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Photo by Thomas B. Shea

We've seen chef Donald Chang cracking jokes and busting a move while cooking and entertaining guests. But the Nara restaurant owner was serious nom nom business as he and sous chef Jojo Urbano went wok to wok with Soma co-executive chef Gabriel Medina and sous chef Cathy Nguyen in an Iron Chef-style throwdown at an Asia Society Texas Center young professionals "Leo Bar" social on Thursday.

Chang needed his full attention. Medina had meticuously detailed his dish and its execution during a two-month process. A hand-drawn sketch of the plating and a typed timeline were clues that Medina and Nguyen weren't screwing around, either, with their Texas Kobe beef-inspired dish.

Medina was inspired by how Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi treated vegetables in the cookbook Jerusalem.

As CultureMap food authority and event judge Eric Sandler explained, the trick to the luxe and expensive cut of meat is to allow its intense flavor to shine naturally. To overwhelm this delicacy with too complex of a conconction is a sin. Judges ABC Ch. 13's Katherine Whaley and Benjy's Joshua Silver agreed.

Chang, who lost power for part of the feud, prepared his Texas T Kobe strip with Korean red pepper dry rub over a dashi reduction accompanied by sake-poached shingo pears and a sharp cheddar and gruyère macaroni purse. It was all encapsulated in a hurricane of swirling applewood smoke.

Medina paced inside and out of the beautiful center, checking to ensure that his grill flames were just right for a creation that included taro and beet purée, nori yogurt, charred pickled red onions, fresh zatar and arugula.

Who earned the Golden Wok trophy?

Emcee Lily Jang of KHOU Ch. 11, who was sparkling while wearing an 18-karat rose gold Hublot timepiece with 126 diamonds (the Swiss watchmaker was a sponsor), announced that it was Medina's creativity that ultimately wowed the judges. The accomplished toque was inspired by how Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi treated vegetables in the cookbook Jerusalem.

Conceived by Asia Society director of performing arts and culture Evan Wildstein (who deserved yet another mazel tov for his recent engagement to Huda Alsheikh), the gathering welcomed some 100 young professionals including James Ozenci, Ruben Lizaola, Justin Lasiewicz, Heliz Forouzan, Christina Dang, Lien Pham, Melissa Permé, Adam Johnson and Claudia Sartori.

Lily Jang interviewing Eric Sandler.

Photo by Thomas B. Shea
Lily Jang interviewing Eric Sandler.
Photo by © Cameron Bertuzzi

One hot party: Young professionals get down with feathers, fangs and fins in a private evening

Party Watch

What: An artful happening for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's young professionals group Art Crowd.

Where: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The 411: Focus of the gathering for more than 100 art fans in their 20s and 30s was Fangs, Feathers, and Fins: Sacred Creatures in Ancient American Art, the unusual exhibition focusing on the way that animals are depicted in the museum's extensive Pre-Columbian collection. In addition to private evening access to the exhibition in the Beck Building, guests were invited to try their artistic talents with a variety of colorful feathers and art pieces.

The party action included music by DJ Jonny J, light appetizers and buffet bites and specialty “Triple F” cocktails inspired by Fangs, Feathers, and Fins.

Who: Priscilla Pietz, Kevin Pope, Ansan Lutzel, Jay Martin, Arianna Bermudez, Lyndsay Sweeny, Jeneanne Orlowski, Mode Gumpeni and Nicole Papandrea.

Haley Watson, left, and Tara Quell.

Photo by © Cameron Bertuzzi
Haley Watson, left, and Tara Quell.
Photo by Jason Self

Hot young professionals stand up for Houston's historic buildings: Partying to fight the teardown craze

Party Watch

What: Preservation Houston's Pier & Beam #throwbackthursday party.

Where: The lobby of the historic Esperson Building in downtown Houston.

The 411: The one year anniversary of this dedicated young professional group was reason enough for a lively celebration among the city's next generation of leadership with an affinity for Houston's growing preservation movement. Party chairs Mary Hammon Lee, Dave Morris, Nick Senkel and Claire Cormier-Thielke welcomed the young preservationists some 200 strong.

