March Madness is in full swing, bringing with it all the pro-level snacking, endurance drinking, and bracketology that a person could hope for. But for all the binging and bro-downs the NCAA tournament inspires, it also appeals to a softer sort of sports fan—the kind that appreciates an underdog. Cinderella stories are a time-honored part of the Big Dance—an opportunity to root for teams and players that defy expectations or triumph in the face of discouraging odds.
We love a dark horse here at First We Feast, athletic or otherwise. So in that spirit, we present five chefs who are flourishing under unlikely circumstances, from a Vietnamese immigrant winning over wary Midwestern palates, to a Pittsburgh cook battling the current of Rust-Belt decline.
Having grown up poor in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Kevin Sousa’s loyalty to the post-industrial region runs deep. As much a social entrepreneur as he is a chef, Sousa has garnered national attention for opening restaurants that double as vehicles for urban renewal and community development in depressed areas of Pittsburgh. In 2010, he shined a spotlight on the East End neighborhood of Garfield, opening a fine-dining destination, Salt of the Earth, and earning a James Beard Award nomination in the process. He later set his sights on East Liberty, opening barbecue joint Union Pig and Chicken, as well as Station Street Hot Dogs in 2012. He’s no longer involved in those ventures, but his next project is the most challenging one yet: Superior Motors—a restaurant, culinary job-training facility, and farm—is slated to open this summer in the old steel town of Braddock, PA. To get it done, Sousa moved his entire family to the troubled district and looked to Kickstarter to raise the funds. A recent fracas with the local paper has complicated things—the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a patchy investigation of Sousa’s financial history and the chef has been working to set the record straight ever since, demonstrating his commitment to change in the region once again, even when it proves to be an uphill battle. (Photo: Kevin Sousa)
Southern cities like Charleston and Nashville have caught fire in recent years as local chefs began to dig into their heritage to inform a movement of deeply personal restaurants. But Miami has long been excluded from the region’s gastro-renaissance, even as blockbuster toques like Andrew Carmellini and Josh Capon open splashy brand extensions there. As a food city, Miami still feels young, with a clientele that seems to favor big, chic, anonymous dining rooms to the kind of smaller, quirkier projects that have lately defined the restaurant culture of the South. But then there’s Giorgio Rapicavoli. The chef landed on the national radar following an appearance on Chopped, and his scrappy, intimate restaurant—Eating House in Coral Gables—feels markedly different than anything else happening in Miami. Coconut ice melts into a creamy dressing for an heirloom tomato salad; the soft meat and crispy peeled skins of sweet potatoes mingle with miso and maple cream; there’s graffiti art on the walls and hip-hop on the speakers. Not everything works, but Rapicavoli deserves respect and recognition for staying true to his ambitions in a city that doesn’t always reward out-of-the-box thinking. (Photo courtesy Mario Davila)
Longevity is a tough thing to cultivate in a food culture that often values hot, hungry upstarts more than slow-burn success stories. It’s rare to find a chef who has simply kept their head down for years, done the work in the kitchen, and avoided the soulless expansion plans or endorsement deals that can follow culinary acclaim. Anita Lo is just that kind of chef. Her restaurant, Annisa has been a New York City staple since 2000, surviving both the post-9/11 recession and a crippling fire that closed the eatery for 10 months in 2009. She managed to muscle on after the blaze, growing and improving all the while—she tacked a third star onto her New York Times rating in 2010 and released a quietly brilliant book, Cooking Without Borders, with writer Charlotte Druckman in 2011. Lo is in it for the long haul, but she’s too classy to crow about it, making her that perfect kind of underdog—the one everyone wants to root for. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Israeli chef Michael Solomonov opened up with us about his struggles with addiction earlier this year, and his story is worth revisiting in the context of Cinderella triumphs. Solomonov entered rehab shortly after the 2008 opening of his acclaimed Philadelphia restaurant, Zahav. By 2011, he was clean and flourishing, with a James Beard Award (Best Chef Mid-Atlantic) and several other restaurant ventures under his belt. His holdings now include the wildly successful Federal Donuts and Percy Street Barbecue along with the hummus-centric Dizengoff and Abe Fisher, where he pays homage to the flavors of the Jewish diaspora. Climbing the mountain that is recovery and coming down the other side sober and solid is accomplishment enough, but Solomonov has thrived in the midst of those very serious odds. That’s something to celebrate. (Photo courtesy Zahav)
Lee and Qui Tran
St. Louis’ food scene has been percolating for a few years, with a handful of ambitious chefs (like Gerard Craft of Niche) and barbecue destinations (like Pappy’s and Bogart’s) hogging most of the chatter. So unless you live in the region, it’s likely that you haven’t heard of Mai Lee, the Vietnamese restaurant that has been challenging St. Louis palates since the 1980s. The Tran family settled in St. Louis after fleeing Vietnam, and first opened Mai Lee as a Chinese restaurant. Lee Tran, the matriarch, eventually transitioned the menu to reflect the flavors of her native Southeast Asia—a move that was unspeakably ballsy in a Midwestern city, and at a time when ingredients like lemongrass and lotus root were still largely unknown. But Mai Lee blossomed anyway and has been killing it for decades, even without the easy appeal of sauce-slathered ribs or the support of breathless national media coverage. Lee’s tattooed son, Qui, is the public face of the business these days, and he was instrumental in relocating Mai Lee from its original location in a strip mall to a larger, more accessible space in Brentwood back in 2010. (Photo: Mai Lee Restaurant Facebook/Gregg Goldman Photography)