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10 Modernist Chefs to Try

Dominique Crenn

When elBulli’s Ferran Adrià first made his spheres, hot jellies, and foams, some critics scoffed at his mad-scientist approach to cooking. Yes, his techniques may be outlandish for home cooks, but Adrià’s methods changed the face of many restaurants around the world, influencing a new generation of chefs and expanding diners’ palates. Here are 10 of the most exciting modernist chefs who followed in his wake around the world.

By Kathleen Squires

A serial traveler who often lets a country’s cuisine dictate her itineraries, New York City-based writer Kathleen Squires has visited all 7 continents and over 60 countries, with stints living in London, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires. Her work also appears in The Wall Street Journal, Saveur, Cooking Light and National Geographic Traveler.

Jose Moran Moya/Flickr (All Rights Reserved)
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Seiji Yamamoto

WHERE: Tokyo, Japan

He’s been known to silkscreen squid ink and run an eel through a CAT scan before cooking. He has also invented a method to halt rigor mortis in fish. Despite these game-changing methods at his 11-year-old restaurant, Nihonryori RyuGin, Seiji Yamamoto spent years studying one of the most traditional Japanese cooking styles: kaiseki. At Ryugin, Yamamoto blends the kaiseki mission of stimulating all senses with futuristic techniques in dishes such as “Lusciousness: Coolness, Warmth, Playful Spirits, Nostalgia and Temptation” that celebrates “old times” via a candy apple.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Tokyo Guide

Arzak by Kok Chih & Sarah Gan, Attribution-NonCommercial License
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Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak

WHERE: San Sebastian, Spain; London, UK

Opened in 1897, historians can trace the evolution of Basque cuisine right at Arzak restaurant. Helmed by a powerful father-and-daughter team, Juan Mari has been hailed as “The most important figure in Spanish cooking,” by Ferran Adria, while daughter Elena has been named “Best Female Chef in the World” by Veuve Cliquot. While breaking new ground, dishes such as transparent ravioli and anchovies in edible cellophane, are rooted in tradition—4 generations worth, all while retaining the feel of a “family restaurant.” The Arzaks have also lent their ingenious approach to Ametsa, recently opened in London.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Spain Guide

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Grant Achatz

WHERE: Chicago, IL

Ever wonder what it would be like to eat a helium balloon? Find out at Alinea, Grant Achatz’s flagship restaurant, where it has a wonderfully tart green apple flavor. One of the first in the US to embrace molecular gastronomy, Achatz also breaks convention in format at his restaurant Next. Not only do diners need to purchase a “ticket” in order to secure a reservation, the theme of the restaurant changes every few months—“Chinese modern” may dictate the spring, while fall may focus on the flavors of “Childhood.”

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Chicago Guide

Courtesy of Gaggan
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Gaggan Anand

WHERE: Bangkok, Thailand

Few chefs can claim the worldly experience of Gaggan Anand: after training in his homeland of India, Anand became the first Indian chef to work under Ferran Adria at El Bulli. His culinary journey continues at his eponymous restaurant in Thailand, with “Progressive Indian Cuisine,” that often mingles cultures. When India meets Italy, for example, green fish with green chili and coriander combine with a smoked salmon fettucini and cucumber raita. It’s not only about blurring borders however: “It’s about putting old school and new school together,” the chef once told CNN.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bangkok Guide

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Alex Atala

WHERE: Sao Paulo, Brazil

At his restaurants D.O.M. and Dalva e Dito, Alex Atala literally puts the landscape of Brazil on a plate by harvesting exotic ingredients not usually found on the table and transforming them into memorable flavor components. Priprioca, for example, previously a root used for cosmetics, becomes a stuffing for ravioli; and jambu, which has an “electric” sensation on the tongue, livens up some catfish. Atala has also spearheaded further exploration with the opening of Ata, an “institute about relation to food.”

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sao Paulo Guide

Dominique Crenn
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Dominique Crenn

WHERE: San Francisco, CA

Kitchen sense and poetic sensibility collide on the menu at Atelier Crenn, which celebrates the best that nature has to offer. So “Where Birds Sing and Are Causing Ripples in the Nearby Water” translates to smoke-seared squab with squash, mustard, rose hibiscus and currant, via Dominque Crenn’s “Poetic Culinaria.” The only woman in the US to have earned two Michelin stars also takes the road less traveled in veggies like carrot jerky, for example. Robert Frost would have been a regular.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Guide

Courtesy of Bo Innovation X-treme Chinese Cuisine
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Alvin Leung

WHERE: Hong Kong, London

The creator of “Xtreme Chinese” turns an ancient cuisine on its head, not only with unorthodox methods, but with names and plating, too. Case in point: “Sex on the Beach,” a mushroom dish, includes an edible condom. With three Michelin stars at his Hong Kong branch and one star at the London branch, his Bo Innovation restaurants show that diners don’t mind a side of racy wit with their meals.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s London Guide and Fodor’s Hong Kong Guide

Courtesy of Tokara, Stellenbosch
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Richard Carstens

WHERE: Stellenbosch, South Africa

Known for being a tough judge on Master Chef South Africa, and often hailed as the most creative chef on the continent, Richard Carstens brought a new face to the time-honored restaurant Tokara when he took over the kitchen in 2010. His playful creations include “baked Alaska” of rainbow trout with smoked salmon ice cream and global flavor mash-ups such as pan-fried springbok with carrot ginger puree, croquettes, salted apricots, yogurt sorbet, and Japanese curry sauce.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s South Africa Guide

Fiamma Piacentini
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Enrique Olvera

WHERE: Mexico City, Playa del Carmen, Puebla, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Enrique Olvera has redefined Mexican cuisine by thrusting it into the 21st century, while honoring traditional flavors. At his restaurants Pujol, La Purificadora, Eno, Maiz de Mar and Moxi, Olvera may showcase the joy of insects, for example. Yes, residents South of the Border may have been eating ants for centuries, but did they ever have them with baby corn, coffee, and costeño chile? We think not. Olvera’s upcoming NYC restaurant promises to change American-Mex food forever, too.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Mexico Guide

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Peter Gilmore

WHERE: Sydney, Australia

Rare plants + rare breed animals = the rare treats of Peter Gilmore at his restaurant Quay. Sitting right on the city harbor, the location isn’t bad either. But diners are frequently pulled away from the view to focus on the unconventional textures, and flavors, taking place on the plate, in creations such as raw smoked Blackmore wagyu, fresh dory roe, horseradish juice, soured cream, and milk skin.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sydney Guide