Several guests grooved on the #throwbackthursday theme by stepping out in retro threads while others carried books on historic Houston. And, yes, the conversation centered frequently on historic buildings in their various neighborhoods. Good eats from Elegant Events and Catering by Michael combined with libations from five vendors kept the partygoers fueled.

The event was a home run for Cameron Management which on this night showcased the beautifully restored building. Thank you Cameron Management president and owner Dougal Cameron and Cameron marketing director Jano Nixon Kelley.

Who: Preservation Houston's executive director Stephanie Ann Jones, VP of strategic planning Elizabeth Husseini and Pier & Beam members including Laura Menges, Austin Thomas, Mike Mahlstedt, Will McCallum, Abby Noebels, Julie and Ian Rosenberg, Neal Sarkar, Rebecca Schmidt and Claudia Solis.

Mike Mahlstedt, from left, Jano Nixon Kelley and Kyle Dutton.

Photo by Jason Self
Mike Mahlstedt, from left, Jano Nixon Kelley and Kyle Dutton.
Photo by Daniel Ortiz/Daniel Ortiz Photography

Beethoven's Fifth sets the stage for young professionals late-night bash with a skyline view

Party Watch

What: Houston Symphony's Young Professionals Backstage symphony concert and after-party.

Where: The concert in Jones Hall and the after-party at the new Houston Club.

The 411: With the powerful sounds of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 still dancing in their heads, more than 150 YPBs took to the dance floor at the Houston Club where DJ Squincy presented music of a totally different ilk.

The lively late night party for the fresh-faced symphony lovers included a flip-book photo booth, party foods and four open bars featuring beer, wine and spirits donated by Circulo Tequila and Brugal Rum. And then there were the greats views of downtown from the Houston Club's new 49th floor perch.

Symphony musicians joining the party included Adam Dinitz, oboe and English horn; Eric Larson, double bass; Matthew Roitstein, associate principle flute; Matthew Strauss, percussion; and Elise Wagner, bassoon.

Who: The YPBs included Kristin Kruse, Wesley Lotz, Juan Garcia, Allison Reid, Kristen Amundsen, Lauren Pearson, Aiesha Maxwell, Ben Sachs, Georgia Maxwell and Geoff Marolder.

David Perez, left, Laura Pearson, Geoff Marolda.

Photo by Daniel Ortiz/Daniel Ortiz Photography
David Perez, left, Laura Pearson, Geoff Marolda.
Photo by © Roswitha Vogler/Photosbyrovo.com

Globe-trotting young professional celebrates landing a new job in the most awesome way possible

Party Watch

New job celebrations come in all forms from congratulatory dinners to floral bouquets, but this young professional took the festivities a step further when he threw a red carpet bash at the Houston headquarters of his new boutique financial firm.

Clint Sosa, a former youth ambassador for the Belize Ministry of Foreign Affairs, orchestrated the bash complete with red carpet arrival and a step-and-repeat at White Rhino Financial offices on Waugh Drive.

Guests dined on party fare from Sorrell Urban Bistro and Ray's Bistro while sipping on Cote Or’s gold leaf champagne. Party favors made the night even more memorable.

Celebrants included Ashley Wyatt, Vincent Powell, Brandt Jordan, Sonia Guimbellot, Olga and Jeff Kelly, Claudio Gutierrez and Melissa Huntermark and Rebecca and Cliff Koterwas.

Vincent Powell, left, and Clint Sosa.

Photo by © Roswitha Vogler/Photosbyrovo.com
Vincent Powell, left, and Clint Sosa.
Photo by Chinh Phan

The best young professionals groups for health minded people: Making a difference where it truly matters

Best Young Professionals Groups

With so many groups dedicated to bringing Houston's young professionals together for good causes, finding the right organization for you can be a challenge.

CultureMap has created a breakdown of the leading young professional groups for those interested in improving the lives of those with health problems to make the process of choosing one much simpler. Whether you're looking to promote awareness about those living with disabilities or to support children with illness, there is a young professionals group in the health realm that fits your interests.

