Houston on the Horizon: Rising Stars Named by

I vacillate back and forth between craving attention for our city's culinary efforts and then finding myself annoyed with the attention we do get. Call it the heartburn that comes with having your cake and eating it, too.

This morning, I received a press release announcing the winners of the somewhat-buzzed-about 2011 Rising Star Awards. Why has this never been a fuss in years past, you may ask? Because the culinary web-mag has never bothered with Houston in any of eight years it's presented Rising Star Awards in the past. (Although the rotation changes every year, it always includes New York City in its lineup of spotlighted cities.)

Suddenly, the New York City-based magazine for industry insiders (its advisory board includes Jean Georges Vongerichten and Bobby Flay) lights upon the fact that the fourth-largest city in the country has a robust culinary scene to match its sizable population and decides to finally see what we eat down here in Texas.

Houston seemingly laid all their expectations to waste:

For the walking, public-transportation-riding New Yorker, Houston can be a little unnerving at first. Upon landing, we were instantly caught in a web of parking lots, freeways, and traffic jams. Where were all these cars and people going? After pulling into the parking lot of our first tasting only to spend 20 minutes searching in vain for a parking spot, it clicked--it was just a casual Monday night, and all of Houston was going out to eat.

Editor Will Blunt continued in his appraisal of Houston, later:

Perhaps the most heartening aspect of Houston dining beyond the great community, beyond the fresh blood, the enthusiasm, and the diversity--was the plethora of chefs who achieved excellence without needing to chase trends. These chefs are doing the cuisine they know. Whether it be barbecue or classic Japanese, Texas-Tuscan, or New-American, they don't waste time trying to be chic, they just want to be good.

But maybe that's Houston. They don't do pretension; they do hospitality.

Houston's young chefs -- including winners Randy Rucker and Chris Shepherd -- have tight bonds with each other and with the city.
Houston's young chefs -- including winners Randy Rucker and Chris Shepherd -- have tight bonds with each other and with the city.

And the magazine was equally struck by something longtime Houstonians have always known: Everyone gets a chance here. If you're willing to work hard, Houston is the land of opportunity -- no matter your background, your roots or your connections. A common refrain of Houston chefs, seen on Facebook and Twitter every day, is merely: "Do work, son!"

Of course, a great work ethic isn't the only requirement here:

"A young chef, starting out with nothing but talent, can thrive in this booming city, well equipped to nurture a chef's creative growth," wrote Blunt.

After a months-long evaluation period consisting of interviews and tastings with the chefs themselves, the chefs that the magazine eventually chose -- even if many of them are the same faces and names that Houston diners are more than well-acquainted with by now -- do, for the most part, reflect everything that's progressive, nurturing and talented about Houston's dining scene.

You just have to wonder why it took so long to get here.

Hey, Eater? We've got our eyes on you next.

A full list of Rising Star winners and information on the gala dinner is on the next page.  

Of the 60 chefs under 40 years old that were considered for awards in Houston, here are the 2011 Rising Star winners:

Rising Stars Manabu "Hori" Horiuchi, Kata Robata David Grossman, Branch Water Tavern Jeramie Robison, Restaurant CINQ at La Colombe d'Or Hotel Randy Rucker, Bootsie's Heritage Café Seth Siegel-Gardner, Kata Robata Chris Shepherd, Catalan Food and Wine

Pastry Chefs Chris Leung, Bootsie's Heritage Café Vanerin Kuch, Tiny Boxwood's

Restaurateur Bryan Caswell, Reef, Little Big's, and Stella Sola

Sustainability Jamie Zelko, Zelko Bistro

Community Randy Evans, Haven

Host Chef Maurizio Ferrarese, Quattro at the Four Seasons Hotel

Sommelier Sean Beck, Hugo's and Backstreet Café

Mixologist Bobby Heugel, Anvil Bar and Refuge

A gala dinner will be held on March 17 at the Four Seasons from 7 to 10 p.m. Tickets are $95 a person (or $125 for VIP access), which is a "tasting" more than a dinner, as each chef presents samples of one of their signature dishes. Ticket price seem steep? That's because a portion of the proceeds will go to local non-profit Recipe For Success.

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