The Austin-San Antonio Rising Stars Winners: Why They Shine

by Caroline Hatchett with Will Blunt and Antoinette Bruno
Will Blunt, Antoinette Bruno, and Caroline Hatchett
January 2012

Whether they’re operating out of a food truck, cinderblock diner, or multi-million dollar restaurant, chefs in the Austin-San Antonio market are making a difference with creative food and alternative moxie. Just as Central Texas has proved itself an incubator for the technology and music industries, area chefs have put Austin and San Antonio on the map (and into the national consciousness) as dining destinations, dripping with ambitious chef talent. Barbecue, Mexican, and Southern comfort still have a home here, but chefs have redefined staples; a trip to Central Texas and its young guard talent just may yield the best taco, brisket, and fried chicken you’ve ever eaten—not to mention world-class sushi, otherworldly pastry, and sublime cocktails.

This year we tasted savory dishes, desserts, cocktails, and wine pairings from more than 60 talented chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers in Austin and San Antonio. Only 18 earned the title of Rising Star. So what makes them shine?

Rising Star have attributes that make us believe they will be the future leaders of the country’s culinary scene. Put simply, they’re not just surviving the Central Texas restaurant industry—they’re catapulting it to the national forefront. So without further ado, our 2012 Austin-San Antonio Rising Stars: who they are, why they shine, and how they're shaping the future of American cuisine.

the greenwood recipe

CHEF: David Bull, Congress Austin
He may be a New York native, but David Bull—like his bovine namesake—is a force (perhaps the force) to be reckoned with in the Texas culinary scene. After transforming Austin’s stately Driskill Grill, Bull set his sights on building the gastronomic seat of Texas’s capital city. And he’s achieved just that at Congress Austin, where the chef creates cerebral, playful cuisine in a tasting-menu-only format. And trust us; you’ll want all three (or seven—you’ll see) courses on a given menu, because Bull’s at his best layering an idea, flavor, or ingredient on the plate. No surprise, since that’s where Bull’s history in the kitchen and role in the future of Texas dining converge.

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Pan-roasted Sea Scallop, Jicama-Mint Salad, Coconut Cream, Cocoa Nib, and Chocolate Mint
- Charred Rib-eye Loin, Roasted Salsify, Oyster Mushrooms, and Green Peppercorn Curry

CHEF: Paul Qui, Uchiko
Initially drawn to Tyson Cole’s Uchi as a diner (and culinary school groupie), Paul Qui stayed on long after paying his final check. Now as head chef at Uchi’s sister restaurant, Uchiko, Qui creates artful, interactive canvases that beg diners to (eventually) deface them. His dishes strive to play with all of your senses—rosemary smoke wafts from a jar and cornflake tuiles crackle between your teeth. They also smack the tastebuds with all five flavor notes; you’re bound to bite into bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and umami in one mouthful. This Top Cheftestant has the raw talent, drive, and quick smile to charm diners, palates, and (surely) investors—meaning it won’t be long before Paul Qui has his own set of groupies.

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Sunchoke-Dashi Soup, Uni, Bottarga, Baby Carrots, and Zucchini Blossoms
- Koviche: Diver Scallops, Tomatillos, Black Lime Salt, Yuzukosho Seasoning, and Cornflake Tuile

the greenwood recipe

CHEF: Andrew Wiseheart, Contigo
For a man who has “goat roper” on his résumé, Andrew Wiseheart sure has a way with vegetables. He served us the best cauliflower we’ve ever eaten—like a crown jewel among meat courses. Time working the line in Napa taught him the power of beautiful produce. His childhood in San Angelo, Texas, and time as a ranch hand gave him an appreciation for meat at its source, something with which many chefs are only now reconnecting. Wiseheart is the chef at Austin’s Contigo, an open-air restaurant, or more accurately, casual watering hole that aims to unite the hospitality of a Texas ranch with good people, cold beer, and great food. And he delivers his end of the bargain with quiet confidence and great skill. So even if Contigo claims they serve “bar food,” it’s perhaps the best you can get under the big Texas sky.

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Cauliflower Gratin, Currants, Capers, Toasted Almonds, Garlic Cream, Parmesan Cheese, and Balsamic Reduction
- Marley Ranch Goat, Butter-braised Turnips, Baby Carrots, Cannellini Beans, and Sweet Tomato Broth

CHEF: Rene Ortiz, La Condesa
Rene Ortiz changed the way Austin eats Mexican food. He opened high-style La Condesa in 2009 in a cheese-laden, salsa-smothered landscape. And through the recession and despite local preferences, his upscale Mexican food mission has flourished. In the course of his career, Ortiz has seen every side of the Mexican kitchen, and he emerged with a clear vision of a cuisine that he believes can stand up to the traditions of more universally refined French and Japanese foods. To prove his point, Ortiz launched La Condesa Napa in November 2011, invading a region known for both its fine-dining and taco truck cultures. As he’s done in Austin, Ortiz will merge those worlds with technique, pure flavors, and passion for an oft misunderstood and deeply exciting cuisine.

