For the last six years, Zagat's 30 Under 30 program has honored hundreds of young, exceptional hospitality professionals in major markets all over the country. This year, we’re turning it up a notch with our first-ever 30 Under 30 National list. We began the process with an open call back in January in which we carefully recorded and vetted nominations from readers, our local editors, previous honorees and industry insiders to come up with 60 potential honorees. We cut that down to 45 finalists in June, and today, we’re proud to present the final 30 Under 30, representing some of the best, brightest and most badass hospitality players from coast to coast — from a cookie dough magnate to a hydroponic farmer.
—Edited by Kelly Dobkin and Anna Roth; Photo Editor: Wendy George
Melissa Denmark, Executive Pastry Chef, 28
Gracie's and Ellie's Bakery, Providence, RI
Melissa Denmark tried her hand at a number of roles, both front of house and back of house, before finding her place in the hospitality world. This included spending time as a cake decorator and baking bread on a dairy farm, where she learned that it was important for her to be close to the ingredients she works with. At Gracie’s, Denmark works with a small team to create tasting menus consisting of around seven different desserts each night, while at Ellie’s she assists in large-scale productions, churning out laminated doughs, French macarons and more in the wee hours of the night. She finds the work at Gracie’s to be relaxing despite the sometimes chaotic nature of dinner service, saying, “Some of the work is very meticulous but it’s also centering; it’s quiet and you can just concentrate on the plate design.” Denmark likes to challenge herself and experiment with new ingredients and flavor profiles, earning praise for her light, savory-sweet creations.
Becca Hegarty, Chef/Owner, 27
Bitter Ends Garden & Luncheonette, Pittsburgh, PA
Becca Hegarty’s earliest culinary influence was her grandmother, a baker, who would make her a cake (with a flavor of her choosing) every birthday. She studied pastry arts at L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg and discovered during an externship at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore that though she loved baking, she was more passionate about the story of the ingredients. She worked with Sonja Finn at Dinette and The Café Carnegie, then, realizing her aspirations were not to run or own a large restaurant, decided to start a small farm in Verona, PA, with her partner. “It’s always been my dream to eliminate any holes in the process of food, from the beginning of its life to the end when we serve it to people,” says Hegarty, who uses the produce from her farm to craft simple plates and baked goods and sell them at Bloomfield Market. Hegarty is in the process of expanding the luncheonette beyond the farmer’s market, revamping a nearby diner that she recently acquired into a breakfast and lunch counter.
Brian Lavin, Executive Chef/Partner, 29
Gnocco, Baltimore, MD
A study abroad trip to Europe during college with friend (and now business partner) Sam White influenced the type of food Brian Lavin wanted to cook, eat and serve. Lavin was drawn to the European-Mediterranean style of sharing straightforward small plates where the ingredients speak for themselves. He led the kitchens at Salt and The Fork & Wrench before making the leap with White to take over an old sports bar he’d been eyeing for years. At Gnocco, the menu changes weekly, save for a few staples, to take advantage of the freshest ingredients available and for Lavin to experiment with different pasta shapes and cooking techniques. For Lavin, the accolades (including a spot in The Baltimore Sun’s 50 Best Restaurants list) are great, but the most important thing is making people feel at home by serving “good, honest, straightforward food.”
Ashley Shelton, Executive Chef, 28
Sardella and Pastaria, Clayton, MO
Growing up, Ashley Shelton’s biggest inspiration was her mom, a talented home cook — and cooking then became 14-year-old Shelton’s way of keeping her mom close after she passed away. She got a job at 17 in local favorite chophouse, Annie Gunn’s, to learn the kitchen basics, and filled in the blanks after culinary school. Shelton met up with restaurant owner Gerard Craft in Florence, Italy, while she was studying for her masters in Italian cuisine to interview for a position at his upcoming restaurant, Pastaria, and now splits her time between two of his restaurants, which are conveniently connected. On her leadership style, Shelton likes to keep it light. “When you can bring an atmosphere of fun into an industry that is so stressful, it really helps and makes the food better,” she says.
Kristen Tomlan, Founder and CEO, 29
DŌ, Cookie Dough Confections, New York, NY
For Kristen Tomlan, the best thing about baking is seeing the smile on people’s faces when they’re enjoying her treats — something she gets to do on a much larger scale today at her wildly popular cookie dough shop, DŌ. Prior to launching the company, Tomlan spent months on recipe development, tweaking and substituting ingredients in her favorite cookie recipes to make dough that was both bakeable and safe to eat raw. DŌ began as an online business in 2015 and went brick-and-mortar, which had always been the goal, in January of this year. At opening, lines went around the block despite the bitter winter cold, with customers waiting as long as four hours to indulge in the usually forbidden raw snack. “The response was better than anything I could have ever expected,” she says.