"We didn't know what we were going to find in Houston," said Antoinette Bruno last night at the Four Seasons Hotel. Bruno, the CEO and editor-in-chief of Star Chefs admitted to being "really ignorant of the Houston dining scene" before a Twitter campaign orchestrated by Jenny Wang and Chef Randy Rucker of Bootsie's Heritage Cafe convinced her to bring her Star Chefs team to town.
While Star Chefs is known primarily as a popular restaurant industry webmag, Bruno's team -- including managing editor Will Blunt -- also travels from city to city each year, tasting dishes and dispensing Rising Star awards to worthy chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers and mixologists across the nation. But throughout nearly a decade and 31 awards galas, they'd never visited Houston.
Bruno admitted that all she knew of Houston was Robert Del Grande and Claire Smith, through an interview she'd done with the restaurateur years ago. "What's in Houston?" she said last night, now a rhetorical question after experiencing the wealth of culinary talent our city has to offer across three different visits and 75 tastings at various restaurants.
What's in Houston is this: six chefs deemed worthy of receiving Rising Star awards, as well as chefs recognized in other, even more esteemed categories. Bryan Caswell won the Restaurateur award; Randy Evans of Haven won the Community Chef award; Jamie Zelko of Zelko Bistro won the Sustainability Chef; Vanarin Kuch of Tiny Boxwoods and Chris Leung of Bootsie's each won a Pastry Chef award; Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge won the Mixologist award; and Sean Beck of Backstreet Café, Hugo's and Trevisio won the Sommelier award.
Those awards were presented on stage last night at a gala tasting and ceremony, poolside at the Four Seasons Hotel. A strong breeze swept some garnishes away from dishes like the carefully-plated edible flowers at the Bootsie's table and blew some dresses' hemlines from proper to improper, but everyone seemed to be having too good of a time to care. Houston's chefs were just happy to be recognized by the larger, national dining scene.
"I hope we don't ruin your city," laughed Will Blunt as the evening geared up. I told him it was unlikely to happen, given that Houston is generally "too small of a town for people to act like shitheads" and get away with it for long. Richard Knight, chef at Feast, nodded his agreement nearby.
Bruno, for her part, said that Houston still has a ways to go before it's recognized in the same way that Chicago and New York -- or even Portland or San Francisco -- are noted for their dining scenes. Is it a case of snobbish, bi-coastal provincialism? Bruno doesn't think so. "Houston has to do its own PR," she advised. "That Twitter campaign was the first time that anyone from the city has reached out to us."
"You also need to make the city welcoming for a support cook to come in," she continued. "You need to have more than just local line cooks," people who will bring experiences, techniques and ideas in from the world over.
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But it's an exciting time in Houston nevertheless. "Houston is just on its uptick," Bruno said decisively. "This is a young culinary scene and it has nowhere to go but up, up, up."
For more photos from the gala and awards ceremony, check out our slideshow.