meet the tastemakers
Meet the 13 rising star Houston chefs heating up our vibrant restaurant scene
The time has come to begin celebrating the nominees in this year’s CultureMap Tastemaker Awards. As always, we begin with Rising Star Chef of the Year.
This category covers a diverse range of chefs. Some of this year’s nominees own and operate their own restaurants. Others work in prominent roles for some of Houston’s most dynamic restaurant groups. Some have already received regional and national attention, while others are still flying a little under the radar (but not for long).
Either way, they’re all worth getting to know, because our panel of judges think these are the chefs who will be leading Houston’s culinary scene in the years to come. Whether they’re serving diners an elaborate omakase or an expertly executed mushroom-Swiss burger, visiting these chefs comes with more immediate rewards, too.
Who will win? Find out April 13 at our Tastemaker Awards ceremony. Dine on bites from this year’s nominees, sip cocktails from our sponsors, and witness as we reveal the winners. Buy your tickets now. VIP tickets are almost sold out, and general admission isn’t far behind.
Angelo Emiliani - Louie's Italian American
After bursting onto the scene with his Angie’s Pizza pop-up, chef Emiliani earned widespread praise for Cafe Louie, the Mediterranean-influenced all-day concept he opened with his sister, pastry chef and fellow Tasetmaker Awards nominee Luciana Emiliani. When that didn’t find the audience he hoped for, the chef leaned into his Italian American heritage with a red sauce concept that showcases his considerable pasta making skills — along with a crave-worthy chicken parm.
Emmanuel Chavez - Tatemó
Already known for the heirloom corn tortillas and brunch items he served at the Urban Harvest farmers market, chef Chavez announced his presence on the Houston scene with Tatemó’s brick and mortar location. In the intimate, 13-seat room, Chavez and his team serve tasting menus built around different preparations of heirloom corn varieties he imports from Mexico. A seven-course meal could include a quesadilla, ceviche with corn milk, and a corn consomme, among others. While Chavez has already been recognized by both Esquire magazine and the James Beard Foundation, his affordable Saturday lunch and Sunday brunch services allow more people to experience his modern Mexican cuisine.
Evelyn Garcia and Henry Lu - Jūn
This dynamic chef duo met when working at some of New York City’s top restaurants. When the pandemic forced Garcia to pivot — first by closing her stand at the Politan Row food hall and then by joining Top Chef’s Houston-based season — she invited Lu to join her in Houston. Garcia initially earned attention for her Thai-inspired dishes, but adding Lu’s Chinese-American heritage to the mix allows Jūn to incorporate a more diverse set of influences. Although the restaurant is new, it’s earning raves for everything from its Gulf shrimp aguachile to fried chichen that's marinated in shrimp paste and other spices.
Jacob Coronado - Nobie's
Anyone who’s been to Nobie’s knows that it feels like a bit of a house party, and Coronado makes sure everyone has a good time. “Every night he laughs and dances and makes sure the guests at the house party are full,” chef-owner Martin Stayer tells CultureMap. When he’s not dancing, Coronado oversees a kitchen that turns out the housemade pastas, craveable vegetables dishes, and snackable items that keep the party going all night long.
Jerrod Zifchak - Navy Blue
Aaron Bludorn didn’t have to look too far into his past to find a chef to lead Navy Blue, his seafood restaurant in Rice Village. Not only did Zifchak succeed him as the executive chef of New York’s Cafe Boulud, he also worked as a chef at legendary three-star Michelin seafood restaurant Le Bernadin. At Navy Blue, Zifchak shows off his French skills with dishes like swordfish au poivre and the puff pastry-topped mussel bisque. He’s also embracing his new home on the Gulf Coast with credible takes on blackened snapper and New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp.
Madalyn Lester - Quiote
A veteran of restaurants such as Theodore Rex and Nancy’s Hustle, chef-owner Martin Stayer hired Lester to execute the mostly raw seafood dishes that are served at this intimate mezcal bar inside the Toasted Coconut. By blending her Mexican heritage with her professional experiences, Lester serves menu staples like a sweet potato tostada and scallop crudo as well as creative specials like king crab tamales.
“Madalyn literally makes every dish,” Stayer says. “She conceptualizes, preps, prepares and serves every dish going out, and not many chefs or restaurants can claim the same thing. It’s pretty awesome.”
Matthew Young - 1751 Sea & Bar
A veteran of one-star Michelin restaurant Mina and three-star Michelin restaurant Alinea, Young came to this Heights-area seafood restaurant after stints at Guard & Grace and Sixty Vines. The chef brought a fresh perspective to the restaurant’s menu by adding dishes such as a whole fish special that rotates based on the day’s catch. Although 1751 is closing this week, he’ll play a key role in assisting Sambrooks Management with the openings of Andiron, a live fire steakhouse, and the Memorial location of The Pit Room.
Michael O'Connor - Better Luck Tomorrow
“Rising star” may be a bit of a misnomer for this veteran chef, whose resume includes time working for Bryan Caswell and as the longtime executive chef of Vic & Anthony’s. Still, he’s shown a more creative side of his culinary personality while leading the kitchen at Bobby Heugel and Justin Yu’s casual bar in the Heights, such as running a Windy City-worthy Italian beef sandwich that appeared on the menu when The Bear went viral.
“He’s able to intertwine use of his very rigorous years of classical training mixed in with his love of cuisines from different cultures and his understanding of our kitchen from being a patron for so many years at BLT to make something both fun enough for a bar setting, unique to our city, and reliable for the Heights,” Yu tells CultureMap. “It’s been a joy to see him undertake these new endeavors as part of his long, storied career in Houston.”
Luis Mercado and Paolo Justo - Neo
Building on their win for Best Pop-up/Start-up in last year’s Tastemaker Awards, Mercado and Justo continued to develop Neo into one of Houston’s most sought after bookings. Sometimes, the Uchi veterans explore the intersection of Japanese techniques with Mexican flavors, as they did when they collaborated with former Pujol head chef Alex Bremont on a sold out dinner series — think a kampachi crudo with grilled pineapple that nods to al pastor. Or they can bust out a purely delicious butter-basted hen of the woods mushroom packed with umami. Either way, diners always leave delighted.
Tim Reading - GJ Tavern
Initially, the East Coast native moved to Houston to work for Hugo Ortega at Caracol. From there, he made a splash at Ixim at Bravery Chef Hall, but he’s found a home at Underbelly Hospitality’s casual downtown restaurant. A decadent mushroom-Swiss burger demonstrates that the chef isn’t afraid to go retro, and his crispy roast chicken and toothsome mushroom cavatelli demonstrate his sound culinary techniques. Beyond his skills in the kitchen, Reading’s entertaining carpool karaoke sessions make him an entertaining Instagram follow.
Victoria Elizondo - Cochinita & Co.
If there’s one work that describes this chef, it’s her resiliency. When Politan Row closed, she developed a line of tamales that could be sold in area markets and found a new home at Kickin’ Kombucha in the East End. Her flavorful tacos — served on housemade, nixtamalized tortillas, natch — put a fresh spin on traditional preparations like cochinita pibil, barbacoa, and mole almendrado. That cuisine would be more than sufficient to earn this nomination, but Elizondo goes above and beyond by serving as an advocate for her fellow DACA recipients and sharing some of culinary secrets via a cookbook titled Taco-tastic.