F.D.’s Express Burgers and Wings/Instagram

Texas’ skyrocketing culinary scene is about to get a huge boost.The Texas Food & Wine Alliance’s grant program has awarded $107,500 to 19 culinary innovators around the state. This marks the Alliance’s 11th year providing funding to support culinary projects contributing to local communities.

The award winners were recently announced in a ceremony at Austin's Holdsworth Center. A private panel of distinguished culinary experts chose the winners out of 40 grant applications this year.

Three winners from Houston received a total of $12,750. Meanwhile, nine winners hail from Austin, three from Dallas-Fort Worth, and four from San Antonio. The awards range from $1,500 to $10,000, with a special $25,000 grant investment from Austin favorite Tito’s Handmade Vodka in honor of the company’s 25th anniversary. Grant funding will support chefs, farms, and culinary education groups, among others.

Here are Houston's winners:

Royal Caliber Ranch – $6,250

A winner of the Tito's Handmade Vodka Entrepreneur Grant, Royal Caliber Ranch is woman-led ranch raising diverse breeds of goats for nearly 20 years in Waller. Grant funds will help the business secure the dairy parlor's infrastructure, including labor and materials for a pole barn, concrete, and utilities needed per U.S.D.A. requirements, according to press materials.

J.I.V.E Juice Company– $4,000

The juice company specializing in cold-pressed fruit juices and smoothies using organic, non-pasteurized ingredients is the winner of the Houston Food & Wine Alliance Grant. Funds will facilitate product testing and a shelf-life study and assist in product branding and marketing.

F.D.’s Express Burgers and Wings – $2,500

This popular spot partnering with the Booker T. Washington Empowerment Center to launch a culinary training institute specializing in Soul Food received $1,500 from Truffle Masters Grant for Community Heroes and is also a Houston Food & Wine Alliance Grant recipient. Grant funds will supplement the cost of training those who require financial assistance.

Elsewhere in Texas

Austin-area winners received the most funding from the grant program, totaling $53,750, while San Antonio winners received $21,250. Dallas/Fort Worth winners were awarded $19,750. All of the 2022 winners reflect just how diverse the state's trailblazing culinary scene continues to expand.

“All of this year’s funded projects will further enrich the state through innovation and giveback,” said Erika White, executive director of the Alliance. “We’re extremely grateful to each of the Texas communities, our sponsors and their support in allowing us to reward these mold-breaking projects.”

In Austin, organic farm Trosi Farms was awarded the most funding, totaling $10,000 from Tito’s and the Austin Food & Wine Alliance. The wild crop-breeding operation will be able to use the funds to construct a germination shed for more stable plant start production. Locavore pioneer Boggy Creek Farm won $7,500 in grants to provide ADA-compliant accessibility to their new climate-controlled Tomato House. Texas’ first organic feed mill, Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill & Farm, received $6,250 to help purchase a building to be used as a store for the local community.

The six other Austin area grant recipients, each winning $5,000, include Vista Farms at Vista Brewing, Jamaican family business Tierra Todun ATX, coffee roasters Rising Tide Roast Collaborative, culinary educator Chef Pascal Simon from Bake Austin, East Austin food truck Community Vegan, and Latinx pastry project Comadre Panaderia (who also just earned a James Beard nomination). All winners will be able to use their grants to improve efficiency and expand their businesses, or in Chef Pascal's case, further research and development for her upcoming cookbook for Gen-Z young adults.

Out of the four San Antonio area winners, Talking Tree Farm received the most from the grant program, $6,250 to purchase shipping containers for storage and to buy a solar-powered cold room for their harvests. John Marshall High School’s culinary arts program will use their $5,000 grant to establish a morning café. Agricultural project Habitable Spaces and pasture-raised chicken farm Cielito Lindo Farm also won $5,000 each to purchase equipment or build infrastructure to further their endeavors in the culinary space.

