Tue May 6, 2014 2:38 pm By Layne Lynch

It’s not surprising a Texas chef took home the award for Best Chef Southwest last night at the James Beard Foundation Awards; after all, four out of the five nominees hail from the state. And yet, Houstonians and Texans alike couldn’t help but beam when Chris Shepherd, executive chef of Underbelly in Houston, was called up to accept the prestigious culinary medal.

Shepherd surpassed fellow Texas nominees Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine (Austin), Justin Yu of Oxheart (Houston), Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s (Houston), and Kevin Binkley of Binkley’s in Cave Creek (Arizona) to bring home the food world’s highest honor.

“This is an amazing, surreal experience,” Shepherd told Texas Monthly. “More than anything, I wanted to bring this award back to the city of Houston, and I’m thrilled to be able to do that. I built my restaurant for the city, and this award is for the city.” 

Under Shepherd’s helm, Underbelly has utilized homegrown fare and purveyor goods from Houston and its surrounding communities to create a playful-yet-refined, ethnically diverse menu. This was also a record year for Houston chefs, who set a record number of nominations in the Best Chef Southwest category. The last Houston chef to bring home the same honor as Shepherd was Robert Del Grande in 1992 (coincidentally, del Grande, chef and co-owner of RDG/Bar Annie in Houston, was one of the chefs who cooked for the gala following the awards ceremony). Congratulations to Shepherd and all the Underbelly employees. 

For more on Shepherd and his restaurant, check out Patricia Sharpe’s review of Underbelly from the September 2012 issue.  

(Photo by Julie Soefer)

Fri April 25, 2014 3:02 pm By Layne Lynch

This weekend, a group of acclaimed food and beverage personalities will flock to Austin for the third annual Austin Food & Wine Festival, including James Beard Foundation Award finalist Bryce Gilmore of the Odd Duck and Barley Swine in Austin. Below, Gilmore jumps into who should win this year’s James Beard Best Chef Southwest award, Odd Duck’s negative GQ mention, and working with his chef-father (one day).

Layne Lynch: The Austin culinary scene is continuing to draw a lot of national attention. What do you think is going on in Austin that’s inspiring such creativity?

Bryce Gilmore: I think there’s a lot of young and innovative talent here. Austin is really community-based, and it breeds this ‘we’re all in this together’ mentality, which is great. The culinary scene doesn’t have the vast range of cuisines like New York or Chicago, but it’s happening: chefs and restaurateurs are seeing that the people of Austin are interested in more. 

LL: You were recently nominated for a James Beard Foundation award. I’m going to ask you a huge hypothetical. If you don’t win for Best Chef Southwest, who should?

BG: That’s an impossible question to answer. It’s such an honor to be nominated as one of five in the whole region. That’s an insane statistic if you think about it. Of course I’d love for this year to be me, but you never know. 

LL: Are there any Austin chefs or Austin restaurants that inspire you? 

BG: My dad, Jack Gilmore, is always an inspiration. He introduced me to this world and continues to inspire me. The sheer volume he does at both restaurants and his unwavering commitment to local farmers should be inspiring for all chefs.

LL: I was surprised Alan Richman found fault with one of Odd Duck’s dishes. Do you let opinions of that caliber change the way you execute your dishes? 

BG: I definitely listen to people’s opinions, but the caliber of the opinion bears no weight as to my decision to change or not change a dish.

LL: Tell me a bit about what you’ll be doing at the Austin Food and Wine Festival.

BG: I’ll be participating in the Rock Your Taco event, which I’ve done before and it’s always a really fun event. On Sunday, I’ll be doing the Fire Pits with my dad again this year. We are still working out what we’ll serve for both events, so I’ll keep that a surprise. 

LL: I’ve asked you in the past about doing a project with your dad one day and you’ve always said “never say never.” Is that still something you think about? 

BG: Absolutely, I’d love to do something with my dad. We’re both very busy at the moment with our own ventures. Something like that is all about good timing for both of us. 

LL: You’re now juggling two restaurants. How have you seen yourself evolve as a chef over the past few years? 

BG: Well, I went from a trailer-sized staff to managing two restaurants, which has been a huge evolution. It’s hard for me to objectively say how I’ve evolved as a chef because my philosophy for cooking is the same. Perhaps I’ve evolved in that I can support more farmers now than ever before.

Fri April 25, 2014 1:02 pm By Layne Lynch

This weekend, a group of acclaimed food and beverage personalities will flock to Austin for the third annual Austin Food & Wine Festival, including pastry chef Jodi Elliott of the soon-to-open Bribery bakery in Austin. Below, Elliott spills details about her new dessert bar, leaving Foreign & Domestic, and her profound affection for Austin Tex-Mex.

Layne Lynch: The past few years have been really awesome for you as a pastry chef. What’s been the greatest highlight thus far? 

Jodi Elliott: Yikes, I have to choose just one? I would say the success of the bake sales. It’s been amazing. My career thus far has been mainly restaurants, but now I have a whole different direction I’m going in because of the bake sales. To have people line up and wait for something that I created is unbelievable. Because of the die-hard loyalty and support of everyone, I’m now going to live out a dream I never knew I had. And winning Food & Wine’s People’s Best New Pastry Chef wasn’t bad either. Icing on the cake – pun intended.

