Best Chef

David Guempel, Zinnia

Many a home cook daydreams of trading in coat and tie for clogs and toque. But when it comes down to brass tacks, few are willing to tolerate the fatigue, the late nights, the heat, the urgency and the imperative of unflagging creativity. Add to that the demands of running a business, and you've got a built-in winnowing process. Of those rare birds who do enter and remain in the restaurant business, the finest soar to the top and thrive in this restless milieu.

David Guempel is just such a chef. He taught himself to cook, and thirteen years ago he opened Zinnia with his partner, Larry Adams. They complement each other like wasabi and ginger -- it's hard to imagine one without the other. Best of all, Adams's business acumen allows Guempel to focus his attention on the sauté pan rather than on the accounting ledger.

Guempel characterizes his menu as "eclectic American." He makes liberal use of seafood, often featuring fish or shellfish in Southwestern and Pacific Rim dishes. Given Guempel's fondness for using fresh produce, nuts and wine in his cooking, the style might even be described as California cuisine. Labels aside, though, what sets Guempel apart as a chef is a sort of irrational exuberance. He gives a nod to traditional flavor combinations, such as lamb with tagine sauce and rabbit with spaetzel. But then his rebellious streak kicks in and he begins to coax timid ingredients from their shells. A chicken breast is transformed from wallflower to siren when Guempel dresses it in a sassy tomato marmalade. A duck breast ain't no shrinking violet after Guempel lacquers it with a tart blueberry-burgundy glaze. Diners get the feeling someone is doing the cha-cha-cha back there in that kitchen -- and they're only too eager to slip on their dancing shoes and let Guempel take them for a spin.

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