Kitchen culture is surging toward change—less yelling, more inclusive leadership. The restaurant realm’s notoriously grueling work, however, remains steadfast. So does the city’s culinary talent. That’s why, every year, Seattle Met profiles five rising star chefs—all of whom are younger than 40 and don’t yet run a place of their own—dedicated to creating great food in this town. While they labor mostly behind the scenes (diving into burger R&D or fermenting off-menu fresno chile hot sauce), these chefs’ skills shine through at some of the best restaurants in Seattle.

Spanish Fundamentals. Justin Legaspi spent four years at Madison Valley’s The Harvest Vine, where he fell in love with Spanish cuisine—the Basque region specifically—so much so he had a stint interning under well-trained chefs in San Sebastian.

Justin Legaspi

Sous Chef, Bateau

At Renee Erickson’s elegant Capitol Hill steak house, a burger and french fries are as much a grass-fed beef labor of love as the smoother-than-jazz beef liver mousse. Justin Legaspi recollects obsessing over brioche baking methods and researching the processes that would beget a fry to match the golden standard set by McDonald’s—back when the fast food chain crisped its potatoes in beef fat, he specifies. It’s a simple meal, Legaspi acknowledges, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be complex and it’s not going to just blow your face off.”

Legaspi’s cooked his way through many a storied Seattle kitchen and alongside big-name chefs like Rachel Yang and Top Chef alumni Jason Stratton and Carrie Mashaney. Under the watchful guidance of executive chef Joey Serquinia, Legaspi remembers grinding on the line at the Spanish small plates pioneer the Harvest Vine, where his training went beyond executing dishes: “It opened up knowing the history, the culture, and concepts of food.”

But when he’s not exerting that brainy approach at Bateau, where he and executive chef Taylor Thornhill (himself a 2016 Next Hot Chef) uphold the restaurant’s sense of relaxed luxury, Legaspi muses about what a place of his own could be one day: a collection of his experience growing up as a Filipino American in Washington. It’s a cultural tug-of-war between family roots and what Legaspi says was an assimilated upbringing. “Still to this day I’m having an identity crisis.” But as Filipino food has exploded onto the city’s dining scene, he says, there’s more freedom to say, with food, “This is who I am, this is who we are...this is the possibility.”

Life, a la Carte

  • Hometown: Auburn, Washington
  • Age: 30
  • Education: Culinary Arts School at the Art Institute of Seattle
  • Other training: Rising Star Scholar at Basque Stage in San Sebastian, Spain.
  • Work History: Txori, the Harvest Vine, Aragona, Trove.

Sea Fix. Wild Salmon Seafood Market is one of Manolin's suppliers and offers Liz Kenyon an excuse to be near water and walk among the boats at Fishermen’s Terminal. Though she hails from a landlocked state, Kenyon says she’s always been drawn to the ocean—a love that might also explain her quick study on the flavors of Manolin and Rupee Bar.

Liz Kenyon

Executive Chef, Manolin and Rupee Bar

Backpacking through Myanmar in 2017, Liz Kenyon and her husband devoured a curried chicken leg from a street vendor, marveling at the curry, the chicken’s untempered flavor, the dosa slapped out on a hot, steel-plate griddle. Kenyon’s husband asked, “Could you cook this kind of food?”

“I was like hell no,” she recalls. It would be a total career reboot, given her background in Italian. Then again, when she’d joined the kitchen at Manolin on Stone Way, Kenyon had to acquaint herself with its specific climate of Latin flavors by way of the Pacific Northwest.

She’d barely touched down back in Seattle when Manolin’s owners told her they were planning a new bar with food inspired by Sri Lankan and South Indian flavors—the ones she’d just deemed out of reach. Would Kenyon be the chef?

