Southwest Airlines Spirit
America’s Best Modern Master Chefs
If there’s one unassailable truth to come out of the late Nineties when it comes to restaurants, it is the delectable fact that chefs are becoming better cooks. By that I mean that the gimmicky and razzle-dazzle of the Eighties and early Nineties have been replaced with discipline, refinement, and focus in America’s best kitchens. Chefs who once tried to do much too much are now doing far more with less. Good cooking—not media attention—is the real mettle f a great chef, and here are ten of the very finest, each with a distinct devotion to ethnic and regional variety, which is what makes American gastronomy the most exciting in the world.
Once upon a time Helene and her husband, Danny An, were comfortable and content professionals living in Saigon. But that was before the Vietnam War tore them away from their homeland in 1975 with little but the clothes on their backs. After many tribulations they settled in San Francisco, where they—with three of their five daughters, Elizabeth, Hannah, and Monique—managed to open an innovative Vietnamese restaurant and then another far more glamorous place called Crustacean in Beverly Hills. Elizabeth, who is never dressed in anything that could not be considered haute couture, is the ebullient presence in the dining room, greeting her regular customers and newcomers with grace and enthusiasm. Meanwhile her mother, Helene, is in what she calls her “secret kitchen,” which is adjacent to the main kitchen, creating new recipes and special dishes for those with a love of the exotic.
With its koi-filled stream covered in glass and set into the floor and its evocation of the Ans’ memories of Indochina, Crustacean is both beautiful and endearing, especially since Helene is the presiding presence in the kitchen where she oversees the preparation of exquisite Vietnamese cuisine such as ginger lobster with thin noodles in a ginger-basil sauce; Indochinese ravioli with prawns, caramelized shallots and fennel; whole roasted Dungeness crab; and colossal tiger prawns with garlic noodles.
What’s more, Helene creates her dishes according to traditional ideas on the healthfulness of certain combinations of food, a sensible and savory kind of holistic cooking that never strays into the eccentric. They Hollywood celebs have made this place their own. The Ans have made America their home and, like many immigrants before them, have given back as much as they’ve gotten.