestaurant.com
Restaurateurs of the Year: Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts
We could subtitle this family tale of success in the hospitality industry, “The little daiquiri shop that could.” Because that is where it all began – in Chalmette.
The Ammari family came to New Orleans from Jordan over a period of about 10 years. Eldest son, Marviani, attended the University of New Orleans. He liked everything about the city, in particular the opportunities to own his own business. His younger brothers followed him in order of age, first Richy, then Zeid and finally Dad and Mom.
By 2001, the family was together, according to Marv, “in one of the most welcoming and interesting cities in the world.” Opportunities to expand the daiquiri business came with investments and management in bars and restaurants. Hurricane Katrina sent them all to Houston where as a family they: 1) agreed, going forward, to focus on acquiring and operating restaurants with bar services; and 2) without reservation, decided to return to New Orleans as soon as possible to participate in and contribute to the rebirth.
Along the way, Marv, the CEO, Richy, the CFO and Zeid, the COO, acquired new restaurants, all in the Vieux Carré. They pledged to preserve the culture and the history. And they agreed that every restaurant under their care would be an individual effort, standing on its own, with its own identity, cuisine and profit plan.
They all also married New Orleans ladies, had New Orleans babies and created a lot of jobs in New Orleans.
Today, the restaurants and bars range from that treasured daiquiri shop in Chalmette, still in operation, to the historic upscale dining destinations of Broussard’s, Bombay Club and Kingfish. Coming on-stream very shortly is the Boulevard American Bistro, Creole House Restaurant and Oyster Bar, the yet to be named reception center and wedding facility in the French Market that was Bella Luna Restaurant and most recently, Galvez, two suburban bars and an upscale but casual restaurant, currently in development.
“We have been blessed as a family and as members of this amazing community,” Zeid says. “We are humbled by how our businesses have been supported and favorably reviewed by diners, guests, critics, locals, visitors and special events hosts. Not a moment passes that we do not recognize the debt we owe New Orleans for the gracious acceptance of the Ammari family.”
Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts includes: Broussard’s, Kingfish, The Bombay Club, Royal House Oyster Bar, Cafe Maspero, The Original Pierre Maspero’s, Bourbon Vieux, Bayou Burger & Sports Company, Chartres House, Le Bayou, Pier 424 Seafood Market, Daiquiri Paradise, and all of the Big Easy Daiquiri locations.
– Tim McNally
Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts, CreoleCuisine.com
Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year: Bourrée at Boucherie
buffalo wings with cracklin
Chef Nathanial Zimet and business partner James Denio first opened Boucherie as a brick-and-mortar extension of the food Zimet had been cooking in his food truck, Que Crawl. Recently, when the space at 1506 S. Carrollton Ave. became vacant, the pair decided to move into the slightly larger space. Not long thereafter, another space, this time at 1510 S.
Carrollton Ave. became available, and the pair opened Bourrée at Boucherie, which in addition to the chicken wings and fresh-fruit daiquiris in which it specializes, also offers boudin, Natchitoches-style meat pies and an expanding list of other products.
Bourrée at Boucherie is a casual spot that feels as though it’s been in the location far longer than it has. It is, in other words, a great neighborhood restaurant. While neither Zimet nor Denio were born here, they’ve come to love the city and the Carrollton neighborhood where they got their start. It is safe to say the feeling is mutual, and we’re proud to name Bourrée at Boucherie Best Neighborhood Restaurant, 2015.
– Robert Peyton
Italian Restaurant of the Year: Avo
Thanks to a recent buildout of the transitional space and the installation of a striking retractable roof, the owners of the building housing Avo have finally nailed the formula that makes this indoor/outdoor jewel of a space work year-round. But the heart of Avo is chef Nick Lama. With family roots extending back to the original St. Roch’s Market, Lama’s Italian menu is also progressive thanks to his time spent at Gautreau’s.
“I like to do simple, bright clean flavors. I don’t like overly complicated things,” Lama says. “I’m trying to blend traditional Italian with a bit of a modern mindset.”
His appetizer of charred octopus is a case in point, held fork-tender via sous vide but seared to order for pick up. It gets plated with grilled eggplant and (recently) cranberries for a seasonal twist. Fans of more traditional Italian fare would like his lasagna layered with beef short rib ragu. But few dishes can match the visual appeal of his braised pork shank, a Flintstone-esque tower of tender pork on the bone surrounded by herbed spaetzli and cider-braised cabbage.
