Best Culinary Experimentalist Orange County 2013 - Shawn Xa
Year after year, this category has been dominated by chefs who change their menus up for the sake of doing it, some of them daily. Shawn Xa has the same kind of restless mind. When he opened Xa Sweet & Savory Café, he served only chicken. And on these perfectly cooked, juice-bursting, tender, breast-meat fillets—a protein usually not apt to being all of the above—he'd shake a flurry of your chosen spice, be it the Japanese togarashi or herbes de Provence. Since then, he has jettisoned the spices for sauces—intensely fruity, savory and complex ones that can be painted on your protein of choice, turning them into something greater than what the less-than-$9-with-two-sides-included price tag would require. Some involve tamarind, others strawberry and chipotle together. There's a maple and spice that tastes vaguely Indian. But Xa's true calling is cookies; this is where he turns on his mad-scientist brain full bore. His greatest creation thus far has been an apple-pie cookie, with real apples where you'd expect chocolate chips and a coat of crunchy cinnamon sugar on top. There's also a cookie with bacon and chocolate chips, another that tastes exactly like tiramisu, and a sticky-chewy wonder with melted marshmallows that's reminiscent of rocky road. One time, he let loose and attempted a cookie that encapsulated his restaurant's "sweet and savory" ethos: a Spam-and-roasted-garlic cookie. What will this cookie Willy Wonka think of next? As with everyone we honor in this category, the best part is finding out.