The 11 finalists for the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Chef of the Year are a distinguished group.
The James Beard Foundation selected five of this year’s nominees as semifinalists for its Best Chef: Texas award. Two more own a barbecue restaurant selected by Texas Monthly as one of the state’s 50 best.
Not that they need any acclaim beyond being selected by our judges’ panel of local restaurant industry experts as standing out from their peers. Of course, they serve excellent food, but they’ve also demonstrated leadership in both their businesses and the larger community.
We’ll reveal the winners this Wednesday, May 25 in a ceremony emceed by Houston hip-hop legend Bun B. Tickets are sold out (sorry), but we’ll have a full rundown of the night’s events.
Alex Au-Yeung - Phat Eatery/Yelo
More than anything, this chef seems to be having more fun at his restaurants than most people. Phat Eatery is primarily a Malaysian restaurant, but that doesn’t mean Au-Yeung can’t switch things up by adding Hong Kong-style dim sum or developing his own curry-flavored take on Viet-Cajun crawfish. When he decided to make some changes at Yelo — nominally a Vietnamese street food concept — the chef simply added some of his favorite dishes to the menu, which means diners now may opt for beef rendang in a San Francisco-style bread bowl or hand-pulled noodles (among others). No wonder the James Beard Foundation recognized him with a semifinalist nomination in the Best Chef: Texas category.
Aaron Bludorn - Bludorn
When it comes to his culinary pedigree, the chef is fond of saying “we stand on the shoulders of giants” — he said it on last week’s episode of Top Chef, for example — which seems appropriate given his lengthy tenure working for legendary French chef Daniel Boulud. To his credit, the chef also recognizes the people who are helping him operate one of Houston’s most consistently excellent restaurants. At last year’s Commune food festival, he praised the line cook who made the pasta dish he served to attendees. That sort of humility will help Bludorn attract the talent he needs as he continues to become one of Houston’s most successful chefs.
Mark Clayton - Squable
Three years in, Squable has become one a destination-worthy Houston restaurant, and its chef deserves much of the credit for that success. Clayton blends the respect for local sourcing he acquired at restaurants like Coltivare and Oxheart with classic European techniques. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Clayton’s creativity ensures the restaurant’s shareable plates, pastas, and entrees maintain their Texas ties. Then again, maybe he deserves this nomination for Squable’s utterly craveable, raclette-covered, French cheeseburger.
Patrick Feges and Erin Smith - Feges BBQ
At the Spring Branch location of their acclaimed restaurant, this husband-and-wife duo demonstrate their eclectic version of Texas barbecue. Yes, it’s grounded in well-executed versions of staples like beef brisket and pork ribs, but the menu goes far beyond traditional dishes by including Carolina-style whole hog and a range of globally inspired sides like charro beans, Moroccan-spiced carrots, and the essential spicy Korean braised greens. Smith’s wine knowledge, gained during her time working at Montrose wine bar Camerata, pairs the restaurant’s smoked meats with smart, off-beat choices that enhance their flavors.
Christine Ha and Tony Nguyen - Xin Chao
This dynamic duo — Ha is a Masterchef winner and cookbook author, while Nguyen earned local acclaim for his Viet-Cajun cuisine at Saigon House — have teamed up to offer their own perspective on the Vietnamese cuisine they grew up eating. The results yield thoughtful takes on staples like bo luc lac (made with wagyu beef) and egg rolls as well as contemporary mashups like the Viet-Cajun oysters with Nguyen’s signature H-Town Bang sauce, smoked beef cheek dumplings, fried soft shell crab with a tamarind reduction. All those good ideas earned the attention of the James Beard Foundation, which named the chefs as finalists for the first-ever Best Chef: Texas award.
Anita Jaisinghani - Pondicheri
Trends may come and go, but this veteran chef will continue to do what she always has — sharing her love for Indian flavors with Houstonians while supporting local farmers and advocating for sustainable living through quiet initiatives like Pondicheri’s popular Meatless Monday. Last year, she introduced the Dwaffle, a gluten-free, dairy-free, and fat-free take on a traditional waffle that’s still crispy, flavorful, and filling; go on Tuesday, when it’s topped with Jaisinghani’s signature fried chicken. Coming later this year is the chef’s first cookbook, Masala, which will further enhance her considerable legacy.
Bobby Matos - State of Grace/La Lucha
Hard to believe its been almost seven years since Matos opened State of Grace for Atlanta-based chef and restaurateur Ford Fry. That State of Grace continues to feel relevant is a testament to Matos’s constant menu updates that utilize seasonal ingredients to keep the pastas, starters, and sides as fresh as possible. Indeed, eagle-eyed shoppers may spot the chef carrying bountiful boxes of produce at the weekly Urban Harvest farmers market. At La Lucha, Matos’s menu will always be grounded in oysters, its essential fried chicken, and signature Pharmacy Burge, but Matos and his crew find ways to innovate there, too; for example, they recently introduced an octopus tostada that pairs the protein with avocado crema and a morita mayo for a compelling mix sweet and spicy.
Felipe Riccio - March
After working at some of Houston’s best restaurants and staging around Europe, Riccio, in partnership with master sommelier June Rodil, unveiled his Mediterranean-inspired tasting menu restaurant last year. Each of March’s biannual menus examines a different region, which means that Riccio and his team develop their menus after conducting extensive research into an area’s ingredients, techniques, and other culinary traditions. The results are precisely executed progressions that provide diners with insight into places they might not otherwise have experienced without a passport. Sourcing ingredients from Good Thyme Farm, a property owned by Riccio’s business partners Bailey and Peter McCarthy, ensures that March’s dishes have ties to Texas, too.
Nick Wong - Formerly of GJ Tavern
Admittedly, this nomination is more in recognition of prior accomplishments than present circumstances, as Wong recently departed from Chris Shepherd’s downtown restaurant. Still, the relentless creativity he displayed at UB Preserv and the enthusiasm with which he’s embraced Houston have earned Wong the respect of his peers. While food fans undoubtedly miss UB Preserv signatures like the crispy rice salad and boudin shumai, they can appreciate the sly sense of humor he displays on his Instagram stories. The chef hasn’t revealed his future plans yet, but hopefully he remains in Houston and continues to make this city a more delicious place to live in.