A good chef understands how to craft an exceptional meal with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. A great chef understands how to craft an exceptional meal with those ingredients in a way that entices specific patrons’ palates.
A premier chef in Austin in 2022 must accomplish all this and more, consistently creating new dishes, innovating, problem-solving, and evolving, all with the intent of impressing local diners’ discerning tastes.
While Austin is lucky to be overflowing with expert chefs who toil relentlessly to feed this city with the fruits of their labor, these eight local culinary artists, all of whom are no strangers to accolades and renown, are the cream of the crop, dependably yielding the best meals in town and rising to the myriad challenges of Austin’s dynamic food realm.
We’ll celebrate these commanding chefs at our upcoming CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, which honors the best of Austin’s food and beverage scene.
Read about this year’s Tastemaker nominees for Chef of the Year below, then join us to revel in their culinary success at our signature tasting event and awards program, the 2022 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, on Thursday, April 28 at Fair Market. Tickets are available now!
Tavel Bristol-Joseph, Canje
Once known particularly for his sweeter side (indeed, Food & Wine magazine recently referred to him as a “pastry savant”), Tavel Bristol-Joseph has proven to Austin that he’s far more than a one-trick pony. With the recent opening of Canje, the “new age Caribbean restaurant” from the prolific Emmer & Rye restaurant group, in which Bristol-Joseph is a partner, the executive chef is helming perhaps his most personal project yet. With the goal of paying tribute to his Caribbean roots and honoring his Guyana heritage, Canje affords Bristol-Joseph the opportunity to immerse himself and Austin diners in the effervescent flavors and techniques unique to the Caribbean. From imaginative dishes Austinites can relate to but that include a riff on ingredients (red snapper ceviche with sour orange, peanuts, sweet peppers, and taro chips) to perfectly seasoned traditional dishes (jerk chicken with charred tomato), and, of course, luscious desserts, Bristol-Joseph is ushering Austin’s restaurant scene into a new era of flavor vibrancy.
Damien Brockway, Distant Relatives
While many a Texan is unabashedly dedicated to the art of barbecue, they may not possess a keen understanding of how history has affected the craft. That’s far from the case for Damien Brockway, whose Distant Relatives barbecue food truck serves “modern African American fare” and draws inspiration from the “textures, flavors, heritage, and narrative of the African diaspora within the United States,” particularly as this relates to hardwood smoke, spices, preservation techniques, and true nose-to-tail cooking. While he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and honed his skills at a variety of fine-dining establishments throughout the country, it is this chef’s mastery of all things ’cue, combined with his inherent drive to foster creativity, collaboration, and community, that have contributed to Brockway’s escalating prevalence in Austin. There’s no doubt he’ll continue to garner some smokin’ praise as one of the best chefs in town.
Kevin Fink, Emmer & Rye
For yet another year, Emmer & Rye’s steadfast captain, chef Kevin Fink — a partner in the local restaurant group and the guiding light at the farm-focused local culinary destination that is Emmer & Rye — gets some well-deserved kudos from CultureMap as one of Austin’s best chefs. This world traveler and culinary pioneer grew his expertise at acclaimed eateries throughout the country and the world, including working stints at restaurants in Italy and Denmark, as well as laboring for a stretch at America’s quintessential dining establishment, chef Thomas Keller’s esteemed French Laundry in California. And although during his career he’s assembled an impressive variety of honors from the best culinary organizations and publications far and wide, it is Fink’s commitment to proffering a regularly changing menu of farm-fresh, seasonal fare, and his insistence on extensive in-house crafting of local ingredients that keep Austinites coming back to Emmer & Rye again and again. We can’t wait to see what he cooks up next.
Michael Fojtasek, Olamaie
Executive chef Michael Fojtasek has been an Austin favorite for years. And it’s no wonder. With a Texas upbringing, an early introduction to spectacular Southern cooking, an imposing resume, and a fresh approach to creating elegant, perfectly indulgent Southern fare, Fojtasek is well-suited to steer Austin’s culinary community. Fojtasek takes his charge seriously, almost as much as he cherishes his family’s Southern roots. In fact, his crown jewel restaurant, Olamaie, was named after his mother and three generations of Olamaies before her, as well as his daughter, who carries on the family name tradition. And while his unparalleled Olamaie menu of tantalizing Southern dishes continues to excite Austin diners, it is perhaps his continual evolution as a chef and restaurateur that most impresses Austinites. In addition to his wildly popular pandemic-spawned Little Ola’s Biscuits, Fojtasek recently announced the May 1 opening of his new South Congress Hotel steakhouse, Maie Day, which promises to be “a daily festival of food and community.” We’re ready to feast!
