StarChefs.com managing editor Will Blunt makes a living traveling the world and tasting amazing food. And this year, for the first time, he spent an extended amount of time in Houston, exploring and eating before naming over a dozen chefs (plus a sommelier and a mixologist) as Rising Stars.
CultureMap caught up with Blunt from his office in New York, where he confided what surprised him about Houston, what he thinks great food cities have in common (hint: Houston has it in spades) and what he looks for in a Rising Star.
CultureMap: You've said in your editor's letter that your visit to Houston was overdue. What made you finally decide to bring Rising Stars here?
Will Blunt: Well, we started Rising Stars travels in 2002 and we've been to other cities — multiple times in some cases — and there was an obvious "It's time we visit Houston." We had a certain amount of social media folks in town in the industry reaching out and saying "Come visit us," so there was a groundswell and research confirmed that there was a lot of stuff happening.
CM: What were you expecting to find, and what surprised you?
WB: To be perfectly honest I didn't have high expectations. I withhold judgment but if I had to guess I wouldn't have expected the level of sophistication and depth and breadth. I was surprised by the level of quality on average, there were very few bad or sub-par tastings.
Feast was a surprise, that we would encounter a restaurant like Feast in Houston. I didn't expect the depth of the cocktail sophistication and culture. There is a tight group that's at a very high level in quality and sophistication.
I was impressed by the style of the food, there's no one style, as it should be for big cosmopolitan city that has different cultures. Houston is about different food styles, a lot of talking advantage of the coast, which I guess is completely obvious if you're here but from an East Coast perspective you don't really think about that, you think more of New Orleans or Vancouver as being on the coast and really integral, even though I knew Houston was a port town.
CM: You talked a bit about the connection between Houston and New Orleans, and described Houston cuisine as the "new creole." What does that mean to you?
WB: That's something that during my visits I was just really hit over the head with, that Houston-New Orleans connection. That was not an idea I had ahead of time. We interview all the chefs, and whether it's someone that worked at Brennan's, or from New Orleans or a Katrina thing, it had an interplay.
In terms of "new creole," I think the idea is trying to understand big explosion. Clearly your restaurant scene has blown up but in terms of independent chefs it's really exploded and we're analyzing what are the conditions for that. New Orleans had its great blossoming, its mix of cultures, and everything cultures bring — traditions of cuisine, flavors, all that passion — combined with what New Orleans also had, which was commerce and money, frankly, to support evolution in cuisine.
It doesn't just happen. Chefs need support to be able to explore and grow.
Markets that have less resources tend to stick to traditions in that market and don't branch out. Dining support translates, if you look at New York, Spain with Ferran Adrià and now Scandinavia, London — where you see food advancing and becoming big they have diner support, which gives chefs the ability to evolve. And I don't just mean things like molecular gastronomy. It can be different kind of comfort food, or anything.
CM: What makes Houston dining unique, for you?
WB: A big thing food in general is time and place. Not just local because it's more than just local, it's what is special to where you are, where you're cooking and what makes it distinctive. Houston has a lot going for it being Third Coast, a lot of ingredients and in terms of time and place. Ethnic cuisines, like the Vietnamese community, for example, how present they are and able to have an influence and contribute to this mix.
Houston has a lot of these with qualities make for a great food town in spades. That's what makes Houston stick out, it's kind of a perfect storm with all these ingredients, as much as any other city in terms of where it was and where it's going.
CM: What do you look for in a Rising Star?
WB: When we choose a Rising Star, tasting their food and interviewing them with food and a cocktail or wine pairing is the starting point. You can't win Rising Star unless the product you are serving is top notch on a national level. Then we look for leadership.
We're also speculating on the future of food in the city, how you grow within your restaurant and support people in kitchen. Mentoring is huge for us, owning your own restaurant, being involved in the community. Randy [Evans] is a good example, being engaged, inviting kids to teach about food systems. It's policy and advocacy — we like to describe it as seeing beyond the four walls of the kitchen. So once we decide the food is strong enough, what wins the award is who they are and how they fit into the patchwork in the market.
It's a tough industry and that can be a great thing — it's passion-driven. But the reality is there are low margins and high mortality rates, and we want to pick people who will stay in the industry because the restaurant industry has few Mark Coxes or Claire Smiths or Robert Del Grandes that stay for decades to be leaders and create opportunities. If you fast forward five or 10 years I'd like to think the Rising Stars have spread their wings, some or all are recognized on national level beyond us and that they have moved the Houston scene forward.
CM: You also feature a "dish that clinched it" for each chef. Do you see any commonalities among them?
WB: I would say there is a unifying satisfaction, a comfort factor. If you look across all the dishes, chicken-fried livers from Randy [Evans] or even uni chawanmushi from Hori [at Kata Robata], venison from David [Grossman], maple porridge with foraged mushrooms, all these dishes have this southern but not really southern take in terms of cuisine. Shrimp and grits with white cheddar polenta, for example.
There's not a lot of crazy conceptual dishes that are just about flavors. They all have a satisfaction component — that's great, that's what food should be about.
One of the things I like about Houston in general is the kind of thing Bobby [Heugel] does at Anvil. There's a lot of national-level quality being done in terms of mixology or food but it doesn't come wrapped in pretension. I think that this is a nice community of mutually-supported chefs comfortable with their diners and vice versa. Maybe because there hasn't been a lot of outside exposure chefs are true and honest about having an emotional connection to diners not aspiring to be X, Y or Z.
I didn't get a lot of inauthentic dishes that seemed like a reach. There's a laid-back disposition, I think that's true in general of where the best food is going. A laid-back, comfortable atmosphere and great food are not mutually exclusive.
CM: You've said every city has its opportunities and its challenges. What are challenges for Houston in terms of dining?
WB: A Houston challenge ... I don't know. I can't really think of any. It's a great city to be a chef in.