Time now to consider the CultureMap Houston Tastemaker Awards Chef of the Year nominees. These are the men and women who lead some of the city's most dynamic kitchens. Collectively, they've earned national press and possess Michelin-starred resumes, which is why our group of restaurant industry insiders has nominated them for the award.
Of course, in a city bursting with so much culinary talent, choices have to be made. These seven nominees are all outstanding, but, realistically, we could swap them out and have an almost equally accomplished group.
Come celebrate all of our nominees at the Tastemaker Awards party Wednesday May 13. Advance tickets have sold out, but 50 general admission tickets will be available at the door.
Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan, The Pass & Provisions
Known affectionately around town as the Tweezer Twins for their attention to detail, Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan have already earned recognition from their Tastemakers panel when The Pass & Provisions won Restaurant of the Year in 2014. Now they're up in the chef category, where the committee recognizes the difficulty of keeping both concepts operating at a high level. The Pass features both a vegetarian and an omnivore menu that changes about four times per year, while Provisions makes some seasonal adjustments of its own.
On any given night, diners will find both chefs in the kitchen working with their cooks to turn out each plate of food. It's sort of refreshing to see Gallivan tending the oven and making each pizza or order of shisito peppers. No wonder they picked up their first James Beard semifinalist nomination this year.
Jose Hernandez, Radio Milano
Diners familiar with Jose Hernandez's work at Philippe, La Balance and Etoile know the man is fluent in French cuisine, but, at Radio Milano, he shows he's equally adept at Italian cooking and taking on the challenge of proving that an independent restaurant can thrive at chain-loving CityCentre. The chef seems to have found a permanent home, and his handmade pastas have won raves from diners and critics alike.
Sample the full range of his skills with a multi-course tasting menu that features items that aren't on the regular menu; he's even dabbled in reviving aspic. Look for it to evolve as Hernandez builds a rapport with his new customers.
Manabu Horiuchi, Kata Robata
If a chef's chef is the person who prepares the food other chefs most like to eat, then Manabu Horiuchi is Houston's cheffiest chef. From his post at the sushi counter at Kata Robata, Hori-san (as he's universally known) serves a who's who of Houston's top culinary talent screamingly fresh seafood in simple ways that subtly enhance each fish's natural flavor.
Next month, we'll get to see the non-sushi side of Hori-san's skillset when he and chef Philippe Gaston launch Izakaya in Midtown. Expect raw items, small plates and innovative cocktails. And, of course, a lot of chefs in the dining room.
Bobby Matos, Ciao Bello
As the executive chef of Tony Vallone's casual, neighborhood restaurant, Bobby Matos is responsible for upholding the same standards as at fine dining restaurant Tony's and west Houston steakhouse Vallone's. Even though Ciao Bello is more affordable than those restaurants, Matos consistently delivers well-executed cuisine that respects Italian traditions while appealing to local diners. The butternut squash pansoti is one of the city's best pasta dishes, and the thin, Roman-style pizzas are a legitimate deal on Sunday evenings when they only cost $10.
Matos collaborates directly with Vallone on special wine dinners that highlight the cuisine of one region of Italy. Diners also got to see another side of the chef's skills at a Kipper Club dinner in November where he united with Rising Star chef nominee Patrick Feges and fellow Chef of the Year nominee Erin Smith for a smoke-filled, sold out extravaganza.
Ryan Pera, Coltivare
At Coltivare, Ryan Pera has brought the same respect for ingredients that he established at Revival Market to an Italian-inspired menu of wood fired pizzas, wood roasted meats and produce sourced from the restaurant's 3,000 square-foot garden. In the year since it opened, Coltivare has become a legitimate destination for the Heights and beyond.
This week Pera will oversee Revival's transition to a full-service restaurant with the launch of dinner service that trades on strengths in charcuterie, seasonal salads and high-quality proteins. Soon, he and partner Morgan Weber will offer some ideas about a modern ice house at 8-Row Flint.
Erin Smith, Main Kitchen
During stints at both Plonk! Bistro and as a culinary director the Clumsy Butcher group, Erin Smith established her reputation for carefully prepared cuisine that respected both local and seasonal concerns. As chef for the restaurant within the high profile JW Marriott hotel downtown, Smith brings those same values, along with her resume as a veteran of Thomas Keller's New York restaurant Per Se, to an effort to create a hotel restaurant that attracts local diners as well as guests. It's a colossal undertaking, but one Smith has risen to meet. The result is a modern, steakhouse-style menu with pizzas, hearty vegetable dishes and enough red meat to keep business travelers happy.
Justin Yu, Oxheart
Houston may having the reputation of being a meat-and-potatoes kind of place, but Justin Yu has spent three years teaching us to eat our vegetables — and the results have been delicious. Perhaps no chef in Houston is more obsessed with sourcing the best possible ingredients than Yu, which is why he's been named a Food & Wine best new chef, earned two finalists nominations for the James Beard Award: Best Chef Southwest and landed a coveted slot as one of two Houston representatives on the Eater National list of the country's 38 most essential restaurants. Yu even got to grow a little bit this year by introducing Oxheart-style bar snacks at Public Services Wine & Whisky, the downtown concept he co-owns with sommelier Justin Vann. If only he'd resurrect the Moneycat brunch.