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Ensalada de Navidad: Roasted Red Beet, Pickled Yellow Beet, Fresh Hearts of Palm, Hibiscus-Grapefruit Jam, Fried Kale, and Horseradish Aïoli
- Tacos Arrabicos: Seared Cervena Venison, Pickled Cucumber, Chipotle Harissa, Fennel Pollen Yogurt, and Bacon Fat Tortilla

the greenwood recipe

CHEF: Ned Elliott, Foreign & Domestic
Ned Elliott cooks wildly imaginative and impossibly delicious food out of an Ikea-furnished, cinderblock diner. With a predilection for offal and inventive ingredient combinations (say, brains and huckleberries), Elliott’s plates succeed by appealing to diners’ caveman instincts, along with their more evolved expectations of dining. And in his best plates, Elliott manages to massage seemingly disparate elements into cohesive, powerfully flavorful dishes. His attention to detail and technique result from time spent in the kitchens of Per Se, Picholine, Tabla, and Essex House. But Elliott has branched away from the masters; his cuisine has a clear voice that speaks of a young, talented chef, clearly on the rise.

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Moulard Duck Breast, Carrot Ribbons, Carrot Butter, Golden Raisins, Tarragon, and Lavender Honey
- Heartbrand Beef Wagyu Flank Steak, Fermented Red Pepper Sauce, Mint, Fried Orzo, Soft Poached Egg on a Bed of Bacon, Sea Salt, Fava Beans, Togarashi, and Allan Benton Ham Broth

CHEF: Quealy Watson, The Monterey
A chef walked into a bar … and transformed it into a destination restaurant. San Antonio’s quirky, funky The Monterey wanted to serve food to accompany drinks, but Quealy Watson’s “new Southern gastropub” fare—full of odd bits, comfort, and bright flavors—refused to take a back seat to beer. Watson is an Alamo City local, who’s seen San Antonio’s dining scene slowly evolve. And now, he’s putting in the care, creative energy, and good cooking to lead a new generation of chefs and re-introduce diners to the Southern and Southwestern flavors they love in a whole new light—specifically, the bright neon orange light of The Monterey. That means superior product, forward thinking, and impeccable technique with zero pretense. Just the way Watson and Team Monty like it.

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Menudo-style Fried Beef Tripe, Duck Fat Beans, and Poached Egg
- Braised Beef Cheek, Green Romesco, Spiced Almonds, and Fenugreek

the greenwood recipe

CHEF: Bryce Gilmore, Barley Swine
Bryce Gilmore grew up working the Austin restaurant scene. As the chef and partner at Barley Swine, he’s now defining it. After working kitchens in Napa and Aspen, Gilmore returned to his native city to open a food trailer in 2009. In the tidal wave of food trucks, Odd Duck Farm to Trailer strove for something more. Gilmore engaged Austin’s farming community and served nose-to-tail, local-veggie-packed cuisine at prices accessible to everyone. And when business outgrew his 1980 Fleetwood Mallard, he opened the brick and mortar Barley Swine, where a (slightly) larger kitchen space allows Gilmore to feed more people and better express the flavors of Central Texas. His food is bigger than (and bound to engulf) the four walls that surround it.

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Crab-stuffed Crêpe, Soft Scrambled Egg, Morel Mushrooms, and Pickled Summer Squash
- Grilled Rabbit Terrine, Bacon-Liver Mousse, French Breakfast Radishes, and Sweet Texas Onions

CHEF: Aaron Franklin, Franklin Barbecue
You haven’t eaten beef until you’ve had a fatty, smoky slice of Aaron Franklin’s brisket. This self-proclaimed barbecue nerd got his start working at his father’s barbecue pit in Bryan, Texas, and went on to work the counter with the famed Louie Miller Barbecue clan in Taylor. In his first solo venture, Franklin sold two slabs of brisket a day from a trailer. Now, he smokes around 1,000 pounds of meat six days a week from his retro, rustic restaurant, Franklin Barbecue. With little more than salt, pepper, post oak, beef, and pork (not to mention an unimaginable number of man hours), Franklin transforms protein into salty, meltingly tender meat magic. It’s barbecue good enough to rival the smoked meat of rural Central Texas legend.

