The time has come to salute the chefs that we think will be leading Houston’s culinary scene in the years. Presenting the nominees for the 2022 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Rising Star Chef of the Year.
Admittedly, the distinction between “Rising Star” and “Chef of the Year” comes down more to feel than any specific criteria. Almost all of this year’s nominees lead their kitchens. Some even own or are partners in the businesses where they work. They’re slightly less established than their more senior counterparts.
Significantly, four pairs of chefs are nominated for their teamwork at multiple restaurant; a recognition that the challenges of running a kitchen might be a little easier when the burden is shared with a like-minded partner. Beyond that, all of this nominees boast first-rate training at top restaurants both in Houston and beyond. The city’s culinary scene benefits from their decisions to bring their collective talents here.
Who will win? Find out May 25 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 now.
Javier Beccera and Erico “Rico” Mackins - Degust
When it comes to creating an expertly crafted tasting menu, sometimes two heads are better than one. Drawing upon their experiences at some of Houston’s finest restaurants — places like BCN, Coltivare, and Nobie’s — Beccera and Mackins combine Spanish, Mexican, and Southern flavors with Japanese techniques to produce stunning plates that riff on classic dishes like duck with mole and cochinita pibil. A recently introduced brunch menu promises to take diners far beyond the world of Benedicts and mimosas. No wonder Esquire named Degust to its list of the country’s top new restaurants.
Lung Ly and Jeff Potts - 93’ Til
These two chefs bring a diverse array of experiences to this industry favorite, Japanese-inspired record bar in Montrose. Owner Ly’s resume includes Houston sushi restaurants along with work for some of the best chefs in Portland, OR and New York City; executive chef Potts comes to the restaurant after well-regarded stints working for Chris Shepherd and at Shun Japanese Kitchen. Working together, they've ensured that 93’ Til’s eclectic menu — a mix of vegetable-forward shareable plates and entrees that draw upon a mix of influences as diverse as Houston — has been winning an ever-growing number of fans.
Benchawan Painter - Street to Kitchen
Known as “Chef G” to friends and regulars, this Thai native blends the culinary traditions she learned from her family with professional experience at restaurants like SaltAir Seafood Kitchen and Theodore Rex. The result is "unapologetically Thai" dishes that utilize locally-sourced ingredients such as Thai krapow basil from local urban farm Plant It Forward. On Friday and Saturday nights, chef G serves can’t miss specials that utilize everything from Texas wagyu steak to freshly caught Gulf fish and the most intriguing seasonal produce. For those in the know, they are can’t miss culinary events.
Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee - Kokoro/Handies Douzo
These two Uchi veterans are elevating sushi in Houston. After bursting onto the scene with their Secret Taste pop-up, they’ve won fans with their creative nigiri at Kokoro and their crispy hand rolls at Handies Douzo. Soon, they’ll step things up at Aiko, a restaurant on Washington Ave. that will combine the best of both concepts. If their past history is any indication, diners can be certain that caviar will be prominently involved in the new restaurant's dishes.
Chris Roy - Winnie's
Working in partnership with his colleagues from Bernadine’s, chef Graham Laborde and Johnny’s Gold Brick owner Benjy Mason, Roy leads the confident kitchen at this Cajun-inspired sandwich shop and bar in Midtown. Fans know that classics like the signature Peacemaker po’ boy will also arrive with expertly fried shrimp and oysters and that the gumbo will always have a depth of flavor that comes with slow cooking. Roy really shines with Winnie’s more playful dishes such as a Taco Bell/KFC-inspired fried chicken crunch wrap or a BLT katsu sando made with thick cut, fried bacon and pickled green tomatoes.
Willow Villarreal and Jasmine Barela - J-Bar-M Barbecue
The pitmaster and his chef fiancee have made the EaDo barbecue joint one of Houston’s most talked about new arrivals. As seen on Top Chef, Villarreal shows a deft touch with his smoker, turning out all the Texas staples as well as specials like smoked burgers and prime rib; Barela oversees a diverse collection of sides that range from traditional favorites like potato salad and mac and cheese to spicy creamed corn and Mexican-style charro beans. She’s also responsible for the desserts that include a craveable banana pudding and cinnamon rolls that are big enough to feed four people. With those kind of results, it’s no wonder that J-Bar-M owners the Toomey family trusted them to run the kitchen at this ultra-ambitious project.
Chase Voelz - Bludorn
With chef-owner Aaron Bludorn preparing to open his new seafood restaurant Navy Blue later this year, chef de cuisine Voelz becomes an even more important part of Bludorn restaurant’s success. In addition to working alongside chef Bludorn at New York’s Cafe Boulud, Voelz honed his chops at restaurants like Roister in Chicago and Husk in Nashville. Those skills are why specials like the prime rib and recently-introduced fried chicken are so consistently well executed, and they ensure that Bludorn will operate at a high level even when chef Bludorn has to divide his time between two concepts.
Niki Vongthong - Hidden Omakase
After working at both Uchi and Aqui, Vongthong left Houston to open at an omakase restaurant in Thailand. As the chef recently explained on CultureMap’s “What’s Eric Eating” podcast, all of those experiences are reflected in her efforts to create the “perfect bites” that form the courses served at Hidden Omakase. Recently, she’s expanded her repertoire by adding dry-aged fish to the menu and incorporating her Thai roots with dishes like a duck larb hand roll and a pumpkin custard dessert.
LJ Wiley - Trattoria Sofia
The chef may best be known locally for the Mexican food he served at Yelapa Playa Mexicana and his Taco Nuts food truck, but Wiley’s diverse training includes working for top chefs like Jean Georges Vongerichten in New York and Stanley Wong in Macau. In order words, he's more than qualified to lead an Italian restaurant, too. At Trattoria Sofia, he oversees a wide-ranging, Italian-inspired menu of freshly made pastas, wood-fired pizzas, classics like frito misto and chicken parmigiana, and more. His confident cooking and friendly demeanor have contributed to the success of owner Ben Berg's latest endeavor.