Houstonians might have witnessed some shooting stars in last weekend's meteor shower, but StarChefs, the Brooklyn, New York-based resource and platform for restaurant professionals, was in town last week to fete some of Houston's rising culinary and mixology stars, some very familiar and others just starting to emerge on the restaurant and bar scene in Houston.
This was the 67th class of Rising Stars since 2003. So far, the event has taken place in twenty-three cities across the country with 2019 being the second year for Houston. StarChefs chooses four cities a year to showcase with its quarterly Rising Stars magazine. In 2011, Houston was chosen for the first time. That year, Jamie Zelko was awarded Sustainabilty Chef, Bryan Caswell was honored as Restaurateur and Sean Beck won the Sommelier Award along with other notable Houston hospitality professionals.
Now, StarChefs has returned to our booming city to highlight the cultural and culinary diversity that makes the Bayou City such a unique gastronomic gumbo. The StarChefs advisory board includes such luminaries as Daniel Boulud, Todd English, Jose Andres and Marcus Samuelsson, so Houston's rising stars have impressed some important culinary royalty.
The event was held at The Corinthian in downtown Houston. The evening began with Host Chef Tiago Almeida of Safina serving Beet-cured Verlasso Salmon which was paired with a glass of Nicholas Feuillate Brut Rose Champagne. The Corinthian columns of the historic building and the glittering chandeliers added to the glamour.
The Houston Press had a front row seat at the awards ceremony as each chef, bartender, sommelier, pastry chef and restaurateur accepted their award, a Steelite plate, for their Rising Star status. However, the event was more than just recognizing Houston's talent while tasting delicious food. It was also a benefit for " I'll Have What She's Having", a non-profit organization that was established after Hurricane Harvey to raise awareness about women's health and the dearth of medical care and health insurance for women in the hospitality industry. Erin Smith, of Feges BBQ, took the stage to give a little more information including the fact that the non-profit has raised over $250,000 so far. Its mission is to further accessibility to healthcare for the many women in our region who are uninsured, under-insured or completely lacking options. It also is involved in mental healthcare for women and reproductive rights. It offers medical vouchers for free exams to women who volunteer for the organization.
Later, Smith and husband Patrick Feges were honored with the Community Award. Supernova chef Jonny Rhodes of Indigo not only won the Game Changer Award, but also Steelite International's Art of Presentation Award which is voted on by the public. The presentation award came with a $5,000 prize of Steelite products. Steelite International is a British company that manufactures tableware for the hospitality industry and restaurants worldwide.
Nick Wong took home the Sustainabilty Award and elicited chuckles from the crowd for his tie-dyed jumpsuit and Christmas tree headpiece. David Keck of Goodnight Hospitality, whose concepts include the upscale honky-tonk Goodnight Charlie's and the more recently opened Rosie Cannonball and Montrose Cheese and Wine, was awarded the Restaurateur Award for Houston 2019. Benji Aguilar and Kaitlin O'Brien were recognized for Xela Coffee Roasters and Caracol's Andres Blanco and Lindsey Thomas of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse both earned the Sommelier Award.
Chefs Natasha Douglas of Better Luck Tomorrow and Penny Quarter, Drake Leonards of Eunice and Kaitlin Steets of Theodore Rex were honored as well as Bobby Matos of State of Grace and La Lucha. Meredith Larke of Uchi won the Pastry Chef Award while Jasmine Chida of SweetCup Gelato & Sorbet Originale took home the Concept Award. French-born Matthieu Cabon of Magnol French Baking was named Artisan Baker. Westin Galleymore of Underbelly Hospitality and Tommy Ho of Anvil Bar and Refuge were honored for their skills in the bartending world. They each created a signature cocktail for the attendees to enjoy.
Chris Shepherd was given the honor of Mentor Chef and in his brief speech he said that everyone has something to say and that we should all listen. Which is why he is the Mentor Chef of 2019. Shepherd's Underbelly Hospitality operates four restaurants in Houston which have helped to launch the hospitality careers of many of Houston's rising stars including several who were honored at this year's ceremony.
After the awards, the tasting gala began. Sommeliers Thomas and Blanco were in charge of the wine pairings for each dish. As much as we would have liked to bend their ears about the wines we were drinking, the lines were quickly filling up. It was "grab a plate, get a swig of wine and go". Despite the busyness, the chefs were happily answering questions at each table as tasters patiently waited their turn.
Our first plate was from Feges BBQ. Patrick Feges has made a name for himself as a pitmaster in a relatively short career. The pork belly burnt ends were crispy, smoky and sweet. The elote salad served with it from Smith was tasty and had a flavor that I couldn't place no matter how I savored each bite. My companion was enamored with the Salt and Pepper Squid from Nick Wong. I loved the Nam Jim that accompanied it even more. To steal a phrase from the Frank's Red Hot Sauce spokesperson, "I'd put that shit on everything". I would even put it on Cabon's gorgeous artisan bread served with herbed butter or plain. With or without, the bread was amazing either way.
While my companion, who has a penchant for anything seafood, loved the Blackened Verlasso Salmon Tostada from Felipe Riccio of Goodnight Hospitality, I was surprised by the Smoked Aussie Lamb Tartare from Kaitlin Steets of Theodore Rex. Lamb and tartare are not two words I would normally put together, but the acidity of the vinegar, lemon juice and brined olives balanced any hint of gaminess. It tasted bright and fresh. It wasn't the only surprise of the evening, however. In a room of rising stars, there are bound to be some revelatory moments.
One of those was when I tasted Meredith Larke's foie gras candy bar. It blew me away. I don't know what I was expecting but it sure wasn't a stunning, creamy, chocolate dream. Yes, there's rendered fois gras fat and puree, but it didn't really come through as livery or overpowering. It just seemed to add to the incredible luxurious richness. It's a new item at Uchi, so you can check it our for yourselves.
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Bobby Matos had two dishes going, representing State of Grace with a Wagyu Beef Rib sample and a Fried Oyster Loaf for La Lucha. The fried oyster dish was pure comfort food with crunchy cornmeal oysters set between two slices of soft white bread smeared with Duke's Mayonnaise (maybe a little too much mayo) and garnished with bread and butter pickles. It ain't healthy, but it will make your belly and soul happy.
Natasha Douglas dished out Green Shakshuka, which she described as an Israeli stew while Drake Leonards was serving a more familiar Gulf Coast standard, Crawfish and Blue Crab Etoufee. Guest Chef Beatris Martines of H-Town Restaurant Group had Tinga de Canejo, a rabbit stew over sweet potato masa cakes. We were bummed because we didn't get a chance to try Chef Rhodes' Slum Village: Ash-aged Potato, Okra, Creme, Shallot and Thyme. The line for the young chef's table was long from beginning to end. So, we ended our tasting with Jasmine Chida's Pomegranate-Rose Sorbet and Saffron Milk Jelly Tarts. It was a fragrant and beautiful finale to a starry, starry night.