Camp For All

What do they do? Camp For All is a unique camp working to enrich the lives of children and adults with challenging illnesses or special needs and their families throughout the year.
Perks: Membership includes access to the group's quarterly happy hours and discounted tickets to the Camp Culinary Challenge. The group also has two Camp Care Days a year where YPs get the chance to go to Camp For All and volunteer as a group.
Upcoming event: Young Professionals’ General Meeting and Holiday Party at Under the Volcano on Dec. 3 at 5:30 p.m.
Cost: $35 for individual membership, $50 for dual membership

Friends of DePelchin

What do they do? Friends of DePelchin is a group of young professionals committed to supporting DePelchin Children's Center's mission through community awareness, philanthropy and volunteerism. Funds raised through the group's programs benefit the DePelchin, which helps strengthen the lives of children by enhancing their mental health and physical well-being.
Perks: The group organizes many networking opportunities, two annual fundraisers and unique volunteer opportunities.
Cost: $35 for individual membership, $45 for dual membership

Bo's Buddies

What do they do? Bo's Buddies is a group of service-oriented young professionals committed to promoting awareness, raising funds and providing volunteer service to support the efforts of Bo's Place, an organization which helps grieving children.
Perks: Bo’s Buddies members volunteer and attend social fundraising events with other young professionals, hosted by and directly benefiting Bo's Place.
Cost: $40 for individual membership, $70 for dual membership

Young Urban Professionals of Easter Seals (YUPES)

What do they do? YUPES is a group formed to support the Easter Seals organization in accomplishing its mission, which is to provide exceptional services for people with disabilities and their families so they can live, work, learn and play in the community.
Perks: The organization gives young professionals the opportunity to meet and socialize, while also helping raise awareness and resources for Easter Seals.
Upcoming event: Holiday Soiree and Toy Drive at Armandos on Dec. 4 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Cost: $25 annually

Easter Seals knows how to keep its important mission fun for the young professionals dedicated to it.

Photo by Chinh Phan
Easter Seals knows how to keep its important mission fun for the young professionals dedicated to it.
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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Iconic Texas 'cowboy-style' BBQ joint's Katy outpost closure leads week's top stories

this week's hot headlines

Editor's note: It's time to recap the top stories on CultureMap from this past week.

1. Iconic Texas 'cowboy-style' barbecue joint's Katy location quietly closes. Sadly, the local outpost couldn't replicate the magic of the original in Llano.

2. Ken Hoffman urges Houston travelers to keep calm and enjoy the trip at the new-look Bush IAH. Our columnist explains why travelers might be in "for a big, pleasant surprise at Houston’s Bush-Intercontinental Airport."

3. Houston's most spectacular winter light shows and events dazzle for the holidays. We rounded up where to see dazzling lights with family, friends, and visitors.

4. Disgraced Theranos CEO and former Houstonian Elizabeth Holmes sentenced to 11 years for fraud. Additionally, Holmes faces a fine of $400 million.

5. Houston's NASA leaders 'giddy' after historic Artemis 1 moon flyby. The spacecraft cruised just 81 miles above the lunar surface.

Disney's Strange World is a visual stunner with too many story ideas

Movie Review

For a studio whose entire reason for being seems to rely on creating and sustaining familiar characters, Walt Disney Animation takes its fair share of risks. In the last 10 years, it has released nine films, seven of which were not based on pre-existing properties (the other two were sequels for two of those seven). That’s a lot of new stuff, most of which has succeeded mightily for the perennially-popular leaders in animation.

They’re at it again with Strange World, which takes place in an unknown country/world known as Avalonia, where Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is a famous explorer whose only desire is to find a way over, around, or through the imposing mountains surrounding the land. His son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), doesn’t share his enthusiasm, and an early discovery by Searcher of a unique energy source leads to a rift between father and son. Jaeger continues onwards, while Searcher returns home with a plant they call Pando that creates harmony throughout the land.

Years later, when the plant shows signs of failure, Searcher is recruited by Avalonia leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) to help in an expedition to find the source of whatever is attacking Pando. What they and others – including Searcher’s wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) – find in their travels certainly lives up to the title.

