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12 Under-the-Radar Chefs to Know in Austin

Lesser-known names at the top of their game
January 29, 2018
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by Veronica Meewes

With more restaurants open than ever before, Austin is brimming with culinary talent. Beyond the school of chefs who've become household names (looking at you, Tyson Cole and Aaron Franklin), there are plenty of others who've been quietly working their way through Austin kitchens for years — and others who are new to the town but not to the line. Familiarize yourself with the following dozen chef superstars whose names should be on the tip of your tongue.

Erind Halilaj, executive chef at La Matta

Born in Albania and raised in Italy, Halilaj ​has a deep appreciation for traditional Italian cuisine using simple, fresh ingredients. After receiving a degree in economics and tourism services management, he began his culinary career in Milan, holding prominent positions at various five-star luxury hotels, including chef de partie at Hotel Principe di Savoia, sous-chef at AC Hotel Marriott Milano and chef tournant at Excelsior Hotel Gallia. Halilaj worked at several other hotels and restaurants in Italy, including as executive chef of private club Canottieri Restaurant, before an opportunity with JW Marriott brought him to Florida in 2014. After making the move to New York City that same year, Halilaj was named executive chef of Obicà Mozzarella Bar, then promoted to corporate chef within his first year. He joined New Waterloo in spring 2017, taking on the role of executive chef of La Matta and its soon-to-open sister restaurant, Il Brutto.

Signature dish: Burrata and mango salad with red endive, turnip, red radish, hazelnut and mint dressed with extra virgin olive oil, lime and salt.

Abril Galindo, executive sous-chef at Four Seasons Austin

Galindo worked front-of-house at a restaurant right before attending Universidad del Valle de Mexico, turning down medical school to study hospitality with the aim of becoming a restaurant manager. But during a concierge internship, she realized the kitchen was where she really wanted to be. She interned as a cook at the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita before accepting a position at Hotel Demetria, a boutique hotel in Guadalajara with two restaurants, followed by a chef position at Cuatro Patas, a gourmet hamburger restaurant. She decided to apply for a management training program at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin, which she completed before accepting a chef de partie position at The Greenbriar in West Virginia. In 2015, the Four Season Austin’s executive chef Elmar Prambs brought Galindo back as the hotel’s banquet chef responsible for coordinating the food for hundreds of events each year. Just recently, she was promoted to executive sous-chef, overseeing all aspects of the hotel’s kitchen and acting as next in line to Prambs.

Signature dish: Though the winter menu was already set when Galindo was promoted from banquet chef to executive sous-chef, several of her dishes have been featured on TRIO’s specials menus, such as the confit duck torta ahogada with bolillo bread and habanero onions.

Jedd Adair, executive chef at McGuire Moorman Hospitality 

Originally from Carson City, Nevada, Adair grew up cooking with his father, a principal who started his high school’s culinary arts program. After graduating from Johnson & Wales’ culinary program, he went to work in New York under renowned chefs like Rocco DiSpirito, Geoffrey Zakarian, David Coleman and Paul Liebrant. He spent time abroad at La Broche in Madrid, making cheese in the Hervé Mons caves in France and working at Pied a Terre and Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. After forming a partnership with chef David Burke and developing David Burke Kitchen together, Adair met chef Laurent Tourondel and took on the role of global executive corporate chef at Tourondel’s hospitality group. For four years, he managed the kitchens and culinary teams as corporate chef for Tourondel’s 10 restaurants in China, Kazakhstan and the U.S. Adair joined McGuire Moorman Hospitality in early 2016 to strengthen the culinary programs and promote innovation in the kitchens of Jeffrey's, Josephine House, Perla's, Clark's Oyster Bar, Elizabeth Street Cafe, June'sLamberts and Pool Burger.

Signature dish: Lamberts' salt and pepper lamb ribs, which are smoked with live oak, seasoned with salt and pepper, then served with grilled lemon, mint salsa verde and cumin crème fraîche

Amanda Turner, chef de cuisine at Juniper

Turner boasts more than seven years of culinary experience in some of Austin’s most esteemed restaurants. After pursuing an education at Le Cordon Bleu Austin, she began working at award-winning Uchi as lead line cook, learning how to butcher meat, fish and poultry in the Japanese tradition, and assisting the pastry chef with daily execution of a wide variety of pastry applications. From Uchi, Turner took her newly acquired pastry skills to Odd Duck in the role of lead prep and lead baker, where she helped to establish, and eventually oversee, the bread program. During her time at Odd Duck, Turner gained experience working with a wood-fired oven and grill, expanded her knowledge of butchery, charcuterie and preservation, and became a prolific contributor to Odd Duck’s creative and hyper-seasonal menu. In 2015, Turner joined the Juniper opening team as sous-chef, where she introduced and implemented a bread and fermentation program, as well as Juniper’s popular brunch program. A primary architect of Juniper’s seasonal menus, Turner quickly excelled to her current role as chef de cuisine under executive chef Nic Yanes.

