chefs of the year
Houston's 10 best chefs cook up ingenuity and creativity in 2020
With the 2020 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards — Virtual Edition set to take place on Thursday, August 6, the time has come for the final group of nominees — the candidates for chef of the year. These 10 talented individuals have been selected by our panel of judges as the best of Houston's culinary scene.
Not only do they raise the bar for dining in Houston, but they also contribute to the community in myriad ways. For example, Ryan Lachaine supported the Lee Initiative's efforts to provide food and supplies to unemployed hospitality workers, and the team at Nancy's Hustle has raised money in supporting of organizations fighting for racial justice.
At a time when restaurants have been challenged by the coronavirus pandemic, they've figured out how to translate their food to-go and operate for dine-in while keeping their staffs and customers safe. Their struggles aren't unique to these restaurants, but hopefully their creative solutions help inspire their peers.
Who will win? Find out Thursday night during the Tastemaker Awards — Virtual Edition. In lieu of our live tasting event, guests will receive an exclusive Tasting Tote. And, of course, attendees have access to the star of the show: our awards ceremony hosted by Bun B and streamed on CultureMap at 7 pm.
Austin Simmons - Tris/Cureight
Simmons and his talented crew developed a rigorous response to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. Because the restaurant’s usual fare of hamachi sashimi and crab and truffle pasta wouldn't translate as to-go fare, the chef offer his take on dishes like wagyu fajitas and lasagna that satisfied people’s cravings for comforting, familiar fare. Prior to the spread of COVID-19, Simmons helped pioneer the Heartbrand X program, giving Tris a beef offering that stands out from other restaurants.
Bobby Matos - State of Grace/La Lucha
Both of these restaurants may look the same, but Matos has changed up the menus at both establishments he leads on behalf of Atlanta-based chef Ford Fry. State of Grace remains anchored in seasonal menus, but Matos has put the wood-fired hearth to use with an expanded selection of steaks. La Lucha’s fried chicken remains destination worthy, but a new menu features an expanded selection of seafood that includes a can’t-miss dish of snapper collars with salsa verde. With Fry set to add a fourth restaurant to his Houston presence, expect Matos to add even more responsibilities to his plate.
Drake Leonards - Eunice
With a resume that includes New York’s Café Boulud as well as New Orleans restaurants Luke and August, Leonards has plenty of technical skills to prepare Eunice’s elevated Creole fare. That gets mixed with his own sense of hospitality — after all, the restaurant is named for Leonards’ hometown. A jovial presence in the dining room, customers will find Leonards greeting newcomers like regulars and regulars like old friends, always making sure they order signature dishes like the burrata with pepper jelly and caviar or the roasted oysters with blue crab.
Jason Vaughan - Nancy's Hustle
The chef brought back the experiences he gained working for Chicago’s Hogsalt Hospitality to the EaDo bistro that’s essentially been a smash hit from day one, landing on Esquire’s list of the best restaurants of the decade and earning a James Beard semifinalist nomination along the way. Dishes like Nancy Cakes and Turkish-inspired manti dumplings (ordered together so frequently the staff calls it the fabuloso) shine due to precise technique and carefully-selected ingredients, but Vaughan, working with co-founder Sean Jensen and pastry chef Julia Doran, have created a welcoming culture that has drawn culinary talent from across the city — some of whom will soon be deployed at Tiny Champions, the group's eagerly anticipated pizza restaurant. Nancy's may only be open for to-go, but Vaughan and have team keep diners coming back for more with a mix of staples (the classic Nancy’s burger) and clever one-offs ranging from an Indian-inspired vegetarian feast to a steakhouse menu complete with shrimp cocktail.
Jonny Rhodes - Indigo
If this article opted to cast the nominees as Hamilton characters, is there any doubt that Rhodes would have the title role (at least through the end of Act I)? A military veteran who built his restaurant with his own hands — and without assistance from outside investors — Rhodes blended the knowledge he gained cooking at Oxheart with his own studies at UH Downtown to open Indigo in a part of Houston that’s not known for fine dining. Still, no one could deny his talent, and he became a star, earning a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination in 2019. While the historical figure met an untimely end, Rhodes seems poised for a dramatic second act that will see him pivot away from running a restaurant to devote his energies to a grocery store and farm that will supply fresh, wholesome food to his community.
Justin Yu - Better Luck Tomorrow/Squable/Theodore Rex
This year’s nomination finds the James Beard Award winner at a transitional moment in his career. He’s assigned day-to-day kitchen operations at all three concepts to a promising group of rising stars — all of whom are also Tastemaker Award nominees — but can still be found at any (or all) of them on a given night. Yu has always been a quiet presence in the kitchen, but he’s starting to let him more of a sense of humor show both on Instagram and in his recent menu that paid homage to Houston’s. While Penny Quarter didn’t survive the pandemic, hopefully the satisfying, vegetable-forward menu he created for it will find another home in the future.
Kaiser Lashkari - Himalaya
As his continued nominations in this category demonstrate, Lashkari’s relentless culinary curiosity has earned him the respect of his peers. While any of the menus staples — chicken hara masala, hunter’s beef, steak tikka, biryani, etc. — are a sufficient reason to visit his restaurant, Lashkari continues to find new sources of inspiration. On Facebook, the chef has contemplated a masala-spiced take on chicken and waffles or biscuits and gravy. Whatever he comes up with, count on it luring Himalaya’s legion of fans to make their next visits.
Martin Stayer - Nobie's/The Toasted Coconut/Quiote
Last year’s opening of The Toasted Coconut and its companion pozole bar Quiote provided diners more insight into the breadth of Stayer’s talents. Sure, Houstonians knew he could make pasta, but who knew that his dough skills extended to dumplings? Like Nobie’s, The Toasted Cocount’s light-hearted homage to tiki culture doesn’t take itself too seriously, but the execution of the food, which ranges from precisely-fried, Sichuan-spiced fried chicken to a classic greasy-in-a-good-way cheeseburger, demonstrates focus and discipline. Wait, does that make Stayer the John Wick of Houston chefs?
Mike Tran - Tiger Den/Ohn Korean/Night Market/Ishin Udon/Mein/Toukei Izakaya
Since opening Tiger Den in 2013, Tran has been on a non-stop quest to bring the flavors of different East Asian countries to Houston. Whether feasting on Cantonese comfort food at Mein or Japanese bar snacks at Toukei, diners have come to rely on the chef’s concepts that take their inspiration from his wide-ranging travels. In the coming months, the chef will turn his attention to Vietnam with Chom Chom, a new pub concept that will open next to Tiger Den. We can’t wait.
Ryan Lachaine - Riel
The chef who reminded Houstonians that pierogi are delicious remains a vital presence in Houston’s culinary landscape. One bite of Lachaine’s cabbage rolls provides sufficient proof that seeking inspiration from his Ukranian heritage continues to be a productive vein. His affection for classic Americana, whether they’re last year’s smash hit butter burgers or the recently introduced chicken parm and filet-of-fish sandwiches, demonstrate that the hockey-player-turned-chef still has plenty of culinary tricks up his sleeve. On a lighter note, Lachaine's uncensored commentary has made him a fan favorite on CultureMap's "What's Eric Eating" podcast.