Kristen Kish, Arlo Grey
One of Austin’s most lauded female chefs excels at preparing brilliant dishes influenced by French and Italian culinary traditions mixed with nostalgic and whimsical inspirations from her Midwest upbringing. And while diners at her downtown lakeside restaurant Arlo Grey are eating it up, they may not realize chef Kristen Kish’s rise in the Austin culinary scene is but her latest triumph. The chef, who was born in South Korea and raised in Michigan, took to cooking at a young age. After attending Le Cordon Blue, she propelled her culinary prowess into an admirable career that has included gigs at Michelin-starred restaurants and work under some of the country’s most acclaimed cooks. Of course, it was her coveted win on season 10 of Bravo’s Top Chef that made her a household name and enabled her to build on her chef-testant fame as the host of several food-focused TV programs and the author of her first cookbook. But it was her move to the Capital City in 2018 and the subsequent opening of her first restaurant, Arlo Grey, that has made Kish an Austin icon.
Fermin Nunez, Suerte
While the name of this beloved east side Mexican restaurant is Spanish for “luck,” there’s zero luck involved in how Suerte has become a dominating force in the Austin restaurant scene since opening in 2018. It’s owing to the accomplished culinary artistry and clever yet humble approach to food that executive chef Fermin Nunez utilizes in crafting a curated menu of flavorful Mexican dishes with local ingredients. A Mexico native, Nunez cut his teeth at lionized Austin eateries like Launderette, La Condesa, and Uchiko before opening his Suerte gem. And he’s not stopping with the perfect Mexican restaurant; later this summer, Nunez and Suerte partner Sam Hellman-Mass will open Este, a Mexican seafood restaurant that will sprout in the long-loved East Austin locale that once housed Eastside Cafe. Heralded among top culinary organizations as an industry leader — including a recent honor from Food & Wine, which named him Best New Chef 2021 — Nunez could build his first-rate culinary empire anywhere. We’re just lucky he chose Austin.
Zechariah Perez, Sour Duck Market
Born and raised in Texas, it’s no surprise chef Zechariah Perez got his start in the restaurant biz at a barbecue hot spot several decades ago. Never mind that he worked not as a pitmaster or chef, but as a modest dishwasher. Hard work and dedication to his culinary education soon advanced him to line cook and prep cook positions. Later, after attending culinary school, Perez continued to hone his craft at a variety of Texas hotels, country clubs, and eateries before opening his popular Austin breakfast trailer, Paperboy, and joining the much-loved Bryce Gilmore restaurant group in Austin, where he has spent the majority of his career and has gained cooking acclaim in his own right. As the executive chef of Gilmore’s neighborhood bakery, café, and cocktail garden, Sour Duck Market, Perez continues to entrance Austin eaters with his scratch-made offerings, which range from decadent breakfast pastries and tacos to bratwurst and one heck of a spectacular double cheeseburger.
Edgar Rico, Nixta Taqueria
If there’s been one chef’s name on Austinites’ lips for the past couple years, it’s definitely Edgar Rico. With the opening of his essential east side taqueria, Nixta, in 2019, the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef introduced this taco-obsessed town to the ancient corn-tortilla-making process of nixtamalization (which has since become all the rage at many a Capital City taco house) and made an immediate splash in a city that was already home to dozens of taquerias. Rico comes by his passion for and talent in creating craveable fare naturally. And though his culinary background is extensive, he says he first fell in love with food at the age of 10, when he cooked his family’s Thanksgiving meal. He claims Nixta is the culmination of what food means to him: “imaginative creations that are steeped in technique, history, tradition, and finesse.” Those finessed creations have not gone unnoticed by Austin taco lovers or extolled culinary institutions, including the James Beard Foundation, which recently named Rico a James Beard Award finalist in the Emerging Chef category. Now that’s something to taco ’bout!