It's time for a look at one last category for the 2014 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards: Best Chef. Our nominees are the men and women who develop the menus, train the staffs and work the lines at some of Houston hottest, most high-profile restaurants.
Of course, narrowing down the city's cooking talent to only 11 Best Chef candidates is almost absurd; really, we could remove all but the three recent James Beard Finalists, swap in nine other candidates and still have a talented group that would hold its own against almost any city in the country.
Alas, choices must be made, and these are the candidates our panel selected.
Want to know who wins? Join us tonight at a tasting event where we will celebrate the winners, the nominees and all the people who make eating in this city so much damn fun.
Justin Yu, Oxheart
At Oxheart, Justin Yu upends the image of Houston as a meat and potatoes town with a vegetable-focused, locally-sourced cuisine. When Yu opened two years ago with his wife, pastry chef Karen Man, and sommelier Justin Vann, some in the food community wondered whether he could fill all 31 seats every night, but the cooking is so interesting that it's become Houston's toughest reservation.
Credit Yu's Asian-inspired techniques that draw on his experiences working at a variety of Michelin-starred restaurants both in the United States and aboard. That Yu and his cooks are able to walk the high wire of meeting diners' elevated expectations each night and continue to rack up awards like becoming a James Beard finalist and a Food + Wine Best New Chef only emphasizes the degree to which they're able to put their guests first.
Chris Shepherd, Underbelly
With a win this week at the James Beard Foundation Awards for Best Chef Southwest to add to his Food + Wine Best New Chef award, Chris Shepherd has emerged as Houston's highest profile, most celebrated chef. Since Shepherd's goal at Underbelly is to tell "the story of Houston food" by bringing together the various strands of the "Mutt City" influences into a cohesive whole, he's the most representative example of what makes the city's restaurant scene so dynamic.
Shepherd's love for the city extends to tailgating at Texans game. Food and football — what could be more typically Houston than that?
Underbelly's rigorous requirement to source ingredients as locally as possible forces Shepherd and his team to use ingredients creatively, giving the restaurant a dynamism that's incredibly rare. The chef's love for the city extends to tailgating at Texans games. Food and football — what could be more typically Houston than that?
Houston native Seth Siegel-Gardner convinced his business partner Terrence Gallivan to leave New York and give Houston a shot for a month-long pop-up in August 2010 with then mostly unknown chef Justin Yu. Known as the Just August Project, the event was such an overwhelming success that Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan decided to stick around and open a restaurant here rather than return to New York.
At The Pass & Provisions, they're able to serve all the varieties of food that interest them — pizza, sandwiches and casual fare at Provisions and theatrical tasting menus at The Pass. It's a space that's equally appropriate for happy hour or an anniversary celebration. The chefs continue to innovate. The Pass now serves a menu that is both vegan and gluten free, because they believe that allergies or dietary restrictions shouldn't mean boring food.
Manabu Horiuchi, Kata Robata
If a chef's chef is the person who prepares the food other chefs most like to eat, then Manabu Horiuchi is Houston's cheffiest chef. From his post at the sushi counter at Kata Robata, Hori-san (as he's universally known) serves a who's who of Houston's top culinary talent screamingly fresh seafood in simple ways that subtly enhance each fish's natural flavor.
Hori-san commands so much respect within the local restaurant community that the annual Go Pig! or Go Home! event he hosts is a can't-miss evening. After all, none of the chefs want to let Hori-san down.
Kaiser Lashkari, Himalaya
At Himalaya, Kaiser Lashkari delivers authentic Pakistani cuisine to hordes of happy diners. Less adventurous palates will find that the samosas and chicken tikka masala are top notch, but the menu's real strength lies in the biryanis, grilled fish masala and other dishes not seen elsewhere.
Need a further endorsement? Justin Yu calls Lashkari his "food hero."
Lashkari's "Hunter's Beef," a Pakistani riff on pastrami, is a can't miss dish. Since Lashkari's wife is a vegetarian (as are many customers), vegetable dishes are flavorful and carefully prepared. Save room for dessert; the chef has a way with pastry, too. Need a further endorsement? Justin Yu calls Lashkari his "food hero."
