Pastry Chef of the Year
These 10 pastry chefs sweeten up Houston's dining scene
Ever meet one of those stubborn people who claim not to like sweets? They probably don’t like puppies, sunny days, or being smiled at either.
Then again, maybe they’re just eating the wrong desserts. After all, a diet of store-bought cookies and grocery store birthday cakes could be enough to turn even the most devoted sweet tooth off from pastries.
As an alternative, may we suggest the confections created by the nominees for the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Pastry Chef of the Year? These 10 men and women are masters of their craft, able to create everything from kolaches to churros with skill and refinement. Even the most stone-hearted sugar-phobe can’t resist their tempting treats.
Who will win? Find out at the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards party presented by Woodford Reserve on March 27 at Silver Street Studios. We’ll reveal the winners, sip cocktails, and dine on bites provided by the nominees. Tickets are on sale now.
Alyssa Dole, Pinkerton's Barbecue
After making a name for herself at Coltivare, Dole has bounced around a bit, but she seems to have found a home at this Texas Monthly top 50 barbecue joint. Pinkerton’s has always had great desserts, but Dole’s influence has elevated signature items like the banana cake with better, more consistent techniques. She handles savory items well, too; just ask the crowds that line up early for the restaurant’s monthly kolache pop-ups. With a second location slated for San Antonio, expect Dole to continue helping Pinkerton’s achieve its goal of being one of the most complete barbecue joints in Texas.
Chris Leung, Cloud 10 Creamery
Having captured the city’s attention with flavors like toasted rice and nutella rocky road — not to mention his signature bruleed banana split — Leung has continually refined Cloud 10. Once upon a time, it felt like the chef created wild flavors just to show off his impressive skills; now, he’s focused on making the best classics he can while still showing off an occasional trick or two. With Cloud 10’s location in the Heights a big hit, Leung can turn his attention to making the company’s new locations in Midtown and Upper Kirby as successful as possible.
Dory Fung, Secret Taste/Fung’s Kitchen
A veteran of Yauatcha and Aqui, Fung made a splash in 2018 as the opening pastry chef at Poitín. Her housemade breads and elegant plated desserts looked as good as they tasted. Currently, Fung can be found putting a sweet finish on each Secret Taste pop-up or at Fung’s Kitchen, her family’s legendary dim sum and seafood restaurant. We’re hopeful she finds a new home soon — her 24 Karrot Cake deserves a permanent outpost.
Julia Doran, Nancy's Hustle
Knowing what to order at Nancy’s Hustle can be difficult (how could anyone skip an order of Nancy cakes, but wow that snapper collar special sounds good), but dessert is always mandatory. Whether it’s for the signature parmesan cheesecake with honey and black pepper (essentially a cheese course as a composed dish) or a chocolate torte that gets some welcome crunch from pieces of rye sourdough toast, Doran’s desserts are both thoughtfully prepared and delicious. That thick, crusty sourdough bread that’s also an essential part of any meal at Nancy’s? That’s hers, too.
Otto Sanchez, Magnol French Baking
This talented chef put his Michelin-starred resume — including time working for superstar chef Joël Robuchon — to good use at La Table, where his breads, pastries, and immaculate macarons made him one of Houston’s most underrated pastry talents. Since departing the restaurant last year, he’s quietly been working on a new project. With every upcoming food hall looking for a baker, Sanchez’s Magnol French Baking could emerge as an appealing choice.
Ruben Ortega, H-Town Restaurant Group
If all Ortega had done is invent El Coco, Caracol’s signature dessert that diners hit with a mallet to reveal a delicious center of coconut cream, he’d be the Houston pastry equivalent of Brandon Backe, who is remembered for his outstanding performance during the Astros playoff runs in 2004 and 2005. That he creates memorable confections for all four of his brother Hugo’s restaurants, including the entire house-roasted chocolate program at Xochi, pretty much makes him Nolan Ryan. Why all the baseball analogies? ESPN analyst Keith Law recently wrote that Xochi dessert Piedras y Oro provided “chocolate indulgence right into your veins.” That’s good enough for us.
Samantha Mendoza, Killen's Restaurants
Ronnie Killen’s French training gives him a solid grounding in pastry, but Mendoza elevates the sweets at all of his restaurants. Whether it’s milkshakes at Killen’s Burgers, delicate chocolates at Killen’s Steakhouse, or the churros a Killen’s TMX, no meal is complete without some of Mendoza’s confections. Given that she established a sterling reputation at Triniti, it’s hard to believe she just turned 30 this week. Thankfully, her youth means Houstonians will be enjoying her creations for years to come.
Sharon Leonard, Sweet Bribery
Having worked at Uchi and Main Kitchen, Leonard (then Gofreed) earned acclaim for her homestyle desserts at State of Grace, but the chef reached another level when she opened her ice cream shop in the Heights. While the style is decidedly retro — the staff wears paper hats and classic rock plays on the stereo — the flavors are modern takes on classics like banana pudding, Dutch chocolate, and cookies ‘n cream. Sweet Bribery’s pairing of ice cream and sorbet with beer and wine means moms and dads will be as happy to eat there as their children are.
Valerie Trasatti, Coterie
Pastries and desserts are a key component of the offerings at this all-day cafe in downtown, so it’s no surprise that owners Chaz Lusk and Sean Marshall turned to Trasatti to develop their offerings. The Revival Market veteran brings a passion for getting the basics right, which is something diners can taste any time they bite into one of Coterie’s cookies. Intimidated by downtown? Try the corn cookie she created as a consultant for Cavo Coffee.
Victor Pucha, Maison Pucha Bistro
Given its culinary heritage, a French restaurant is virtually required to serve great desserts. At Maison Pucha Bistro, Victor Pucha, one of three brothers who own the restaurant, turns out high-quality breads and a wide range of sweets: everything from macarons to mignardise and a daily fruit tart. Still, it’s the dishes that incorporate chocolate from the brothers’ native Ecuador — as in Pucha’s signature black and white chocolate souffle — that really shine.