DC’s Angel Barreto III is one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs 2021

By Stefanie Gans

Angel Barreto left Food & Wine’s Classic in Aspen celebratory weekend and headed straight to Annandale, Virginia to stuff himself with a Korean feast of mandu, jjamppong and jajangmyeon. 

He finds comfort in hearty, soulful Korean food. It’s also where he’s found success. Barreto was bestowed with one of the highest honors from a national publication: He’s part of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs 2021 for his work as executive chef at Washington, DC’s Anju. 

Anju is also where Barreto was nominated as a James Beard Rising Star Chef. And it was Barreto who led the restaurant to the No. 1 spot in Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants 2020.

At 32, Barreto, who is Black and Puerto Rican, is riding this moment with the grace and vision of someone who is ready to lead.

We spoke to Barreto days after returning from the celebration of his induction into the 2021 class of Best New Chef. Here, he reflects on his life inside and outside of the kitchen, from his activism to his many pairs of glasses.

Congratulations on your newest accolade. What’s the biggest takeaway from your time in Aspen with fellow Best New Chefs? 

Thank you, thank you. It’s really nice because everyone is down to earth. We have a group thread and we’ve been texting all week with each other even though we’re back at our restaurants. I truthfully have made friendships. 

We were invited to all of these parties, but we ended up throwing our own party. We end up having the most fun amongst each other and not amongst celebrity chefs. 

We were really enjoying the moment and talking about what you went through during the pandemic and how you managed to survive. 

I walked away knowing there’s always more I can do as a leader in the kitchen. Even when it seems small … like one of the chefs, his job is to come into the kitchen and be the “hell yea and high five” guy. He comes into the kitchen and checks on his staff. It’s about being more proactive and being aggressive with the welfare of your staff. 

How can the restaurant industry be a source of good for the world?

We have to fix ourselves. We can’t get caught up in the tornado of this industry. After being torn apart [during the pandemic], it’s hard to get back together. We need an identity outside of the kitchen. We have to ask ourselves: What do you stand for? What do you live for?

We’ve used people as tools to get what we want. The industry uses people and spits them out. That hospitality has to come back to our workers. The way we treat guests, we have to do that for our own staff. We have to actually nurture people and not expect them to work, work, work. 

I want to do a private mental health club with a therapist at the restaurant. I want to get people the tools they need. As chefs, we’re the last people to take care of ourselves and we give so much to other people. 

How do you take care of yourself?

I call it radical self care. You have to be unrelenting about it. When you don’t set up boundaries, that’s where you get in trouble. You need to be able to let go of that guilt when you’re taking time off. You need to be unrelenting about achieving your peace. You are worth it and you deserve it. The emails will be there, the work will be there. But the time you don’t take for yourself, that won’t be there. 

Do you consider yourself an activist? 

It’s necessary, and that’s a sad thing to say. One thing that unites people is food, but there’s a fight to have equitable access to food. Not everyone can afford all these insane prices. Food impacts people who are struggling, and being able to have access to food can break generational issues. 

Here at Anju, we’ve been working with racial equality. We did a charity dinner for a group called EmbraceRace. Their idea is to educate children on racial issues. We think one of the biggest ways to have an impact on this is giving kids the tools they need to know how to interact with society and how to interact with people from different backgrounds. 

Going forward, my personal project will be working on mental health within the chef community. I want people to be able to decompress within a safe space, to have a space to be able to open up and talk about issues.

As you come into this national attention, what scares you?

I’m just taking everything one thing at a time. My focus is food. I’m not trying to propel myself on a can of soup or sell a cookware line. I’m a chef. That’s why I’m here, because I love to cook. 

How has your style evolved?

I wear what I want. When I turned 30, I didn’t care anymore. I’m a vagabond. I like clothing and pieces that stand out. Most of the time I’m at work: I wear chef pants, white jacket and clogs. That’s why I have so many pairs of glasses—I own 12 pairs—because I like switching those little, small things up at work. 

If I like it, if it makes sense to me, I do it. I felt like I had to be perceived a certain way, and if I were to succeed, I thought I had to look a certain way. If you think my hair is going to impact my food, I don’t care. I’m happy with myself. My happiness is unbreakable.  

DC is lucky to have two representatives on Food & Wine’s 2021 Best New Chefs in America. Talk to us about pastry chef Paola Velez. I’ve known Paola for a long time. It’s been great to see her rise up. We were both featured in Washingtonian as new chefs to watch. We were both James Beard nominees together. [Because of the pandemic, the Beard awards never announced 2020 winners.] We were talking and I told her, “This is going to be your year. You are a genuine good person. You are a beacon of light.” She has such a strong spirit. She is about implementing change, it’s who she is. She is such a lovely person and I’m proud to call her my friend.


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