Chefs to watch: Meet 10 up-and-comers with big plans for the local food scene

For The Baltimore Sun

The local chefs who make our food taste so great are rarely visible to the public. We’d like to introduce you to 10 kitchen wizards who are worth keeping an eye on. They have great plans for our local food scene.

Eula McDowell, cook-owner at The Big Bean Theory

When she was 8, Eula McDowell started to cook, learning techniques from her Baltimore grandmother. One holiday, she transformed the family recipe for black-eyed peas, and a beanologist, as McDowell calls herself, was born. “It’s a hard journey,” she said. “We learn as we go along.” The Gwynn Oak mother of four, who is 41, has parlayed that dish into a business that has become the Big Bean Theory, selling foods like the mean Jean bean burger and lentil gumbo. But McDowell isn’t stopping there. She wants to open her own standalone restaurant and is already increasing production of her packaged food products, including her “beanie bags” filled with ingredients to make your own bean dishes.

Mount Vernon Marketplace, 520 Park Ave., Mount Vernon, 443-955-1186, bigbeantheory.com

Yassmeen H. Jackson, executive pastry chef at Citron

After watching morning cartoons as a child, Yassmeen H. Jackson would switch to PBS cooking shows. In high school, the native Baltimorean concentrated on the culinary and baking program at Edmondson-Westside High School before attending Johnson & Wales University in Virginia to further her pastry career. She has been working for Charles Levine Caterers for nine years and is now the executive pastry chef for the catering business and Levine’s restaurant, Citron, turning out an array of beautiful creations. “I like to make whatever makes people happy,” she said. Jackson’s goal is to open her own bakery-coffee bar in the Ashburton/East Arlington community, where her family has lived for more than 50 years.

2605 Quarry Lake Drive, Quarry Lake at Greenspring, Pikesville, 410-363-0900*, citronbaltimore.com

David Thomas, chef-partner at Ida B’s Table

David Thomas has been in the restaurant industry for more than 25 years, as a bartender, a server and most recently as the owner of Herb & Soul restaurant in Parkville, which closed in 2015. Since then, Thomas, 49, had been looking for his next project, eventually connecting with the Real News Network, which had available space in its downtown building. Ida B’s Table, named after Ida B. Wells, a 19th-century African-American journalist and civil rights activist, was scheduled to open in late summer. Thomas’ wife of 25 years, Tonya, was to be the general manager. His modern soul-food menu relies on local, sustainable ingredients. “We’re ushering in a new era of Southern cuisine and going back to our roots,” he said.

235 N. Holliday St., Real News Network building, downtown, Facebook.com/idabstable

Shane Freeland, executive chef at Johnny’s

As part of an Irish-Italian family in Baltimore, Shane Freeland grew up around food. “I liked that it was the focal point to bring people together,” he said. “That aspect appealed to me.” Freeland, 27, started working in restaurants at a young age and eventually attended Baltimore International College and Anne Arundel Community College’s culinary program, doing an externship in Italy. After working for Cinghiale in Harbor East for several years, Freeland was promoted to his current executive-chef position in May when Johnny’s, another property of the Foreman Wolf Restaurant Group, changed its menu focus to local seafood. It’s a good fit for Freeland. “I’m a Maryland boy,” he said.

4800 Roland Ave., Roland Park, 410-773-0777, johnnysdownstairs.com

Sarah Murray, sous chef at La Cuchara

Sarah Murray was on an academic track, attending Ohio Wesleyan University in Ohio for a science degree when she realized her true love was cooking. The Bel Air native returned to Maryland to attend Baltimore International College, from which she received an associate’s degree at the culinary school. After cooking at Johnny’s in Roland Park, Murray, 28, went to La Cuchara, where she has been a sous chef for two years. During that time, she appeared on Food Network’s “Chopped,” which she describes as “terrifying but fun to do.” Eventually, Murray would like to become an executive chef or own a restaurant.

3600 Clipper Mill Road, Woodberry, 443-708-3838, lacucharabaltimore.com

Conrad Nieberding, chef de cuisine at Salt

After 11 years, Salt decided to reinvent its menu by adding more small plates and making other tweaks. For the transition, owners Jane Ambrose and her son, Jason, who oversees 1157 Bar and Kitchen in Locust Point, brought on Conrad Nieberding as executive chef in May. The Loyola Blakefield graduate had been a line cook at Salt previously before heading to the Culinary Institute of America for a culinary degree. Nieberding, 26, who recently worked at the top-rated Mu Ramen in New York, had a hand in updating the menu. The favorites are still available, like duck-fat fries and doughnuts with lavender honey, but Nieberding is adding more global flavors to the restaurant’s New American fare.

2127 E. Pratt St., Upper Fells Point, 410-276-5480, salttavern.com

Craig Curbean and Dante Davis, chef-owners at Taste This

After starting with a Taste This carryout in Hamilton in 2014, friends Craig Curbean and Dante Davis opened a second location with a small dining room in late 2015 in Charles Village. Their soul-food menu includes items like barbecue pork ribs, collard greens and mac and cheese as well as stuffed baked potatoes and breakfast foods like chicken and waffles. Curbean, who is a Baltimore International College culinary school graduate, and Davis, a self-taught chef, are already looking for another location while expanding the catering side of their business.

Two locations, including 102 E. 25th St., Charles Village, 443-563-2845, facebook.com/tastethisbalt

Thomas Zippelli, executive chef-owner at The Turn House

Thomas Zippelli couldn’t resist the pull of his home roots, even after working at Michelin-starred restaurants like Eleven Madison Park in New York City and The French Laundry in California. He made a leap of faith, bringing his fine-dining experience to his native Howard County, where he is hoping to elevate the restaurant scene in an area of casual restaurants and fast-food joints. The ambitious chef took over the former Coho Grill at Hobbit’s Glen Golf Club in Columbia, renaming it The Turn House in 2016 and introducing an innovative menu that relies on local products and the seasons.

11130 Willow Bottom Drive, Hobbit’s Glen Golf Club, Columbia, 410-740-2096, theturnhouse.com

Javier Alanis, executive chef at Wine Market Bistro

Javier Alanis has been at the helm of Wine Market Bistro’s kitchen since December after serving as the restaurant’s executive sous chef for a year. “It was a great opportunity,” he said. Alanis, 28, came to the United States via Durango, Mexico, where he received a culinary arts degree at a local school in 2013. He did a one-year internship at the Corner Stable in Cockeysville and most recently worked at Liquid Lib’s in Timonium. Alanis has already made his mark on Wine Market Bistro’s menu with dishes like tuna crudo in orange créme fraiche and a chicken breast with house-made duxelles agnolotti (mushroom pasta).

921 E. Fort Ave., Locust Point, 410-244-6166, winemarketbistro.com

*Correction: A previous version of this story listed the wrong phone number for Citron. The restaurant’s phone number is 410-363-0900.

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