Over the past few years, American cuisine has seen a seismic shift, a trend heightened by the pandemic. Gone is the preciousness and pretense and the notion that elevated fare only comes from Europe. Gone is much of the snobbery, a tendency that made our plates numbingly the same.
Consider the six nominees for the CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Chef of the Year the new vanguard. Though some are industry vets and some new upstarts, they all share one trait. Food should be personal, a reflection of their diverse backgrounds and cultures, and a reflection of the community in which they work. Because of them, San Antonio's food scene has never been more vibrant.
Learn more about their trailblazing work below, then join us on April 26 at The Espee when we unveil this year's winner. A handful of tickets are still available — nab yours today!
Jason Dady, Jardín
Maybe it's culinary wanderlust. No San Antonio chef has explored a broader range of flavors than hometown hero Jason Dady. Since opening his first restaurant in his 20s, the busy restaurateur has experimented with Spanish tapas (Bin 555), Asian fusion (Umai Mi), and Tuscan Italian (Tre Trattoria) in a city not often recognized for its cosmopolitan taste. His most recent venture, planted at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, basks in the veggie-heavy fare of the Mediterranean. As always, his encyclopedic palate is right on point.
Jesse Kuykendall, Milpa
Known as "chef Kirk" to their many fans, Jesse Kuykendall might be the busiest restaurateur in Alamo City. In addition to running a brick-and-mortar and food truck under the Milpa name, they serve as executive chef at Ocho at Hotel Havana. Oh, and they still found time to become the first local winner of the Food Network's Chopped. Classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America and mentored by Oaxacan food expert Susana Trilling, Kuykendall's cuisine is rooted in their mother's South Texas fare. It shows in everything they do, whether the complex marinade of Tacos Arabes or the pure comfort of fideo loco.
Kenny Loo, Scorpion
A veteran of San Antonio's most applauded restaurants, including Tre Trattoria and Hot Joy, Kenny Loo is now making his mark with something more personal. A native of Lima, Peru, Loo's work is entrenched in the country's traditional cuisine — including chifa, the region's coveted Chinese fusion. What sets him apart is his contemporary approach. Sure, his ingredient list includes salsa Criolla, chimichurri, and a brisk leche de tigre. It also makes room for a black mint ranch. And his vibrant plating is exuberant in Scorpion's desert-minimalist dining room.
Steve McHugh, Landrace
A note to this year's James Beard Awards judges: Go ahead and give Steve McHugh the medal already. With his inventive menu at Cured, the six-time nominee has more than proved his mettle. Not content to rest on those laurels, McHugh is now dazzling guests at Landrace, the luxe eatery inside downtown's Thompson Hotel. There, his exploration of Americana sharpens to Texas through regional ingredients and investigation of historical foodways. That doesn't mean the food veers too intellectual. Chile lime popcorn served with hushpuppies is still undeniably fun.
Laurent Réa, Brasserie Mon Chou Chou
Laurent Réa earned his chops at Chef de France, the Orlando restaurant conceived by nouvelle cuisine giants Paul Bocuse and Roger Vergé. Still, his San Antonio career has been marked by the more informal aspects of Gallic gastronomy. With stints at l'Etoile and Signature, Réa specializes in hearty, relaxed French fare. He has hit his stride at the Southerleigh Group's Pearl brasserie with perfectly executed standbys like Lyonnaise onion soup and chicken Cordon Bleu. There's no doubt he could whip up any mother sauce in his sleep. This town is fortunate that he also knows the simple pleasures of jus.
Ceasar Zepeda, Sangria on the Burg
Ceasar Zepeda was born in the tiny South Texas town of Banquete, and that rural spirit still shows up in his cooking. It's not that he doesn't know his way around today's arsenal of international ingredients; he's more interested in crowd-pleasing flavors than buzzwords. Bon Appétit subscribers surely appreciate how pasilla peppers add depth to onion strings or smoked brisket reinvents the cheesesteak. But it doesn't matter if guests know the difference between zhug and za'atar. Zepeda makes damn good food, and he does it for everyone who walks through his doors.