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Daisy Ryan of Bell’s in Los Alamos was caught off guard when Food & Wine let the Santa Ynez Valley native know that she’d been selected as one of the magazine’s “Best New Chefs,” quite possibly the most important honor in the country for younger chefs.
“Are you sure you have the right person?” asked Ryan, who opened Bell’s with her husband, Greg Ryan, in January 2018, in part to move away from the celebrity chef world that they braved during their New York City days. “We wanted to open a restaurant that wasn’t chef-driven, that was very much about the space and the experience of being there as much as it was the food.”
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In fact, while she attended culinary school and worked in important Manhattan kitchens, the bulk of Ryan’s hospitality career was spent in the front of the house — most notably at Per Se, the New York City outpost of Napa’s Thomas “The French Laundry” Keller, but also during jobs in Los Angeles and Austin. Opening Bell’s was a means of getting her back in the kitchen and, with the Ryans’ son, Henry, born in 2017, moving closer to her parents, who own Carpinteria’s Eye of the Day Nursery. Given that she’s the only West Coast chef on the 2020 list, which is the 32nd edition ever and was released on May 12, the kitchen — and motherhood — are suiting her just fine.
Food & Wine’s restaurant editor, Kushbu Shah — who ate 110 meals in 25 cities to research this year’s class of chefs — was enthusiastic about Bell’s focus on “Franch” food. That means French-inspired yet relaxed, while showcasing the region’s ranches and farms. Among other menu highlights, Shah called out the crêpe cake layered with crème fraîche, caviar, and uni; the moules frites in a saffron-garlic broth; and the steak tartare with capers and egg yolk, which is the recipe that the restaurant provided for the magazine spread.
Ryan hopes the accolade lifts up the entire region. “Santa Barbara County is very much recognized for the wine industry, and more and more all the time,” she said. “But I don’t think the region is focused on as a culinary destination. I hope something like this will draw that attention, not only to consumers but to hospitality professionals.”
Granted, it’s a tough time to celebrate anything. “All of this comes with the disclaimer of COVID-19,” said Ryan. “It’s not going to go back to what normal was six months ago. Things are going to have to change. Epidemics and unfortunate scenarios like this force change, and often for the better.”
In talking to the other Best New Chefs, Ryan is encouraged by how much everyone is stepping up to do what they can during this time. In addition to serving an ever-changing menu of family meals during the shutdown — 70 percent of their customers right now are regulars — Bell’s is also preparing foods that are being delivered to low-income families, senior citizens, and others who need help right now. Greg Ryan just finished the paperwork to launch the nonprofit Feed the Valley, which will enlist other restaurants to prepare food with funding from the Santa Barbara Foundation. (On the business front, Bell’s was one of the 80 founding members of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which is fighting for legislation to keep the American food industry afloat through and after the pandemic.)
“While we as industry are probably one of the most, if not the most, impacted by the pandemic, we are turning around to do what we can to feed our communities and our own employees,” said Daisy Ryan. “We are an industry of leisure, but we are also an essential industry. What I hope is that restaurants continue to work together to the best of our ability to feed people who can’t necessarily feed themselves, even when we are out of this pandemic.”
This newfound attention will only help Ryan and other chefs spread that message. “More than ever, we have a chance to have an impact,” she said. “The industry is going to change no matter what, so to be able to hold this spotlight as leverage is helping.”
406 Bell St., Los Alamos; bellsrestaurant.com