We don’t need anyone else to tell us Austin has arrived. Every time we sit down for dinner, we are awestruck by the thoughtful cuisine that each of the nominees for the CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Chef of the Year put out.
If we could give them all an award, we would. But, alas, only one chef can take home the coveted title. Find out why they made the short list below, then join us as we reveal the winner at our annual ceremony and party on April 10 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto, Kemuri Tastu-Ya
In less than seven years, the pair behind some of Austin’s buzziest restaurants went from operating a small ramen shop on Research Boulevard to running a full-on restaurant group. Today, Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto have three local locations of Ramen Tatsu-Ya (plus one in Houston), new bar Domo Alley-Gato, as well as the upcoming Dip Dip Dip and Tiki Tatsu-Ya. Picking a favorite from the lineup is difficult to do, but here’s one vote for east side's Kemuri Tatsu-ya. Melding Texas and Japanese traditions, Aikawa and Matsumoto have created a concept so original, it defies imitation.
Michael Fojtasek, Olamaie
One of the most charming chefs in town, Michael Fojtasek is as known for his megawatt smile as his artful takes on Southern cuisine. That personality translates to a restaurant that delivers all the touches patrons expect from fine dining, but refuses to wallow in preciousness. Sure, his creative takes on staples like Hoppin’ John, pone, and hushpuppies look far from those found at a small town meat and three, but they still focus on a deep generosity of flavor and invite guests to sit for a spell.
Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley, Foreign & Domestic
As Austin eaters increasingly demand dining sustainability, catchphrases like “nose-to-tail” and “farm-to-table” have lost some of their currency, so much so that it's rare when a new restaurant doesn’t include “locally sourced” in the opening press release. For the two owners of this North Loop neighborhood gem, however, this is not merely marketing lingo. The dishes Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley create celebrate the integrity of each component. No heavy sauces are needed when everything is this fresh. Offal is allowed to taste like offal and vegetables are never overworked.
Zach Hunter, formerly of The Brewer’s Table
At last year's Tastemaker Awards, this young chef walked away with the Rising Star Chef of the Year before The Brewer’s Table had even welcomed its first guests. And rise his star did. Once the doors opened, Zach Hunter became one of the most talked about chefs in town, thanks to his penchant for crafting dishes with ingredients more often found in a pint than on a plate. Although he recently surprised Austin by departing the restaurant, it’s clear he has earned his place in the city's culinary cosmos.
Fermín Nuñez, Suerte
Fermín Nuñez has worked in kitchens ranging from Launderette and Uchiko, but he found his groove by interpreting the food of his native Mexico. At Suerte, he uses heirloom masa as a leitmotif, molding it into dumplings to drag across a dollop of mole negro or blanketing squash to form a weightless tamal. Somehow he keeps it all from seeming, well, corny. Using that ancient foundation, Nuñez takes a contemporary approach, adding unexpected touches like tarragon and sesame to his salsas and letting the quality of the local produce speak for itself.
Evan LeRoy, LeRoy & Lewis Barbecue
The pitmaster behind one of the Capital City’s most hopping food trucks first popped onto our radar at Freedmen’s, but that now-shuttered eatery only gave a taste of what he had in store. Expanding on the Texas trinity, Evan LeRoy has created a whole new pantheon of smoked meats, some expected (brisket) and others rare (tongue, beef cheeks). Then, there is the always impressive assortment of brats, andouille, and Italian links. With apologies to Ferris Bueller’s Abe Froman, LeRoy is the real sausage king.
Yoshi Okai, Otoko
With little separation between him and Otoko’s 12 seats, Yoshi Okai has plays both chef and master of ceremonies. That he should handle the latter so effortlessly comes as no surprise to anyone who has seen him rock out as the frontman of The Kodiaks. As for the former part, the always energetic chef spent six years making sushi at the perpetually lauded Uchi and Uchiko before becoming head chef at East Side King. All of this past experience serves Okai well as he rolls out the omakase each night at Austin’s most exclusive dining experience.
Max Snyder, Pitchfork Pretty
With stints under chefs Daniel Patteron at Coi, Daniel Humm at The NoMad and Eleven Madison Park, and Joshua Skene at Saison and Le Marais, Max Snyder racked up one of the most enviable CVs in town before returning to his childhood home of Austin. The restaurant he helms, however, is far from a greatest hits album. Accenting Texas Hill Country cuisine with unexpected Asian flavors, the chef has created a menu that gives a definite sense of place. Part of that is the use of Central Texas ingredients, some harvested in Pitchfork owner Seth Baas’ garden. Part of it is an instinct towards lightness that makes even heavier dish like pork belly at peace with the city's get-up-and-go spirit.
Callie Speer, Holy Roller
Callie Speer first made a name for herself making some of the city’s most craveable sweets, like the iconic Popcorn and a Movie that anchored the Swift’s Attic dessert menu for years. With Holy Roller, she proved just as adept with savory dishes like outrageous sandwiches, artful salads, and the ever-popular hot brick chicken. The common thread in Speer's career has been a willingness to embrace nostalgia. These are the foods plucked directly from guest’s fondest moments, but made even better than they remembered.
Fiore Tedesco, L’oca d’Oro
Maybe it’s because of his past gig as a touring musician, but there is a certain musicality to the way Fiore Tedesco’s Italian food comes across on the plate. It’s not just the famous Valentine’s Day mash-up dinners, which each draw inspiration from two very different artists, pairing the likes of The Sex Pistols with soft-rock mainstays like The Carpenters. It’s also the way everyday items like roasted carrots or a Little Gem salad swing liltingly along, combining spice, acid, and fat to create some very infectious harmonies.