Kenyon traveled to Sri Lanka, staged in South Indian restaurants in London, and wandered Eastside markets. Then, when Manolin’s founding chef, Alex Barkley, moved to Arizona this winter, Kenyon’s bosses also asked her to take over one of the city’s most reliably impressive kitchens. She subbed her structured ways for her predecessor’s freewheeling approach, never missing a beat on those bright, seasonal dishes, making subtle yet impactful tweaks, like introducing adobo to the signature black rice with squid.

She’ll mostly be at Rupee Bar in Ballard this summer, relishing the big flavor possibilities that come with small-plate drinking snacks, like croquette-esque fish cutlets, mutton rolls, and, yes, curries: “You want acidic, a little spicy, and you want salty.” She’s nervous to make flatbread in the new tandoor oven, but boss Joe Sundberg points out, “Liz is modest almost to a fault. She always figures it out.”

Life, a la Carte

  • Hometown: Missoula, Montana
  • Age: 28
  • Education: New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont
  • Other Training: Internship at Park Kitchen in Portland, apprenticeship with famed butcher Dario Cecchini in Italy.
  • Work History: Line cook at St. Cecilia in Atlanta, Georgia.

Meaningful Meat. Mikey Robertshaw hooked Aaron Means on Kau Kau in the hectic days when they were preparing to open Roux. “We’d go up to the counter and get a half pound of barbecue pork and a half pound of spareribs with plum sauce,” says Means. “That was our happy meal.” Robertshaw has since moved away from Seattle, but after losing a recent football bet, Means overnighted him five pounds of Kau Kau on dry ice.

Aaron Means

Newly Minted Executive Chef, Zig Zag Cafe (Previously at Damn the Weather)

The sun’s out, the Mariners are at home, and the jerseyed fans drinking beer on Damn the Weather’s patio might never realize a transcendent plate of halibut lurks on the menu, just beyond pregame staples like chicken fat fries and hush puppies. That tender fish, with its crunchy golden exterior and accompanying beet agrodolce, would be the envy of far fancier restaurant kitchens. So would the burrata, transformed from mound of cheese to proper composed dish via a salad of radicchio, pistachios, and bread crumbs.

As executive chef at the Pioneer Square cocktail bar, Aaron Means put his own stamp on its tradition of destinationworthy food and balanced comfort snacks with a full-on seasonal dinner menu. His plates, garnished with edible blossoms or careful sauces, apply lessons learned under a cadre of great chefs—Mikey Robertshaw, Miles James, but especially Charles Walpole at the old Babirusa and Blind Pig Bistro. Means’s recollection of this era sounds part culinary Montessori, part Chopped. Cooks followed just three rules: “Food had to look good; it had to taste good; you could never double up one ingredient on the menu.” If someone else already grabbed the puntarelle you planned to use, “you had to think on your feet.”

Means emerged with a style that teeters between meaty and low-key elegant, and a zeal for using every last stem and scrap—“it’s a way of improving yourself all the time.” Now, he’s overhauling the menu at another landmark Seattle bar: As Zig Zag Cafe’s new chef, Means is busy instilling a seasonal sensibility that befits the bar’s status in the cocktail world, not to mention that prime perch between Pike Place Market and the water.

Life, a la Carte

  • Hometown: Klamath Falls, Oregon
  • Age: 37
  • Pre-Cooking Life: 10 years as a land surveyor.
  • Education: Left culinary school to learn the basics from Mikey Robertshaw at Local 360.
  • Work History: Local 360, Dot’s Deli, Roux, Babirusa and Blind Pig Bistro, Damn the Weather.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name. Suika on Capitol Hill is like Ethan Leung’s Cheers—he walks in and is immediately greeted like family. The izakaya restaurant serves his perennial favorites. “I always get their bibimbap, whether it’s the pork belly or the eel.”

Ethan Leung

Sous Chef, Ben Paris

Cooking can be a lot like break dancing: originality is key and nailing the basics is nonnegotiable. At least that’s how Ethan Leung sees it. “There are all these foundations that breaking has that can be applied to cooking in a way.”

