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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.

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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