In this day and age — and Austin’s continually innovative culinary scene — what it means to be a first-rate chef is no longer driven by delicious cuisine alone.
Chefs must consider the origin and sustainability of their ingredients, the changing palates of their diners, their staffs’ stress levels (and their own), and seamlessly deliver creative and awe-inspiring fare again and again.
These nine local chefs are luminaries in their field, pioneering the next phase in Austin dining while also gently leading the industry down the path to recovery, and providing diners with a little culinary enlightenment.
We’re excited to honor these visionary Austin chefs, our Chef of the Year nominees, at the annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, which highlights the enduring heroes of the local restaurant and bar scene.
Kevin Fink, Emmer & Rye, Hestia, Henbit, TLV, Kalimotxo, Canje
If you’ve dined out in Austin anytime in the past six years or so, you’ve probably had the favored experience of devouring chef Kevin Fink’s food. This distinguished and nationally lauded chef (he’s been nominated for several James Beard Awards and gets regular nods from prestigious food-focused publications) has elevated Austin’s food scene with the multiple concepts he co-owns with phenomenal pastry chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph: Emmer & Rye, Henbit, Hestia, TLV, Kalimotxo, and soon-to-open Canje, formally founding the Emmer & Rye Hospitality Group with the inception of Canje. Regardless of the concept, Fink brings his wealth of experience, farm-to-table advocacy, and just some good old fashioned delicious food to the plate.
Bryce Gilmore, Barley Swine, Odd Duck, Sour Duck Market
It’s not at all uncommon to see chef Bryce Gilmore’s name listed among the archives of Austin’s best restaurateurs. Indeed, the award-winning chef has helped define the modern incarnation of the Austin restaurant. His dedication to sourcing and serving locally procured products is only matched by his consistently innovative dishes, and nowhere is that more celebrated than at Barley Swine. Gilmore’s seasonal tasting menu and pairing menu provide diners a gourmet yet unstuffy experience without all the trouble of poring over the selections. Current offerings include shrimp dumplings and Muscovy duck breast. Pro tip: Order several dishes for a bountiful spread to share with your tablemates.
Kristen Kish, Arlo Grey
Austin noobs may not realize one of their favorite downtown eateries — sophisticated jewel Arlo Grey — is nestled in the space that once housed a bustling (if not lamentable) national chain. Luckily for Austinites, that eatery was not destined for such a stunning lakefront locale, and when The Radisson gave way to the posh Line hotel, Austin foodies rejoiced with the news that the restaurant space would get a major upgrade, too, thanks to one of America’s favorite winning Top Chefs, Kristen Kish. Though she’s young (and young at heart), Kish’s age belies her culinary chops, as prior to her days on Top Chef, she apprenticed under lauded Boston chef Barbara Lynch and has long manifested a natural talent for creating exquisite modern dishes. At Arlo Grey, Kish melds French and Italian influences to devise menus brimming with Texas ingredients and featuring whimsically prepared nibbles, excellent pasta dishes, and crave-worthy mains.
Fermín Nuñez, Suerte
When Suerte was unveiled in 2018, it was one of the most highly anticipated restaurant openings of the year, and this elevated East Sixth Street restaurant has since become a favorite among Austin food lovers. That’s due to chef Fermín Nuñez’s dedicated attention to detail, focus on fresh Texas ingredients prepared with traditional Mexican cooking techniques, and next-level skill at creating some of the most succulent bites. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Suerte’s house-made masa makes for some pretty amazing hand-pressed tortillas, an integral part of Nuñez’s menus. But just because tortillas are fundamental here doesn’t mean this is any old taco joint. This is fine-dining, Austin style. Though “suerte” is Spanish for “luck,” we’re pretty sure it’s chef Nuñez’s remarkable culinary talent that keeps Austinites coming back for more.
Edgar Rico, Nixta
Austin’s east side got immeasurably more flavorful when chef Edgar Rico’s Nixta Taqueria moved in in 2019. And though the restaurant claims to be casual and “not fancy at all,” one bite of Rico’s tacos and tostadas, and you might beg to differ. Key to Nixta’s menu are the corn tortillas, made through an ancient process called nixtamalization, and Rico eagerly shares the importance of honoring this tradition, enlightening Austinites about why “corn is so magical.” But he’s also skilled at implementing fresh, modern ingredients — from bright, Texas-sourced veggies to surprising proteins — that instead of overpowering his tortillas, meld seamlessly, creating vibrant morsels of yum.
Luis “Beto” Robledo, Cuantos Tacos
If tacos are the unofficial food of Austin (sorry, barbecue!), it’s no surprise Austin native Luis “Beto” Robledo is a card-carrying member of Austin’s so-called Taco Mafia, a group of bona fide local taco bosses. From his tiny yellow food truck in East Austin, he’s dishing out Mexico City-style street tacos and quesadillas with authentic ingredients (tripa, lengua) served atop doubled-up tortillas alongside flavor-packed salsas. His award-winning taco specialties regularly sell out, with devoted Austin fans lining up in droves to get as many bites at the taco as possible.
Jam Sanitchat, Thai Fresh, Gati
For years now, Jam Sanitchat has been getting fresh with Austin. Her Thai Fresh eatery, which began in 2008 as a takeout counter, offers some of the best authentic Thai food in town. Having grown up in Thailand, Sanitchat knows the difference, even if you don’t, and she looks to local and seasonal ingredients to devise her menu staples. In 2020, she launched her latest concept, Gati, a hybrid dessert and coffee shop serving more than 40 rotating flavors of coconut-milk-based vegan and gluten-free ice creams. (Yes, she does sell coconut ash ice cream made with activated coconut charcoal. Don’t knock it till you’ve licked it!) Given her reign of the Austin food realm, it’s not likely many Austinites remain unaware of Sanitchat’s creative and culinary genius. And that’s a breath of fresh air.
Philip Speer, Comedor
For years, chef Philip Speer has been dominant in Austin’s restaurant scene, having worked for and launched some of the city’s favorite hot spots. And his modern Mexican eatery Comedor in downtown Austin is no exception. Multiply named a James Beard Award semifinalist and fiercely capable of adapting amid strife, Speer brings his abundance of culinary training and prowess to Comedor. While his Comedor offerings hit all the high notes of decadent beauty, soulful flavor, and well-sourced ingredients, part of what makes Speer one of Austin’s great chefs is his dedication not just to the food, but to his cooking brethren and his beloved local community.
Fiore Tedesco, L’Oca d’Oro
As many Austin foodies know, the concept for L’Oca d’Oro began as a fairy tale in chef Fiore Tedesco’s imagination. And considering Austin’s love affair with the charming Mueller neighborhood Italian restaurant, that seems pretty spot on. His passion for food is deep-rooted in every dish, from his spectacular handmade pasta to his use of sustainably sourced ingredients. Each element of his cuisine is driven by his Italian family traditions, a sharp understanding of flavor, and his nurturing vision of what a restaurant should be, all culminating in a culinary crescendo unlike anything else in Austin.