A Houston chef has won one of the food world’s most prestigious awards. On Monday, June 5, the James Beard Foundation awarded Best Chef: Texas to Street to Kitchen chef Benchawan Jabthong Painter.
Considered the Oscars of the food world, the awards recognize chefs and other culinary professionals in a wide range of categories ranging from Outstanding Chef to Best New Restaurant. Winners are selected by the foundation’s Awards Committee that is made up of media members, former winners, and others. See the full list of winners here.
Painter — known as “Chef G” to friends and admirers — is the first Houston chef to win Best Chef: Texas, which was created after the 2019 James Beard Awards. She joins Robert Del Grande, Chris Shepherd, Justin Yu, and Hugo Ortega as the only Houston chefs to win a regional award in the foundation’s annual Restaurant and Chef Awards. Last night’s win means back-to-back victories for Houstonians in the awards, following Southern-inspired cocktail bar Julep’s win last year for Outstanding Bar Program.
“I always dreamed it would happen,” Painter told CultureMap shortly after her win. “It proves to me I can do it. I’m new to this country and new to this business, but if you have a belief, you can do it.”
The story of Street to Kitchen’s rise in the food world almost reads like a Hollywood movie. After growing up in Thailand where she learned to cook Thai food from her family, chef Painter and her husband Graham moved to America eight years ago. She worked for James Beard Award winner Justin Yu at Theodore Rex before starting Street to Kitchen to serve the “unapologetically Thai” flavors she couldn’t find at restaurants in Houston.
The Painters launched Street to Kitchen with a series of pop-ups and a weekly stand at the Urban Harvest farmers market. They leased a former fried chicken restaurant next to an East End gas station — far away from a prime location in a neighborhood like Montrose or the Heights — to bring Street to Kitchen to life.
Despite opening at the height of the pandemic in the summer 2020, people immediately began to discover Street to Kitchen. It won both Restaurant of the Year and Rising Star Chef of the Year in the 2022 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, paving the way for this year’s James Beard Award nomination.
“After I won, I feel like this is crazy,” she added. “No matter how hard I was working toward this day, it was worth it. I’m so proud to bring it to Houston. I’m really proud.”
While the night belonged to Chef G, it ended in disappointment for Houston’s two other finalists. Neither Nancy’s Hustle nor Tatemó took home the awards for Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program and Best New Restaurant, respectively. Overall, Texas bars and restaurants earned 13 finalist nominations, but only Street to Kitchen won its category.
While the atmosphere throughout Monday night’s ceremony was jubilant, controversy had erupted over the past few weeks over the James Beard Foundation’s decision to disqualify Best Chef: South finalist Timothy Hontzas after it investigated anonymous complaints about his behavior towards staff and customers. Judges, including New Orleans-based food writer Todd Price and chef Vishwesh Bhatt, publicly resigned from the Restaurant and Chef Awards committee to protest the decision. In a lengthy article, the New York Timesreported that the foundation also investigated Best Chef: Southeast finalist Sam Fore, but ultimately allowed her to remain a nominee.