Only two chefs overlap between last year’s nominees for Chef of the Year and this year’s 10 finalists. No, it’s not that anyone got worse or did anything wrong.
Rather, it’s about all of the things this year’s nominees did to stand out. Four of them — Brandon Silva, Kaitlin Steets, Mark Clayton, and Nick Wong — graduated out of the Rising Star category and into this one. Others asserted themselves during the pandemic through their service to the community and their commitments to their staffs.
Of course, they all serve excellent food at restaurants that offer hospitality to match, and they successfully navigated the challenges of operating during a global pandemic. That’s how they earned the attention of our judges’ panel of restaurants industry insiders.
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.
Aaron Bludorn - Bludorn
Few chefs have made a bigger splash in a shorter amount of time than Aaron Bludorn has on Houston. Despite opening Bludorn in the middle of a pandemic, this veteran of New York’s Michelin-starred Cafe Boulud and the Netflix competition series The Final Table has played to (socially distanced) capacity crowds since day one. While certain menu items like the oysters, burger, and signature lobster pot pie have remained staples, Bludorn has show that most preparations will be updated with seasonal ingredients that keep each dish as fresh and flavorful as possible.
Anita Jaisinghani - Pondicheri Café
The veteran chef celebrated Pondicheri’s 10th anniversary earlier this year, a testament to how her restaurant has become a local staple. While Jaisinghani has long been interested in healthy eating, she stepped up during the pandemic by keeping Pondicheri’s dining room closed longer than most restaurants and utilizing changes in city regulations to expand her patio. Her relentless creativity and unwavering commitment to utilizing locally-sourced ingredients means diners will always find something new to try on Pondicheri’s menu.
Brandon Silva - Degust/The Kirby Group
Like an actor who takes a break from making superhero movies to perform in a play off-Broadway, Silva realized his passion project by opening Degust earlier this year. With elements that draw upon his Mexican heritage, his time growing up in Houston, and his stages at restaurants across the U.S. and Europe, Degust offers Silva’s highly personal take on how to eat well (it involves freshly made masa, Gulf seafood, and plenty of uni). Beyond the intricately executed dishes, Degust’s design features elements from Silva’s hobbies, and of course the former DJ picked every track of the bumping playlist.
Chris Williams - Lucille's Hospitality Group
Feeding Joe Biden and George Floyd’s family may be Williams’ most public accomplishment, but he made an ever more lasting contribution to Houston by establishing the Lucille’s 1913 non-profits that’s served hundreds of thousands meals to hungry Houstonians. With the establishment of Lucille’s Hospitality Group, Williams has positioned himself to grow with new concepts, including Late August, his eagerly anticipated collaboration with Top Chef finalist Dawn Burrell. Of course, Lucille’s remains one of Houston’s best Southern-inspired restaurants.
Kaitlin Steets - Littlefoot/Theodore Rex
The chef had already earned fans for her work at Theodore Rex, but this spring’s French-inspired Littlefoot pop-up demonstrated she’s a chef who’s capable of running her own restaurant. Each course demonstrated precise cooking and a high regard for ingredients, two staples of the T. Rex experience.
“Every praise she got she deserved,” Theodore Rex chef-owner Justin Yu said about Steets. “I expect her to do big things in the future.”
We do, too.
Luis Roger - BCN/MAD
Little about the reserved, understated atmosphere at BCN could have prepared people for the over-the-top atmosphere of MAD, but anyone who’s been to both can sense the two are connected. Credit for that goes to executive chef and partner Roger, who brings traditional flavors and ingredients from his homeland to Houston. Roger may be a jovial presence in the dining room, but the seriousness he brings to his work is reflected in the consistency of both of his kitchens.
Mark Clayton - Squable
While Squable has always been a satisfying place to dine throughout its two years of operations, credit Clayton for always making it a little better. Clayton has a quiet demeanor, but his food does plenty of talking. Squable’s menu will always be broadly European, but recent additions such as radiatore pasta with crawfish and sweet corn and summer melon with blistered shisitos show that it remains firmly grounded in the Gulf Coast, too.
Martin Stayer - Nobie's/The Toasted Coconut
The chef responded to the challenges of the pandemic in a variety of ways — for example, both of his restaurants take reservations now — but his commitment to providing his staff with a safe place to work never wavered. Stayer continues to show a willingness to experiment with new ideas, whether that’s taco Tuesday at Toasted Coconut or the one-off specials that add excitement to every visit to Nobie’s. As the restaurant likes to say on social media, why not get high and stop on by to try his latest creations?
Nick Wong - UB Preserv
Earlier this year, Chris Shepherd elevated Wong from chef de cuisine to executive chef; the title bump made official what had long been obvious — UB Preserv is Nick Wong’s restaurant. The chef employed a number of techniques to keep UB Preserv afloat during the pandemic, such as weekly pop-ups on different themes (British pub, Chinese American, red sauce Italian) that prompted diners to stop by. Soon, the restaurant itself will get an updated interior more in line with Wong’s sensibilities; after all, it’s his restaurant.
Ryan Lachaine - Riel
As Riel approaches its five-year anniversary next year, Lachaine’s restaurant has never been better. Some credit goes to executive sous chef Peter Nguyen, who has injected some new creativity into the menu, but it still starts at the top with Lachaine’s only-in-Houston mix of Eastern European, Canadian, and Gulf Coast influences. Already adept at dividing his time between Houston and a hotel a project in Nashville, could the time be right to unleash a second Houston project?