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  • 15 Under-the-Radar Chefs to Know in Houston

    Houston, Texas Published by Zagat, Author: Ellie Sharp

    It's no secret: Some chefs enjoy the spotlight as much as they do the actual cooking. Other chefs, however, go about their business more quietly. The act of making people happy through food is their greatest reward. We'd like to take a moment to recognize some of Houston's unsung chefs, whose hard work and talent make them just as worthy of praise as the latest kitchen rock star.

    Alberto Gutierrez at Añejo

    For his menu of contemporary and regional Mexican cuisine (with a dash of Tex-Mex) Laredo-native chef Alberto "Beto" Gutierrez applies his classical French and Italian training techniques to Mexican recipes and ingredients. Find traditional cheese enchiladas with red Oaxacan mole or street tacos filled with jalapeño pork 
    sausage and blackened salmon. He favors cooking over mesquite because it "imparts that Texas flavor that you really can't get anywhere else."

    Signature dish: Queso flameado — grilled tenderloin topped with Chihuahua cheese and served with green tortilla rice, bacon-wrapped asparagus, tomatoes and chile-guajillo butter

    Jonathan Wick at Monarch

    Executive chef Wick takes seasonal Southern fare to new heights. Presently he's obsessed with braising and roasting, as well as mastering staples like pickles and biscuits. "I've vowed to make biscuits every day until I can do it with my eyes closed," he says. "Some people are unaware just how much care and technique goes into making a truly great biscuit."

    Signature dish: Pork jowl served with a faro pork perloo and popped sorghum

    Bramwell Tripp at The Pit Room

    "It's mesmerizing to walk into a place that you helped create," says executive chef Tripp of his relatively new role as pit master where he smokes Central Texas–style BBQ including ribs and brisket over live post oak in custom offset smokers complemented by serious sides like family recipe mustard potato salad. Rendered brisket lard goes into barbecue sauce and flour tortillas for tacos and extra green onions from the potato salad get added to the pickled veggie bar.

    Signature dish: Beef, pork and venison sausage. "That was something that we really, really tried to hit hard and perfect, or at least attempt to," says Tripp. "It took us at least seven months to really get it right, and I think we nailed the venison sausage recipe the day before we opened."

    Armando Ramirez at State Fare

    Ramirez set aside his former passion of modern and molecular gastronomy — including a year and a half working at acclaimed El Celler de Can Roca in Spain — to put his personal spin on Southern classics like catfish étouffée at this American restaurant in Memorial City. He opts for simple processes that respect ingredients, or as he puts it: "You have to let the ingredients think for themselves."

    Signature dish: Fried oysters with creamed spinach, pickled jalapeños and red onion

    Charles Clark at Ibiza

    As co-owner of a six-restaurant empire, Clark Cooper Concepts, this executive chef still works the line at his Mediterranean spot in Midtown. His self-described "pot-to-plate" cooking approach focuses on French techniques and high-end ingredients.

    Signature dish: The lamb shank has remained on the menu since opening day in 2001, and Clark says it is an ideal depiction of his cooking technique. "You take a piece of meat that you can’t pull off the bone with a pair of pliers, and then cook it to perfection so it just falls off the bone," he explains. 

    Junnajet “Jett” Hurapan at Songkran Thai Kitchen and Songkran Thai Grill

    "Seeing people enjoy my food is what I love the most about my job," says Bangkok-born executive chef Jett. He blends a passion for bold Thai flavors with Mediterranean-Italian techniques on his menu (which includes desserts from his wife and pastry chef, Jira).

    Signature dish: Crispy fish with garlic, Thai chile, basil and tamarind juice. It's made from a recipe that's been passed down in his family for generations.

    Vidal Elias Murillo at La Fisheria

    Executive chef Murillo integrates a range of flavors and ingredients reflective of his hometown, Tabasco, Mexico, with influences picked up while cooking throughout Europe including Monaco, Spain, England and Luxembourg. He calls the result "Mexican soul food with a twist." He makes refried beans with vegetable confit and upgrades ceviche with mahi mahi reflective of northern Mexico.

    Signature dish: Red snapper Veracruzana highlighted by Mediterranean influences of olives, capers, banana peppers and almonds

    Chris Williams at Lucille's

    Over the past four years, this classically trained executive chef developed a following for his elevated Southern fare with recipes inspired by his great-grandmother and the restaurant's namesake (those chile biscuits are righteous). Now, Williams is redefining familiar dishes with flavors reflective of his younger years working abroad in kitchens serving East African, West African, Thai, German and Spanish dishes. "The food that's always moved me everywhere I've been has been the simplest food, the food of the people," he says. 

    Signature dish: Miso- and sorghum-brined quail over collard green kimchi with serrano cheddar grits finished with a sorghum miso drizzle. Williams says the harmony of the unlikely combination comes through when you have everything in one forkful.

    Tommy Elbashary at B&B Butchers

    Even after 30-plus years working in high-end restaurants, executive chef Elbashary still gets a kick out of watching empty plates return to the kitchen. "That makes me really happy and makes me want to keep doing what I'm doing," he says. Stop in the on-site butcher shop for a free tour of his dry-aging room.

    Signature dish: Chef Tommy's bacon made with Roquefort cheese and truffle-infused honey

    Levi Rollins at Urban Eats

    “Urban Eats is the implementation of my dream: a comfortable and friendly environment where everyone is welcome,” says chef-owner Rollins of his two-story concept. The restaurant also features a specialty goods shop and counter-service cafe on the ground level. Expect elevated spins on Southern fare with dishes inspired by family recipes and travel.

    Signature dish: Selection of 10 sliders, including the Cowboy stuffed with Salisbury steak burger, cheddar cheese, bacon, onion strings and spicy bourbon BBQ sauce

    Jason "Big Sexy" Hill at Luv Me Tenders 

    Locals may recognize Hill's name from prior projects including the H-Town StrEATS food truck and Hugs & Donuts, but these days chicken tenders get all his love. He serves chicken baskets and chicken-and-waffles, and in-the-know diners enjoy off-menu dishes like crab hushpuppies and the Hot Mess sandwich made with tenders, guacamole, pico de gallo, jalapeños and nacho cheese.

    Signature dish: Shorty Mac short-rib sandwich with provolone and macaroni and cheese between buttered and toasted bread

    Seth Greenburg at Springbok

    Chef and co-owner Greenburg recently revamped the menu at this South African spot to appeal to a broader range of palates. New additions include garlic jalapeño sausage, Texas redfish and pappardelle pasta with pulled pork. Greenburg's m.o. is to prepare fresh food as minimally as possible, and the kitchen makes almost everything from scratch. "I'm not trying to blow somebody's mind by reinventing something. I'm just trying to find 'delicious' and have people enjoy it," he explains.

    Signature dish: Although he's hesitant to name a dish, we'll go out on a limb and nominate the wild boar sloppy joe served on Texas toast with Brussels sprout slaw and a fried egg.

    Donny C. Navarrete at Laurenzo’s​

    Chef de cuisine Navarrete of Laurenzo's — part of restaurant group El Tiempo — says he knows his dishes aren't considered trendy, but that's fine with him. "I like a really straightforward honest approach to food," he explains. "I want meat to taste like meat and fish to taste like fish." He stays true to his mission by using the freshest ingredients prepared with classic techniques, focusing on keeping combinations as natural and authentic as possible.

    Signature dish: Lump crab cake with fresh rémoulade sauce

    David Denis at Le Mistral

    Chef and co-owner Denis opened his cafe 15 years ago, in part to give his culinary students real-world experience. He pays homage to his French culinary background by following simple processes like pan-searing proteins or steaming fish with olive oil. Growing up around his family's restaurants influenced his menu, which heavily relies on ingredients like anise, wild mushrooms, thyme and rosemary.

    Signature dish: Filet de vivaneau en papillote, fish cooked in parchment paper

    Maurizio Ferrarese at Quattro​ in Four Seasons Hotel Houston

    Stop by this elegant-casual favorite on the fourth floor of the swanky Four Seasons Hotel for executive chef Ferrarese's simply prepared and "strictly Italian" menu of risotto, seafood, lamb and veal. "My cuisine is about a couple of steps in each recipe and using the ingredients that are very good themselves," he says of his approach. Don't miss the fresh lasagna layered with Texas Akaushi beef Bolognese or tableside tiramisu. 

    Signature dish: Vitello e tonno tonnato (veal and rare seared tuna with tonnata sauce), a staple of Ferrarese's hometown, Vercelli, Italy

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