NEW YORK » Food may not have been their first calling, but coming late to the culinary scene clearly hasn’t slowed David Chang and Paul Kahan.
On Monday, the two were jointly honored as the nation’s most outstanding chefs by the James Beard Foundation, an exclamation point on circuitous careers that began in other fields — Chang in finance and Kahan in computer science — but saw them quickly ascend to the top of the restaurant world.
The men — only the third pair to tie for the top chef award in the foundation’s history — have been lauded as restaurant revolutionaries. Chang’s edgy, in-your-face style — not to mention a deft hand with steamed pork buns — has spawned a global empire of media and restaurants, including New York’s Momofuku Ko and Ma Peche — some of the hottest, hard-to-get tables in the city.
"I grew up dreaming what it might be like to do this and how impossible it might be," said Chang, who said he has idolized Kahan for years. "I’m really, truly honored. A tie could not have been better because I’m glad I’m not up here by myself."
Chang owes his second career largely to an obsession with ramen noodles, which led him to Tokyo and eventually back to school for a culinary degree (his first had been in religion). By 2004, he opened his first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, and accolades piled up. New York Times critic Frank Bruni even called Chang "the New York restaurant world’s equivalent of Tiger Woods or Roger Federer."
Kahan is at the forefront of Chicago’s increasingly robust restaurant scene. After leaving computer science, he spent years apprenticing to some of the city’s top talent, including Rick Bayless. He spun that experience into an award-winning restaurant group that includes Blackbird, Avec and The Publican, all of which reflect his own culinary obsession — sustainably sourced ingredients and close relationships with producers.
"You can’t beat Chang, but a tie is OK," Kahan said.
The James Beard awards honor those who follow in the footsteps of Beard, considered the dean of American cooking when he died in 1985. Monday’s ceremony honored chefs and restaurants; a similar event on Friday was held for book and other media awards. Previous ties for the outstanding chef award went to Larry Forgione and Jean-Louis Palladin in 1993, and Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten in 1998.
Chang has won three previous Beard awards, including for best new restaurant for Momofuku Ko in 2009 and rising star chef in 2007. Kahan was named a regional best chef in 2004. Both men lost out for the same honor last year to Daniel Humm, the chef behind New York’s Eleven Madison Park.
The foundation’s top restaurant award this year went to Dan Barber’s Blue Hill in New York City. Barber — who was the foundation’s top chef in 2009 — follows a minimalist culinary philosophy that he calls "American seasonal." He believes exceptional ingredients should be allowed to stand on their own. A signature dish is "vegetables on a fence," baby vegetables simply prepared and presented speared on a row of upright prongs.
"I feel like the luckiest chef in America today," Barber said. He jokingly credited his restaurant’s success in part to the difficulty of finding it on New York’s back streets. "They are so much hungrier than they would have been," he said. "I have this feeling, this conviction that the food tastes better than it otherwise would."
State Bird Provisions in San Francisco — known for its dizzying array of small plates served from a cart by husband-and-wife team Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski — was named best new restaurant. Meanwhile, Del Posto — Mario Batali’s ode to fine dining in New York — took home two awards, outstanding service and outstanding pastry chef (Brooks Headley).
The group’s Lifetime Achievement award went to chef and restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, who founded San Francisco’s Mandarin Restaurant and has been credited with introducing Mandarin cuisine to the United States.
The Humanitarian of the Year honor went to Emeril Lagasse, whose Emeril Lagasse Foundation in New Orleans supports nonprofit and educational programs aimed at disadvantaged children. The group’s efforts, which are focused in communities where Lagasse has restaurants, have included creating an outdoor classroom, school gardens, a fresh foods cafeteria and a culinary learning center.
The Beard Foundation also named its top regional chefs around the country: Stephanie Izard of Girl & the Goat in Chicago (Great Lakes); Johnny Monis of Komi in Washington, D.C. (Mid-Atlantic); Colby Garrelts of Bluestem in Kansas City, Mo. (Midwest); Wylie Dufresne of wd-50 (New York City); Melissa Kelly of Primo in Rockland, Maine (Northeast); Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon in Portland, Ore. (Northwest); Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans (South); Joseph Lenn of The Barn at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn. (Southeast); Jennifer Jasinski of Rioja in Denver (Southwest); Christopher Kostow of The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, Calif. (West).