Co-directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen and written by Nguyen, the film is a visual stunner. The quality of animation in Disney movies rarely fails to impress, and Strange World is the latest and greatest example. Whether it’s the humans, the landscape, or the innumerable weird creatures that populate the film, there is almost nothing that doesn’t deserve to be stared at and admired.

It’s odd, then, that the story does not come close to matching the graphics. There are a variety of reasons for this failure. Nguyen is the sole credited writer, and he stuffs the film full of big and small ideas, probably too many for this type of project. Searcher’s family and the world of Avalonia and beyond are diverse in multiple ways, to the point that it feels like Nguyen was trying to include everything he could think of in case he never got another shot.

The bigger sin, though, is how quickly the film advances through its plot, often bringing up new things out of nowhere. While Searcher and his family make for an interesting group, the side characters never make an impact. There are also multiple instances where the story takes a turn that makes no sense, either in the world of the film or a storytelling manner.

This includes the final act of the film, which features a significant twist that is presented and accepted in a way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. It adds on yet another message in a movie that contains a lot of them, but in a way that even those inclined to believe in what it’s trying to say may wonder why that part is there at all.

The science fiction element of Strange World is a bonanza for the filmmakers and animators to go as wild as they wanted in the visual department. But all that splendor is in service of a story that just doesn’t measure up, making it one of Disney’s less successful offerings in recent years.

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Strange World is now playing in theaters.

Photo courtesy of Disney

Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), and Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White) in Strange World

Affluent Houston suburb leads region for highest holiday spending budgets in U.S.

Santa Baby

As the most wonderful time of the year approaches, holiday shopping budgets are in the spotlight, and a study from WalletHub lists Sugar Land as one of the top cities where Santa doesn't need a whole lot of help.

According to the personal finance website, the average holiday budget in Sugar Land is $2,793 per person, the 15th highest in the nation. As CultureMap previously reported, Sugar Land residents here make an average of $123,261; the average home price is $337,600.

Fittingly, Fort Bend, home to Sugar Land, was recently named the second-richest county in Texas.

As for Greater Houston, Santa's bag could be a mixed bag, with three suburbs in the top 100, but the urban center falling far behind:

  • Sugar Land, No. 15, $2,793
  • Pearland, No. 36, $2,172
  • The Woodlands, No. 71, $1,733
  • Houston, No. 366, $890

Each year, WalletHub calculates the maximum holiday budget for over 550 U.S. cities "to help consumers avoid post-holiday regret," the website says. The study factors in income, age of the population, and other financial indicators such as debt-to-income ratio, monthly-income-to monthly-expenses ratio and savings-to-monthly-expenses ratio.

Despite nationwide focus on inflation strains, holiday spending is expected to be healthy, and higher than last year.

"The seeming social upheaval in recent times may lead households to spend more in an attempt to take some control of the environment which they can control," says Robert Wright, University of Illinois, Springfield professor emeritus who was among five experts consulted for advice about holiday shopping.

Elsewhere in Texas, 10 North Texas cities landed in this year's top 100 heftiest holiday budgets:

  • Flower Mound, No. 3, $3,531 (The only Texas city in the top 10)
  • Allen, No. 17 , $2,670
  • Frisco, No. 37, $2,150
  • McKinney, No. 45, $2,070
  • Plano, No. 50, $1,999
  • Carrollton, No. 55, $1,837
  • Richardson, No. 58, $1,823
  • North Richland Hills, No. 81, $1,658
  • Lewisville, No. 90, $1,630
  • Fort Worth, No. 366, $890
  • Dallas, No. 401, $845

Spending in the Austin area won't be ho-hum with the Capitol City's budget of $1,705 ranked at No. 78. Two Austin suburbs, Cedar Park (budget $2,855) and League City (budget $2,541) ranked 14 and 20, respectively.

Things don't look too jolly for San Antonio, ranked at No. 431 with an average budget of $803 or Pharr, which was the lowest ranked city in Texas.

At No. 553 with a budget of $487, the Rio Grande Valley city came in just a few spots ahead of last place Hartford, CT with a budget of only $211.