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Six Chicago Chefs in Running for 'People's Best New Chef' Title

By Janet Rausa Fuller | March 18, 2013 6:19am | Updated on March 18, 2013 8:55am
 Jimmy Bannos Jr. of the Purple Pig is one of six Chicago chefs nominated for Food & Wine's "People's Best New Chef" award.
Jimmy Bannos Jr. of the Purple Pig is one of six Chicago chefs nominated for Food & Wine's "People's Best New Chef" award.
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The Purple Pig

CHICAGO — Chicagoans have a tough call to make in Food & Wine magazine's online contest to crown "The People's Best New Chef."

Six Chicago chefs are in the running for the title, to be announced Tuesday — Jimmy Bannos Jr., Thai Dang, Matthew Kirkley, Matthias Merges, Jason Vincent and Lee Wolen.

None are exactly "new," least of all Merges, the chef and owner of two Logan Square spots, Yusho and Billy Sunday. But who's to quibble?

"I'm proud of our teams at Yusho and Billy Sunday," Merges said. "They deserve the recognition more than I."

Voting is open to the public and ends Monday — the same day the James Beard Foundation will announce finalists for its awards, often called the Oscars of the restaurant industry.

Merges ran the kitchen at the famed Charlie Trotter's for more than a decade before going out on his own. He opened Yusho, serving Japanese street food, in 2011 and Billy Sunday, a cocktail bar, early this year, and he's working on two Hyde Park projects.

The Purple Pig's Bannos Jr. — who already has gotten love from Food & Wine as one of 12 chefs profiled in the book, "America's Greatest New Cooks" — was helping out at his dad's Loop restaurant Heaven on Seven as a preschooler and by 21 was working for Mario Batali in New York.

Bannos was nominated for the award last year, along with Vincent of Nightwood, a low-key place in Pilsen with a focus on Midwestern ingredients.

Dang, the chef at Embeya, a new West Loop eatery that draws on his Vietnamese roots, has worked at, among other places, L2O in Lincoln Park — where fellow nominee Kirkley is in charge.

L2O is as swanky as the Lobby at the Peninsula Chicago, Wolen's domain. But while L2O is all about seafood, Wolen's signature protein is that Sunday dinner staple, roast chicken.

The People's Best New Chef will be featured in the July issue of Food & Wine, in which the magazine's picks for the nation's Best New Chefs also will be revealed.