There is a scar the color of a fresh bruise just above Leah Morrow’s elbow. It’s a souvenir from a high school wrestling match that left her with a broken arm that never healed properly. When she reaches to lift a tray of sourdough loaves, years of built-up tissue coil protectively around the old wound.
Her growing confidence would ultimately lead her to the Culinary Institute of America, followed by Per Se at age 20. By the time she left Le Cirque at age 24, she refused to accept anything less than an executive pastry chef position.Nowadays, Morrow is content to hone her craft at a slower, more deliberate pace. Her daily rhythms allow her to fully immerse herself in the task before her.“I’ve always liked getting my hands dirty. When the machines break down, I try to fix them. If I can’t, we call the mechanic in and I watch him so that next time we don’t have to pay him to come in and I can fix it,” she says with a grin. “I feel like a lot of times, people look past me and ask, ‘Who’s your boss?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m their boss. Right here.’”
“When they asked me in high school what I wanted to do for a living, I told them I wanted to be either a bodybuilder or a glassblower. The counselor just laughed at me.”
In 1976, a Hmong woman plunged into the murky waters of the Mekong River with her daughter in tow. Behind her lay the ruins of her homeland Laos, where she had been part of the CIA-backed military efforts against the communist Pathēt Lao and the North Vietnamese Army. Just over a kilometer to the other side lay Udon Thani, a rural province in northeastern Thailand, where she spent the next four years in a refugee camp. Shortly after her arrival, she met a Thai Buddhist monk, who later renounced his vows to be with her. The pair fled to the United States, ending up in Columbus, Ohio, where Dianna Daoheung was born two years later.
Her one major departure from tradition comes in the form of monthly chef sandwich collaborations with the likes of Danny Bowien, who paired a jet-black squid ink bagel with Iberico ham, and Daniel Humm, who piled truffled cream cheese, pickled celery, and smoked sturgeon on a celery bagel.“Every time I shoot one of these chefs an email, I’m sure they’re not gonna waste their time. Then they say yes with a double exclamation point,” she says, visibly awed to work with someone like Humm. With a laugh, she adds, “You know, I’ve still never eaten at Eleven Madison Square Park. Once I win a James Beard, then I’ll treat myself to a trip there.”At the rate she’s going, Daoheung may not have long to wait. She’s already picked up two consecutive Beard nominations. Attending the ceremony gave her a sense of where the industry as a whole is moving, as well as a great deal of hope.“I went to the awards show—it was one of the most inspiring things. It felt like there was a stronger message of how we as chefs can really be the frontrunners of putting action into place,” she says. “That extends from choosing really solid local food sources to immigration policies, which have a huge impact on the restaurant industry.”
Karen Bornarth had already been working as a baker for years when her focus started shifting from the loaves coming out of the ovens to the people who were making them. Her interest in bread started at an early age, when she would watch her grandmother and aunt combine flour and water in greased coffee cans. To her, the process seemed like magic, like conjuring up something from nothing. That fascination would later lead her to the Culinary Institute of America, followed by years in commercial kitchens including Amy’s Bread and Le Pain Quotidien. As she enjoyed the places she worked, there were systemic issues within the industry as a whole that troubled her.
“If you’re the woman in East Harlem selling tamales on the corner, but you can’t manage demand anymore from your small home kitchen, then the incubator is for you,” Bornarth says.