LL: You and Ned [Elliott] moved to Austin to open Foreign & Domestic. As outsiders who had to root themselves into Austin, what was one thing that did and still does surprise you about the culinary community?

JE: I think the diversity and sheer size of the culinary community here is surprising. Austin is growing, but it’s still a small town next to Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. The restaurants we have here are stellar and there’s a plethora to choose from. We came here because of the growing food scene and the mentality here. People are avid foodies and love to eat out and try new things. There’s support here and it means the world to the small restaurants trying to get by.

LL: Are there any chefs or restaurants showcasing at the festival that inspire you or that you admire?

JE: Rick Bayless. I’ve never met him and have been a fan for years. I love and admire how he showcases Mexican cuisine and culture, which is my absolute favorite. Andrew Zimmern. He’s such a sweet man. I love how he’s game for anything, and his passion for all food is contagious. I love all the chefs from Houston: Chris Shepherd, Seth Siegel-Gardner, Terrence Gallivan, Justin Yu, and Monica Pope. I don’t get down there often enough, but I love the food scene and these restaurateurs are really putting Houston on the map. They all are so deserving of the accolades.

LL: What are your top five food stops in Austin and why?

JE: Choosing only five is difficult, but I have a few. Whip In. I love, love, love the simplicity-and-no-frills-but-exceptionally-well-done food. Tex-Mex; it’s something that anyone coming here has to experience. I love Maudie’s, Angie’s, Matt’s El Rancho, Polvos, and Tres Amigos. The margaritas and queso are a must at each of these places. I love Lenoir and Fabi & Rosi. I think there are both doing amazing food that you get to enjoy in the most charming and cozy settings. The service is always stellar as well. Foreign & Domestic. I can say that now that I don’t own it anymore. Ned is the most talented cook I’ve ever worked with or been around. I think his food is impeccable and thought provoking without trying to be. He deserves more attention for it.

LL: What can you tell us about your upcoming bakery Bribery thus far?

JE: Bribery is in the works! I hope to have a few locations, which I can’t divulge just yet. It will be a bakery by day and a dessert bar by night. I’m beyond excited to be working on my very own pastry mecca of sorts. The day menu will definitely be an extension of the bake sales. We will have a few key items but the rest will change often. Think green chili chicken and Monterey jack cheese croissants, sausage, egg, and cheddar biscuit sandwiches, quiches, buttermilk pie, pineapple brown butter blondies, turtle brownies, etc. There will be a mix of sweet and savory and some grab-and-go lunch options. At night, a full cocktail program with syrups, candies, and garnishes made by me as well as plated desserts will be served. There will be casual food, like donuts, and fancy dishes, like soufflés, to choose from. I see it as a grown-up place to enjoy sweets and drinks after dinner out or at home. It will be somewhere you can begin or extend your evening out.

LL: There’s been some talk of Foreign & Domestic opening a location in Houston. What makes you feel the restaurant would make a successful crossover?

JE: I’m out of the loop on that since I’m no longer Ned’s business partner. Although, I do think it’s a great idea. We’ve had an insanely loyal Houston following since we opened, so I’m not surprised. I haven’t been at Foreign & Domestic for over six months, and Bribery is my main focus now.

Thu April 24, 2014 5:06 pm By Layne Lynch

This weekend, a group of acclaimed food and beverage personalities will flock to Austin for the third annual Austin Food & Wine Festival, including celebrity chef Rick Bayless of Top Chef Masters fame and the famed PBS series Mexico: One Plate at a Time. Below, Bayless delves into Tex-Mex versus Mexican cuisine, recreating historical menus, and his great love for Mexico City.   

Layne Lynch: The Austin culinary scene is continuing to draw a lot of national attention. What do you think is going on in Austin that’s inspiring such creativity?

Rick Bayless: I can’t speak to Austin specifically, but I think smaller cities all over the country are becoming great food towns. And the reason for that is simply accessibility, information through the Internet, inspiration from food magazines and television shows, [great] ingredients, funding from websites like Kickstarter, and more. It’s an open playing field these days.

LL: Traditional Mexican cuisine has vastly transformed over the years. What’s an interpretation you’re noticing a lot of chefs embracing recently?

RB: A lot of us are looking to history. I know we’re doing that at Topolo. We’re doing a series of menus that look at what ingredients were common in 1491, 1671, etc. Then, we take that information and make completely contemporary plates out of it. It’s a way to approach food with reverence and sometimes the constraints make you more creative.

LL: What’s coming up for your PBS series Mexico: One Plate at a Time?

RB: The past few seasons have been thematic, and right now we’re exploring the possibility of doing a season dedicated to Mexico City. Nothing is set in stone yet, and I’m about to embark on a research trip, but filling an entire season of television with shows about Mexico City would not be hard. I could do 100 shows about Mexico City. And by the time Mexico: One Plate at a Time is done, I probably will have shot 100 shows there.

