Houston's culinary scene has captured the nation's attention for any number of reasons, but surely the city's wealthy of culinary talent has to play a huge role. Creative chefs who are capable of synthesizing both their own heritage and those of others into something new and noteworthy are at their heart of any city's culinary movement.
That's why three of this year's nominees for the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Chef of the Year have won James Beard Awards for Best Chef: Southwest in the past five years. This year's zero finalist snub notwithstanding, expect at least a couple of the names below to receive strong consideration for the honor in future years. If they never do, so be it. As these nominations by the Tastemaker Awards panel of former winners and restaurant industry experts demonstrate, they have the respect of their peers.
While they're all winners, only one chef will earn the title. Find out who on Wednesday, April 4 at the Tastemaker Awards party. We'll celebrate all of the nominees and reveal the winners in a ceremony hosted by Houston hip-hop legend Bun B. Get tickets before they sell out.
Bobby Matos, State of Grace
To bring his vision for State of Grace to life, Atlanta restaurateur Ford Fry tapped Matos. As a veteran of both Brennan’s and Tony Vallone’s Ciao Bello, Matos possessed both the knowledge of his River Oaks clientele as well as the culinary chops to bring together the menu’s disparate influences: Fry’s nostalgic memories of his childhood in Houston (Felix queso, duck carnitas) and the immigrant traditions that are shaping Houston’s contemporary cuisine. From its housemade pastas to a rotating roster of dishes that always include locally-sourced produce, Matos’ cuisine remains consistently satisfying. Beyond his technical skills as a cook, Matos has also shown leadership by retaining most of the cooks that opened the restaurant in 2015 — something that’s basically unheard of in Houston restaurants.
Chris Shepherd, Underbelly/One Fifth
Over the last year, the chef who created iconic Houston dishes like Korean goat and dumplings and the Cease and Desist Burger demonstrated he still has a knack for knowing just what Houstonians like to eat. One Fifth Steak’s baller boards became a must-order sensation, and One Fifth Romance Language’s cast iron paella, duck heart bolognese, and spaghetti carbonara have continued that track record of success. In a couple weeks, the James Beard Award winner will open UB Preserv, with the stated goal of serving Houston’s best dumplings; that’s pretty ambitious, but, given his track record, who’s going to bet against him?
Hugo Ortega, H-Town Restaurant Group
By any measure, Ortega had a really good 2017. He opened his Oaxacan restaurant Xochi to local, regional, and national acclaim. Then, he followed that up by finally winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in his sixth year as a finalist. Finally, he partnered with celebrity chef Michael Mina on new restaurant in L.A. Despite all the acclaim, he has remained humble about his accomplishments and quick to credit others — including his wife and business partner Tracy Vaught, beverage director Sean Beck, and his pastry chef brother Ruben — for their roles in his success. More importantly, all of his restaurants deliver consistently outstanding food and service, as if Ortega would allow anything less.
Justin Yu, Theodore Rex/Better Luck Tomorrow
Oxheart was a serious place. Research libraries are more lively than the studious atmosphere Yu and his cooks cultivated in the restaurant’s open kitchen, but the chef seems to be mellowing with age. Recently, the James Beard Award winner has begun to demonstrate his offbeat sense of humor; both of the establishments he opened in 2017, Theodore Rex and Better Luck Tomorrow, have names that are sly jokes. Thankfully, he still takes his food incredibly seriously — whether it’s BLT’s crispy, gooey Party Melt or T. Rex’s intricate, vegetable-forward bistro cuisine. Then again, even that’s changing. T. Rex is currently serving a Texas wagyu striploin. Admittedly, it’s paired with chewy, locally grown turnips, but serving an honest to goodness steak? Welcome to the new Justin Yu.
Kaiser Lashkari, Himalaya
If all Lashkari had done for Houston diners was focus his inquisitive culinary mind on classic dishes like fish masala and Hunter’s Beef, it would be enough to cement his reputation as one of the city’s best cooks. However, an interest in creating Indian-spiced versions of Southern staples like fried chicken, chicken fried steak, and crawfish etouffee catapulted him to the tier occupied by the city’s most creative chefs. An appearance in an episode of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown grew Himalaya’s fan base to a new level. With the Beard committee starting to recognize the value of Houston’s diversity by awarding semifinalist nominations to chefs like Ross Coleman and James Haywood (Kitchen 713) and Trong Nguyen (Crawfish & Noodles), can more national love for Lashkari be far behind?
Kiran Verma, Kiran's
Let’s not underestimate the significance of what Verma did when she relocated her eponymous restaurant from Highland Village to Upper Kirby. Moving to a new, larger restaurant would be a challenge for any chef, but Verma both added lunch and bar menus to her restaurant’s repertoire and maintained the famously high standards of her fine dining Indian fare. Verma remains an energetic, ebullient presence in her dining room, greeting both regulars and first time visitors like old friends. No wonder her restaurant seems more essential than ever.
Ryan Lachaine, Riel
Canadian, Ukrainian, Asian, and Southern: Lachaine’s influences for Riel might sound like the beginning of a weird joke about four guys walking into a bar, but a meal of borscht, tempura cauliflower, and hanger steak with pierogi works out a lot better than it seems like it should. What else should people expect from a chef who both trained at two of Houston’s most-acclaimed restaurants (Reef and Underbelly) and worked stages and pop-ups at some of the country’s greatest restaurants? So far Lachaine is more local favorite than the object of national acclaim, but that seems certain to follow soon.