Your attention please. Strike up the band. It's time to decide the winners of the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, our new annual celebration of the best in Houston's bar and restaurant scene.
We've empowered a group of industry insiders to determine who the most creative, innovative and energetic professionals working in the Houston food scene are.
Over the next few weeks, CultureMap will spotlight candidates in a variety of categories to celebrate both the people and places who make Houston's dining scene so special. Stay tuned to see who our panelists think are the best chefs, the best bartenders and where to go for the best food in Chinatown. The winners in all the categories will be revealed at a gala event on May 8. We'll have information on how you can join us for the party soon. (Update: Click here for tickets.)
Meet the nominees in the Rising Star Chef category below. It recognizes people who are still either working behind the scenes or just starting to develop their own culinary programs. Basically, five years from now, these people will be competing for Best Chef in Houston.
Lyle Bento, Underbelly
Lyle Bento first emerged on Houston's culinary scene as a cook at the closed and much missed Feast. From there, he hopped on board The Modular food truck where dishes like lobster risotto and roasted bone marrow attracted national attention.
As a sous chef at Underbelly since the day and it opened, his ability to utilize the constantly changing mix of locally-sourced, seasonal vegetables that are the restaurant's signature has made him an invaluable part of Chris Shepherd's team. Bento's creativity extends to less elevated fare, such as his Eggo-battered chicken and waffle wings that became an instant classic.
Kenneth Burke, Ibiza
Working alongside executive chef Charles Clark, Kenneth Burke has been at Ibiza since 2011. As he rose to the position of executive sous chef, he's contributed to the restaurant's globally influenced menu. With the Clark/Cooper group on an expansionist path, expect to see Burke get his own chance to shine in the future.
Clark's legacy of employing both Chris Shepherd and Brandi Key shows the man knows talent when he sees it.
After all, Clark's legacy of employing both Chris Shepherd and Brandi Key shows the man knows talent when he sees it.
Adam Dorris, Free agent
In 2010, Dorris's pop-up Ghetto Dinners with collaborator Will Walsh featured fine, carefully prepared food served on paper plates out of the Grand Prize kitchen. After taking over for Justin Bayse at Bryan Caswell's Italian-inspired Stella Sola, Dorris moved on to Revival Market. During his stint alongside executive chef Ryan Pera, Dorris helped create Revival's constantly changing lunch menu and launched the market's popular dinner series, which always sold out.
Dorris is tight-lipped about what's next for him, but wherever he lands will be a must try destination.
Adam Garcia, Julep
Another Revival Market vet, Adam Garcia's also worked alongside Michael Kramer at Voice in the Hotel Icon before helping chefs Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner open The Pass & Provisions. Now he'll have a chance to shine on his own at Julep, where he's developing a menu of cold seafood that pays tribute to Southern history.
Sure, he can shuck oysters in the winter, but watching the menu take shape during the summer months will be interesting.
David Guerrero, Andes Cafe
Can a chef rise, fall and rise again? That describes David Guerrero's career, where he moved from a successful turn as Samba Grille's executive chef to opening Peruvian restaurant Alma. Unfortunately, Alma shuttered, and his plans to reopen in Montrose never came together.
Now he's back at casual Andes Cafe in the Second Ward with a breakfast and lunch menu of classic South American fare that's among this year's best new restaurants. Guerrero is already expanding the menu, adding an avant garde tasting menu on Wednesday nights and Argentian parrilladas on Thursdays.
Travis Lenig, Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette
Perhaps Travis Lenig's greatest skill is grace under pressure. After all, Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette has been packed since day one, and the new locations features an expanded menu from the Heights original.
Where else are diners equally likely to order a bowl or gumbo, a burger or caviar? That Lenig is able to preserve the dishes that made Liberty a hit while introducing new favorites like the restaurant's signature prime rib cart is a testament to the breadth of his skills.
Greg Lowry, Triniti
Prior to his joining Triniti as chef Ryan Hildebrand's right hand man, Greg Lowry worked at Voice, and he brings that time developing modern American cuisine to a restaurant that's changed its menu nine times since opening. Even as the restaurant has undergone a series of personnel changes, Lowry's talent and work ethic have helped keep things running smoothly.
His skills extend beyond fine dining. The menu he created for El Gran Malo helped kick off the recent trend of bars that serve legitimately good food.
Formerly at Brasserie 19 and Tiny Boxwoods, Amanda McGraw's ability to create both sweet and savory dishes has made her a highly prized consultant for two of Houston's most anticipated new concepts. At The Honeymoon, she'll be creating a New Orleans-inspired mix of breakfast items, sandwiches and small plates. At Siphon Coffee, the focus will be on pastries, egg dishes and panini.
Expect both places to be popular. After all, her skills were enough to impress celebrity chef Daniel Boulud when he dined at Brasserie 19.
Kate McLean, Tony's
Following in the footsteps of someone who's been highly successful isn't easy. Just ask Broncos fans how they felt about Brian Griese or Van Halen fans about Sammy Hagar.
While comparing what Grant Gordon did at Tony's to David Lee Roth is probably a stretch, his role in helping reinvigorate the classic Houston restaurant certainly meant that chef de cuisine Kate McLean had a lot to live up to when she took over the kitchen. That she's been successful, earning attention from national publication Gayot, attests to the skills she developed while working in Europe and owner Tony Vallone's guidance in maintaining his restaurant's famously high standards. Check out the recently tweaked dinner menu for proof.
Gabriel Medina, Soma
Gabriel Medina winning the People's Choice Award at last year's Go Pig or Go Home event against high profile competition like Justin Yu and Chris Shepherd didn't surprise anyone who'd sampled his cuisine. After following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Philippe Gaston and Seth Siegel-Gardner as the savory chef at Japanese restaurant Kata Robata, Medina took over the kitchen at sister restaurant Soma.
Although he serves a weekly tasting menu on Friday nights, his passion for creating modern takes on ramen has made Soma a must visit destination for the noodle obsessed. His Texas Ramen that incorporates barbecue brisket was such a success that Ronnie Killen asked Medina to join him for the Star Chefs barbecue competition last year in New York.
Rishi Singh, Bar Boheme
Rishi Singh faced a seemingly impossible task. With its kitchen shut down by city inspectors, Bar Boheme needed to relaunch its food program using a food truck stationed in its parking lot.
Instead of responding with ho hum fries or frozen products, Singh developed a menu of globally influenced snacks and flatbreads that have made Boheme a legitimate food destination in the always competitive Montrose dining scene. His constant innovations found an outlet in last year's Test Kitchen Tuesday series, where he featured a new dish each week to sold out crowds.
Soon, Boheme will build out a full kitchen, and Singh's cuisine will really get the chance to shine.
JD Woodward, Goro & Gun
Buffalo Wild Wings. That's where JD Woodward was working as a server when the former Underbelly line cook agreed to assist with afternoon prep a few days a week at Goro & Gun.
Then executive chef David Coffman left and suddenly Woodward found himself in charge of the kitchen. First, he tackled the ramen, which still doesn't please traditionalists but tastes good and remains a staple of the menu. Then he broadened the restaurant's offerings by incorporating Gulf bycatch and a constantly evolving array of seasonal dishes.
From crispy, spicy gyoza to recently introduced deviled duck eggs, Woodward keeps things interesting while still maintaining Goro's mission of serving reasonably priced, craveable fare.