The local culinary stars were big and bright Wednesday night on Austin’s east side. StarChefs, a national organization committed to supporting the success of restaurant professionals, hosted its quarterly Rising Stars awards gala and tasting at Fair Market. The event, which was emceed by CultureMap food editor Brandon Watson, featured delectable selections from some of the Lone Star State's best chefs, artisans, bartenders, and sommeliers.
Every year, StarChefs chooses four markets on which to focus the spotlight, and hosts similar awards galas in those cities. Now in its 12th year, the lists of Rising Stars Award recipients read like a crystal ball into the epicurean future of each given city. When the awards first came to Central Texas in 2012, they recognized the likes of Bryce Gilmore, Philip Speer, June Rodil, and Tyson Cole, all startlingly accurate predictions of the greatness to come.
Five years later, StarChefs is back to honor a new class of Austin and San Antonio culinary professionals, and my how we’ve grown. Among Wednesday night's honorees were local heroes Kevin Fink, Page Pressley, and Tavel Bristol-Joseph from Emmer & Rye; Michael Fojtasek of Olamaie; and Tatsu Aikawa of the Tatsu-Ya family of restaurants — most of whom, it’s hard to believe, were virtual unknowns in the Austin restaurant scene in 2012.
While well-deserved, StarChefs didn’t come to town only to burnish the already shiny reputations of our newly minted local chef celebs. The organization met with more than 100 industry pros before presenting the 2017 class of Rising Stars, many of whom may have yet to cross into local foodie culture at large — but, assuredly, not for long. These incredible talents are the ones to keep your eyes (and bellies) on in the coming years.
Daniela Herrera is the young pastry chef phenom at Counter 3. Five. VII., but don’t let her age fool you. Among all the dishes I sampled at the gala, hers was a clear standout (and I’m not really a dessert guy). Innovative and technically adept, Herrera doesn’t get bogged down in pretense. There’s a playfulness to her flavors — she transforms popcorn into ice cream, cheddar cheese into snow, and manages to mingle caviar into the mix for an otherworldly, grin-inducing bite.
“To receive the feedback I did was overwhelming,” says Herrera, a Texas native raised in California. “It’s really a huge honor to win alongside such talented people. I’m lucky to be in an industry where I can really have a creative outlet, and people are just so anxious and excited to see what steps you’ll take next.”
Max Snyder, executive chef at the newly opened Pitchfork Pretty in East Austin, has come home after spending more than a decade in some of the country’s best kitchens. After stints in New York and San Francisco honing his craft at restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and Le Marais, Snyder and his wife returned to Austin to help open owner Seth Baas' farm-to-table eatery. And they don’t take that designation lightly — along with the restaurant, they bought and manage a garden that supplies their portions of the menu, working the land in the morning and in the kitchen at night. His yuca dumpling and fried Oaxaca cheese with radish was among the most vibrant, fresh, and inventive samplings of the evening.
Adam Brick, formerly of Spicewood’s Apis, and newly installed to revamp the menu at Hyde Park stalwart Vino Vino, proves that if a chef respects the integrity of the ingredients, he or she can really make them sing without much fuss. His was perhaps the most straightforward dish at the gala, and it was among my favorites — a few slices of Lone Mountain Wagyu beef crudo, a little black garlic and coffee, and slice of mushroom. There’s a bravery in presenting a dish so unembellished, a clarity of vision in allowing his ingredients speak for themselves.
Pieter Sypesteyn of San Antonio’s much-lauded Cookhouse was in attendance to receive the Community Chef Award. The New Orleans native was raised in a restaurant family, so when he opened a food truck in San Antonio in 2007, it was only natural for the chef to bring home the flavors of his pater familias. That truck evolved into Cookhouse, and has quickly become a keystone in San Antonio’s growing restaurant community. In addition to his delicious NOLA-inspired menu, Sypesteyn and his wife run Third Coast Charities, a foundation which fosters positive relationships between local businesses and residents. His offering at the gala, a true indication of his bayou bona fides, were his savory and rich boudin balls.
If StarChefs waits another five years before returning to Austin and San Antonio, something tells me that this year’s Rising Stars award recipients will have blossomed into the next generation of our region’s and — our country’s — most exciting culinary superstars.
For a full list of winners, please go here.