Pastry Chefs of the Year
These 12 pastry chefs bake up the best in Houston's restaurant scene
UPDATE:The CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, originally scheduled for April 2, will now be held on August 6. The story has been updated with the new date.
Meals don’t have to end with dessert, but they should, dammit. A chocolate tart, a perfectly executed slice of pie, a piece of cake — nothing provides comfort and satisfaction in quite the same way as a perfect dessert.
Our nominees for the 2020 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Pastry Chef of the Year understand the importance of ending a meal properly. These 12 talented individuals all turn out memorable sweets (that are never TOO sweet, obviously), and many of them craft savory breads, kolaches, and other items, too.
Remember, doughs are temperamental. They require both creativity and chemistry to achieve the proper result. With that in mind, it would be disrespectful not to order these chefs’ creations.
Who will win? Find out August 6 at the Tastemaker Awards party. We’ll dine on bites from this year’s nominated restaurants before emcee Bun B reveals the winners. Buy tickets now.
Allison Rene Thiessen - 1751 Sea & Bar
After working at restaurants such as One Fifth and Rainbow Lodge, this chef reunited with fellow Southern Goods alum J.D. Woodward at this Heights-area seafood restaurant. 1751 takes a global approach to its menu, and that continues with its desserts. Sure, a diner could opt for something subtle like a citrus pavlova or mini hot chocolate, but it’s Thiessen’s show-stopping coconut cake that earns the most consistent raves.
Alyssa Dole - The Kirby Group
No matter she works — Dole has been previously nominated for her work at both Coltivare and Pinkerton’s BBQ — our panel keeps recognizing her work. The Kirby Group bars (Wooster’s Garden, Holman Draft Hall, Heights Bier Garten, and Pitch 25) have always had culinary offerings that exceed expectations, which Dole contributes to by fashioning items such as housemade breads for sandwiches and pretzels. The sweet side comes out in HBG’s brunch menu, which includes kolaches and blueberry muffins.
Chris Leung - Cloud 10 Creamery
A presence on Houston’s dining scene for more than 10 years — we still have fond memories of the pies he served at the late, lamented Bootsie’s — Leung maintains Cloud 10’s status as Houston’s most intriguing ice cream shop. Over the past year, he’s expanded his output to power Cloud 10’s three scoops shops and its growing retail/mail order business. Even as newcomers enter the market, Cloud 10 staples like rnutella with marshmallows and cafe sua da remain consistent crowd pleasers.
Julia Doran - Nancy's Hustle
The chef’s parmesan cheesecake with black pepper honey is just as essential to a meal at Nancy’s as the Nancy cakes and lamb dumplings are, but it’s hard to resist whatever creation Doran has just added to the menu. Just try to resist the brand-new creme fraiche semifreddo with a molten chocolate cake center and salted kumquats. Tiny Champions, the new pizzeria she’s opening with chef Jason Vaughn and beverage specialist Sean Jensen, will provide her with another outlet for her sweet and savory talents.
Otto Sanchez and Matthieu Cabon - Magnol French Baking
With experience working in Las Vegas for superstar chef Joël Robuchon, Sanchez and Cabon bring Michelin-level experience to their joint venture. Open less than a year, Magnol has quickly earned a following for its classic French baguettes and croissants. Going to the bakery on Saturday mornings may yield other treats such as eclairs that show off the duo’s precise techniques.
Rebecca Masson - Fluff Bake Bar
Permitting hassles and construction hiccups have delayed Masson’s debut of her new location near The Heights, but the wait should be coming to an end soon. When it does, she’ll expand her menu with new items such as croissants and kolaches made with products from Truth BBQ. Her signature sweets like the Veruca Salt cake and Couch Potato cookie nail the perfect sweet-salty balance; that’s why they’ve become modern Houston classics.
Samantha Mendoza - Killen's Restaurants
Ronnie Killen may be known for his meaty repertoire, but no meal at his restaurants is complete without one of Mendoza’s sweets. Whether it’s milkshakes at Killen’s Burgers, delicate chocolates at Killen’s Steakhouse, or the churros a Killen’s TMX, her confections always satisfy. The biggest challenge is remembering to save room for them.
Sharon Leonard - Sweet Bribery
A veteran of restaurants such as Uchi and State of Grace, Leonard’s found her calling at this retro-styled ice cream shop in The Heights. Flavors like cookies and cream or mint chocolate chip may sound familiar, but Leonard imbues them with a depth of flavor that transcends their supermarket counterparts. Sweet Bribery’s winning combination of ice cream, baked goods, and booze (beer and wine) gives it a special niche in the suddenly-crowded roster of Heights ice cream options.
Shawn Gawle - Goodnight Hospitality
A veteran of three restaurants that each received three Michelin stars — L20 in Chicago, Saison in San Francisco, and Quince, also in San Francisco — Gawle supplies both Rosie Cannonball and Montrose Cheese & Wine with a wide array of sweet and savory items. Pop into MC&W for his gooey, slightly salty-in-good-way chocolate chip cookies or Pastéis de Nata (Portguese egg custard tarts). Rosie’s signature Focaccia di Recco is one of his creations, as is the mandatory Basque-style cheesecake.
Valerie Trasatti - Rosalie Italian Soul
The talented pastry chef has popped up at a few different projects over the last few years — the corn cookie at Cavo Coffee is one example — but she seems to have found a permanent home at Chris Cosentino’s downtown restaurant. Finding East Coast-style Italian sweets like cannoli and cookies has always been difficult in Houston, but Trasatti turns out versions that would hold their own with the best of Boston’s North End neighborhood. Too full from chef Sasha Grumman’s handmade pastas to contemplate dessert? Don’t worry; Trasatti’s tiramisu makes for an excellent breakfast.
Vanarin Kuch - Koffeteria
After working in New York and Chicago, the Tiny Boxwoods veteran returned to Houston to open his bakery in EaDo. Sure, the Hot Cheetos croissant gets all the attention, but Kuch’s full roster deserves adoration. A baklava croissant loaded with honey and pistachios has an appealing crunch, and his double-height, pleasantly chewy chocolate chip cookies are irresistible. Best of all, Koffeteria’s savory options and espresso beverages make it an appealing breakfast option, too.