The winners in the Dallas-Fort Worth include:

For this year's Honorable Mention, the Alliance chose San Antonio eatery Tacos Cucuy, who will soon open a brick-and-mortar space with an expanded menu. Tacos Cucuy are currently looking for support to develop a Tex-Mex charcuterie program called La Cura Carnes Especiales.

More information about the 2022 grants and its recipients can be found on texasfoodandwinealliance.org.

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Rapidly expanding Houston restaurant group befriends Rice Village with shareable plates and craft cocktails

what about your friends?

A rapidly growing Houston restaurant and bar group will soon arrive in Rice Village. ALife Hospitality is opening FRNDS Restaurant & Lounge on April 1.

Located in the former Mi Luna space at 2442 University Blvd., FRNDS (pronounced “friends”), aims to be a gathering spot for groups. Although ALife is well established with concepts such as Kamp, Lost & Found, and the recently-opened Bungalow Downtown Dining, the new establishment will be its first in Rice Village.

“The space sort of picked us,” ALife partner Junior Martin tells CultureMap. “While looking for new opportunities, we viewed several locations in different areas of the city. After touring the property during the day and at night, it gave us a vision of what was missing from the Rice Village area and from our hospitality offerings to the city of Houston.”

Those offerings begin with a menu of tapas-style shareable plates created by ALife culinary director Mark Holley. Best known for his time at seafood restaurant Pesce and his current role at Davis Street at Hermann Park, Holley’s menu includes Coconut Curry Shrimp Skewers, Crab Avocado Dip, and Red Curry Fried Calamari. Diners will also find truffle pasta, shrimp cocktail, and baby back ribs. For his part, Martin recommends the wagyu dumplings and chicken satay.

“Several of the menu choices are shareable items to enjoy with your friends,” Martin adds. “This fosters a vibe of fellowship with your group and allows [everyone] to explore multiple menu items together.”

FRNDS pairs its dishes with a range of craft cocktails. Highlights include the Pineapple Patron and a popcorn cocktail that comes with a sidecar of kernels.

FRNDS Pineapple Patron cocktailBehold the Pineapple Patron.Courtesy of ALife Hospitality Group

Renovations to the space include adding royal blue and purple booths, marble bar and table tops, and wood accents.

Rice Village has seen a number of new openings in the past few months, including Navy Blue, the new seafood restaurant from the Bludorn team; Sushi by Hidden, an omakase restaurant from the owners of Hidden Omakase; a new location of Chinese American restaurant the Rice Box; Australian-inspired coffee shop Bluestone Lane; and Eau Tour, a French restaurant from Local Foods owner Benjy Levit.

Houston Grand Opera raises the curtain on a new season of fan favorites

a grand new season

Tragedy and triumph take center stage in Houston Grand Opera's 2023 - 2024 season, announced yesterday afternoon. The six-opera series includes a world premiere by Jake Heggie, Intelligence; , a co-production of The Sound of Music; the company's first-ever production of Wagner's Parsifal; and beloved classics Falstaff, Madame Butterfly, and Don Giovanni.

HGO general director and CEO Khori Dastoor called that the season's theme "surrounds finding truth within art," in a press release announcing the shows.

The season opens October 20 with composer Jake Heggie's world premiere, Intelligence, with a libretto by Gene Scheer. It marks the first time the company has ever opened a season with a new opera. Based on a little-known story of the Civil War, it's the extraordinary story of two women from very different backgrounds who form a Union soy ring. Internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano and HGO Studio alumna Jamie Barton sings the role of Elizabeth Van Lew, member of a prominent Confederate family; soprano Janai Brugger, praised by Opera News for her "rapturously beautiful" voice, sings the role of Mary Jane Bowser, born into slavery in Elizabeth's house. The opera runs from October 20 through November 3.

Verdi's masterpiece Fallstaff is the other half of the company's fall repertoire, sung in Italian with English translation The story of Shakespeare's drunken knight who concocts a wild scheme to pay off his debts features baritone Reginald Smith Jr. in the title role. He's joined by other company favorites soprano Nicole Heaston as Alice, baritone Blake Denson as Ford, and soprano Andrea Carroll as Nannetta. Patrick Summers, HGO's artistic and music director, conducts. Falstaff runs from October 27 to November 10.