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Beef Brisket

the greenwood recipe

PASTRY CHEF: Plinio Sandalio, Carillon
Salty, boozy, sweet, intense. Welcome to the palate and playground of Pastry Chef Plinio Sandalio. Not that Sandalio is just about playtime. The adventurous pastry chef has as much solid structural foundation as wild creativity. His desserts take their cue from hard-earned experience behind the line and bar. And his fantastical (fantastic) combinations show he’s not afraid to take risks. So far Sandalio’s calculations—to name a few: abandoning an engineering degree, quitting Houston for Austin, and serving us Campari pop rocks—have paid off. The only thing retiring about Sandalio is the man himself, a quiet, intense presence in the kitchen who breaks out of his shell through his whimsical pastry. We’re guessing it won’t be long before he breaks out of his shell on a national level. After a post a David Bull’s Congress Austin, Sandalio now holds the sweets throne at Carillon

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Grapefruit Sorbet, Grapefruit Supremes, Campari Pop Rocks, and Angostura Bitters Ice Cream
- Feta Cheesecake, Corn Ice Cream, Basil Chips, and Blueberry Compote

PASTRY CHEF: Philip Speer, Uchi
Philip Speer has a surprise for you. Close your eyes, take a bite of one of his desserts, and feel the rush of nostalgia, a hint of the unfamiliar, and an intense clarity of flavor. The man behind the pastry programs at Uchi and Uchiko, Speer is a craftsman with a playful bent, and a wide open eye for inspiration. Inspiration comes from either end of the spectrum—from his daughters’ lunch boxes to gentlemen’s smoking rooms—with the deep recesses of Speer’s imagination often center stage. And the resulting desserts—with their rich, evocative flavors—consistently ring true to the conceits, no matter how far fetched from the world of pastry itself. As director of culinary operations for Tyson Cole’s expanding Uchi empire, Speer is now using his creativity to push the business side of the restaurant group. Meaning between his bold personality, broad imagination, and now proven industry acumen, Philip Speer is a sweet triple threat. 

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Peanut Butter Semifreddo, Miso-Apple Sorbet, Peanut Brittle, Micro Wasabi, Rehydrated Raisins, and Golden Raisin Puree
- Tobacco Cream, Chocolate Sorbet, Maple Budino, Huckleberry, and Scotch Custard

the greenwood recipe

HOTEL CHEF: Josh Watkins, Carillon
His title might sound slightly administrative—executive chef at the AT&T Executive Conference and Education Center—but Josh Watkins is hardly sitting behind a desk. This ambitious chef is running the biggest hotel food program in town, and making incredible food to boot. Banquets and catering make up the bulk of his $12 million F&B revenue, which gives Watkins the freedom to pour resources (creative and monetary) into Carillon, his more subdued, fine-dining enclave. And it’s here, where his modern cuisine draws from a global pantry and the latest in cooking technology, that some of the chef’s greatest strengths are on display. Watkins’s plates are not only some of the city’s most beautiful, his compositions also burst with flavor and intrigue, proving he is that special kind of professional who knows how to balance the demands of a large hotel with the dreams of a chef. 

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Cured Niragi, Beet Ceviche, Laura Chenel Goat Cheese, and Citrus Vinaigrette
- Miso-marinated Sea Bass, Soy-wilted Spinach, Maitake Mushrooms, Ginger-Apple-Carrot Reduction, and Chives

ARTISAN/CHEF: Brandon Martinez and John Bates, The Noble Pig
Like so many chefs who put in their time in fine-dining kitchens, John Bates and Brandon Martinez wanted to abandon white tablecloths and high price tags without losing the ideals of technique, sourcing, and quality. And they’ve done just that with The Noble Pig, a charcuterie, bread, and sandwich shop on the far edges of North Austin. Their location may not be Austin chic, but that doesn’t keep crowds from near and far from packing into their small restaurant and adjacent storefront. What keeps them coming are impeccable sausages, terrines, and pâtés, along with creative, addictive sandwiches made on fresh-baked bread—none of which will set you back more than $10. The food at The Noble Pig puts swine on its rightful (and fashionable) pedestal, and Bates and Martinez have brought dignity back to the humble sandwich with their artisan’s devotion to the craft.

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Seared Beef Tongue Sandwich, Red Pepper Relish, Smoked Green Onions, and Aïoli
- Sweet Italian Sausage Sandwich, Roasted Red Onions, Roasted Tomatoes, Provolone, Basil Pesto Aioli, and Jalapeno Slaw

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RESTAURATEUR: Tyson Cole, Uchi, Uchi Houston, and Uchiko
Tyson Cole needs no introduction in Austin. With a 2011 James Beard win and an authoritative cookbook under his belt, he’s one of the key figures responsible for catapulting this capital city into the national restaurant consciousness. But Cole isn’t satisfied with a single, hometown Uchi success. He’s ready to spread his globally-influenced sushi concept and restaurant culture to new cities. His original Uchi opened in 2003. Uchiko (translated to “child of Uchi) opened to rave reviews in 2010. And a second Uchi will launch in Houston this February. Cole, who long ago mastered Japanese tradition and technique, is just hitting his restaurateur stride. And though he says he plans to expand his reach slowly, Tyson Cole has the momentum, staff, and culinary chops to roll out an irresistible sushi concept in a town (if you’re lucky) near you.

