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.
More than any other category, Rising Star Chef of the Year defines what makes the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards different from some of the other publications that recognize the city's best bars and restaurants. It draws upon the expertise of our panel of former winners to answer an important question — who are the people who will be shaping how our city dines in the years to come?
Collectively, these 15 nominees work for some of the city's highest profile chefs, including Beard Award winners Justin Yu and Chris Shepherd, and have roots in acclaimed restaurants like The Pass and Uchi. Two of them started in food trucks that developed enough of a following to make the leap to brick and mortar restaurants.
Whether they ultimately go on to open their own restaurants, as some of the nominees below have, or continue to work for their more high-profile employers, they're in their kitchen day-in and day-out, supervising each dish, maintaining their boss' exacting standards. Passionate diners should learn their names now; after all, they're already eating the food these chefs prepare.
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 (at special early bird pricing!) now.
Arash Kharat - Buffalo Bayou Brewing Company
Looking back on its decade-plus run, Beaver’s was the UH football program of Houston restaurants. Whenever the restaurant lost a talented up-and-comer like Bobby Heugel or Ryan Rouse (aka, Kevin Sumlin or Tom Herman) to the next big thing, it inevitably found someone equally worthy to replace him — and yes, in this analogy that makes Anvil the University of Texas.
Arash Kharat built on that legacy by providing the restaurant with legit barbecue cred and enhancing its familiar menu of kicked up comfort food. Now at Buffalo Bayou, he shows an even broader range of skills, churning out everything from first-rate pizza and chicken wings to vegetarian snacks like pakora and falafel. The menu is so compelling that even non-beer drinkers are seeking out the brewery’s 200-seat restaurant.
Cat Huynh - Les Ba'get
Putting together two of Houstonians’ favorite foods — Vietnamese and barbecue — has made this chef’s Garden Oaks restaurant one of the city’s most reliable destinations. Adding smoked brisket to familiar classics like pho and spring rolls would probably be enough to secure a nomination in this category, but the creative small plates like lemongrass bone marrow and a bun rieu crab omelette demonstrate Huynh’s creativity.
Felipe Riccio - Rosie Cannonball
With time spent at places like Reef and The Pass & Provisions, the chef had an impressive Houston resume, but working in Europe working at celebrated restaurants such as Osteria Francescana and Azurmendi took his skills to the next level. At Rosie, he blends both Italian and Spanish techniques to produce stunning, flavorful dishes such as the signature blistered green bean salad and Andalusian clams in broth. Houstonians will get to experience an even greater depth of Riccio’s talents when he opens March, an intimate tasting menu restaurant.
J.D. Woodward - 1751 Sea & Bar
After coming up at places like Rainbow Lodge and Underbelly, most people probably first experienced Woodward’s cooking at Goro & Gun. He worked with Lyle Bento at Southern Goods before signing on to Michael Sambrooks’ upscale seafood restaurant. Eating a “phat ass ham hock” in 2013, who would have imagined that Woodward would lead a kitchen capable of delicate raw seafood dishes as well as an impressive collection of Asian-inspired small plates and hearty, seafood-oriented entrees? It all works, a testament to the chef’s skills and the tricks he’s learned along the way.
Kaitlin Steets - Theodore Rex
Since chef-owner Justin Yu promoting Steets to chef de cuisine, Theodore Rex has cemented its place as one of Houston’s most well-regarded restaurants. Building on the principles that guided Oxheart, Steets and the T. Rex crew continue to utilize the highest-quality local produce they can source, but now the dishes are more approachable. Sure, the tomato toast and rice with butterbeans have become staples, but more recent additions like the steamed gulf oysters and farfalle pasta with rabbit demonstrate that Steets and Yu still have a lot of ideas left to share.
