Houston Tastemaker Awards 2021
Rising Star Chefs of the Year

These 11 rising star chefs truly shine in Houston's dynamic dining scene

These 11 rising star chefs truly shine in Houston's dining scene

Christine Ha Tony Nguyen Xin Chao
Christine Ha and Tony Nguyen - Xin Chao. Photo by John Suh/Xin Chao
Michelle Wallace Gatlin's BBQ
Michelle Wallace - Gatlin's BBQ. Photo by Darren Lafferty
AJ Ede Brasil
AJ Ede - Brasil. Photo by Kirsten Gilliam
Niki Vongthong Hidden Omakase
Niki Vongthong - Hidden Omakase. Courtesy of Hidden Omakase
Travis McShane Ostia restaurant
Travis McShane - Ostia. Photo by Lauren DeFrehn
Street to Kitchen chef Benchawan Painter
Benchawan Painter - Street to Kitchen. Photo by Kirsten Gilliam
Chase Voelz Bludorn
Chase Voelz - Bludorn. Photo by Julie Soefer
Cuc Lam Yelo
Cuc Lam - Yelo. Photo by Kimberly Park
Peter Nguyen Riel restaurant
Peter Nguyen - Riel. Photo by Leah Wilson
Jordan Economy Dak & Bop
Jordan Economy - Dak & Bop. Courtesy of Dak & Bop
Christine Ha Tony Nguyen Xin Chao
Michelle Wallace Gatlin's BBQ
AJ Ede Brasil
Niki Vongthong Hidden Omakase
Travis McShane Ostia restaurant
Street to Kitchen chef Benchawan Painter
Chase Voelz Bludorn
Cuc Lam Yelo
Peter Nguyen Riel restaurant
Jordan Economy Dak & Bop

Presenting the nominees for the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Rising Star Chef of the Year. As selected by our panel of restaurant industry experts, these are the culinary minds to watch in the future. 

Collectively, these 11 nominees represent a diverse array of influences, experiences, and culinary perspectives, but they are united by a relentless spirit of creativity that’s pushing Houston’s dining scene forward. Fittingly for a city as diverse as Houston, their work covers genres that range from barbecue and burgers to elevated tasting menus.

Look for them at their restaurants; most importantly, try their food. The results of their work speak for themselves.

Who will win? Find out July 22 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

AJ Ede - Brasil
Brasil has been a Montrose staple for close to 30 years, but it’s never exactly been known as a food destination — until chef Ede took over the kitchen. A veteran of some famous New York kitchens (he doesn’t like to name drop them), Ede knows that even casual food benefits from good ingredients and precise technique, as in his Cheeseburger in Paradise that lifts up a double cheeseburger with 44 Farms beef and a housemade jalapeno sauce or the weekly specials that utilize seasonal produce. Beyond the dishes he creates, Ede also serves as a mentor for Brasil’s cooks, teaching them the skills they’ll need to further their careers.

Benchawan Painter - Street to Kitchen
After working at Salt Air Seafood Kitchen and Theodore Rex, chef Benchawan Painter turned the following she developed with pop-up dinners and a weekly presence at the Urban Harvest Farmers Market into a well-regarded new restaurant in the East End. Known to friends and diners as "Chef G," her “unapologetically Thai” dishes blend family recipes with carefully selected local ingredients, as in Thai krapow basil from local urban farm Plant It Forward. Street to Kitchen’s recent launch of dine-in service should allow Painter to showcase even more of her talents.

Chase Voelz - Bludorn
One of the reasons Bludorn has been such a smash hit since day one is its rock solid consistency, which is a testament to the skills and discipline of both chef-owner Aaron Bludorn and chef de cuisine Chase Voelz. After working for chef Bludorn at New York’s acclaimed Cafe Boulud, Voelz spent time at Roister in Chicago where he learned the techniques necessary to prepare the prime rib that has become one of Bludorn’s must-order specials. As chef Bludon begins to travel to culinary events, count on Voelz to serve as the steady hand who keeps the kitchen operating smoothly.

Christine Ha & Tony Nguyen - Xin Chao
Having established their reputations separately — Nguyen at Viet-Cajun restaurant Saigon House and Ha as a Masterchef winner and James Beard Award nominee for The Blind Goat — the two chefs teamed to create one of 2020’s most exciting new restaurants. Xin Chao mixes traditional Vietnamese flavors with Texas touches in dishes such as bo luc lac with American wagyu beef, smoked duck salad, and flat rice noodles paired with smoked beef rib. Recent additions like soft shell crab with tamarind gastrique demonstrate that this dynamic duo is just getting started.

Cuc Lam - Yelo
"The only person I would consider is Cuc Lam," her business partner Alex Au-Yeung said when they announced Yelo last year. "If she wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t do it." 

Clearly, Au-Yeung knows how to pick a collaborator — just ask all the people flocking to Katy to sample Lam’s creative banh mi. The chef nails both the classic varieties and puts her own spin on the form with new tastes like the "Pho-Rench Dip" with pho vegetables and dipping sauce and an innovative take on Vietnamese meatballs (xiu mai) that carry the flavors of Chinese BBQ.

Jordan Economy - Dak & Bop
From fine dining to food trucks, this chef has worked at just about every class of restaurant, but Economy seems to have found a home at this Korean restaurant. Working in collaboration with owner Jason Cho, Economy’s kitchen turns out creative mashups that blend Southern, Italian, Korean, and other flavors to create dishes such as a bulgogi French dip, smoked kimchi fried rice, and a Nashville hot tofu sammy. Economy will take another step forward later this year when Cho and his business partners open Karne, a modern take on a Korean steakhouse.

Michelle Wallace - Gatlin's BBQ
If Wallace had done nothing else than create the smoked seafood gumbo that occasionally shows up on the Gatlin’s menu, it would have been enough to earn this nomination. Add in the restaurant’s creative sandwiches, first weekend catfish specials, and other innovative fare, and it’s easy to see why her culinary partnership with Gatlin’s pitmaster-owner Greg Gatlin is generating so much buzz. As the Gatlin’s brand grows beyond barbecue, Wallace will have an even more essential role to play.

Niki Vongthong - Hidden Omakase
The talented chef started turning heads during stints at Uchi and Aqui, but she really came into her own over the past year. Her Sen pop-up — named for the word that means “noodles” in Thai and Lao — showcased her ability to create traditional Thai dishes like boat noodles and larb, fitting for a member of the family that established legendary Houston restaurant Asia Market. Vongthong took over the kitchen at Hidden Omakase in March, where she’s been hosting sold out seatings for 12-plus course tastings that bring all of her influences together.

Peter Nguyen - Riel
After working for some of the best chefs in Boston, Nguyen is making his mark on Ryan Lachaine’s Montrose restaurant. The chef is responsible for some of the menu’s most exciting new dishes like the honey walnut crawfish that puts a Texas spin on the Cantonese classic. Nguyen’s steady presence in the kitchen also allows Lachaine to supervise his restaurant at the Virgin Hotels Nashville with the confidence that Riel is in good hands.

Travis McShane - Ostia
The Kingwood native spent 10 years working for celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman in New York and Nashville before coming home to open his first solo project. At Ostia, McShane showcases the Mediterranean flavors he loves — including his version of Waxman’s celebrated roast chicken with salsa verde — made with ingredients that speak to the season. McShane’s homecoming has been a smash hit, and we can’t wait to see what he does next.