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Sliced Japanese Red Sea Bream, Ginger Broth, and Micro Shiso
- Hama Nabe: Baby Yellowtail, Koshihikari Rice, Farm Egg, and Soy Broth

RESTAURATEUR: Jason Dady, Tre Trattoria, BIN 555, and Two Bros. BBq Market
At 24, Jason Dady moved from Dallas to San Antonio with a business plan, a small loan, and a healthy dose of naiveté. Along with his wife and brother, he opened The Lodge, one of San Antonio’s first restaurants to offer a tasting menu. And building on his success, he launched small plates-focused Bin 555, two locations of fresh pasta haven Tre Trattoria, and most recently Texas traditional Two Bros. BBQ Market. What Dady saw in San Antonio—beyond the cheap real estate—was a town where he could grow as a chef and businessman and help expand the collective palate. And a decade after he entered the market, he’s accomplished those goals and more. Dady has become part of the fabric of San Antonio’s food community, and he has many more concepts—and meals—to share.

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Smoked Local Cabrito Ribs, Polenta, and Natural Jus
- Arugula, Butterleaf Lettuce, Burrata, Noble X No. 5, Pear, Basil, Olive Oil, and Vinegar

the greenwood recipe

SUSTAINABILITY CHEF: Michael Sohocki, Restaurant Gwendolyn
Michael Sohocki is driven by a concept, an ideal. At his Restaurant Gwendolyn, he does not cook food or use equipment that didn’t exist in the San Antonio region before the Industrial Revolution. That’s 1850, folks. A mortar and pestle takes the place of a food processor; Sohocki reads yellowing, 100-year-old cookbooks for menu inspiration, and serves venison that was shot and dressed in the field. But it’s not so much a fascination with history that drives Sohocki—his cuisine is about the future of food in San Antonio. Restaurant Gwendolyn exists to support the local farming community, to sow the seeds of an economic and cultural renaissance, where diners wean themselves from conventional agriculture and re-learn a sense of limitation. Sohocki has a valuable, if not daunting mission, to convert a city entered through the excesses of Interstate 35. But good food is a powerful witness to the potential of sustainable dining.

Dishes that Clinched It:
- Charcuterie: Croutons, Deviled Eggs, Rooster Mousse, Pig's Foot Terrine, Dried Venison and Pork Salami, Pickled Okra, Pickled Cucumber, and Pomeraine Mustard
- Tangerine Pain de Genes: Almond Cake, Tangerine Sabayon, Tangerine Supremes, and Tangerine Ice Cream

SOMMELIER: June Rodil, Congress Austin
June Rodil has the envious position of pairing wine with David Bull’s flawless tasting menus. Rodil—a self-proclaimed Burgundy lover—isn’t shy about dipping into far-flung regions, varietals, and even the occasional beer bottle to come up with perfect pairings. And where another somm might go big with high-price vintages, she presents guests with little-known, value-driven gems. A meal spent with Rodil tableside is the ultimate value. Even the most oeno-savvy guests leave Congress with a new bit of knowledge and most certainly that delicious sensory denouement that comes after experiencing a pitch-perfect food and wine pairing.

Pairings that Clinched It:
- Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken Saar Riesling, 2008 with Pan-roasted Sea Scallop, Jicama-Mint Salad, Coconut Cream, Cocoa Nib, and Chocolate Mint
- St. Bernardus Abt 12, Brouwerij, St. Bernardus, NV, Belgium with Challerhocker Cheese, Candied Pecans, Stout Reduction, and Fruit Mostarda

the greenwood recipe

MIXOLOGIST: Jeret Peña, The Esquire
Jeret Peña is at the heart of a changing cocktail culture in San Antonio. At The Esquire—once a rough and tumble bar where knife-toting and scandalous bathroom recreation were the norm—Peña leads a renaissance in the art of mixology, lacing drinks with his cherished mezcal, bitter amari, and a shot of character. Although Alamo city’s cocktail scene is still relatively small, Peña isn’t waiting to show off the few and brave mixos the city has behind its best bars. Along with Sasha Petraske and the team behind local Bohanan’s, Peña is helping organize the first annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference. Peña is a natural ambassador with an unnatural amount of talent, along with a potent drink to convince any naysayers that he and his hometown have raised the bar behind the bar.

Drinks that Clinched It:
- The Sacrilege: Chamomile-infused Capel Pisco, Green Chartreuse, Lime, Honey, Egg White, and Cracked Pepper
- Mas Chingoni: Anejo Tequila, Aperol, Carpano Antica, Mezcal, and Grapefruit Peel