Opening 2024 for the company is Wagner's Parsifal, a vibrant production from Tony Award-winning director John Caird. Sung in German with projected English translation, it's the story of a group of knights on a quest to protect both the Holy Grail and their wounded king, who can only be healed by Parsifal and the holy spear. Tenor Russell Thomas, called "impressive" by the Los Angeles Times, sings the title role. He's joined by worldwide superstar soprano Christine Goerke, globally acclaimed bass-baritone Ryan McKinney and ward-winning bass Kwangchul Youn. The show runs January 19 through February 4, 2024.

Puccini's tragic love story, Madame Butterfly, lights up the stage with a diverse cast, including sought-after soprano Ailyn Pérez, as Cio-Cio-San, opposite tenor Yongzhao Yu as Pinkerton, making his role debut. They are joined by mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce as Suzuki, bass-baritone Michael Sumuel as Sharpless in Michael Grandage's production, directed by Jordan Braun. Summers will conduct. Sung in Italian with projected English translation, Madame Butterfly runs January 26 through February 11, 2024.

The spring repertoire brings two much-adored classics to the HGO stage. First comes Don Giovanni, Mozart's towering masterpiece about the womanizing title character who refuses to atone for his wicked ways. Superstar Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni sings the title role alongside sensational soprano Andriana Chuchman in her role debut as Donna Anna. The opera is sung in Italian with projected English translation and runs April 19 through May 3, 2024.

Closing HGO's season is Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved The Sound of Music, co-produced by HGO and the Glimmerglass Festival. This dazzling new production by Francesca Zambello is led by Grammy-winning mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as Maria, a nun sent to be a nanny to the seven children of Captain Von Trapp. Baritone Alexander Birch Elliott sings the role of the captain. It's set in Austria in the last days before World War II, the timeless love story, based on a true story and immortalized in the 1965 film starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. The production runs April 26 through May 12, 2024.

Full season subscriptions start at $90 and are available for purchase online.

Houston Grand Opera Falstaff

Photo by Lynn Lane

Verdi's comedic opera Falstaff sees the title character engaging in a hair-brained scheme to pay off his debts.

Houston pastry chef now serving his Food Network-winning, Easter ham-inspired dessert

Taste the show

The biggest problem with reality TV cooking competition shows is that the people watching at home never get to experience the food that’s created for the judges. Sure, that exotic-looking creation may appear to be delicious, but how does it taste? Did the judges really make the right decision?

Thankfully, Houstonians who’ve been following along with the Food Network’s Spring Baking Championship: Easter will get the chance to try one of the show’s winning creations courtesy of Musaafer pastry chef Ruchit Harneja. He is now serving a version of the honey-glazed ham cake that he created on episode three of the show at the Indian fine dining restaurant in the Galleria.

Harneja and his fellow contestants had to create a dessert based on a classic savory Easter dish. The choices included cornbread, potatoes au gratin, and deviled eggs. Having been awarded honey-glazed via a beer pong-style game, the chef got to work.

The finished dessert, which won the day’s challenge, uses a hickory-smoked honey cake and pineapple cherry jelly. For the Musaafer version, the chef has upgraded the presentation with cherry pâté de fruit, a ham crumble, and his made in-house pineapple and clove Peeps.

Ruchit Harneja Spring Baking Championship easter ham dessertThe original dessert Harneja created for the show.Courtesy of Food Network

“I enjoy pushing the boundaries to explore more interesting flavor combinations, and this dessert is no exception,” Harneja said in a statement. “It consists of all the components and flavor profiles of the classic Easter dish, including the ham, but with sweet elements that balance it to perfection.”

The dish, pictured above, will be available at Musaafer through Easter Sunday (April 9). It’s priced at $25.

As for the show,. Harneja continues to make his way through the 6-episode competition. Tune in at 9 pm on Monday, March 27 to see his latest creations.