Top Chefs

Six culinary greats take the fine dining experience to the next level


By 1990, Johnson went on to new challenges, moving to California and learning about new food frontiers through additional study at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. After finishing a stint managing foodservice operations at San Francisco’s 1,000-room Parc 55 Hotel, Johnson, 48, was ready to return to hands-on fine dining and was tapped to take over culinary operations at Seattle’s historic Mayflower Park Hotel, which includes the Mediterranean-influenced Andaluca Restaurant and Oliver’s Lounge.

“I really believe in using local food as much as possible, things like local grass-fed beef and fish. When we have first-run halibut season out of Alaska, it’s incredible.” Combining local products with Mediterranean spices and preparations allows Johnson to interpret the flavors and the spirit of the Mediterranean in a uniquely American way. “When we do a paella, it’s got saffron in it” and other traditional ingredients, Johnson explains. But by working with seasonally available Pacific Northwest seafood and meats, “it’s an American paella.”

ERIKA DAVIS Executive Pastry Chef, The Peabody, Memphis
Spurred by the success of her cookie baking business in elementary school, Erika Davis, 36, knew as a child what she wanted to do. “My mother saw that I had a talent and she put the spotlight on it and let me run with it,” she says. “I didn’t really set goals. I was just eager to be creative with food.”

Davis, a Chicago native, graduated from the culinary arts program at a community college near Detroit in 1990, and gained experience under several master chefs and bakers. She also worked at celebrated Michigan restaurants such as The Golden Mushroom and Pike Street Restaura
nt and the Lodge of Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Missouri. In 1998, Davis moved to Memphis and joined the Peabody Hotel as pastry supervisor. She became executive pastry chef in 2004.

Often the only African American and the only woman in the kitchen, Davis now provides opportunities for those interested in learning, including a 42-year-old woman from the hotel’s housekeeping staff who now attends culinary school and is training to become a pastry chef.

Davis says she has seen incredible changes in the food-as-entertainment era. “Everyone’s taste buds have exploded,” she says. Consumer expectations have been raised in light of the variety of new trends in food. Having started out as a baker, Davis says it’s no longer enough to master one area of desserts. “You have to be a baker, a cake decorator, know how to pull sugar, and know how to temper chocolate and create chocolate sculptures. The ‘wow’ factor-that’s the big difference now from 12 or 15 years ago.”

MARCUS SAMUELSSON Executive Chef & Co-Owner, Aquavit, New York
“In our generation, fine dining is not based on whether you are wearing a suit. It is in the soul of the place, the vibe, the food,” says superstar chef Marcus Samuelsson, who is also an author and host of the Discovery Channel’s Inner Chef. He has soulfully restaged Scandinavian food, changing how Americans think about herring, gravlax, and smorgasbord. Samuelsson’s wide culinary

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