NEW YORK – Compost, "crack" and something called cereal milk — unlikely ingredients that have propelled Christina Tosi to the head of her culinary class.
The protege and dessert maven of uber chef-of-the-moment David Chang was named rising star chef of the year on Monday by the James Beard Foundation, an honor earned largely by her knack for crafting unusual sweet treats — including soft serve ice cream made from milk flavored by breakfast cereal — and the almost fanatical following they have generated.
But garnering one of the so-called Oscars of the food world — one of more than 20 awarded Monday — didn't change Tosi's sense of the simplicity of what she does.
"For me, it's just about creating things that we feel really attached to," Tosi said during the 25th annual Beard Foundation awards. "The style that we do it is finding a flavor, a texture that we feel attached to and giving it back in a way that we think is cute or playful or approachable and at the end of it of course it's delicious and you want to come back for it.
"And that's where we begin and we end with it," she said."
Tosi oversees desserts, breads and ice cream for Chang's Momofuku restaurant group, and is best known as the woman behind his Momofuku Milk Bar. That's where you can find her so-called compost cookies, oversized treats rich with coffee grounds, potato chips and pretzels, and her sticky-salty-sweet "crack pie," which is as addictive as its name implies.
The James Beard awards honor those who follow in the footsteps of Beard, considered the dean of American cooking when he died in 1985. Monday's ceremony honored chefs and restaurants; a similar event on Friday was held for book and other media awards.
The foundation's outstanding chef award went to Daniel Humm, the chef behind New York's Eleven Madison Park. Humm, a native of Switzerland, has spent his career amassing awards. Most recently, his restaurant — which has four stars from the New York Times and three from the Michelin Guide — was named No. 10 in the world by Restaurant magazine.
Though Eleven Madison Park — a veteran of several Beard awards over the years — has earned high praise since it opened in 1998, most consider it to have shined brightest since 2006, when Humm took over the kitchen, bringing with him an inventive, yet classically French style.
Eleven Madison Park is best known for its tasting-style menu that lists dishes only by key ingredients and encourages diners to work with the chef to create individualized meals.
Humm beat out Chang, Gary Danko of Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco, Paul Kahan in Chicago, Donald Link of Herbsaint in New Orleans, and Nancy Silverton of Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles. Last year's winner was Jose Andres, the man credited with popularizing tapas in the United States.
Boulevard restaurant in San Francisco was named outstanding restaurant of the year. Opened by chef Nancy Oakes on the San Francisco waterfront in 1993, Boulevard's cuisine blends regional American cooking with French style. Last year's outstanding restaurant honor went to Eleven Madison Park.
The best new restaurant award went to Grant Achatz' second — and wildly different — Chicago restaurant, Next, which has come to be defined as much by the food served there as by the way it handles reservations (if you can call them that).
You don't reserve tables at Next, you purchase tickets, much as you would for a concert. Diners pay in advance for a seating on a particular and time. What they are served varies, as the notoriously modernist Achatz changes the menu every three months. Last year, the best new restaurant honor went to Jean-Georges Vongerichten's ABC Kitchen in New York.
The group's Lifetime Achievement award this year went to Wolfgang Puck, the pioneer of California cuisine whose menu for the annual Academy Awards Governors Ball is almost as eagerly anticipated as the awards themselves. Puck has won multiple honors from the foundation over the years and is the only chef to have twice received its Most Outstanding Chef award.
Puck, whose cooking combines classic French technique with a focus on seasonal and local ingredients, has been an iconic voice in California cuisine. Born in Austria, he moved to Los Angeles in 1975. In 1982, he opened Spago, the restaurant for which he remains best known. Today, he has 20 restaurants around the country.
The organization's Humanitarian of the Year honor went to Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, who earlier this year announced that he will close his acclaimed eponymous restaurant after it celebrates its 25th anniversary in August. Trotter plans to return to school to earn a master's degree in philosophy.
Trotter was honored Monday for his work with children, including raising $3 million via The Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation to help pay for needy students to attend culinary school. Trotter has said he has not ruled out opening another restaurant after completing his degree.
"All of us in this room that are interested in hospitality and gastronomy and service and cuisine," he said during Monday's ceremony. "But what's the point if you're not going to give something away? You can make a difference. That's the fun part."
The Beard Foundation also named its top regional chefs around the country: Bruce Sherman of North Pond in Chicago (Great Lakes region); Maricel Presilla of Cucharamama in Hoboken, N.J. (Mid-Atlantic); Tory Miller of L'Etoile in Madison, Wisc. (Midwest); Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern in New York (New York City); Tim Cushman of O Ya in Boston (Northeast); Matt Dillon of Sitka & Spruce in Seattle (Northwest); Matt Molina of Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles (Pacific); Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Ala. (South); Hugh Acheson of Five and Ten in Athens, Ga., and Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta (Southeast); and Paul Qui of Uchiko in Austin, Texas.