The Houston Rising Stars Award Winners and Why They Shine

by Kathleen Culliton with Will Blunt
March 2011

2011 Houston Rising Stars Chefs

David Grossman, Branch Water Tavern
Manabu Horiuchi, Kata Robata
Jeramie Robison, Cinq at La Colombe d’Or
Randy Rucker, Bootsie’s
Chris Shepherd, Catalan Food and Wine
Seth Siegel-Gardner, Kata Robata

Community Chef

Randy Evans, Haven

Sustainability Chef

Jamie Zelko, Zelko Bistro


Bryan Caswell, Little Bigs, Reef, and Stella Sola

Pastry Chefs

Vanarin Kuch, Tiny Boxwoods
Chris Leung, Bootsie’s


Bobby Heugel, Anvil Bar & Refuge


Sean Beck, Backstreet Café, Hugo’s, and Trevisio

We admit it; we’ve been remiss. During the nine years we’ve been seeking out Rising Stars across the country, this was our first trip to Houston. But when members of the close-knit Houston chef community reached out to us last year, championing their fellow chefs on our site and through Twitter, we realized something special was happening in Houston, and we wanted to see and taste it. We made Houston our first stop for the 2011 Rising Star itinerary—before Chicago, Portland, and our home town, New York. When we arrived we didn’t know what to expect, but we quickly discovered why Houstonians eat out more than any other urban population in the country.

We tasted savory dishes, desserts, cocktails, and wine pairings from more than 60 of Houston’s talented chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers. Only 13 earned the title of Rising Star. So what makes them shine? Creativity, ambition, exquisite presentation, and a stellar dish or drink.

Every Rising Star has a quality that make it clear to us that he or she is going to be a future leader of the culinary industry. Put simply, they’re not just coasting in the vast Houston restaurant scene—they’re defining it. So without further ado, here's an introduction to the 2011 Houston Rising Stars: who they are, why they shine, and how they're shaping the future of American cuisine.

Chef Ruben Garcia CHEF: David Grossman, Branch Water Tavern

David Grossman’s unfussy cuisine belies the perfectionism he demands in the kitchen of Branch Water Tavern, the restaurant where this CIA graduate infuses bold flavors into his handsome vittles. He quietly adds a soupçon of New York aesthetic—drawn from his experience at Gotham Bar and Grill with Chef Alfred Portale and Oceana with Chef Cornelius Gallagher—to his Third Coast, cult-classic cuisine. We're confident his skills could translate anywhere on the map, but for now it seems like Houstonians can't get enough of Grossman's New York state of mind.

The Dishes that Clinched It:
- Roasted Cervena Venison, Sweet Potato-Brussels Sprout Hash, Bacon Confit, and Pomegranate Jus

- Chicken Fried Oysters, Celery Root Slaw with Buttermilk Dressing, Frank's Red Hot Sauce, and Celery Greens


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Benjamin LambertCHEF: Manabu Horiuchi, Kata Robata

Houston might not seem like a marquee destination for authentic, polished Japanese cuisine. But with Manabu Horiuchi in the kitchen, it’s no wonder Kata Robata is not only adored by Houston diners, but a favorite among local chefs. Horiuchi's goal is nothing short of making Houston a hub of world-class Japanese cuisine, and it reverberates through every item on the menu. But that's no surprise; the young chef's technique is as flawless as his palate. Of course, we weren't the first to recognize Horiuchi’s extreme dedication, and we're certainly we won't be the last. Horiuchi's dream is fast becoming a reality, and the country will take note.

The Dishes that Clinched It:
- Uni Chawan Mushi: Traditional Egg Custard with Shrimp, Chicken, Sea Urchin, Shiitake Mushrooms, and Dashi

- Aji Tataki, Shiso Leaf-infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Soy, Ginger, Micro Greens, Daikon, and Purple Carrots


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Nick Stefanelli

CHEF: Jeramie Robison, Cinq at La Colombe d’Or

Although Jeramie Robison modestly describes himself as an old-fashioned, “country boy,” there is nothing simplistic about the food he serves at Cinq. Dishes like Butter-poached Lobster preserve the charm of small-town Louisiana with simple plating and clean flavors, while touches of spice modernize and refine the classic flavor profile. And his culinary imagination does double duty; Robison also heads the kitchen at Zimm’s Little Deck. Between the two kitchens, Robison barely has a moment to spare, but he completely (and eagerly) devotes himself to his work. Whether he's focusing on casual cuisine or fine dining, every plate Robison prepares is injected with youthful energy and unaffected country soul.

The Dishes that Clinched It:
- Braised Australian Short Ribs, Corn Velouté, Red Wine Cabbage, Mushroom Ragoût, and Port Syrup

- Butter-poached Lobster, Fine Caper Herb Butter, Cornichons, Tarragon, Parsley, White Asparagus, and Lobster Foam


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David VarleyCHEF: Randy Rucker, Bootsie’s

Randy Rucker commits an intense level of dedication and integrity to his restaurant Bootsie’s. For Rucker, his role as the chef-owner of Tomball, Texas’ favorite café is more than job, it’s a lifestyle. And it’s one that Rucker finds exciting and inspiring. When he isn’t behind the line at Bootsie’s, he’s foraging in the woods or along the coast, proudly highlighting local Houstonian product in his menu. For this reason alone, Bootsie's is a restaurant the world should know about; its chef lives on the frontier of American cuisine and celebrates it, daily, with his menu. Where Rucker goes next, the nation may follow.

