Boston’s Best Young Chefs

They Broil! They Bake! They’ve Got Serious Chops! Presenting . . . Boston’s Best Young Chefs.

Some do the heavy lifting at beloved restaurants. Others are opening places of their own. All of these rising talents are steadily winning fans with dishes that show off their culinary promise. (The cookbook deals and Food Network contracts? Those will come soon enough.)

The Entertainer
By day, he’s a hard-working sous-chef at Sel de la Terre, expediting the busy lunch and dinner shifts, managing the staff, and helping to write the menus for the restaurant’s popular wine dinners. By night, he’s Iron Chef Louie, throwing private parties at clubs around town for hundreds of gastro-thrill seekers, who vote for wacky and occasionally dreadful ingredients to be included in the meal. QUIRK ETHIC DiBiccari’s penchant for playfulness often shows up in his day job, where he recently served “pig newtons,” pastries stuffed with ham and fig jam. And his culinary expertise is equally evident in his side act: Who else but DiBiccari would think to crust salmon with bananas, then make it so good that two years later people are still asking for the recipe? COURSE CORRECTION The 32-year-old Lynnfield native started cooking in college, where the meals were so awful that he moved off campus. By DiBiccari’s second year, grateful but ultimately regretful friends had persuaded him to drop out and pursue a career in food.

The Perfectionist
If there’s one thing all chefs have in common, it’s a little—okay, a lot of—ego. Rarely do they invite criticism. Yet that’s just what Aujourd’hui’s new 30-year-old chef did when he took over this summer. Week after week, Kovel cooked for friends, then refined his dishes. The resulting menu debuted this fall. A PLUCKY SORT Trained at San Francisco’s Jardinière and later under Michael Schlow at Radius, Kovel had a résumé that might have won him a position anywhere in the city. Instead, last year he moved to London for a lower-level job in the Michelin-starred bistro Orrery. “It was a horror show, showing up at 7 a.m. to gut and pluck wood pigeons,” he says. “I got my ass kicked. But that’s what I went for, to learn.” FRENCH TWISTS Those lessons are evident in the new Aujourd’hui menu, as Kovel makes the expected classic French dishes both more daring (veal sweetbreads with apple purée and endive compote) and accessible (beef tenderloin with scalloped potatoes and red wine jus). As he would tell you, that’s precisely the point.

The Competitor
Rainville never played sports in high school—the only place where he wanted to win was in the kitchen. At 14 he scored a job at the Centennial Inn’s restaurant, a fine dining establishment in Concord, New Hampshire, conveniently located next door to the house in which he grew up. At 16 he was working 40 hours a week, after school and on weekends, learning the finer points of a perfect risotto. ROARING TWENTIES Now 24, with 10 years of experience and a degree from the New England Culinary Institute, Rainville is chef de cuisine at Olives. And though Todd English fans expect Todd English style when they head to Charlestown, the job has pushed Rainville’s competitive spirit into high gear: “It’s all about the adrenaline,” he says. “As a line cook, you watch the older guy and try to do what he does, better.” ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS Rainville faithfully executes English’s vision but invents ways to make dishes his own—a piquant dry rub for swordfish, for example, mimics English’s beloved chorizo sausage, and a monster pork chop, English’s favorite cut, is made elegant with Roquefort-endive polenta. “I have so much freedom here,” Rainville says. What’s on the plate proves he’s making the most of it.

The Good Ol’ Boy
The availability of ready-to-eat dinners has, sadly, put an end to most serious home cooking: Either you go out and eat an artful tower of sautéed this and wild that, or you stay home for a defrosted chicken à la king. It’s a trend that inspired Maiden’s forthcoming Village Table, a cozy bistro set to open this winter that will serve up down-home foods, cooked with art and a lot of soul. TRUE GRITS Over the past six years—first at L’Espalier and later at Sel de la Terre and Lumière—the 30-year-old chef put the classic French techniques he learned at the New England Culinary Institute to good use. At Village Table he’ll apply them to the heartwarming dishes his grandmother made for Sunday dinners. A version of her biscuits will end up in the bread basket, and the menu will include handmilled grits and the destined-to-be-classic southern dip dog, a hot dog dunked in Maiden’s own cornmeal batter, then deep-fried. “I love the high-end stuff, but for me it’s just not soulful,” he says.

The Prodigy
At just 22, Metropolitan Club executive pastry chef Pattinson is making a name for herself with a heady blend of energy, ambition, and anything-but-standard fruit tarts, pumpkin crème brûlée, and, our favorite, the stellar cupcake of the day. LIGHTLY SEASONED The Philadelphia-area native landed her first job in Boston under original Olives pastry whiz Paige Retus at Blu. That led to a move to the Met Club in 2004. A year later, Pattinson stepped up to lead the pastry kitchen. “It might have been nice to have a few more chefs under my belt before taking over. But this is a great way to learn, too,” she says. “I figure out how to make things happen.” ACE OF CLUBS Soon Pattinson will be making things happen at two new properties, a Met Club–style lounge opening next year in MetroWest and a second Met Club slated to debut in downtown Boston by early 2008.

The Inventor
There is almost no dessert that Billings can’t make a little more fun with liquid nitrogen. He dips a pan in it to “fry” a cream concoction into pancakes, and also uses the minus-330-degree stuff to “cook” freeze-dried fruit; pop some in your mouth, and you can blow smoke like Puff the Magic Dragon. DESSERT OASIS “Fun” is the operative word for Clio’s 26-year-old pastry chef. In culinary school, he hated dessert—the obligatory mint leaf garnish, the “structure” required to allow something to sit for days in a glass case. But his stint at No. 9 Park taught him just how much freedom the pastry station offers. Billings doesn’t embrace outlandish flavors for their own sake; instead he prefers to surprise diners with new textures: “If you can make strawberry sorbet, you can make Windex sorbet,” he says. SCI FIDELITY Using cutting-edge techniques—and high-tech tools like that liquid nitrogen—Billings conjures up such extraordinary delights as an intense frozen cherry capsule with a liquid amaretto-caramel center and a spicy gingerbread cake filled with warm pear purée. “People think of dessert as something sweet that comes after the interesting food,” he says. “But I want to do something new.”

The Natural
Some chefs can just sit down and write a menu. But for Hackney, the 32-year-old chef de cuisine at L’Espalier, dishes don’t take form until he begins to cook. MATCH MAKER Memories inspire this British transplant’s food: A hint of basil might remind him of his parents’ pesto, while a whiff of coriander brings back the joy of a fragrant takeout curry dinner. The result: rack of lamb with pesto linguine and baked heirloom tomatoes, spiced with crushed coriander and star anise—a dish that no one but Hackney could have imagined. “I’ve never worked with anyone as talented as James,” says L’Espalier owner Frank McClelland. “And I’ve worked with a lot of chefs.” SPICE ROUTE While the food at L’Espalier has always been exceptional, Hackney’s influence is clear. He still uses the freshest local ingredients but finds a way to spice them up—literally. There’s curry in the quail’s egg amuse-bouche, and notes of cumin and cardamom in the pasta “carbonara.” “I love floral spices,” he says. “But when I use them, I can just see the staff rolling their eyes, saying, ‘There goes James again.’”