For this year’s final category our coverage of the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, we present the nominees for Chef of the Year.
By any measure, they’re a talented bunch. Of course, they serve delicious food, but these 12 individuals go beyond making dishes people want to eat. They mentor their coworkers and offer advice to colleagues at other restaurants. They raise money for local non-profits and use their platforms to advocate for causes that are important to them.
They’ve been recognized by national publications, the James Beard Foundation, and other markers of culinary excellence. They lead diverse teams of cooks, some of whom have gone to earn Tastemaker Awards nominations of their own.
Those are just some of the reasons why our committee of local restaurant industry experts selected them for recognition. Although only one will win at Thursday night’s Tastemaker Awards ceremony, they’re all worth patronizing.
Anita Jaisinghani - Pondicheri
Trends may come and go, but this veteran chef will continue to do what she always has — sharing her love for Indian flavors with Houstonians while supporting local farmers and advocating for sustainable living through quiet initiatives like Pondicheri’s popular Meatless Monday weekly special. Last year, she published her first cookbook, Masala: Recipes from India, the Land of Spices, which guides readers how to use spices like an Indian chef. Her food may sometimes diverge from traditional Indian cuisine, but it is always delicious.
Benchawan Jabthong Painter - Street to Kitchen
Already the winner of Rising Star Chef of the Year in the 2022 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, chef Painter rose to a level of national prominence with a finalist nomination for Best Chef: Texas in the 2023 James Beard Awards. Its fitting recognition for a chef who serves “unapologetically Thai” flavors in her tiny East End restaurant. Diners will soon have another venue to sample her cooking when she opens The Preserve at Eculent, a small plates concept she’s developing in collaboration with Eculent chef-owner David Skinner.
Christine Ha and Tony Nguyen - Xin Chao
The union of these two chefs — Ha, a Masterchef winner and the culinary mind behind the Blind Goat and Nguyen, who rose to prominence locally for his Viet-Cajun fare at Saigon House — has produced dishes that unite Vietnamese techniques with Texas barbecue traditions. Dishes like smoked beef rib with rice noodles and smoked beef chicken dumplings demonstrate that these two great tastes do taste great together. The innovative mashup earned the duo a James Beard Award finalist nomination in 2022 and a semifinalist nomination in 2023.
Felipe Riccio - March
More than any dish he creates for the tasting menus at this fine dining restaurant, what defines Riccio’s cooking is the research he puts into every menu. By studying cookbooks, scholarly articles, and other sources, the chef learns what ingredients and techniques are essential to the region March features in its biannual menus, which allows the restaurant to dive deep in its interpretations of staple dishes. That March’s choreographed meals happen seamlessly from its diners’ perspectives is perhaps the greatest display of the chef’s craft and attention to detail.
Mark Clayton - Squable
This Heights restaurant has emerged as one of Houston’s most consistently satisfying restaurants under Clayton’s leaders. The chef, whose resume includes both Oxheart and Coltivare, utilizes as many locally sourced ingredients as he can to craft Squable’s diverse menu of pastas, small plates, and entrees. As a leader, he’s known for mentoring the chefs who work for him and being fastidious about producing as little waste as possible.
Niki Vongthong - Hidden Omakase
Prior to leading the kitchen at this exclusive, intimate sushi counter, this chef honed her skills at both Uchi and Aqui. The multi-course format allows Vongthong to craft perfect bites that blend dry-aged fish with housemade sauces and precisely-placed garnishes. We look forward to seeing what inspiration she found during a recent trip to Japan.
Patrick Feges and Erin Smith - Feges BBQ
When sitting down to a three-meat plate at this barbecue joint, it’s easier to remember that Feges is a self-taught pitmaster who honed his skills working for Ronnie Killen. Then, you chow down on signature items like the Korean braised greens, balanced salads, and Moroccan-spiced carrots and are reminded that Feges worked for Chris Shepherd at Underbelly and that Smith trained in New York working at star chef Thomas Keller’s three Michelin star restaurant Per Se. All that training results in a level of quality and consistency that’s rare at any class of restaurant — and means that their occasional wine dinners and other special events produce some can’t-miss culinary fireworks.
Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee - Aiko/Handies Douzo/Kokoro
Credit these two chefs for creating memorable sushi restaurants. Kokoro is the only restaurant left left from Bravery Chef Hall’s opening roster. Handies Douzo expanded from its original home in the Heights to a second location in Montrose. Aiko has earned raves for its four-tied omakase that gives diners a quality sushi experience for as little as $25 during happy hour. Recently, they opened Himari in Garden Oaks’ Stomping Grounds development, further expanding their reach by adding robata and tempura to their repertoire.
Ryan Lachaine - Riel
Diners at Riel know Lachaine for outgoing presence in the dining room, where he greets regulars like old friends and first timers like regulars. Listeners to CultureMap’s “What’s Eric Eating” podcast know him for his blunt observations and creativity use of profanity. While the personality does make for a memorable meal at Riel, its his creative culinary perspective — a blend of Gulf Coast ingredients mashed together with his Canadian upbringing and Ukrainian heritage — that has Riel one of Houston’s most consistently satisfying restaurants for six years.