Austin King is a nervous ball of energy. He hops around the small kitchen at the rear of Grand Prize Bar like a character in Super Mario Brothers, head down and face fixed in a grimace of determined concentration. He pulls dumplings from a fryer with one hand, sprinkles Tabasco-infused scallions onto deviled egg custard tarts with another.
"Breathe, man. Breathe," coaches a friend who's watching King cook. King has an audience here, something he's unaccustomed to. There are people watching him keenly over the line in the kitchen, waiting for the orders of Southern-style dim sum that King and chef Justin Turner are cooking.
Unlike Turner, a trained chef and owner of several successful food trucks -- he just added a third Bernie's Burger Bus to his fleet, in fact -- King is very new to all of this. He didn't learn to cook at culinary school and has never worked the line at a professional kitchen. He taught himself how to cook by watching YouTube videos. But King has skills.
His Southern-style dim sum features a wholly Houston twist on the typically Chinese brunch: There is livery boudin tucked into lotus leaves, a lo mai gai-style package complete with glutinous rice that bridges the gap between the Cajun delicacy and the Chinese dish that normally features chicken and smoky Chinese sausage.
Shrimp and grits have been refashioned into rectangular taro cakes, served with a Creole barbecue sauce and pickled okra. The creamy grits blend with the similarly textured taro effortlessly, backed by the sweet smack of shrimp that's familiar to anyone who's eaten even a handful of dim sum dishes. Deviled eggs have been baked into dan tat, egg custard tarts that are topped with those Tabasco scallions King has been dishing up like crazy. The tarts were the first thing that he and Turner ran out of this night, much to their surprise.
They came close to running out of everything else too, including duck rillette-stuffed siu mai dumplings and ice cream made with buttery, briny uni -- sea urchin roe -- that was topped with a firecracker of habanero-infused masago. Ice cream made with not one, but two kinds of roe? Why not; it worked beautifully, coming across with a briny sweetness akin to salted caramel.
All of the amped-up energy in the kitchen, all of the long lines of people clustered in the kitchen to watch the chefs cook, all of the mashed-up and remixed dishes coming across the line -- all of this is normal for a week night at Grand Prize. The only unusual thing about tonight are the timed trials going on upstairs for a bartender who's on her way to compete at a national cocktail competition in Las Vegas. People are taking their little red plates full of King's dim sum upstairs to watch Lindsay Heffron make drinks Iron Chef-style out of surprise items like candied ginger and Hooters wing sauce.
Chef collaborations take place here every night of the week, when food truck chefs such as Turner come in to cook things they can't make on board their mobile kitchens. In fact, Turner is in residence here every Wednesday night. It's also the time when fledgling chefs such as King, who's trying to start his own truck -- Yaki Snack Attack -- can be mentored by more experienced chefs and try out their creations on willing guinea pigs.
For attendees, it's a chance to try some of the city's most creative cooking in the most relaxed of environments (a woman had her cat on a leash at the dark, amber-lit bar) and for the cheapest of prices. My four friends and I paid $50 total for enough food to cover a table on Wednesday night, and left moaning over how full we were.
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I've even stopped thinking of Grand Prize as just a bar. Instead, it's become an unexpected incubator for bartenders and chefs alike. While bartender Alex Gregg coached Heffron upstairs that night, Turner coached King downstairs. It takes a village to raise a child, and Houston's culinary community is more devoted to raising up talented service industry people every day. King is just its latest student.
And we raise our chefs well: Just this week, King -- who'll still be starting up his food truck too, if all goes well -- interviewed with chef Justin Yu for a bottom-of-the-rung position at Oxheart, the restaurant of his dreams, and got the job.