LL: Down in Texas diners sometimes confuse Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican cuisine. How best would you describe the differences to a puzzled diner?

RB: Honestly, I see the connection between the two to be pretty tenuous. I have nothing against Tex-Mex at all. I can get down with a burrito just like everybody else, but when I think of Mexican food I think of fresh corn tortillas, intricate sauces, and a cuisine that is largely built around chiles. As far as I know, Tex-Mex isn’t built on chiles, except maybe for the jalapeño, and relies far more on melted cheese than on sauces.

LL: Will you be checking out any restaurants while you’re in town?

RB: I have a list of places, but who knows if I’ll actually get to them. One place I’m interested in checking out is La Condesa. I saw the chef there do a vegetarian demo at a Culinary Institute of America conference recently and was really intrigued.

LL: Tell me a bit about what you’ll be doing at the festival.

RB: I’m doing two demos with Jill Gubesch, the wine director of our restaurants. Jill and I have worked for years on developing a curriculum for pairing wine with Mexican food, and I love doing demos with her because she’s a great teacher and people walk away with a lot of knowledge. I’m cooking enchiladas and a ceviche at one demo and a porcini and crab guacamole and red peanut mole at the other. At both demos, Jill will talk about what wines pair with these dishes, and, more importantly, why they go well together.

LL: You became a household name after your stint on Top Chef Masters. Why do you think audiences have become so captivated by that show over the years?

RB: Top Chef is nail-biting experience for both the chefs and the viewers. It’s not quite indicative of what it’s like to cook in a restaurant kitchen, of course – though that can be pretty nail-biting too – but the passion, stress, determination, skill, and love you see in these chefs is very real. You need all of that to make a restaurant work. And all that emotion and drama makes for great television.

LL: What’s over the horizon for you?

RB: A lot! We’ve got a new season of Mexico: One Plate at a Time. I’m finishing up writing my next book and I can’t stop thinking about the book after that: a big, weighty tome unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I’m appearing in a musical in Chicago called Cascabel this summer, and we’re going to throw the second annual Mod Mex conference. I fly in chefs from all over to talk about what the future of Mexican food is for the conference. I also have a few more restaurants opening, too. A second XOCO will open this summer, and there are other projects after that. So, I’m definitely keeping busy.

Thu April 24, 2014 2:39 pm By Layne Lynch

This weekend, a group of acclaimed food and beverage personalities will flock to Austin for the third annual Austin Food & Wine Festival, including Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s, Backstreet Café, and Caracol in Houston. Below, Ortega discusses whom he feels should win the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southwest award, his personal culinary evolution, and seeing the Houston culinary scene transform before his eyes.  

Layne Lynch: The Austin culinary scene is continuing to draw a lot of national attention. What do you think is going on in Austin that’s inspiring such creativity?

Hugo Ortega: I think it has the same vibrant energy that Houston’s culinary scene does right now. Austin has a nice mix of groundbreaking chefs doing new things, such as Paul Qui, the guys at Foreign & Domestic, and those that are making traditional Texas food like Franklin BBQ.

LL: You were recently nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. I’m going to ask you a big hypothetical, so humor me: If you don’t win for Best Chef Southwest, who should and why?   

HO: I would root for my fellow chefs from Houston: Justin Yu and Chris Shepherd.

LL: You’ve been in the restaurant business for a long time now. How would you say you’ve evolved as a chef from when you started to where you are now?  

HO: I’ve learned from other chefs, traveling, taking classes at the Culinary Institute of America, learning from teachers in Mexico like Diana Kennedy and Susanna Trilling, reading books, and going to symposiums. I graduated from Houston Community College Culinary School, and my teachers there taught me a lot as well. I learn from everyone I meet. It has definitely made me a more well-rounded chef.

LL: Tell me a bit about what you’ll be doing at the Austin Food and Wine Festival.

HO: I’m making Garnachas de Tingo de Conejo – sweet potato masa cakes with rabbit stew. Tinga is a typical Mexican topping native to the state of Puebla that is made with finely shredded ground pork, beef, or chicken and stewed in a mild tomato-chipotle pepper sauce. I do my own interpretation and use rabbit instead – the way my mother prepared it at home. One of my favorite ways to eat tinga is either as a topping on garnachas, which are these delicious thick crispy potato-masa cakes, or on tostadas. 

LL: The Houston culinary scene is becoming just as big a culinary hot spot as Austin. What are the similarities you notice between the two cities? 

HO: Yes, Houston is very hot right now. There are opportunities opening up for both the first-time restaurateur and seasoned veterans. Houston is in a boom cycle, and I hope it lasts! We have diversified since the boom and bust days of the 1980s and the economy is much more stable. Austin also has a diversified economy, and that provides a stronger foundation for business growth. Real estate prices are rising fast though, and that worries me. Both cities have a lot of cultural diversity that, luckily, has an impact on the restaurants. You can dine globally in both Houston and Austin without leaving the city limits.

LL: If you were going to open another restaurant, why type of establishment would you go with and why?  

HO: I am so busy with our current restaurants right now that I am not considering anything at the moment.  But you never know…