The 2019 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards is our annual event celebrating the best in local food and drink, where we spotlight nominees in categories such as best bars and best chefs in Fort Worth.
The category of Chef of the Year spotlights the genius in the kitchen, the one creating the food you want to eat and executing with the kind of precision and still that stands out from the crowd.
Thanks go to our panel of judges, consisting of former CultureMap Tastemaker Award winners and local F&B experts, who narrowed down the list to 10 finalists.
Winners will be announced at the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards party on April 25 at Fashion Industry Gallery. We’ll applaud the winners, sip cocktails, and dine on bites provided by the nominees. Tickets are on sale now.
Here are our 10 nominees for the 2019 Tastemaker Awards Chef of the Year:
Anthony Felli — Waters
California native has been working in restaurants since his teens, starting out in the typical mode as a dishwasher at a family Italian restaurant. He spent nearly a decade at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, working his way up to the top chef slot — and winning a Top Chef competition hosted by Fort Worth magazine — before joining Jon Bonnell at his seafood restaurant Waters in 2017.
Bria Downey — Clay Pigeon
A graduate of the culinary program at El Centro College in Dallas, Downey started her career at the Meddlesome Moth in Dallas, then was part of opening team at sibling restaurant Bird Café. She was part of the team that helped open Piattello Italian Kitchen, where she was sous chef, before getting promoted to the top position at Piattello's sibling, Clay Pigeon.
Callie Salls — Meyer & Sage
Salls is an accomplished chef and writer who graduated from the Culinary School of Fort Worth as well as TCU, where she majored in advertising and PR. She worked at Lili's Bistro while juggling duties as assistant chef at the Culinary School of Fort Worth and writing about food for Fort Worth Foodie magazine and her own food blog, Linguine and Dirty Martinis. She founded Meyer & Sage, a weekly meal delivery service in 2016, and then opened a grab-and-go shop in the new Foundry District in 2018.
Chris Hight — Aventino's
This Fort Worth native has had a lifelong passion for cooking, beginning when he would spend time in the kitchen as a child, helping his mother cook for his seven siblings. He was also entrepreneurial, founding his own ice cream stand when he was just a wee thing. A Renaissance man who also has a pilot's license, he's been chef at Aventino's, his wife's longtime family restaurant, since 2011.
Dien Nguyen — Wabi House
Nguyen came to fame as a longtime collaborator with Fort Worth restaurateur Kenzo Tran, opening restaurants that were part of the Piranha Killer Sushi chain. In 2015, they branched out with Wabi House, an izakaya-style Japanese restaurant on Dallas' Lower Greenville Avenue, followed by Sapa House, an Asian restaurant in downtown Dallas. In 2018, they came full circle with a second location of Wabi House in Fort Worth's Medical District.
Juan Rodriguez — Magdalena's
This Art Institute of Dallas grad and Chicago native is a repeat nominee, having been nominated for Best Chef in 2017. He's worked at many top Tarrant County spots including the Classic Cafe in Roanoke, Lonesome Dove, and Reata, where he worked for nearly eight years. In 2015, he and his wife, Paige, launched Magdalena's, a catering service incorporating Mexican, Spanish, and Puerto Rican influences, with dishes such as paella and roasted poblano with confit.
Molly McCook — Ellerbe Fine Foods
McCook was taking a farm-to-table approach at her award-winning restaurant long before it became the dominant culinary theme it is today. A native of Louisiana, she has a degree in restaurant and resort management. and studied at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. After working with acclaimed chefs such as Amaryll Schwertner and Suzanne Goin in Los Angeles, she opened Ellerbe in 2006, naming it for the street where her grandparents lived.
James Gaines — Reata
Lubbock native attended the Art Institute of Dallas, where he graduated from their culinary program in 2006. He's worked in a number of cities around Texas, including Austin, where he was at the Four Seasons, and College Station, where he worked for a catering company for four years. In 2014, he joined the tradition of great chefs at Reata, and became executive chef in 2016.
Tuan Pham — Four Sisters
Pham, a Fort Worth native, worked as a chef at renowned restaurants such as Shinjuku Station and Tokyo Café, before going on to open his own restaurant, dedicated to his family. It's named for his four sisters and inspired by his mother, with a cuisine that honors the Vietnamese cooking of his childhood.
Victor Villareal — Food Hall at Crockett Row
As a military brat, Villarreal had early exposure to a wide variety of cuisines and experiences while growing up, and began working in restaurants when he was 15. He cooked in some of the top kitchens in Dallas-Fort Worth, including the Mansion on Turtle Creek, Clay Pigeon, Sera, and Grace, before opening what is surely the best pizzeria in Fort Worth: Abe Froman's, a Food Hall spot specializing in brick oven pizza, housemade sausage, cheeses, gnocchi, and charcuterie.