It's almost time to celebrate the top restaurant and bar talent in Tarrant County at the 2023 Tastemaker Awards, returning to Fort Worth for a second year.
The awards ceremony will take place April 27 at The 4 Eleven at 411 S. Main St. The signature tasting event will feature bites and beverages from the nominees and will be hosted by Fort Worth chef Jon Bonnell. Get your tickets here. (Note that early bird ticket sales end April 2.)
While we count down to the big party, we are getting to know the nominees in an editorial series leading up to the event.
Up next, the category of Rising Star Chef of the Year. While most of these talented chefs are not new to the industry, many are newer to the local culinary scene or have new ventures. All are making a name for themselves by showcasing their expertise and influence in their scratch-made dishes that are generating buzz around town. Our panel of judges think these chefs will be leading Fort Worth's culinary scene in the years to come.
Here are the nine nominees for Rising Star Chef of the Year, in alphabetical order:
Chad Burnett - Koe Wetzel's Riot Room
Chad Burnett’s lengthy, wide-ranging resume includes stints at Scottsdale’s Biltmore resort, Nana Grill at the Hilton Anatole, and Soho in Addison. He’s spent time as a culinary school instructor at two colleges, and has experience as a pastry chef, making him very well-rounded in the kitchen. Today he oversees the culinary program for Funky Lime Hospitality, the group that owns Whiskey Garden, Your Mom’s House, and Koe Wetzel’s Riot Room, newly opened in the West 7th nightlife district. The bar also operates as a full-service restaurant, and Burnett's Texas-inspired must-haves include beer-can chicken, Texas hot chicken fried steak, and brisket queso.
Austin Carlson - Wicked Butcher
Austin Carlson leads the kitchen alongside chef Richard Triptow at this high-end underground downtown steakhouse, where the hefty butcher cuts are dry-aged in-house. Carlson previously directed the culinary program for other DRG Concepts, including Dallas Chop House, Wild Salsa, and Chop House Burger. He joined DRG after cooking at Nonna Restaurant in Dallas and has cooked in restaurants in Italy and across Europe. His culinary talent is evident not only in his recipe execution, but the artistic and visually appealing presentation found in all Wicked Butcher dishes.
Jonathan Esparza - Toro Toro
Originally from California and raised outside Guadalajara, Mexico, Jonathan Esparza dreamed of becoming a doctor as a child but missed getting into medical school, narrowly failing the entrance exam. He moved to Puerto Vallarta and worked one summer in a Mexican restaurant – it was the gateway to an extensive restaurant and hospitality career. He attended culinary school and worked in several high-end restaurants, in banquet events, and at multiple Four Seasons properties including Santa Fe, Palm Beach, and Los Cabos. He met Toro Toro founding chef Richard Sandoval while in Santa Fe and was hired as Toro Toro’s executive chef last year. He uses his culinary experience and time growing up on a cattle ranch to influence the Latin steakhouse menu.
Angel Fuentes - Guapo Taco
The Monterrey, Mexico native left his computer programming gig at an early age to embark on a restaurant career, eventually partnering to open Mariachi’s Dine-In in a Riverside gas station. Word spread via social media, and the taqueria quickly gained a loyal following for its discreet location and picture-perfect tacos. That was 2018, but by 2021 the restaurant moved to bigger digs on the west side of town. Fuentes stayed put in that space where he opened Guapo Taco, using his creativity to expand on the menu, which features birria tacos, burritos, tortas, beef cheek barbacoa, and the popular chile chicken posole soup that comes in red or green.
Naveesh Laul - Omni Fort Worth
The New Delhi native intended to practice medicine before following his culinary dream and joining the kitchen management training program at The Taj Group of Hotels, Resorts and Palaces. Laul's extensive career led him to serve bureaucrats, diplomats, and Bollywood celebrities for more than a decade, working in multiple Five Diamond fine dining restaurants. He left Taj Hotels in 2016 to take an executive sous chef position at the Omni Fort Wort Hotel, and was promoted executive chef in 2019. Laul also spends time teaching yoga as a Sahaja yoga meditation instructor.
Dustin Lee – The Beast & Co.
A newcomer to the culinary world, Dustin Lee left his corporate engineering sales gig in 2020 to embark on a restaurant career. His previous job exposed him to fine dining around the world, and Lee uses his experiences to influence his menu at The Beast & Co., which he opened on West Magnolia Avenue in 2022. Over the past year, he’s gained a following for an evolving menu of scratch dishes with worldly flair, like soba noodles with coconut curry, burrata with gremolata and grilled bread, and masala spice cake with curry ice cream. Lee also prides himself on The Beast's extensive wine selection.
Greg Pawlowski - il Modo
This native of Michigan took the reins at il Modo last year, bringing with him a love of the culinary arts that began as a child. Pawlowski studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York before working for Wolfgang Puck for eight years, helping to open four concepts. On this ground-floor restaurant at The Kimpton Harper hotel downtown, Pawlowski utilizes the in-house pasta-making room to produce Italian favorites like rigatoni with beef Bolognese and linguini with clams, and has introduced wood-fired pizzas, a braised lamb shank, and a 42-ounce Florentine porterhouse steak served with roasted garlic and bone marrow butter.
Rene Ramirez - 225 BBQ
Native of Pleasant Grove is not a newcomer to the local barbecue scene but is earning attention with his 225 BBQ concept where he's serving barbue with Mexican-American influences inside Maverick's, a longtime Arlington watering hole. He made the move to Maverick's last fall after serving his brisket tacos, brisket ramen, and fan-favorite brisket-stuffed “Cherry Bombs” (bacon-wrapped habanero peppers also filled with cream cheese) from a trailer outside Division Brewing. Customers can now sit down to eat his brisket elote, birria tacos, and honey-glazed pork belly – and even order a cold beer to wash it down if they wish.
Dayne Weaver - Dayne's Craft Barbecue
Local enthusiasts already know Weaver is legendary in the Fort Worth barbecue scene. He’s received a slew of accolades and awards and has been recognized state-wide for his Central Texas-inspired ‘cue. Weaver’s trailer was previously situated outside the former Lola’s Trailer Park location near West 7th Street. When they moved, Weaver was presented the opportunity to open his own permanent home on Camp Bowie West, in the up-and-coming Westland area near J.D.’s Hamburgers. While he waits for the brick-and-mortar, his trailer is parked there now, serving brisket bacon and the fan-favorite smash burger made with ground beef and coarsely chopped brisket.