– Jay Forman
Avo, 5908 Magazine St., 509-6550, RestaurantAvo.com
Honor Roll: Liuzza’s
frenchuletta, shrimp & artichoke soup, with a schooner
In a town that’s opening new restaurants at a dizzying pace and showing no signs of abating, there’s much comfort in knowing that the tradition of a true New Orleans neighborhood restaurant is alive, well and thriving.
Boston may have its "Cheers," but after the hit TV series there’s reason to doubt authenticity, while New Orleans has Liuzza’s. Change has taken place to the city and the neighborhood since 1947, when Liuzza’s opened its doors, but within the walls that withstood the waters after Hurricane Katrina, little has changed. Not the time-worn bar, not the beer signs, nor the stools and chairs that harken to the ’50s or before, nor the glass brick walls that let in a bit of light but not too much. At Liuzza’s it isn’t a matter of bending to the breezes of change that come to every establishment; it’s a matter of getting it right and then sticking with it.
Liuzza’s is doing what it started out to do: Provide for its neighbors solid, honest, delicious fare based on the family’s Creole and Italian heritage. Oh, and we probably should mention Liuzza’s has always served the coldest mug of beer in New Orleans. That doesn’t hurt a restaurant’s reputation in a town that loves its suds.
Then there’s the Frenchuletta, a culinary blend of the cultures that define Liuzza’s. The sandwich, invented here and served only here, takes the ingredients of an Italian muffaletta and puts them within a French poor boy loaf. It is definitely a hit.
More cultural mash-ups include one of the truly classic andouille gumbos in town, lasagna like your mother should have made it, Italian-stuffed artichokes and fresh-cut French fries as well as freshly done onion rings. An amazing fried chicken is tough to resist, still served atop a slice of buttered white bread toast.
Count your blessings: The Mid-City neighborhood surrounding Liuzza’s is changing, and the city has repaved Bienville Street.
But changes in this part of town don’t come easy or often, nor should there be any changes to the neighborhood institution known for almost 70 years as Liuzza’s.
– Tim McNally
Liuzza’s, 3636 Bienville St., 482-9120, Liuzzas.com
Giving Back: Press Street Station
New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts has long been instrumental in providing pre-professional development for students in the creative arts. And now Press Street Station offers members of its culinary program an on-site proving ground for putting their skills to the test. And if the charm of its students, their food and their backstory doesn’t win you over, the gorgeously wrought space with its soaring, clean contemporary lines, natural light and custom millwork will help. Because the only thing better than digging into their Bywater Benedict (boudin patties over tasso-braised mustard greens topped with poached eggs and hollandaise) is knowing you do so for a good cause.
“They are high-level cooks for teenagers, I was impressed by what they can do,” says chef James Cullen of his young wards. “In addition to working in the front and the back, they also make a lot of the stuff that we sell at the marketplace, like the jellies and the jams.”
Strictly speaking, Press Street Station is a for-profit restaurant that’s part of the NOCCA Institute, whose profits flow back to NOCCA. In addition to their other duties, the students also help with special events and run the Boxcar, Press Street Garden’s food truck, every Saturday as their senior project. “They pick their menu, I order, they grab it, cook it and handle the rest,” Cullen says. Students also work alongside resident horticulturalist Marguerite Green in the garden one day a week. “From that they gain a much deeper understanding of where their product comes from.”
Since Cullen took over earlier in the year, he has steered a course for a more focused and regionally inspired menu than what was offered before. Other brunch options include the Marigny Benedict topped with panko-breaded mirliton patties, poached eggs and hollandaise over kale. Sweet choices include Sweet Potato Brioche Pain Perdu with fruit compote and sweet and spicy pecans. Keep your eye open for upcoming special theme dinners and cooking classes going into the winter months and your ears tuned to regular musical performances by students and alum.
– Jay Forman
Press Street Station, 5 Press St., 249-5622, PressStreetStation.com
Southern Cuisine Restaurant of the Year: Brown Butter
fried chicken & waffle sandwich
Restaurants serving southern cuisine have proliferated like kudzu in recent years. Yet many fall prey to overly precious reconsiderations or suffer from academically earnest navel gazing. Brown Butter deftly sidesteps this pitfall, focusing instead on approaching its dishes with a broad brush Bible Belt sensibility paired with increasingly refined technique.
“Our menu has definitely evolved since we opened,” Simon Beck says about the restaurant he co-owns with chef Dayne Womax. “Plus we like to change things up as much as possible to keep things fresh for our kitchen and our guests.”
