Weekend Winners: The Chefs Who Wowed Over Two Days Of Competitions in Houston

Pleasant fall weather in Houston means a lot of outdoor events and competitions. This past weekend was even crazier than usual. Here are all of the many chefs and dishes that wowed judges and attendees across town. 

Saturday was the Houston Cellar Classic at the Uptown Park location of The Tasting Room. Peska Seafood Culture’s young executive chef, Omar Pereny, continues to demonstrate that he has a knack for competitions. This past year, he’s already won Spiked By The Scoop (an ice cream competition at Yellow Rose Distilling) and the Curry Crawl. Add yesterday's win to the list.

Judges were swept away by his sophisticated, sherry vinegar-cured Striped Bass crudo with mixed greens, marinated jicama and pomegranate. It was served over a chilled almond soup called ajoblanco. Pereny created this dish specifically to pair with Etoile Brut sparkling wine. It's made at Domaine Chandon in California using the same process as French Champagne. The chef won a trip for two to Napa for his efforts, so it’s a good thing he just turned 21.

Chef Kiran Verma landed the People’s Choice award. It was a well-deserved honor, as she wowed Houston Cellar Classic attendees and judges with her flavorful spiced Bison Sliders on buttery brioche with vindaloo aioli, baby arugula and sun dried tomatoes.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. There were three more competitions on Sunday. The Houston Margarita Fest was held at Sam Houston Park downtown. Diablo Loco at 6025 Richmond was deemed to have the best ‘ritas in Houston. That win landed them a $1,600 prize while the Best Mixologist winner, private bartender Ronnie Miranda, earned $800 for his win.

Meanwhile, the International Risotto Festival was in full swing at the Houston Design Center. The event beneficiary this year was The Scarlett Fund, named in honor of eight-year-old Scarlett James who is battling T-cell lymphoma, a rare form of pediatric cancer. 

Celebrity chef, author and television star Rocco DiSpirito headed up a panel of judges that included myself; Cleverley Stone of Fox 26 and The Cleverley Show; consul general Elena Sgarbi of the Consulate of Italy; chef Jon Buchannan of Trevisio; Ray Dennison, associate editor of Modern Luxury and Marina Acquista Lapuyade, deputy secretary general of the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce of Texas.

The winning risotto turned out to be an extremely unusual-looking entry: a red risotto that obtained its vibrant color from an infusion of beets. The velvety rice texture and toasty addition of roasted Brussels sprouts leaves and broccoli secured the win for Justin Kouri of the organization Recipe For Success.

However, it is well worth mentioning the stunning, over-the-top presentation of second place winner Quattro. For the judges, chef Maurizio Ferrarese and his team hollowed out entire Caciocavallo cheeses and loaded them up with their creamy risotto flavored with buratta, dried tomatoes, provolone and Meyer lemon. Adorning the top was a single slice of pink Ahi tuna and a dusting of caper powder. 

One of the most anticipated competitions was the Houston Barbecue Festival Throw Down, created by the same team who created the smoke-centric festival that happens in the spring. It was hosted by Saint Arnold Brewing Company.

The judges were Wayne Muller of Louie Mueller Barbecue, Alison Cook of the Houston Chronicle, Pat Sharpe of Texas Monthly, Greg Gatlin of Gatlin’s BBQ and barbecue photographer Robert Jacob Lerma.

The challenge for competitors was to create a dish that “represents their interpretation of Houston-style barbecue.” Considering the myriad of cultures here, that challenge was easier said than done. Blood Bros. BBQ, Brooks’ Place BBQ, The Brisket House, Corkscrew BBQ, Feges BBQ, Pappa Charlie’s Barbeque, The Pit Room, Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Cue, Ray's BBQ Shack and Roegel’s Barbecue Co. pulled out all the stops and made their best efforts.

In the end, the judges picked the Smoked Oxtails by Brooks’ Place while attendees voted for Corkscrew BBQ’s Brisket and Texas Caviar Tacos.

For their efforts, Trent Brooks and his team won a Yeti cooler full of 44 Farms steaks, a trophy, a cash prize and those all-important bragging rights.

Don't believe for a minute that competition season is over. Join the Houston Press next Saturday for the inaugural Tacolandia competition and festival. James Beard winning author and former Houston Press restaurant critic Robb Walsh has curated the event. Judging alongside me are local taco expert Jay Rascoe (aka “Guns and Tacos”), author Mando Rayo of the forthcoming The Tacos of Texas book, photographer Marco Torres who not only shot photos for the aforementioned book but is a regular contributor to the Houston Press; and professor and author Paul Galvani. It runs from 4 to 7 p.m. (3 p.m. for VIP entry) at the Water Works at Buffalo Bayou Park. 
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook