Meet the Tastemakers
Austin's 6 best chefs nourish the food scene beyond their own front doors
Most Austinites know their favorite restaurants, but the chefs are the real heart of the food scene. After all, it takes a lot more than knowing how to make something to run a successful restaurant, much less one that reflects its community. And although they're all unique enough to make something that really stands out, readers should notice some common themes across this list.
These culinary experts, our Tastemaker nominees for Chef of the Year, embody a few clear goals. Ingredients are number one; Good food is not possible without good ingredients, and these chefs often draw attention to the local farmers who make their work shine. Once those ingredients are sorted, cooking together is a big deal. Each of these chefs has a strong presence at local events, or has a very close working collaborator (including some life partners) — usually both. And finally, the people at the end of the chain, the diners, need to be seen and invited in.
In short, it's all about the people, and these six people were chosen by their peers. Our judges, a mix of last year's winners and the editorial staff who write these names over and over in stories all year, know these chefs beyond the food they put on the table.
There's still some time to get to know these chefs before the winner is announced. Read the many articles that have celebrated their work and the changing food scene over the past year, and then come find out who wins on May 11 at Fair Market for our annual Tastemaker Awards tasting event and awards ceremony. Tickets are on sale now.
Amanda Turner, Olamaie
If there's a list of chefs — participants in a food festival or a fundraiser, honorees in an award ceremony — Amanda Turner's name is on it. In fact, before she made this list, she made the class of Rising Star Chefs in 2019 (with Juniper) and in 2022, winning both and proving some awesome foresight from those judges. As chef de cuisine at Restaurant of the Year nominee Olamaie, she somehow finds time while helping to define Southern cuisine — from the complicated position of a Black woman chef, she sometimes points out — to be one of the most public-facing chefs in Austin. About a year and a half into this new position, she's clearly hit her stride, and showing no signs of stopping.
Bradley Nicholson, Lutie's
There's something uniquely inspiring about chef couples — the shared passion, the shared success in a notoriously competitive and tough industry. Bradley Nicholson and Susana Querejazu are that couple in Austin. And it all takes place in a 70s-styled garden restaurant. When's the movie coming out? Nicholson, Rising Star Chef nominee in 2022 and current executive chef at Lutie's at the award-demolishing Commodore Perry Estate hotel, is good at sharing the spotlight. When it's not with his wife, it's with the local producers he highlights on the plate. Dishes at Lutie's back up Nicholson's claims that "regional heritage and responsibly-sourced cuisine are truly celebrated" here in Austin, often appearing as a pile of perfect vegetables.
Fermín Núñez, Suerte
Sometimes it's hard for non-Texans to understand the prestige that Mexican cuisine takes on thanks to chefs like Fermín Núñez. The chef was born in Torreon, Mexico, but has been in Austin for 14 years and has developed a huge presence through recognition by Food & Wine, the Food Network, Netflix, the New York Times, and more (including too many Tastemaker Awards to count between him, Suerte and Este). Although his inspiration is his heritage, his daily reality is full of local ingredients. Since you rarely get all that attention from hiding away, it shouldn't be a surprise that Núñez is very active on social media and is always pulling other chefs and restaurants into his limelight.
Grae Nonas, Bufalina
Grae Nonas isn't exactly a Tastemakers newcomer, but it's been seven years since he shared a nomination with Michael Fojtasek at Olamaie. A lot has changed since then: Nonas moved to and returned from Minneapolis, opened and closed pasta restaurant Le Cowboy during the pandemic, and ended up helming the new Bufalina in East Austin after the well-loved pizza restaurant let its decade-long lease lapse. It's a tall order to rebuild someone's favorite restaurant, but Nonas did it. The restaurant is back to serving its Neapolitan-style pizzas alongside Bufalina Due. It's not a far cry from Nonas' recent pasta venture, but here it's tradition that matters — not reinventing the wheel.
Sarah McIntosh, Épicerie
Pastry chef Sarah McIntosh really does it all. Currently nominated in the Pastry Chef of the Year category as well, she represents not just baked goods but an ideology about local foods at Épicerie. Part restaurant, part grocery, it's a little too quaint to call this a café and leave it at that. McIntosh's farm-to-table dishes go far beyond a brown paper bag lunch, from the must-haves (a croissant breakfast sandwich) to the luxurious (a local steak frites). She's another one of those busy Austin chefs who somehow makes all the events, but it's her slow bakes that really put her on the map. There's something beautiful about a pastry chef who branches out, but still stays caught in the layers of her first love.
Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel, Birdie's
Birdie's gets a lot of attention for its wines, but the excellent food makes it a great place to really linger. (That's confirmed by its current nominations as Restaurant and Neighborhood Restaurant of the year.) Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and her husband Arjav Ezekiel co-own the restaurant, and the casual air surely comes from the homey origins as much as from the counter service model. (The fresh pasta certainly doesn't work against its approachability, either.) The environment Malechek-Ezekiel has helped to create has been admired by the New York Times, Bon Appetit, Esquire, and more, but Austinites are surely thankful that despite the recognition, this neighborhood restaurant stays down-to-earth.