Such discipline was useful in his brief career as an engineer, too, but Leung gave up the comfortable yet existentially unsatisfying Bellevue job when he realized he only wanted to be in one place—the kitchen. As a college student at Bellingham’s Western Washington University, he took on his first food gig at a sushi restaurant. The precision-minded Leung made flash cards about sushi roll components and timed himself for efficiency. That work ethic propelled him through his flourishing career, from a subsequent gig making ramen to far-flung stages in upscale Australian restaurants to his nomadic sous chef status at two of Brendan McGill’s Pacific Northwest establishments with “Hitchcock” in the name—specifically the cafe and restaurant proper on Bainbridge Island.

Now Leung is the sous chef for Ben Paris, by far the best of Seattle’s new crop of hotel restaurants downtown, where he repurposes compost-bound fresno chile bits into a versatile fermented hot sauce to top meticulously architected eggs or to punch up an aioli.

He’s long been the pupil of executive chef Quinton Stewart. Leung’s worked under his mentor off and on for five years in various restaurants, following him from Bellevue’s 99 Park and eventually to Ben Paris. “I knew on the first day I met him, he was different than the other cooks,” says Stewart. “He has a quality you can’t really teach.” Much like a break dancer’s swagger, it has to come naturally.

Life, a la Carte

  • Hometown: Silverdale, Washington
  • Age: 29
  • Education: Western Washington University
  • Other Training: Staged at Automata and Victor Churchill butcher shop in Australia.
  • Work History: Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, 99 Park Restaurant, Trove, Scout, Hitchcock, Cafe Hitchcock.

A Second Home. A few doors down from Poppy, Bait Shop doubles as Sydney Clark’s office, so to speak, albeit a boozier one that involves a post-shift shot of whiskey and a can of PBR. “A couple of months into working at Poppy we’re like, ‘Hey, let’s check this place out.’” Five years later, she says, “It feels like we never leave.” Bait Shop co-owner Jonah Bergman, like Clark, also hails from Kitsap County. Their shared love of Bremerton’s Tony’s Pizza means bringing each other the occasional pie to their respective workplaces.

Sydney Clark

Chef de Cuisine, Poppy

Picky eaters can pose a challenge, especially for a chef. So when Sydney Clark—after two decades of finicky dining, after scorning her mom and dad’s homemade meals, after earning her degree in archaeology at the University of Washington—decided to become a chef, it was a surprise. “My parents were astounded I ended up in this profession,” she remembers.

Today though, as the chef de cuisine at Poppy, Clark finishes all of her veggies and, indeed, is primarily driven by whatever’s sprouting in the restaurant’s back garden. “Usually, in the morning, I’ll go out and see what herbs are taking off—we need to use this lovage, we have nettles” and build a dish from the ground up. That’s how a summery platter of carefully sliced Lummi Island sockeye salmon, cured in gin by Clark’s sous, came to be. Clark fashioned an almost-too-pretty plate of food with sprigs of fennel and lovage, mint leaves, sorrel, edible petals of yellow, orange, and violet. Capers and crescent shavings of pickled rhubarb make a balanced salty-acidic assist.

For over 10 years Jerry Traunfeld’s Capitol Hill restaurant, buoyed by bold, global spices and Pacific Northwest ingredients, has been about simplicity. “I do like understanding the science behind everything,” says Clark, “but that doesn’t mean turning everything into a foam—molecular gastronomy doesn’t really appeal to me.” Wielding a sheet pan’s worth of swiss chard and beet greens to maximum effect, however, is her culinary superpower.

Editor's Note: Shortly after this issue went to print, Traunfeld announced Poppy's sale to Nathan and Rebecca Lockwood of Altura.

Life, a la Carte

  • Hometown: Port Orchard, Washington
  • Age: 33
  • Education: University of Washington
  • Work History: KFC, Grim’s, Manhattan Drugs.
Show Comments