Turns out that the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Rising Star Chef of the Year category is a little bit prescient. Last year’s winner, Pax Americana’s Martha De Leon, earned a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination in the national version of the same category last month.
Whether this year’s nominees achieve the same level of national acclaim as De Leon (who recently moved to Seattle) remains to be seen, of course, but they’ve already made a splash with our panel of former winners and restaurant industry experts. Their resumes include work at some of the best restaurants in the world, and their diverse skill sets touch everything from sushi to barbecue.
This category recognizes chefs who are working for other people or who have recently opened their own concepts. While executive chefs craft menus, train the staff, and oversee service, our Rising Stars can typically be found cooking on the line, preparing the food diners eat. Their ideas may show up as specials or occasionally on the permanent menu.
Who won? Find out at the Tastemaker Awards party on April 4 at Silver Street Studios. We’ll reveal the winners, sip cocktails, and dine on bites provided by the nominees. Tickets are on sale now.
Arash Kharat, Beaver's
Continuing a culinary legacy that includes acclaimed Houston chefs Monica Pope and Jonathan Jones would be intimidating for any chef, but that’s the task Arash Kharat agreed to undertake when he signed on to be the executive chef at Beaver’s second location on Westheimer. He has succeeded in making the restaurant a destination by focusing on serving barbecue that holds its own with the city’s best and leveraging the smoker to craft creative riffs like brisket tacos served on flour tortillas made with smoked brisket fat. Next up, Kharat will bring the new menu items to the original location when it reopens later this spring.
Armando Ramirez, formerly of Star Fish
It is one thing to develop a concept for a seafood restaurant, as Cherry Pie Hospitality owners Lee Ellis and Jim Mills did for Star Fish. It is another thing to execute the vision consistently and precisely while adding a few touches to enhance the experience, as Armando Ramirez did. The veteran chef oversaw the kitchen the turned out consistently excellent dishes like the steak tartare with crispy shallots and whole fried snapper while using his experience to create a rotating selection of crudos and one-offs. Although Ramirez recently moved on, the work he did to make Star Fish one of last year’s most satisfying new restaurants continues to pay dividends.
Dimitri Voutsinas, Emmaline
When popular front of house personality Sam Governale decided to step out on his own to launch Emmaline, he needed the right chef to bring to his life his vision of a European-inspired all-day neighborhood restaurant. He round just the right person in Dimitri Voutsinas, who brought experience from New York City restaurants Bar Boulud, Motorino Pizza and La Gamelle. Emmaline has been a smash hit thanks to its welcoming atmosphere and dishes like the sea scallop carpaccio, lamb pappardelle, and wood-roasted pork chops that have emerged as customer favorites. Keeping up with the demand can be a challenge, but Voutsinas’ kitchen keeps getting better.
E.J. Miller, formerly of Riel
After time as both Brandi Key’s sous chef at SaltAir Seafood Kitchen and the executive chef at Down House, E.J. Miller signed on to assist Ryan Lachaine in realizing his dream of opening his own restaurant. He played a key role in creating dishes that earned the restaurant wide acclaim, including a spot on Texas Monthly’s list of the state’s best new restaurants, and could regularly be found behind the grill making sure Riel’s signature 48-ounce bone-in ribeye arrived at maximum deliciousness. Miller recently departed Riel for a position with acclaimed San Francisco chef Michael Mina, where we have no doubt he’ll continue helping his employer shine.
Felipe Riccio, Goodnight Charlie's
In baseball, highly touted prospects (think a pre-World Series MVP George Springer) are often referred to as five tool players for their ability to do everything well. With stints cooking at some of Houston’s best restuarants (Reef, The Pass & Provisions), stages at some of the best restaurants in the world (Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Osteria Francescana), and a thorough knowledge of wine from his time as a bartender at Camerata, Riccio is surely every bit the culinary talent that Springer is on the diamond. Currently, he’s bringing his fine dining pedigree to Goodnight Charlie’s menu of Mexican-inspired bar bites — making sure the housemade corn tortillas and creative fillings are made properly every day. If he seems a little overqualified for the role, don’t worry, there’s a hole in the ground next to Goodnight Charlie’s that should eventually turn into a new venue for his diverse set of skills.
Gabriel Medina, Aqui
Already a rising star when he worked at Kata Robata and Soma, Medina added to his resume by moving to Tokyo to work at Narisawa, one of the world’s top restaurants. The Filipino-American chef was a natural choice to help Austin chef Paul Qui bring his vision for Aqui to fruition. With Japanese, Thai, Filipino, and European elements, Aqui’s cuisine offers diners flavors they won’t encounter anywhere else in Houston. That Medina has not only led the team to praise from critics and diners — but also kept the staff unified while the assault charges against Qui work their way through the court system — is a testament to both his culinary and leadership skills.
Jason Vaughan, Nancy's Hustle
Although it only opened in December, the EaDo restaurant has become a favorite within the restaurant community — as its nominations in four Tastemakers categories demonstrates. While the vibe, cocktails, and desserts are all strong, it’s Vaughan’s dishes that anchors the dining experience. After working for Chicago’s acclaimed Hogsalt Hospitality, Vaughan returned home to Houston. Entrees like grilled chicken and roasted snapper may not sound exciting, but their precise execution and thoughtful details deliver maximum deliciousness.
Nick Fine, One Fifth/Underbelly Hospitality
After working at Houston restaurants including Brennan’s and State of Grace, Chris Shepherd tapped Fine to serve as One Fifth’s chef de cuisine, where he assisted with the creation of the menus for both One Fifth Steak and One Fifth Romance Languages. After proving equally adept at turning out the steakhouse’s over the top baller boards and the European restaurant’s delicate pastas, Fine received a promotion to culinary director of Underbelly Hospitality, which means he’ll be tasked with helping manage three major openings in the next six months: UB Preserv, Georgia James, and One Fifth Mediterranean. As long as he can keep giving shout outs to Ric Flair on Instagram, everything should be just Fine.
Rikesh Patel, Night Market Thai
Patel made a brief splash when he opened Ambrosia, which dishes out an eclectic, Asian-inspired menu of shareable plates. The self-taught chef fell off the radar for a bit but emerged to open Night Market in partnership with Chinatown restaurateur Mike Tran (Tiger Den, Mein, Ohn Korean Eatery). When Night Market’s first incarnation as a global curry house with both Thai and Indian dishes didn’t connect with diners, Patel reworked the menu to focus on Thailand exclusively. The result is that familiar dishes like red and green curry possess the same attention to detail and depth of flavor as more unusual fare like lemongrass prawns and roasted duck curry.