There are rising stars among us. Specifically, stars on the dining scene.
A few weeks ago, the editors of StarChefs.com, the magazine for culinary insiders, released their four Rising Stars cities for 2012, choosing Austin and San Antonio as a single selection and revealing the names of their picks for Rising Star chefs in both markets.
Respected and closely read by chefs and foodies alike, StarChefs.com has commanded culinary scenes across the country with the Rising Chef Awards for almost ten years. The Rising Stars awards recognize up-and-coming chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers, and mixologists from around the country that represent future leaders of the national culinary scene.
The Austin and San Antonio Rising Star winners are:
David Bull, Congress Austin
Ned Elliott, Foreign & Domestic
Aaron Franklin, Franklin Barbecue
Bryce Gilmore, Barley Swine
Rene Ortiz, La Condesa
Paul Qui, Uchiko
Quealy Watson, The Monterey
Andrew Wiseheart, Contigo
Michael Sohocki, Restaurant Gwendolyn
Josh Watkins, Carillon
John Bates and Brandon Martinez, Noble Pig
June Rodil, Congress Austin
Jeret Peña, The Esquire
Jonathan Gelman, Driskill Grill
The idea for these heralded awards began 13 years ago, when StarChefs.com was the official media partner of the James Beard Foundation. At the time Antoinette Bruno and Will Blunt, who would later become editor in chief and managing editor of StarChefs.com, noticed they were seeing the same chefs coming to the James Beard Awards year after year, but little focus on new an noteworthy culinary professionals or trends.
“I felt strongly that if we were to come up with an award down the line, that it would first of all, focus on up-and-coming talent and second, we would make a point of not trying to fit the whole country in at one time,” says Bruno, who felt that trying to bestow awards for the entire country at one time each year left too many stones unturned.
Fast forward to 2003, when the first Rising Star Awards was staged featuring Boston, Washington D.C., New Orleans and Seattle as their first batch of cities to explore. For each following year, StarChefs.com has committed to selecting only four cities from which to cull their nominations and bestow top honors to chefs and restaurant industry folks who are proving their wares on the cutting edge of culinary vision, talent and execution.
“It’s a national award, but we cover four markets annually and we thoroughly cover those markets. We do anywhere between 60 and 100 tastings in a particular market to uncover the top culinary talent,” says Bruno.
The Capital City shows prowess as a small town making waves among big city culinary players, and San Antonio represents a big city experiencing a renaissance with creative flare and flavorful execution.
How do they go about narrowing down their chosen cities each year? It’s not exactly a science but it does involve having a sixth sense for those special cities that are emerging into a culinary presence of their own or for those large, well-known cities that have erupted with new and exciting trends.
“We really look for markets that have a strong up-and-coming culinary scene,” says Bruno. “Or larger markets that have something new and fresh happening. Portland is an example of one of those emerging cities, but we also selected Los Angeles when the whole pastry scene was exploding there. Last year we put Houston on our radar after a grass-roots Twitter campaign persuaded us to give it a good look.”
This year Austin and San Antonio together made the list for falling into both categories; the Capital City shows prowess as a small town making waves among big city culinary players, and San Antonio represents a big city experiencing a renaissance with creative flare and flavorful execution.
“Some people told us we shouldn’t bother with San Antonio, but I have to say I’m very glad that we did,” says Blunt. “We definitely weren’t wasting our time there, or calories either. It’s essentially virgin territory for a restaurant or chef to pioneer new concepts in a large city with virtually no competition. Places like The Monterrey or the Esquire Tavern are great and they basically fit into that category of being a big fish in a small pond, only it’s a small culinary pond in a very large economic city. It’s a really unusual market but it would be great to see these initial successes be the glue for more growth in that town."
As for Austin, when the StarChefs.com editors began to uncover the many layers and powerhouse dining options in town, they were pleasantly surprised.
“One thing that is very cool about the Austin market is how much it seems like another cosmopolitan market like a big city even thought it’s still a small city,” says Blunt. “You have great versions of many different styles of food, wine and great cocktails, just like you’d expect from a big city. Everyone here seems very confident and connected to trends that are happening in a bigger markets. Chefs in Austin have managed to avoid being too regional in their identity. They don’t seem to have any boundaries and it’s really cool.”
Bruno agrees. “I spend 26 weeks a year on the road, and the food I saw in Austin seems to really have it’s own identity,” says Bruno. “Austin’s known for having an ‘alternative’ music and tech scene, but it’s food scene is also very ‘alternative.’ Chefs do their own thing here and a lot of it has absolutely nothing to do with national trends. In my estimation, it seems to be a place where ideas really take shape and they just run with them. But it’s all done in a very sophisticated way.”
