Last year S. Pellegrino launched a Young Chef competition open to professional chefs under the age of 30. The platform serves to promote creative expression and innovation within the contemporary culinary industry. S. Pellegrino received more than 3,000 applications, which it whittled down to 20 finalists invited to represent their countries at the final showdown in Milan. Each young chef was paired with a seasoned industry veteran who provided guidance in refining their signature dish. The U.S. competitor, Mitch Lienhard, chef de cuisine at California’s three-Michelin-starred Manresa, took home the top honor of Best New Chef after three days of feverish prep and cooking. His mentor was the 2016 World’s Best Female Chef, Dominique Crenn, of San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn. The team proved to be the stuff dreams are made of.
A little background info on Lienhard: He currently works under David Kinch, a master of California cuisine and recent subject of season four of The Mind of a Chef. Previously, Lienhard spent time in the kitchens of Grant Achatz, Curtis Duffy and Sean Brock. All these chefs share an unwavering commitment to self-expression and artistry.
“Food is a language; it’s a way of expressing yourself. It’s poetic,” explains Crenn (pictured here with Lienhard). “There is a lot of beauty that should be celebrated. You have to be open about diversity of views — it is a platform to show the world that you can do whatever you want to do.”
So what was Lienhard’s approach to beating out competitors from countries like France and Italy, which boast long, storied culinary heritages? A distinct American cuisine has barely had time to develop and find itself, let alone be defined and qualified — a relative baby at 240 years old.
“My career has spanned a lot of different styles of food,” Lienhard says. “I find food to be more like an art, so I wanted to work for people with that same viewpoint.” Lienhard’s dish was an homage to his career thus far, incorporating citrus from California, smoked duck from his home state of Michigan and a classic French layered potato pavé. His plan was to meld French technique with distinctly American ingredients and present his creation in a minimal but poignant way. “His dish is classic: It looks simple, but there is a complexity there — America is complex. He brought the American components to the front, and I’m very proud of that,” notes Crenn.
This year, the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition saw near-perfect techniques and touching stories from many competitors, enough to humble even the most jaded critic. But more importantly, we started to see the beginning of what Crenn dubs “the creation of a defined American gastronomy.” “The ingredients we have available in the United States are really underrated,” adds Lienhard. “I think a lot of it started with the Alice Waters approach: that really simple California cuisine.”
With a focus on regional ingredients and fresh, clean execution, American cuisine is beginning to take shape in the hands of the country’s most boundary-pushing culinary influencers. Though Lienhard’s dish was executed flawlessly, his ultimate goal was much broader. “The French believe in perfection, but I don’t. I believe in evolution,” says Crenn. At the end of the day, Lienhard’s big win indicates just that: evidence of the ascension of the very cuisine that chefs like Achatz, Kinch, Crenn, Keller, Dufresne, Waters — and now Lienhard — have been slowly honing for decades.