An eye for detail, a sense of humor, a drive to succeed even in the face of the most daunting times, these are the qualities of a great chef. The list of nominees for this year’s CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Best Chef is much like Austin itself — eclectic and affable while balancing on the cutting edge of the country’s most pioneering dining.
There is no highfalutin litmus test these chefs need to pass to make it onto this list. Starched linens and crystal glassware are in no way required. Representing cuisine ranging from Michelin-inspired delicacies to food truck takeaway, the only prerequisite for greatness is the honesty and originality of their food. For all six of these culinary professionals, the ongoing pandemic is an obvious struggle, but it has also presented them an opportunity to show off the depth of their imaginations.
Learn more about the nominees and then tune in on Thursday, July 23, at 7 pm as we crown the winner during our first-ever Tastemaker Awards — Virtual Edition, hosted by Bun B. It's our way of celebrating the extraordinary spirit of the Austin restaurant and bar scene during this challenging time. A handful of tickets to the virtual event are still available and include a Tasting Tote featuring bites, sips, and more to enjoy at home.
Gabe Erales and Philip Speer, Comedor
When Philip Speer and Gabe Erales partnered last spring to open Comedor, downtown’s temple to modern Mexican cuisine, they were heralded with the buzz deserving of their pedigrees. Speer, an El Paso native and longtime Austin pastry chef/restaurateur, was fresh off the closure of his much-loved Brentwood diner, Bonhomie. Erales had just successfully helped to shepherd Dai Due Taqueria into Fareground food hall. Their new venture has garnered comparisons to Mexico City’s vaunted Pujol, and was the only Texas restaurant on Esquire’s list of best new restaurants for 2019. In response to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, they launched Assembly Kitchen, a partnership with other local restaurants where diners receive a custom meal kit of restaurant menu items to enjoy at home.
Currently: Comedor is open for limited seating. Assembly Kitchen and Assembly Plans, the companion virtual dinner party platform, are both taking orders.
Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley, Foreign & Domestic
In 2017, Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley took over ownership of North Loop mainstay Foreign & Domestic with a mission to perfect the elevated, farm-to-table bistro fare that made the cozy eatery a local institution. They’ve honored the task, bringing F&D into an era of dining excellence, with a deceptively straightforward a la carte menu and a more adventurous nose-to-tail tasting menu. In the midst of quarantine, they’ve even succeeded in opening a second restaurant in May, Lockhart’s new Commerce Cafe.
Currently: Foreign & Domestic is open for limited dine-in service every day but Monday. Take out and curbside pick-up options are also available.
Kristen Kish, Arlo Grey
Before bringing her talents to Austin, before winning season 10 of Bravo’s Top Chef, Kristen Kish honed her craft under the tutelage of chef Barbara Lynch at No. 9 Park, one of Boston’s most lauded fine-dining establishments. The lessons of her apprenticeship are still on display these many years later at Kish’s first restaurant, Arlo Grey at The LINE Hotel. Central to the menu is an embrace of local ingredients and a refined touch to even the most approachable dishes. Everything about the restaurant tells a personal story for Kish, celebrating her classical training, her Korean heritage, and her queer identity.
Currently: Arlo Grey is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Evan LeRoy, LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue
Leadership and innovation are not new concepts for pitmaster Evan LeRoy. Since opening his “New School Barbecue” truck with partner Sawyer Lewis at South Austin’s Cosmic Coffee, LeRoy has been pushing the limits of traditional Texas barbecue with regular menu items like smoked beef cheeks and kimchi sides. Since the pandemic hit, LeRoy has been finding new ways to engage his fans with online barbecue classes, a new podcast, and regular outreach to the restaurant community with an open discussion on how to optimize for safety in these uncertain times.
Currently: LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue is open for takeout, with a new drive-thru option available so you can stay safely in your car.
Fermín Nuñez, Suerte
You can often gauge a chef’s real talents by how they treat the most common ingredients. For chef Fermín Nuñez, homemade masa is the portal through which he transports his loyal following to the spiritual center of his Mexican cuisine. When Suerte opened in 2018, it was lauded as one of the best new restaurants in the country. In reaction to the current climate, Nuñez has pivoted his style into new, pandemic-safe forums. Suerte has transformed into Suerte Taqueria, showcasing weekly specials and old favorites like his famous Suadero tacos on heirloom corn tortillas. Nuñez also stars in the restaurant’s video series Suerte En Su Casa, a lively cooking instructional filmed in his home kitchen durning lockdown.
Currently: Suerte Taqueria is currently open for dine-in and takeout service 7 days a week.
Rich Reimbolt, Better Half
Rich Reimbolt is living proof that really great food — the kind that lingers in your mind for weeks or months after eating it — doesn't need pretense or gimmicks to succeed. Case in point: His breakfast sandwich at Better Half is just what it claims to be, with all the usual adornments, but it’s the quality of ingredients and the loving, balanced preparation that makes it transcendent. Reimbolt’s culinary fingerprint has expanded in recent months with the opening of Better Half’s next-door better half, Hold Out Brewing, and Rainey Street’s love letter to drunk food, Bummer Burrito. In Reimbolt’s talented hands, the most straightforward-sounding dish becomes a welcome reintroduction to an old friend.
Currently: Better Half and Hold Out Brewing offer takeout and delivery service, as well as outdoor patio seating. Bummer Burrito remains open for to-go orders.