The Dishes that Clinched It:
- “Pastiche” Salad of Shaved Winter Vegetables, Roots, Stems, and Foraged Greens

- Porridge of Steel-cut Oats and Maple with Lichen, Spring Creek Mushrooms, and Smoked Mascarpone Cheese


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Nobu YamazakiCHEF: Chris Shepherd, Catalan Food and Wine

Call him a fanatic. Call him a food genius. He'll probably respond to either. That's because Chef Chris Shepherd of Catalan Food and Wine devotes his every waking moment to food. He lives and breathes the stuff; and like the most passionate chefs we've met, his menu follows him everywhere. Shepherd is the kind of chef who'll turn a barbecue mishap into his next hot menu item. We didn't just fall in love with his rich, playful food, we fell in love with the kinds of personal, idiosyncratic stories behind the cuisine, not to mention the man himself. Behind the charm is a quick mind and an inner steel that has earned Shepherd unadulterated respect from peers, and increasing national attention.

The Dishes that Clinched It:
- Jamaican Curried Goat Pies, Cucumber-Tomato-Pickled Banana Pepper Salad, and Green Onion Emulsion

- Candied Pork Butt


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Jason AlleyCHEF: Seth Siegel-Gardner, Kata Robata

Seth Siegel-Gardner, in Houston only six months, has already transformed his culinary experience into an inventive, refined menu at one of the most exciting restaurants in Houston. Everything about Kata Robata reflects Siegel-Gardner's versatile repertoire, not to mention his strong working relationship with Co-chef and fellow Rising Star Manabu Horiuchi. Siegel-Gardner distinguishes himself, both at the restaurant and in Houston, with his striking naturalist platings of clean, refined Japanese cuisine. And though he's only been in Houston for a short time, Siegel-Gardner's polished aesthetic and eye for restraint is bound to leave a lasting mark on the city's dining scene.

The Dishes that Clinched It:
- Australian Beef Short Ribs with Broccoli Purée, Toasted Nori Yogurt, Kaeshi Sauce, and Wasabi Vinaigrette

- Foie Gras, Barbeque Unagi, Pickled Apple and Hibiscus, Bone Marrow Powder, and Pickled Hibiscus Sauce


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Bertand ChemelCOMMUNITY CHEF: Randy Evans, Haven

Randy Evans earned his stellar reputation with elbow grease, perfecting his technique at New Orleans-based Brennan’s of Houston and working his way through every station. Call him a master multitasker: beyond his many roles at Haven as owner, manager, gardener, Creole expert, and executive chef, Evans dedicates himself to the greater Houston community with zeal. Although he’s involved in many philanthropic organizations, it’s his volunteer work with Chef Monica Pope’s Recipe for Success that stands out; Evans is training the next generation of Houston diners to embrace healthy, honest food. And even though Evans has more than a few professional obligations, he loves nothing better than seeing a group of fourth graders gathered around his kitchen, preparing a meal from the vegetables he’s taught them to grow, harvest, and cook.

The Dishes that Clinched It:
- Country Fried Chicken Livers, Buttermilk Biscuits, and Andouille Sausage Gravy

- Gumbo z'Herbes


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Clayton MillerSUSTAINABILITY CHEF: Jamie Zelko, Zelko Bistro

When the staff at Zelko Bistro can’t find Jamie Zelko in the kitchen, it’s usually because she’s out in the dining room, handing out fresh blueberries to her diners (when they’re in season, of course). Her menu focuses on the classic, Southern-style cuisine that Houstonians love, with ingredients sourced from local farmers and purveyors whom Zelko personally seeks out. Inspired by the message of Alice Waters, Zelko believes that fresh food is not a privilege, but a right. Zelko even eats some of the restaurant's earnings so she can serve sustainable, healthful food at a price diners can afford. It's an unconventional business model for sure, but Zelko and Houston diners—not to mention local farmers and the environment—will only continue to profit from her uncompromising passion.

The Dishes that Clinched It:
- Sautéed Shrimp, White Polenta Grits, and Sweet Soy Agave Nectar

- Saint Arnold Root Beer Braised Short Ribs, Seasonal Greens, Cheddar Polenta, and Fried Leeks


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John ShieldsRESTAURATEUR CHEF: Bryan Caswell, Bigs, Reef, and Stella Sola

Bryan Caswell is a man on the move in every sense—his days are spent running between Stella Sola, his Tuscan-Texan, fine-dining restaurant; Reef, his Gulf seafood, California-chic spot; and Little Bigs, his casual burger joint and wine bar. He’s also opening another restaurant, El Real, which will serve vintage Tex-Mex—“bring on the lard,” says Caswell. With a mentor like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who sent Caswell from New York and Hong Kong to Bangkok and the Bahamas, Caswell has become an expert at thinking big. And for Caswell, that means serving more Gulf fish varieties (33 and counting) than any other chef in the city and selling diners on eating his diverse brand of Third Coast cuisine. We, for the record, have bought in, hook, line, and sinker; Caswell's already had a serious impact on the landscape of Houston dining, meaning this is one restaurateur we'll be watching for years to come.