Examples of this can be found on Womax’s brunch menu, recently extended to include Saturdays. Here you will find creations like his Green Tomato and Crab Benny, a take on eggs Benedict featuring fried green tomatoes and lump crabmeat atop a cornmeal hoecake in lieu of the more traditional English muffin. Other dishes include his vinegar-braised beef short rib served with grits and peanut salad. Local art and a low-key vibe round out the appeal.
– Jay Forman
Brown Butter, 231 N. Carrollton Ave., Suite C, Mid-City, 609-3871, BrownButterRestaurant.com
Bakery & Beyond: Willa Jean
cookies and milk
The idea that eventually became Willa Jean started before Hurricane Katrina. Pastry chef Kelly Fields had been discussing opening a bakery with chef John Besh, but after Katrina she left town for a few years and it never came to fruition.
The idea didn’t go away, though, and when her colleague Lisa White came on board at Domenica and Pizza Domenica, things started happening. The two looked for a location, hoping for a spot that would recall the corner bakeries that were once ubiquitous in New Orleans.
When they saw the space at 611 O’Keefe Ave. in the South Market, and heard about the plans for the overall development, they were sold. What was conceived as a bakery, though, ended up being much more. In addition to bread, pastries and baked goods, there’s a full savory menu, excellent coffee, beer, wine and cocktails.
Willa Jean is a great bakery, to be sure, but it’s a lot more, and that’s why we’re awarding it Bakery and Beyond 2015.
– Robert Peyton
Willa Jean, 611 O’Keefe Ave., 509-7334, WillaJean.com
Mixologist of the Year: Kent Westmoreland
The Southern lilt of an accent is the first hint that Kent isn’t from here; he's from Charlotte, North Carolina. But there’s the unmistakable respectful tone of love whenever he speaks of New Orleans.
“I came here with a degree in Business Administration and a specialty in computer programming.” Kent waited tables at restaurants, working his way through the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He liked the customer interaction. He reveled in assisting guests to find something on the menu they would really enjoy.
After graduation, Entergy hired him and brought him to New Orleans. He fit right in. And despite the fact that his family was not imbibers of alcoholic beverages, Kent liked what he was trying in his new hometown, renowned as much for cocktails as for cuisine. He became so intrigued with the topic that he enrolled in bartending school. That didn’t satisfy his curiosity; it piqued it.
He was enthused about the new flavors in his life, jazzed by the combinations of ingredients and, the best part, he was able to enjoy interactions with his customers, learning from them as much as he shared. The computer side of Kent’s mind blended with the creative side. His recall of hundreds of cocktail recipes is the more amazing because he also knows the precise measurements of all the ingredients.
“There is a reason a drink recipe calls for ¾-ounce. It’s all about balance, and the homework has been done,” he says. “I respect that a drink recipe states a specific ingredient and its quantity.”
Then there’s the creative joy Kent receives when he puts something together for the very first time, following experimentation.
Kent also has a dramatic side, a theatrical flair. He loves movies and books, particularly Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Kent even wrote a book, a mystery, Baronne Street, currently in print and available. That was followed by the drink, Redemption on Baronne Street.
“I ask my guests what they like; what’s their ‘usual.’ Then I take what they tell me and suggest drinks that they likely have never enjoyed, or drinks that have been created here. In that way we can move folks from their usual gin and tonic to a craft cocktail. I guarantee they’ll like what we suggest, or we’ll just go back to where they’re comfortable.”
– Tim McNally
Cocktail Bar, Windsor Court Hotel, 300 Gravier St., 523-6000, WindsorCourtHotel.com/Cocktail-bar-windsor-court
Concept of the Year: Primitvio
coal grilled ribeye
Primitivo bucks modern dining trends, and it isn’t accidental. The concept, as chef Jared Ralls, co-owner alongside chef Adolfo Garcia, described it to me, is “New American Hearth Cooking.” What that means in practice is that the restaurant is designed around a central open grill with multiple stations that allow for both rapid cooking over high heat and slower, roasting-style methods. The idea for it came to Ralls when his home oven broke, forcing him to rely on his charcoal grill for, among other things, baking.
Ralls sketched out the restaurant’s hearth to scale and provided the drawings to the engineers who manufactured it. It was a massive undertaking, not least because of the venting required to cook over live coals indoors.
Pretty much everything on the menu at Primitivo has at least one element that’s been touched by fire. It is far from molecular gastronomy, which doesn’t interest Ralls. The food is what the chefs, including Primitivo’s executive chef, Nick Martin, like to cook at home, and that’s reflected in many of the family-sized portions. There is a 26-ounce rib-eye, for example, that comes with marrow bones and sweet potatoes; when they haven’t sold out, you can also order a half rack of smoked pork spare ribs with an apple BBQ sauce and smoked potato salad.
