For those who think the buzz around Austin's dining scene is just hype, we have 12 sharp rejoinders. From chefs who make electric food from the confines of a trailer to those reinventing fine dining, the 2018 nominees for Rising Star Chef of the Year are the reason people keep flocking to Austin.
Find out what makes the chefs so special below, then raise a glass on April 12 at Fair Market when we name the winner at our seventh annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards ceremony and tasting featuring bites from some of the city’s best restaurants.
Teddy Bricker, Soursop
The restaurant industry is a serious business, so it’s not exactly a shocker that some chefs play it safe, sticking to tried-and-true formulas that are more designed to sell rather than inspire. It’s refreshing to see a chef like Soursop’s Teddy Bricker so often throw caution to the wind. In the past, he has filled Shanghai-style soup dumplings with Thai tom kha soup. His hot gai sandwich isn’t afraid to get down and dirty with a slice of Swiss cheese product. And his Pho-tine recognizes that when you are located at a brewery (St. Elmo to be exact), sometimes you just need loaded fries to soak it all up. All of that is to say that no matter how much work he puts into his menus, it never feels like he is just punching the clock.
Thomas Calhoun, Aviary Wine & Kitchen
As the much-lauded former pastry chef at Lenoir, Thomas Calhoun isn’t exactly unknown in these parts. Still, that didn’t prepare Austin for what he would do as executive chef of Aviary Wine & Kitchen. At the popular South Austin hangout, he takes his cues from some of the most famous wine regions in the world, but his simple menu is far from being a rote tour through the Mediterranean’s greatest hits. Instead, he eschews tradition, seasoning aioli with Yemeni schug or throwing habanero into a tomato broth for boudin blanc.
Gabe Erales, Dai Due Taqueria
Austinites who missed chef Rene Redzepi’s much-ballyhooed Noma Mexico are lucky to have a member of its team a little closer to home. With Dai Due Taqueria chef/owner Jesse Griffiths, Gabe Erales is cooking up the most inventive Mexican food this side of Tulum (think venison picadillo served with sweet potato, Texas olives, peanuts, and radish or a torta made with breaded quail) — all done with the same exacting standards and strong local ethos as the flagship that shares its name.
Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley, Foreign & Domestic
It’s not easy to take over the reins at an established restaurant, especially one as highly regarded as Foreign & Domestic. Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley have done it by honoring the restaurant’s rich reputation while making sure their own stamp is recognizable, working in much the same way as fashion designers do when taking over a heritage house. That one-two punch is most apparent in the dishes featuring unsung proteins. From the most recent menu, that included fried pigs ears with kale, habanero, orange, and sesame; beef cheeks with potato pappardelle; and venison tartare with dukka, poppadum, and pickled yolk. They are all hearty dishes, yes, but they never land with a thud — perhaps the niftiest trick of all.
Zach Hunter, The Brewer's Table
It may seem odd to nominate Zach Hunter for a Tastemaker Award. After all, he is helming a restaurant that still hasn’t welcomed its first guests. Of course, that doesn’t tell the full story. Austinites already know his work from his stretch as chef de cuisine at downtown Southern eatery Fixe and at the plethora of tasting events like last year's Smokeout Session for the James Beard Foundation's Taste America Tour. There, he served swordfish belly made to mimic the texture of pork, wrapped around raw apple and turnip for a little crunch. It’s no wonder why the Brewer’s Table is so feverishly anticipated.
Evan LeRoy, LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue
With a CV that includes stints at fine dining classic Hudson’s on the Bend and New York City’s ode to Texas, Hill Country Barbecue Market, it’s clear that chef and pitmaster Evan LeRoy has a way with meat. The surprise is that he took his craft in such an astonishing direction, stuffing quail with macaroni and cheese, making sausage out of jerk chicken, and seasoning Wagyu ribs with numbing Szechuan spice. Folks devote much chatter to the authenticity of Central Texas barbecue, but LeRoy recognizes that no cuisine is ever static. As the city evolves, so does he, and that’s about as Austin as you can get.
Page Pressley, Emmer & Rye
This may be the last year that you see Emmer & Rye chef de cuisine Page Pressley listed as a rising star. Since being nominated in this category last year, he has had a breakout year, earning praise from StarChefs and increasingly representing the restaurant at culinary events. Of course, he had some serious chops before joining the team, impressing Austin as the chef de cuisine at Uchiko and the head chef at the much-missed St. Philip. Now collaborating with the visionary team at Emmer & Rye, he is operating in a whole new stratosphere.
Deepa Shridhar, Puli-Ra
Few chefs embody Austin’s DIY food culture as much as Deepa Shridhar. When she needed money while working on a documentary film, she started a small catering company. When she decided it was time to learn butchery, she hounded Dai Due chef Jesse Griffiths until he offered to let her stage. And when it was time to branch out on her own, she threw out all the rules of Indian cooking, using local ingredients and unexpected techniques — first through her Anjore supper club and popular farmers market stand, and now via her Puli-Ra food truck. Purists and prigs may scoff at her combining cacio e pepe and naan or throwing green saag on a pizza. People who actually love food rejoice at the way she turns her diverse biography into effortlessly delicious bites.
Max Snyder, Pitchfork Pretty
Somehow avoiding most of the breathless hype that usually precedes new restaurant openings, Pitchfork Pretty turned out to be one of 2017’s biggest dining revelations. That didn’t last long, of course. Once locals began tasting chef Max Snyder’s inventive takes on Hill Country cuisine, they were hooked, and his chickpea flour-battered fried chicken quickly became regarded as one of the city’s essential dishes. The Austin native may have cut his teeth at well-regarded restaurants elsewhere (NoMad and Eleven Madison Park in New York City and Coi and Old Bus Tavern in San Francisco), but his cuisine at Pitchfork Pretty is proof positive there’s no place like home.
Lakana Trubiana, Dee Dee
Over the past few years, the Austin culinary scene has produced a lot of dazzle as an ambitious generation of chefs set out to tweezer their way to fame. Lakana Trubiana made her name by doing the exact opposite. You won’t find fussy micro-greens topping her om gai, and the coconut milk on the mango dessert is drizzled in a quick squiggle instead of tasteful dots. That time is best spent developing fragrant chili paste broths or making sure the sticky rice comes out perfectly every single time.
Miguel Vidal, Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ
For this industry vet, cooking is a family affair. It shows in the way he always gives credit to his co-owners: his wife, Modesty, and brother Elias. It shows in the ingredients he uses, like pork and beef from another family operation, Hartley Ranch. Most of all, it shows in dishes like tangy pulled chicken sandwiches and the fabled Real Deal Holyfield, a kitchen sink breakfast taco that is stuffed with fried egg, potatoes, refried beans, and bacon, then hit with a wallop of smoked brisket or pulled pork. Nothing comes out of his kitchen that he wouldn’t serve to his own kin, which is exactly why you should be serving it to yours.
Buy tickets now to the Tastemaker Awards on April 12 at Fair Market. Learn more about the event here.