In the world of Houston restaurants, collaboration dinners have become one way for chefs to express their admiration for the work of others and to entice diners to spend a little more than usual on a one-off meal. Whether it’s Truth Barbecue pitmaster-owner Leonard Botello IV serving smoked prime rib at Bludorn or Austin Simmons inviting BCN’s Luis Roger to Tris in The Woodlands, a collaboration is sure to fill a dining room.
Eculent chef-owner David Skinner and Street to Kitchen chef-owner Benchawan Painter (known to friends and fans as Chef G) have something a little more permanent in mind. Instead of a one night only collaboration dinner, they’re opening a collaboration restaurant they’re calling The Preserve at Eculent.
Slated to open in December in another part of the same Kemah property Eculent occupies, The Preserve will be a tapas-style concept that blends Painter’s Thai cooking with dishes by Skinner, some of which will be inspired by his great grandmother’s Choctaw heritage. As its name implies, many of the dishes will utilize preservation techniques that both chefs utilize such as fermentation and dry-aging. Certain Thai dishes utilize some chiles and other ingredients that are native to America, which will allow the chefs to explore the intersection between Thai and Native American cooking.
“It’s basically going to be a Thai-tapas restaurant,” Skinner tells CultureMap. “It will be small bites, but all really unique and curated with an experience. It will be a combination of G’s stuff and my stuff, but with an interesting spin. And crazy, out-of-this-world drinks, because that has to go with it.”
Painter and her husband Graham opened Street to Kitchen in the summer of 2020 in a small space that shares a property with a gas station and convenience. Despite the unlikely location, she’s earned raves for her self-described “unapologetically Thai” cuisine, including winning both Restaurant of the Year and Rising Star Chef of the Year in the 2022 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards.
Eculent has earned similar raves. Known for serving as many as 30 courses over a three-plus hour tasting, Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema ranked the restaurant on a similar level with Michelin-starred establishments such as Chicago’s Alinea and Minibar in Washington, D.C.
The chefs met at the Truffle Masters event in 2020; from there, the duo have developed a professional friendship based on mutual admiration. Painter has celebrated her last two birthdays with meals at Eculent, and Skinner can frequently be found dining at Street to Kitchen.
“I love the techniques he uses. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s amazing,” chef Painter says about Skinner. “I feel like he’s so sweet. I’m still young, and I can learn a lot from him about food and techniques. I feel really comfortable when I’m here [at Eculent].”
With Street to Kitchen operating smoothly — it recently suspended lunch service and began offering wine and beer to pair with its cuisine — the couple began to contemplate opening a second concept. Working with Skinner allows them to grow without taking on all of the risk themselves.
“We don’t want to lose Street to Kitchen. We don’t want to jump too far too fast,” Graham Painter says.
“It’s starting to run pretty well. There’s things we can do better, business-wise, but if it can be more self-sufficient that frees her up to team up with chef David and start a new adventure.”
Skinner says he gets inquiries every week from diners who want him to open somewhere that’s a little close to the middle of Houston, but he likes where he is. He’d been developing the space that will be The Preserve for another project, but couldn’t resist the chance to collaborate with Painter.
“I thought this would make it a lot more fun,” Skinner says. “You can tell we like each other. If you don’t have a good partnership, it doesn’t end well.”