Mark Clayton and Drew Gimma - Squable
These two industry veterans had been the scenes for years. Clayton worked for Yu at Oxheart and spent time working for Agircole Hospitality, while Gimma, a baker, worked on the opening team at Common Bond before moving to Better Luck Tomorrow. At Squable, they’re leading the kitchen that’s produced some of the year’s most exciting dishes — everything from a Dutch baby pancake with country ham to an instant classic cheeseburger on a bun that’s made in house. The recent introduction of more vegetarian and vegan-friendly fare demonstrates that Squable will be a staple for years to come.
Matt Staph - One Fifth
The Dallas native worked for John Tesar and Graham Dodds before joining the opening crew at One Fifth. Chris Shepherd promoted him to chef de cuisine prior to the opening of Romance Languages, and he’s led the kitchen through the transitions to Mediterranean and Gulf Coast. Staph’s willingness to learn new techniques will really be put to the test now that One Fifth is entering its final, “lightning mode” phase, but Shepherd wouldn’t have turned things up to 11 if he didn’t think Staph was ready for the challenge.
Natasha Douglas - Penny Quarter/Better Luck Tomorrow
In the last year, Douglas has taken over the kitchen at Better Luck Tomorrow — where her influence can be seen in the weekly pasta specials and the dishes created for BLT’s pre-holiday events — and led the cooking at Penny Quarter, the wine bar and all-day cafe with a surprisingly diverse menu considering its made on a food truck. Justin Yu tells CultureMap that they share a passion for “vibrant and exciting flavors” that run through the menu of both bars.
“She just has so much enthusiasm for life that it shows in her food and with the way people see her,” Yu says. “Overall, I’m just excited that I get to work with her and I think she has the same effect with everyone else.”
Nick Wong - UB Preserv
A veteran of both David Chang and Chris Cosentino’s restaurants, Wong came to Houston to lead UB Preserv, the evolution of Chris Shepherd’s legendary restaurant Underbelly. Over time, Wong has been given more authority to change the menu. He’s responded by incorporating an even more diverse set of immigrant cuisines, as in a riff of cacio e pepe that swaps the cheese for a blend of soy milk, soy sauce, and fermented tofu. Wong has also come into his own on social media, providing an amusing commentary on happenings at the restaurant and a unique perspective on dining in Houston.
Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee - Kokoro/Handies Douzo
These two Uchi veterans have made a splash at Bravery Chef Hall, where they create delicately seasoned, precisely sliced pieces of nigiri. Even better, they utilize sustainable fish such as tuna sourced from the Gulf of Mexico. In December, they expanded to The Heights with Handies. Each hand roll’s supremely crispy nori — all props for whatever culinary dark arts they utilize to achieve that result — helps make each bite memorable.
Sasha Grumman - Rosalie Italian Soul
Chef Chris Cosentino worked with Grumman at his restaurant Cockscomb in San Francisco. In an interview with CultureMap, the chef praised Grumman as having “a really strong palate, a strong vision, and can execute like nobody's business.” One bite of Rosalie specialities like blue crab manicotti or the whole chicken milanese will be all diners needs to agree with Cosentino’s assessment.
Teddy Lopez - Killen's STQ
Teddy Lopez has become Ronnie Killen’s go-to for a diverse array of tasks. Whether it’s organizing a pop-up or prepping food for an event, expect to see Lopez leading the team that executes Killen’s vision. As the executive chef for STQ, he puts his own spin on the restaurant’s hybrid barbecue-steakhouse format. Recent specials like roasted butternut squash and burrata salad and pork belly steam buns offer plenty of proof that Lopez's talents extend beyond grilled and smoked meats.
Tony Luhrman - El Topo
The chef’s food truck, which he ones described as “Bar Tartine on wheels,” earned raves for its handmade corn tortillas and extensive use of local ingredients. Now in a brick and mortar home in West University Place, Luhrman has expanded the menu with a broader away of salads, sandwiches, and small plates as well as extensive array of baked goods and pastries. Expect him to enhance his vision of modern Texas cooking when the restaurant begins its eagerly anticipated dinner service.