Smoke also turns up on the drum ceviche with watermelon and chile, and the coulotte steak that comes with a charred vegetable tzatziki sauce. My favorite item on the menu has got to be the tripe in a spicy tomato sauce topped with Grana Padano cheese and croutons.
Primitivo is a welcome addition to the stretch of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard that also includes Purloo, Casa Borrega and, soon, the market and food emporium that was once called Jack & Jake’s. It is a restaurant that knows what it is, because it’s got a strong central idea, and that’s why we’re proud to name Primitivo the Concept of the Year, 2015.
– Robert Peyton
Primitivo, 1800 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 881-1775, PrimitivoNola.com
Best New Presence: Chef Nina Compton
Chef Nina Compton came to New Orleans to compete on the Bravo television series “Top Chef” in 2013. Like many people who spend time here, she fell in love with the people, the architecture and the culture, and started planning a way to get back. What sets Compton apart, though, is how thoroughly she seems to understand what makes New Orleans special.
She related a story to me about coming to town for Jazz Fest one year, and how surprised she was that everyone she spoke to had recommendations first on what to eat and second on the music. After the fest, she attended a crawfish boil. It wasn’t so much the details of the story that impressed me; it was the smile that lit her face and the sparkle in her eyes as she told it.
When the opportunity came to open a restaurant in the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery, she and her husband, Larry Miller, jumped. She was drawn to the space, she says, because like a lot of New Orleans it had some grit. “It’s not shiny,” is the way she described it, and that could also describe a lot of her food at Compère Lapin, her new restaurant.
Compton is originally from St. Lucia, a Caribbean island in the Lesser Antilles chain, and there are certainly aspects of her cooking that reflect her background – conch fritters and curried goat, for example. But the food at Compère Lapin goes farther. The goat curry is paired with plantain gnocchi, and a chicken preparation includes a breast roulade with leek ash. The roasted grouper with Parisienne potatoes is another standout.
The chef told me her goal is for the food to have the bold, deep flavors that New Orleans residents love, and so far her clientele have been a mix of locals and tourists. Not every new restaurant that opens can satisfy such a broad spectrum of customers, but Compton and her team are pulling it off.
– Robert Peyton
half chicken with turnips and leeks
Compère Lapin, The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery, 535 Tchoupitoulas St., 599-2119, CompereLapin.com
In Memoriam: The Passing of Pan
Claire McCracken Illustrations
There likely are few other professions where the Peter Pan lifestyle takes on such impressive proportions than being a chef.
Chefs remain creative, energetic, enthused, involved, generous and delightful throughout their entire lives. They remain at their posts, mentoring the next generations even as they continue to create and plate culinary delights for our enjoyment and amazement. There is a gleam in their eyes, a lilt in their voice and a desire to please at every phase of their lives.
And that is why losing a chef to life’s inevitable story-arch is a great loss. All human life is precious and to be savored. A chef’s life is something quite out-of-the-usual. This past year, New Orleans and the world have mourned the passing of dear friends, chefs who brought us immense pleasures.
Their legacies will live on, but we’ll no longer be blessed with their presence in the kitchen or at our tables. They enriched us, loved us, and now we have the memory but not the smiling countenance.
Chris “Bozo” Vodanovich: The man behind the oyster counter, assuring top-quality at Bozo’s seafood restaurant, at 86.
Dick Brennan Sr.: Co-founder of Commander’s Palace and Mr. B’s Bistro, creator of the Jazz Brunch and gentle guiding hand of a significant restaurant family, at 84.
Tony Angello: Many a diner has just said, “Feed me, Mr. Tony,” to initiate a feast at his Tony Angello’s Ristorante, at 88.
Willie Mae Seaton: Whose Creole soul food was served with love to Presidents and longshoremen at Willie Mae’s Scotch House in the Tremé and she became a culinary icon late in her life, at 99.
Joe Segreto: The “restaurateur’s restaurateur” and always the gracious host through decades of great restaurants, most recently at 1179, at 75.
Paul Prudhomme: The remarkable creative visionary and the ambassador of Louisiana culture worldwide, at 75.
They were all extraordinary people who probably would have succeeded in any field where they devoted themselves. But they chose restaurants, which is why we relate to them at a visceral level and why we feel their passing as a personal loss. Taken together, the departure of so many greats in such a short period of time from our dining community is starting to look like a shift of the generations.
These are the giants on whose shoulders future generations of culinary stars will stand.
– Tim McNally