“Austin’s known for having an ‘alternative’ music and tech scene, but it’s food scene is also very ‘alternative.’ Chefs do their own thing here and a lot of it has absolutely nothing to do with national trends."
So how do the four StarChefs.com editors go about making their final selections? Once they’ve selected a particular city to spotlight, they send a call out for nominations to their website readership. They also request nominations from their board of chefs, from previous Rising Star winners and through their network of chef relationships across the country.
Once they have a strong list of suggested restaurants and chefs to visit, four of the StarChefs.com editors — who all have 13+ years of culinary experience — begin the process of setting up tastings. The goal for the editors is to hone in on those chefs, pastry chefs, sommeliers and mixologists who are really demonstrating skills that are a cut above.
“It’s important to know that we’re not going in to pan what’s going on in a restaurant. We’re not acting as critics,” says Blunt. “We’re coming in to see what’s done really well and we do that with a great amount of humility for what these guys do on a daily basis.”
And while not everyone evaluated will receive a Rising Star award, the StarChefs.com editors make a concerted effort to credit those who are doing a great job overall. “We’re really about the community we’re evaluating. We understand that there are a lot of players that make a whole restaurant scene work. We publish a lot of different stories about other people we’re tasting with and even if you don’t win, we still feel it’s important to give them a nod.”
Once the tastings are complete, the editors convene for a serious evaluation session where they all submit certain restaurants and chefs that really wowed them, as well as particular dishes that turned their heads. The editors don’t exactly share notes from their entire meeting, but they do post examples of why some their Rising Stars really stand out, as well as a few of the specific dishes that were their favorites. You can see how Austin chefs fared here.
“It’s a big deal to be selected as a Rising Star,” says Rising Star Pastry Chef Philip Speer of Uchi and Uchiko. “To have a panel of your peers recognize you is one of the best pats on the back you can receive. It not only helps elevate Austin on the national dining scene, but it helps us as individuals make connections with other chefs and industry people all over the country. It’s really pretty awesome.”
The editors don’t exactly share notes from their entire meeting, but they do post examples of why some their Rising Stars really stand out. You can see how Austin chefs fared here.
All of the hard work combines with a final celebration on Tuesday, Feb. 21 at the Driskill Hotel, for a walk-around tasting gala and awards ceremony that will give diners the opportunity to eat their way through Austin and San Antonio’s top restaurants (and sample beverage pairings by the winning sommelier and mixologist). Tickets are $85, or $125 for VIP.
Attendees will get a chance to taste those exact dishes that the editors selected as their favorite. That’s no easy task, especially when the dishes include Menudo-style fried beef tripe, duck fat beans and poached egg from Quealy Watson of San Antonio’s The Monterey; Moulard duck breast, carrot ribbons, carrot butter, golden raisins, tarragon and lavender honey from Foreign & Domestic’s Ned Elliot in Austin; or Marley Ranch goat, butter-braised turnips, baby carrots, cannellini beans and sweet tomato broth from Austin’s Andrew Wiseheart of Contigo.
“We really push the chefs to create those favorite dishes at the gala because they are some of the main reasons they stood out to us,” says Bruno.
Much like a standard tasting event, attendees will be able to go around do individual chef stations to taste these special dishes. The added bonus is that each station will have a specific wine pairing selected by Rising Star Sommelier June Rodil of Congress Restaurant. This way guests are able to taste something that is perfectly balanced and complimentary to what they’re eating.
“I’ll be honest, I’m stoked. How could I not be,” says Rodil, who presented her pairings with the Congress menu to the StarChef's committee and discussed her philosophy behind each one as she would to an inquisitive guest. “Being recognized for a task that I do on a daily basis; a task that is so integral to my job and the function of our restaurant is truly meaningful.”
Rodil says she won’t reveal any final wine selections for the gala just yet, but that we’re sure to see her favorites: bubbles, Riesling and beer.
At the gala, guests will have a chance to vote for their favorite dish of the night, to be revealed at the official awards ceremony where StarChefs.com editors will also reveal a special Brewer Award and the honored Mentor Award.
“Each market we go to has that person who has effected change for that city, that has paved the way for all of these chefs and restaurants to be here. We’re all about the chef trailblazer that have made things possible for the next generation of chefs,” says Blunt. “People like Stephan Pyles in Dallas or Robert Del Grande in Houston. So we’re really excited to reveal who that is for the Austin and San Antonio market.”
StarChefs.com editors wouldn’t give an inkling of a hint as to who this Mentor Award might go to, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Andrew Weissman (San Antonio: Le Reve, Il Sogno and Sandbar), Emmett Fox (Asti and Fino), or Jeff Blank of Austin’s Hudson’s on the Bend were considered for the honorary award.
It’s probably not worth placing bets on, but if nothing else, the event on the 21st will be a celebratory revelry where great food, cocktails and wine will abound.