Houston’s 11 Top Chefs Showcase the City’s World-Class and Diverse Restaurants

The 11 finalists of the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Chef of the Year form a distinguished group.

The James Beard Foundation has selected five of this year’s nominees as semi-finalists for its Best Chef: Texas award. Two others have a barbecue restaurant selected by Texas monthly as one of the top 50 in the state.

Not that they need acclaim beyond being selected by our panel of local restaurant industry experts as standing out from their peers. Sure, they serve great food, but they’ve also shown leadership in their businesses and in the community at large.

We’ll be announcing the winners this Wednesday, May 25 in a ceremony hosted by Houston hip-hop legend Bun B. Tickets are sold out (sorry), but we’ll get a full rundown of the evening’s events.

Alex Au-Yeung – Phat Eatery/Yelo
More than anything, this chef seems to have more fun in his restaurants than most people. Phat Eatery is first and foremost a Malaysian restaurant, but that doesn’t mean Au-Yeung can’t change things up by adding Hong Kong-style dim sum or developing his own curried version of Viet-Cajun crawfish. When he decided to make changes to Yelo – nominally a Vietnamese street food concept – the chef simply added some of his favorite dishes to the menu, meaning diners can now opt for beef rendang in a San Francisco style bread bowl or by hand. pulled noodles (among others). No wonder the James Beard Foundation recognized him with a semi-final nomination in the Best Chef: Texas category.

Aaron Bludorn – Bludorn
When it comes to his culinary pedigree, the chef likes to say “we stand on the shoulders of giants” – he said it on last week’s episode of Excellent chef, for example – which seems appropriate given his long career with legendary French chef Daniel Boulud. To his credit, the chef also recognizes the people who help him run one of Houston’s finest restaurants. At last year’s Commune food festival, he praised the line cook who prepared the pasta dish he served to attendees. That kind of humility will help Bludorn attract the talent he needs as he continues to become one of Houston’s most successful chefs.

Mark Clayton – Squable
Three years later, Squable has become a destination-worthy Houston restaurant, and its chef deserves much of the credit for that success. Clayton combines the respect for local sourcing he learned at restaurants like Coltivare and Oxheart with classic European techniques. It’s a delicate balancing act, but Clayton’s creativity ensures that the restaurant’s plates, pastas and shareable entrees retain their Texas ties. Then again, perhaps it deserves this nomination for Squable’s utterly appetizing French cheeseburger, covered in raclette.

Patrick Feges and Erin Smith – Barbecue Feges
At the Spring Branch location of their acclaimed restaurant, this husband and wife duo present their eclectic take on Texas barbecue. Yes, it’s grounded in well-executed versions of staples like beef brisket and pork chops, but the menu goes well beyond the traditional fare by including Caroline-style whole pork and a range of globally-inspired sides like charro beans, spiced Moroccan carrots and the must-have spicy Korean braised vegetables. Smith’s knowledge of wine, acquired while working at Montrose’s Camerata wine bar, pairs the restaurant’s smoked meats with smart, offbeat choices that enhance their flavors.

Christine Ha and Tony Nguyen – Xin Chao
This dynamic duo — Ha is a Chef cookbook winner and author, while Nguyen has garnered local acclaim for his Viet-Cajun cuisine at Saigon House – have teamed up to offer their own take on the Vietnamese cuisine they grew up eating. The results yield thoughtful interpretations of staples like bo luc lac (made with wagyu beef) and spring rolls, as well as contemporary mashups like Viet-Cajun oysters with Nguyen’s signature H-Town Bang sauce, smoked beef cheek dumplings, fried soft shell crab with tamarind reduction. All of these great ideas caught the attention of the James Beard Foundation, which named the chefs as finalists for the first-ever Best Chef: Texas award.

Anita Jaisinghani – Pondicherry
Trends may come and go, but this seasoned chef will continue to do what she’s always done – sharing her love for Indian flavors with Houstonians while supporting local farmers and advocating for sustainable living through low-key initiatives. such as the popular Pondicherry Meatless Monday. Last year, she introduced the Dwaffle, a gluten-free, dairy-free, and fat-free version of a traditional waffle that stays crispy, flavorful, and filling; go there on Tuesdays, when it’s topped with Jaisinghani’s signature fried chicken. Coming later this year, the chef’s first cookbook, masalawhich will further enrich his considerable legacy.

Bobby Matos – State of Grace / La Lucha
Hard to believe it’s been nearly seven years since Matos opened State of Grace for Atlanta-based chef and restaurateur Ford Fry. This state of grace continues to feel relevant, a testament to Matos’ constant menu updates that use seasonal ingredients to keep pastas, entrees and sides as fresh as possible. Indeed, eagle-eyed shoppers can spot the chef carrying bountiful boxes of produce at the weekly Urban Harvest Farmers’ Market. At La Lucha, Matos’ menu will still be based around oysters, his signature fried chicken and signature Pharmacy Burge, but Matos and his team are finding ways to innovate there too; for example, they recently introduced an octopus tostada that pairs the protein with avocado cream and morita mayonnaise for an irresistibly sweet and spicy mix.

Felipe Riccio – March
After working in some of Houston’s finest restaurants and performing across Europe, Riccio, in partnership with master sommelier June Rodil, unveiled his Mediterranean-inspired tasting menu restaurant last year. Each of March’s semi-annual menus examines a different region, which means Riccio and his team craft their menus after conducting extensive research into a region’s ingredients, techniques and other culinary traditions. The results are precision-executed progressions that give diners a glimpse of places they might not have otherwise experienced without a passport. Sourcing ingredients from Good Thyme Farm, a property owned by Riccio’s business partners Bailey and Peter McCarthy, ensures March’s dishes also have Texas ties.

Nick Wong – Formerly of GJ Tavern
Admittedly, this nomination is more a recognition of past accomplishments than current circumstances, as Wong recently left Chris Shepherd’s downtown restaurant. Still, the relentless creativity he displayed at UB Preserv and the enthusiasm with which he embraced Houston earned Wong the respect of his peers. While food lovers undoubtedly miss UB Preserv signatures like crispy rice salad and shumai pudding, they can appreciate the sly sense of humor he displays on his Instagram Stories. The chef has yet to reveal his future plans, but hopefully he stays in Houston and continues to make this city a more delicious place to live.