If you ask us, Alamo City's restaurant scene is one of the most electric in the nation, creating food that deserves to be on the world stage during with the Tricentennial and beyond. These nominees for CultureMap Tastemaker Awards San Antonio Chef of the Year form its beating heart, creating distinctive takes on cuisine that continues to make the city proud.
Meet the 10 contenders below, then make a quick trip to Austin for our annual tasting event and awards ceremony held April 12 at Fair Market.
Jeff Balfour, Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewing
You can learn a lot about a chef based on the food they cook. Jeff Balfour’s upbringing in Galveston shows in Southerleigh’s seafood focused menu featuring Gulf shrimp, oysters, and fresh catches. His commitment to hospitality is evident in the approachability of the Southern dishes (not to mention the way the front of house is run). And you know he has a deep love of Texas, because the state is in every bite, from 44 Farms beef to locally grown vegetables.
Mark Bliss, Bliss
Never has a chef been more appropriately named. Since 2012, industry vet Mark Bliss has made thousands of San Antonians happy at his namesake restaurant with contemporary American cuisine that ranges from seafood like whole branzino served with grilled vegetables and a white bean puree to decadent entrees like a Szechuan peppercorn and five spice crusted duck breast topped with seared foie gras. Along with wife and business partner, Lisa Bliss, he is one of the main reasons why Southtown’s dining scene continues to be heavenly.
Diego Galicia and Rico Torres, Mixtli
Regional Mexican cooking is now very much in vogue in Texas, but arguably it wouldn’t have become such a trend without the visionary pair of Rico Torres and Diego Galicia. Their ever-changing menus, focusing on one aspect of the country’s edible heritage at a time, have moved the needle forward by embracing techniques and ingredients of the pre-Hispanic times (their latest prix fixe menu dips into Mayan gastronomy). The result is a riveting dining experience that cannot be replicated outside their tiny renovated railroad car.
Geronimo Lopez, Botika
Geronimo Lopez first became big news in San Antonio as the executive chef of the Latin-tinged Culinary Institute of America-run eatery Nao. Now, he runs one of the most interesting concepts in town. Although the cross-pollination of Peruvian and Asian ingredients may seem brand new, Lopez took inspiration from the Chifa tradition started by Chinese immigrants in Lima and along the coast of Peru. He does one of the world’s first fusion foods justice with a menu that includes lobster fried rice chaufa, lomo saltado with picked aji, and tuna tiradito with crispy wontons and Japanese peanuts.
Steve McHugh, Cured
There’s a reason that Steve McHugh keeps getting noticed by the James Beard Awards judging committee. His showpiece at the Pearl is an ode to American cooking. Beginning with his agricultural background in Walworth, Wisconsin, McHugh learned to respect ingredients, and to use those as fresh as can be found. He then continued developing his skills while cooking at several celebrated New Orleans restaurants. Both influences come together at Cured, where he has worked in indigenous ingredients to create a kitchen that is 100 percent San Antonio.
Brooke Smith, The Esquire Tavern
Brooke Smith’s cuisine proves that food doesn’t have to be fancy to be notable. In her hands, burgers are reinvented by subbing in a cheese-stuffed poblano pepper for the patty, French onion soup goes maverick with a slice of thick Texas toast, and an empanada winks at the city by using Big Red-braised short rib. A mentee of fellow nominated chef Mark Bliss, Smith has a similar approach to food, creating menus that reflect the city she lives in — and that are a whole lot of fun.
Michael Sohocki, Restauraunt Gwendolyn
If you ever see a talk featuring Michael Sohocki, clear your schedule to attend. The chef/owner of the River Walk’s Restaurant Gwendolyn (as well as Kimura and Il Forno) approaches food as a teacher — something he did during a stint living in Japan — educating diners on why local sourcing and sustainable practices matter. (Gwendolyn famously uses no plug-in appliances, a tribute to the resourcefulness of Depression-era cooks like his grandmother.) But as intellectual as the inspiration behind his food may be, it remains accessible and delicious. And that’s something that takes extra smarts.
Pieter Sypesteyn, The Cookhouse
You could say New Orleans cuisine is in Pieter Sypesteyn’s blood. Before working with acclaimed San Antonio chefs Thierry Burkle and Andrew Weissman, he grew up in the kitchens of New Orleans' restaurateurs. Since branching out on his own, he has been singularly focused on bringing that food to San Antonio, first from a wildly successful food truck, Where Y’at, and now from a trio of restaurants (The Cookhouse, NOLA Brunch & Beignets, and Bud's Southern Rotisserie) that have become some of the hottest tickets in town.
Andrew Weissman, Signature
With an empire that includes Osteria Il Sogno, Moshe’s Golden Falafel, and the Luxury, San Antonio native Andrew Weissman is as responsible as anyone for putting Alamo City on the culinary map. Trained in the best kitchens in Europe and New York City, Weissman first exploded locally with his sorely-missed Le Reve. His restaurant Signature continues that tradition by showcasing food at its most elegant, using traditional techniques to make zippier versions of classic dishes like osso bucco (here served with pillowy gnocchi and yellow chanterelles) and ciopinno in a black and red rouille.