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10 Breakthrough Rock Star Chefs of 2016

From the only female kaiseki chef to a punk rocker who traded drum sticks for veggie burgers, a look at the coolest kitchen-runners in America

Once upon a time, kids dreamed of becoming rock stars, banging away on beat-up guitars in their garages, picturing the dingy clubs where they'd be discovered. Today, they're just as likely to gain stardom from their sauté pans, fantasizing about hitting it big with the next cronut. With food TV shows on every hour of the day – from the glamorous slow-mo of Netflix's Chef's Table to the cheeseball competition of MasterChef Junior – there's no profession more in the spotlight than chef. And while, like music, cooking has its share of poseurs, it's chefs like these 10 who are using their notoriety to make big changes in the way we eat, think, and even understand one another.

Kwame Onwuachi (The Shaw Bijou, Washington, D.C.)

hef Kwame Onwuachi (right) tasting at The Shaw Bijou.

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Kwame Onwuachi (The Shaw Bijou, Washington, D.C.)

The Shaw Bijou may be the most hotly anticipated restaurant of the decade in the District, the solo debut of a 27-year-old Top Chef alum whose come-up is already the stuff of legend. Onwuachi spent his childhood in the Bronx and Nigeria, then sold candy on the subway to pay for culinary school. Now, he's jumping into fine dining with one of the city's most expensive tasting-menu-only spots located in a renovated townhouse in Shaw, a historic black neighborhood. The high-concept dishes serve as an edible biography of its young chef, incorporating African and American flavors with French technique and plenty of showmanship.

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Daniela Soto-Innes (Cosme, NYC)

At just 26, Daniela Soto-Innes is the U.S. deputy of the most innovative Mexican chef in the world. She runs the kitchen at Enrique Olvera's Cosme in New York City, but she's not hiding in that award-winning chef's shadow: She's raked in a Beard award for Rising Star Chef, three New York Times stars and a recent visit from the Obamas for gorgeous, technique-driven dishes like duck carnitas and uni tostadas with bone marrow salsa.

Abraham Conlon (Fat Rice, Chicago)

Nick Murway

Abraham Conlon (Fat Rice, Chicago)

Say the words "Macanese cuisine" to most and you're likely to get a blank stare. But Abraham Conlon and his partner, Adrienne Lo, are out to change that, with the most delicious argument for culinary diversity on Chicago's North Side. Fat Rice serves up the food – and spirit – of Macau, a tiny former Portuguese colony next door to Hong Kong. Blending elements of Indonesian, Indian, Cantonese and Portuguese cooking in a boisterous, laid-back environment, Fat Rice is a spice-scented neighborhood joint, and with their new cook book, The Adventures of Fat Rice out now, they are sharing their creations with an even wider audience. 

Roy Choi (Kogi Truck, LA)

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Roy Choi (LocoL, L.A.)

From his early days riding the West Coast food-truck boom, Choi has always been an outspoken champion for food equity, bringing his Korean-influenced stoner eats to the masses and speaking out about his own struggles. This year, he's put his money where his mouth is with LocoL, a new chain serving "revolutionary fast food for everyone" in Oakland and Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood. By hiring from within these underserved communities and providing quality ingredients at affordable prices, LocoL is making a long-term impact that goes beyond lunchtime.

Renee Erickson (The Walrus and the Carpenter, Seattle)

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Renee Erickson (The Walrus and the Carpenter, Seattle)

No chef more perfectly embodies their city than Renee Erickson does Seattle. In her six-restaurant empire – spanning steakhouses, oyster shacks and Italian cocktail bars – there's an undercurrent that is pure Pacific Northwest, all whitewashed charm and gentle, hearty plates that delight with a quiet grace. And lots of oysters, of course. She's also been a vocal proponent of wage equality, setting an example by raising base wages at her restaurants above the local minimum.

Ashley Christensen (Poole's, Beasley's, Fox Liquor Bar, Raleigh, NC)

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Ashley Christensen (Poole’s, Beasley’s, Fox Liquor Bar, Raleigh, NC)

If your idea of Southern food is fried chicken and grits, Ashley Christensen has something to show you. When she opened Poole's Diner in 2007 she was at the forefront of the New South movement, joining chefs like Sean Brock in celebrating the incredible bounty of the region with heirloom tomato pie, oysters Rockefeller made with turnip greens and pimento cheese. Now her Raleigh empire has grown to include a cocktail bar, farm-to-table burgers and (yes) even fried chicken, all executed with her signature combination of good humor and razor-sharp instincts.

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Joseph “JJ” Johnson (The Cecil, NYC)

On an unassuming corner in Harlem, off the tourist-beaten path of 125th Street, the Cecil's neon sign shines like a beacon, letting passerby know that inside is the incarnation of what American cuisine should be. Located on West 116th Street, Johnson's menu encompasses the African diaspora, from the American South to Brazil and even Asia, combining flavors in unexpected new ways. His globe-trotting approach shines in dishes like oxtail dumplings, cinnamon-scented guinea hen, and a raw collard green salad that puts kale out to pasture.

Niki Nakayama

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Niki Nakayama (n/naka, Los Angeles)

Kaiseki – high-end, formal Buddhist vegetarian cuisine – is one of Japan's most ancient food traditions, and one of its most regimented. It's also, as you might expect, one of the most male-dominated. Which makes Nakayama's L.A. restaurant even more extraordinary – she's apparently the only female kaiseki chef in the world. Now, she's running the place with her partner Carole Iida, using produce she grows in their backyard. N/naka is a temple to Nakayama's vision, skill and determination, admired by fellow chefs the world over.

Stephanie Izard (Girl and the Goat, Chicago)

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Stephanie Izard (Girl and the Goat, Chicago)

We knew back in 2008 that Izard, the first female winner of Top Chef, was just as adept at killing her competition with kindness as with her knife skills. Now, with three Chicago restaurants to her name, she's proven her success was no flash in the pan. And by including dishes featuring her namesake animal on all her menus (an izard is a type of mountain goat from the Pyrenees), she's introduced a world of American diners to the delicious possibilities of goat meat in the process.

Brooks Headley (Superiority Burger, NYC)

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Brooks Headley (Superiority Burger, NYC)

OK, so the sometime Born Against drummer is also a legit musician, but Headley's kitchen cred is just as punk rock as his bands. The James-Beard-Award-winning pastry chef at Del Posto, New York City's most highly rated Italian restaurant, walked away from the fine-dining glitz last year to take over an East Village hole in the wall. Now he slings fast-food-styled burgers, brilliantly off-kilter sides, and the best gelato you've ever eaten out of a paper cup – and it's all either vegetarian or, as he describes it, "accidentally vegan."

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