The Dishes that Clinched It:
- Roasted Grouper, Braised Collard Greens, and Pecan-Shallot Cracklins

- Kinilaw: Fresh Snapper, Prawns, Blue Crab Claw Meat, Citrus Fruits, Radishes, Green Onion, Roasted Bell Peppers, Crispy Lotus Chip, and Coconut Lime Broth


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Bryan VoltaggioPASTRY CHEF: Vanarin Kuch, Tiny Boxwoods

Vanarin Kuch is a self-proclaimed fat kid on the inside. And even if his voracious appetite for all things pastry hasn't packed on any pounds we can see, it's already propelled him to heights of professional excellence in a city that loves its sugar. For inspiration, Kuch credits his Cambodian upbringing, where food was always the center of family gatherings. Kuch’s desserts at Tiny Boxwood's stray from the predominant Houston style of comfort-food-heavy, syrupy-sweet pastry. And his background in savory cooking is evident in dishes like Sangria Poached Pears, Goat Cheese Mousse, Gruyère, 10-year Cheddar Shards, and Pineapple-Sage Sorbet, where opposing flavors meld in perfect harmony. With culinary maturity beyond his years, not to mention that must-have playfulness of innovative pastry, Kuch is a rising star on the sweets scene, and we can't wait to taste more.

 The Desserts that Clinched It:
- Sangria Poached Pears with Goat Cheese Mousse, Grand Cru Gruyère Reserve and Wisconsin Hook’s 10-Year Cheddar Shards, Sangria Reduction, and Pineapple-Sage Sorbet

- Earl Grey Molten Cake, Mexican Vanilla Ice Cream, and Earl Grey Streusel


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Chris FordPASTRY CHEF: Chris Leung, Bootsie’s

Bootsie's Pastry Chef Chris Leung prepares desserts that transcend the preconceived notions of "sweets" that many Houstonians hold dear. (Don't worry, nobody's complaining.) Leung's quenelles of liquid nitrogen ice creams come in flavors inspired by the seasons (this is Bootsie’s, after all, home of the micro-seasonal menu) and can include flavors as radical as carrot-orange, buckwheat, or hay. But Leung isn't a special-effects show off, he's a pastry chef who puts ingredients before technique; he isn’t above serving a simple (and exquisite) slice of apple pie, as long as it's apple season. But it's Leung's technique—influenced by his background in chemistry and propelled by a scientist's obsession with experimentation—that will keep him at the height of Houston pastry, challenging palates and changing minds, for seasons and seasons to come.

The Desserts that Clinched It:
- Roasted Texas Carrot and Ruby Red Grapefruit Mousse, Grapefruit Marmalade, Hay Sherbet, Candied Sesame Seeds, Clove Meringue, and Miso Foam

- Toasted Seven-grain Ice Cream, Buckwheat Speculoos Crumble, Toasted Yeast Streusel, White Chocolate Sauce, Apple Raisin Puree, and Pickled Raisins


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Tiffany MacIsaacMIXOLOGIST: Bobby Heugel, Anvil Bar & Refuge

A sort of diamond in the cocktail rough, Anvil Bar & Refuge’s Bobby Heugel crafts world-class cocktails in a roadhouse setting. Beyond the national attention he receives for being one of the best mixologists in the country, Heugel’s work is renowned among his peers—Beaver’s and the Lounge at the Hotel Icon, to name a few, proudly claim Heugel as the designer of their cocktail programs. But it’s at Anvil, where Heugel has full reign, that his true spirit shines through. Heugel might be an unapologetic spirits champion, with the savvy to prove it, but Anvil provides perfectly constructed cocktails—classics and spirit-forward newbies—without pretension or preaching. There are no secret passwords, no sneers, and no history lessons—just strong, well-balanced cocktails and a smile. Take a seat at the bar; it's going to be a long night.

The Drinks that Clinched It:
- The Anvil Paloma: Paloma: Siembra Azul Blanco Tequila, House Grapefruit Beer, Lime Juice, Simple Syrup, and Salt Tincture

- Black Betty


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Karen Urie ShieldsSOMMELIER: Sean Beck, Backstreet Café, Hugo’s, and Trevisio

Beverage director for three Houston restaurants—with wildly different menu concepts—Sommelier Sean Beck compares his work to the light in a gallery: he’s there to spotlight the food, not outshine it. Beside the table, Beck is warm and approachable; with his staff, he’s always willing to give a helping hand; and with a glass of Riesling, he is (and could forever be) content. Beyond selecting accomplished pairings for three restaurant menus, Beck emphasizes seasonality in cocktail development, and he champions local Texan spirits and beers. We're glad Beck aspires to incorporate more writing and teaching into his already packed beverage-loving lifestyle; he has much teach us (and a national audience) about truly enjoying wine.

- For the Sommelier


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