A national organization that seeks to identify future culinary leaders shines its spotlight on Houston this week. StarChefs, an organization dedicated to celebrating up-and-coming culinary talent, will host a gala Tuesday, December 10 to celebrate its 2019 class of Houston rising stars.
The winners, listed below, constitute a mix of prominent names in Houston’s contemporary restaurant scene as well as promising culinary talent who may still be flying a little under the radar while they work for more prominent chefs and restaurant groups. StarChefs’ managing partner Will Blunt tells CultureMap that the organization spent over three weeks interviewing 70 candidates for its class of 17 announced winners (plus two more that will be revealed Tuesday night).
By coming to the city to meet with candidates for interviews, photoshoots, and tastings, StarChefs sets itself apart from other national awards or lists. These winners might go on to earn more prominent industry awards such as Food & Wine Best New Chef or a James Beard Award.
“Often the StarChefs Rising Stars Award is the first major award or national recognition a young chef, sommelier, bartender, or artisan may receive,” Blunt tells CultureMap in an email. “Because StarChefs is on the ground in restaurants interviewing and tasting with hundreds of chefs and other industry professionals across the country every year, we have insights into the hospitality industry on a micro level. No other publication in the country has been able to do this kind of grassroots work.”
Because the organization is returning to Houston for the first time since 2011, it had a lot of ground to cover. In the rising star chefs category, that means the class includes a mix of veterans like Bobby Matos (State of Grace, La Lucha) and Drake Leonards (Eunice) are paired with newer talents like Kaitlin Steets (Theodore Rex) and Natasha Douglas (Better Luck Tomorrow). While it might have made more sense to recognize someone like Matos earlier in his career — he led Tony Vallone’s casual Italian restaurant Ciao Bello before moving on to Ford Fry’s Houston restaurants in 2015 — Blunt explains the organization didn’t want to punish worthy talents just cause it’s been a little tardy about returning.
Regardless of age or experience, Blunt writes that certain qualities unite all of the winners. “What makes the winners standout, besides delicious food and cocktails etc., is leadership, community participation, and vision. The winners are pushing Houston hospitality forward and are models for others in their city and nationally.”
Back in 2011, the organization did a fairly good job of identifying the chefs and other culinary professionals who are leaders in the scene today, including rising star chefs like Chris Shepherd (then at Catalan), Manabu Horiuchi (Kata Robata), and Seth Siegel-Gardner (then at Kata Robata, recently of The Pass & Provisions). Bobby Heugel (Anvil, etc) earned an award for mixologist, and Sean Beck (Caracol, Hugo’s, etc) won the rising star sommelier award.
Asked to identify which of this year’s winners he thinks is most likely to become the next Shepherd or Heugel, Blunt writes that all of them have potential.
“It’s a toss up because this class is so strong, and they have such great examples in their forebearers like Hori-san or Bobby,” he states. “Each of the 2019 StarChefs Houston Rising Stars has that potential. That’s why we picked them. We believe in them as leaders.”
On Tuesday night, the winners will gather for a gala awards ceremony featuring dishes prepared by the winning chefs paired with cocktails prepared by and wines selected by the rising star bartenders and sommeliers. At the event, the organization will present two additional awards: Arts of Presentation and Mentor.
We’ll predict that former rising star winner Shepherd earns the mentor title. Buy tickets online to attend the event ($85 general admission, $125 VIP).
2019 StarChefs Houston Rising Stars Award Winners
- Natasha Douglas: Better Luck Tomorrow and Penny Quarter
- Drake Leonards: Eunice
- Bobby Matos: State of Grace and La Lucha
- Kaitlin Steets: Theodore Rex
- Nick Wong: UB Preserv
Game Changer Chef
- Jonny Rhodes: Indigo
- Patrick Feges and Erin Smith: Feges BBQ
- Meredith Larke: Uchi Houston
- Jasmine Chida: Sweet Cup Gelato & Sorbet Originale
- Tommy Ho: Anvil Bar & Refuge
- Westin Galleymore: Underbelly Hospitality
- Mathieu Cabon: Magnol French Baking
- Benji Aguilar & Kaitlin O’Brien: Xela Coffee Roasters
- David Keck: Goodnight Hospitality
- Andres Blanco: Caracol
- Lindsay Thomas: Pappas Bros. Steakhouse