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Meet the Tastemakers
Houston's 10 best pastry chefs conjure sweet and savory treats
“Sweet” may be the first word that comes to mind with desserts, but it certainly isn’t the only one. “Tart,” “comforting,” “herbaceous,” and “satisfying” all have their roles to play, too.
The nominees for the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Pastry Chef of the Year understand that sweetness needs to be balanced. They know that a sprinkle of salt makes any chocolate dessert taste more chocolatey or that roasting strawberries brings out their sweetness. With their diverse skills, they produce savory items that leave people wanting more and sweets that are, if we’re being honest, better than anything grandma ever made.
This year’s nominees produce cookies, cakes, breads, kolaches, doughnuts, pop tarts, ice cream, and more. Their inspiration comes from both childhood favorites and culinary traditions the span the globe. Even people who claim not to like dessert will probably find something to devour from this distinguished group.
Who will win? Find out April 13 at our Tastemaker Awards ceremony. Dine on bites from this year’s nominees, sip cocktails from our sponsors, and witness as we reveal the winners. Buy your tickets now.
Alyssa Dole - LuLoo's Day & Night
After a extensive career that’s seen her work everywhere from Coltivare to Pinkerton’s Barbecue, Dole has found a home at this bakery and cafe in Garden Oaks. Working in partnership with Blood Bros. BBQ, LuLoo’s serves sandwiches on Dole’s bread and a range of sweet and savory pastries, including Australian-inspired sausage rolls and barbecue kolaches. Upstairs, Dole leads LuLoo's Bakeshop, a wholesale bakery that supplies breads to Blood Bros. and a number of other Houston restaurants.
Kelly Helgesen - Nancy's Hustle
After a successful career in Chicago that included a Zagat “30 Under 30” award for her work at Lula Cafe, Helgesen moved to Houston to reunite her professional relationship with Nancy’s executive chef/co-owner Jason Vaughan (both are alumni are legendary seafood restaurant L20). At Nancy’s, she maintains the quality of menu staples like the savory parmesan cheesecake (and those English muffin burger buns Justin Verlander is so fond of) while also adding seasonal specials such as a recently-introduced buttermilk sherbet with roasted strawberries and sesame puff sticks. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that she finds a way to share her bagel-making skills with Houstonians on a more regular basis at some point in the future.
Kripa Shenoy - EaDough Pastries & Provisions
This chef comes to Houston via New York City, where she worked at Marea, which recently held one Michelin star and earned the 2010 James Beard Award for best new restaurant in America. At EaDough, a to-go only kiosk along the Columbia Tap Rail hike and bike trail, Shenoy turns out a breakfast-focused roster of sweet and savory pastries that includes kolaches, muffins, cookies, scones, and croissants. Later this year, Houstonians will experience more of her talents when she opens Auden, a vegetable-forward, globally inspired restaurant, with her husband, chef Kirthan Shenoy.
Lucianna Emiliani - Louie's Italian American
After beginning her career in Houston, Emiliani moved to California, where she worked in L.A. for the acclaimed Tartine Bakery. She returned home to help her brother, chef Angelo Emiliani, open Cafe Louie (named for her), where she earned raves for her croissants, morning buns, and other viennoiserie. When Cafe Louie evolved into Louie’s Italian American, she developed a couple of classic desserts for the menu, including a tiramisu that’s among Houston’s best. Thankfully, her croissants are still available at Saturday morning pop-ups and coffee shops around Houston.
Marie Riddle - Bludorn/Navy Blue
Like so many of the people behind both Bludorn and Navy Blue, Riddle comes to Houston via New York, where she worked for legendary French chef Daniel Boulud and Milk Bar founder Christina Tosi. At Bludorn, Riddle and her team oversee a revolving roster of desserts that includes the restaurant’s signature Baked Alaska. For Navy Blue, the flavors lean a little lighter, with standouts that include a tart Key Lime Pie and the carrot cake she’ll serve at the Tastemaker Awards ceremony.
Rebecca Masson - Fluff Bake Bar
It’s almost hard to believe Fluff started selling pastries at Revival Market 12 years ago. Now firmly established at its location near the Heights, Masson has earned an impressive reputation, and a previous Tastemaker Awards win, for signatures like the Veruca Salt cake, Couch Potato cookie, and the Star Crossed Lover (Rice Krispie treat topped with caramel and covered in chocolate). Fans know to line up early on Saturday mornings, because weekly specials such as croissants, barbecue kolaches, and quiches sell out quickly.
Ruchit Harneja - Musaafer
After learning to cook from his mother and grandmother, this pastry chef traveled the world, racking up experiences in India and Europe before joining the opening team at the Galleria’s fine dining Indian restaurant. In press materials, the chef describes his style as incorporating unexpected ingredients such as fresh green chilies, garlic, ginger, fish, and meat. Those skills have served him well on the current season of the Food Network’s Spring Baking Championship: Easter, where a hickory-smoked honey caked won a challenge — and a temporary spot on Musaafer’s menu.
Shawn Gawle - Goodnight Hospitality
Part of Goodnight’s commitment to offering world class dining experiences included recruiting Gawle, a veteran of Michelin-starred restaurants in Chicago and the Bay Area, to come to Houston. Under his direction, the company’s pastry program includes a complex range of sweet and savory items that ranges from cookies and canale at Montrose Cheese & Wine to Rosie Cannonball staples like Focaccia di Recco and Basque cheesecake to March’s elegant plated desserts and diminutive mignardise. Balanced flavors, seasonal ingredients, and refined techniques are the ties that bind all of his efforts.
Stefani Velasquez - Papalo Mercado/Ema
At both the stand in downtown’s Finn Hall that she operates with her business partner, chef Nicolas Vera, and at a weekly booth at the Urban Harvest farmers market, diners count on Velasquez nostalgic desserts inspired by Mexican pan dulce and other traditions. A veteran of Hugo Ortega’s H-Town Restaurant Group, Velasquez’s output covers a wide range, including conchas, pop tarts, her signature horchata-filled Berlinésa, and specials that utilize Vera’s nixtamalized masa. The chef adds that she uses eggs from her father’s farm and as much seasonal produce as she can.
Vanarin Kuch - Koffeteria
The past year has been a busy time for the chef-owner of this EaDo bakery and cafe that’s devoted to serving flavors inspired by Houston’s diverse immigrant communities. By winding down Koffeteria’s wholesale operations, Kuch has been able to expand his output with more sweet and savory offerings that range from a Chinese sausage taco and breakfast sandwiches on housemade buns to matcha latte croissants and Cambodian elote cornbread. In addition, occasional Cambodian dinners and dessert omakase services allow Kuch to demonstrate a diverse set of skills that got far beyond his daily (and very delicious) grab-and-go creations.