Ronnie Killen, Killen's Steakhouse/Killen's Barbecue
Since 2006, Ronnie Killen's Pearland steakhouse has been one of Houston's top destinations for Prime beef thanks to high-quality ingredients, creative appetizers and the overall attention to detail that the obsessive chef brings to his work. Even though the restaurant does massive business despite being only open 26 hours a week, Killen felt the need to grow.
He applied the training he received at Le Cordon Bleu in London to the barbecue he prepared with his father and launched Killen's Barbecue. As both a pop-up and a restaurant, Killen's Barbecue has attracted long lines and fervent devotees. The shirts say "The best barbecue, period," and Killen won't rest until he's unseated Aaron Franklin as the best in Texas.
Hugo Ortega, Backstreet Cafe/Hugo's/Caracol
From bus boy to James Beard Award finalist, Hugo Ortega has a classic rags to riches story. In 2002, Ortega opened Hugo's to bring authentic Mexican dishes to Houston. Its success helped pave the way for other Houston restaurants that moved beyond the city's reputation for burgers, steaks and fajitas.
Now at Caracol, he's delivering seafood dishes from both of Mexico's coasts to raves. Backstreet may not be as highly regarded as Ortega's other two restaurants, but it still delivers subtle twists on classic flavors while respecting seasonal ingredients. Three beloved restaurants. One outstanding chef.
Brandi Key, culinary director, Clark/Cooper Concepts
As the chef at Coppa Ristorante, Brandi Key helped smooth the space's transition from Chris Shepherd's celebrated restaurant Catalan into a lively Italian spot thanks to her careful cooking (and world-class meatballs). Key then pivoted and launched Coppa Osteria, showing a broader selection of pizzas and introducing sandwiches as a more casual twist on the original.
Now, she's channeled her family's heritage to craft the engaging menu at Punk's Simple Southern Food. Carbonara and fried chicken? Arancini and hush puppies? Key handles it all. Next up, she'll tackle Tex-Mex. Won't that be fun?
Ryan Hildebrand, Triniti
Nine isn't just the number of times Ferris Bueller was absent from school, it's also the number of times Triniti chef/owner Ryan Hildebrand has turned over his restaurant's seasonal menu. Even if steak and chicken (locally-sourced and organic, of course) remain staples, each menu features twist that Hildebrand and chef de cuisine Greg Lowry develop to keep things fresh — a different cut or new sauces.
Triniti's brunch menu has been such an overwhelming success that its added Saturday service.
The carefully constructed salads and simple seafood preparations helped catch the eye of First Lady Michelle Obama, but Hildebrand is equally adept at throwing down a massive, bone-in pork chop or luxurious lobster mac and cheese (shades of his role in opening Vic & Anthony's?). If all that weren't enough, Triniti's brunch menu has been such an overwhelming success that its added Saturday service.
Ryan Pera, Revival Market/Coltivare
When he left the Grove to launch Revival Market with business partner Morgan Weber, he earned a following for delivering casual food (sandwiches, soups, salads) made with high-quality ingredients at prices just slightly above vastly inferior products. As it became more popular, Pera expanded Revival's offerings to include prepared to-go items and a dinner series that sold out every night it occurred.
Now at Coltivare, Pera has brought the same respect for ingredients to an Italian-inspired menu of wood fired pizzas, wood roasted meats and produce sourced from the restaurant's 3,000 square-foot garden. The result is a foodie frenzy as people line up nightly to snag one of the coveted tables.
Michael Gaspard, Pappas Restaurants
As a research and development chef for the Pappas organization, Michael Gaspard probably isn't well known to most diners, but the respect his peers in the restaurant industry have for him is evident with this nomination. His professional pedigree speaks for itself with stints at celebrated Chicago restaurants including Charlie Trotter's, Ambria and Le Francais on his resume.
For the past 11 years, he's helped make Pappas Restaurants one of the city's most profitable restaurants groups. Occasionally, Gaspard participates in pop-ups, where he shows flashes of a cuisine that's fresh, flavorful and straightforward, with at least one offal dish.
Maybe someday an enterprising restaurateur will back up the Brinks truck, buy Gaspard out of his contract and open a small plates/bar driven concept that would be packed every night. Until then, go to the Little Pappas on Shepherd and order the new dishes. He probably had a hand in creating them.