Signature dish: Spinach gnocchi with cavolo nero pesto and sunchoke

Thomas Calhoun, executive chef at Aviary WIne & Kitchen 

Calhoun is a graduate of the former Scottsdale Culinary Institute (now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts — Scottsdale). While there, he decided to shift his focus from savory to pastry, graduating with an associate of occupational studies degree in 2007. Calhoun’s professional career began with an internship, followed by a position, at the Sonnenal Resort in Vail, Colorado. In 2008, he moved to Cedar Park, Texas, and took a sushi apprenticeship at the former Hyashi Sushi & Grill, then went on to some of the city’s finest restaurants, including La Condesa, Uchi, Uchiko and Sway. Calhoun made a name for himself as the former pastry chef of Lenoir before accepting the position of executive chef at Aviary Wine & Kitchen last year, expanding the menu and developing pairing-focused dishes for dinner, lunch and brunch.

Signature dish: Chicken and pork sausage with white beans, bok choy, tomato habanero broth, toast and rouille

Derek Salkin, executive chef at Le Politique

​After studying at New York’s French Culinary Institute, Salkin went on to hold positions at acclaimed restaurants like Jean-Georges, The Modern, Thomas Keller’s Per Se and The French Laundry, and the three Michelin-starred L'Atelier De Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas. Salkin most recently served as chef de cuisine of New Waterloo’s Pao, a collaboration with Paul Qui in Faena Hotel Miami Beach. Salkin joined the New Waterloo team in 2016 as executive chef at Le Politique, the Downtown French brasserie which opened its doors in September.

Signature dish: Boudin blanc, made with truffled white sausage, caramelized quince, pommes purée, watercress and sauce Périgueux

Natalie Gazaui, executive pastry chef at Eberly

Gazaui was raised in Montevideo, Uruguay, in a home with Basque and Middle Eastern influences. A visual arts major and photographer, she decided to study culinary arts at Texas Culinary Academy in Austin followed by training in Monforte d’Alba, Italy, where she realized her love of pasta and pastries. In 2011, she joined McGuire-Moorman Hospitality in Austin where she took over the pastry programs at Clark’s Oyster Bar, Jeffrey’s, Josephine House and Perla’s Seafood and Oyster Bar. After five years of honing her pastry skills at MMH she decided to broaden her horizons and joined the Eberly culinary team, where she has created a scratch bakery program that spans from hearth breads to unique plated desserts, as well as an array of pastries made fresh each morning.

Signature dish: Warm dulce de leche volcano cake with coconut sorbet, passion fruit curd, macadamia nut brittle and caipirinha gelée

​Pablo Gomez, owner/executive chef at El Chipirón

Gomez began working in kitchens as a way to make some extra money during college. In his last year he offered to work for free at El Serbal and El Nuevo Molino, both Michelin star restaurants in his home town, where served as an apprentice under chefs Fernando Sainz de la Maza and Toni Gonzalez. He decided to enroll at Escuela Superior de Hostelería de la Comunidad de Madrid, one of the most prestigious culinary arts schools in the city, where he completed his studies as a chef and restaurant enterprises manager. He then worked with chef Juan Pablo Felipe in El Chaflán, another Michelin-starred restaurant, and staged at the two Michelin-starred La Terraza del Casino de Madrid with Paco Roncero under world renowned chef Ferrán Adriá as gastronomic adviser. From there, he became a freelance consultant, working as an executive chef and culinary adviser for other restaurants such as Monte Nevado, Arte Monte and Madrid’s L´artisan Furansu Kitchen, among others. Gomez brings his expertise in Spanish cuisine to El Chipirón as owner and executive chef.

Signature dish: Salpicón de pulpo — a Galician octopus terrine with piparra and potato

Sarah Prieto, pastry chef at Barley Swine 

After graduating from San Diego State University with a bachelors in graphic design, Prieto realized that sitting behind a computer wasn't inspiring her creatively. In 2011, she moved to the Bay Area to attend The French Culinary Institute as a member of its very first pastry class in the California campus. After graduation, she worked at Mayfield Bakery in Palo Alto, as pastry lead at San Francisco's Wayfare Tavern and as pastry assistant at Michelin three-starred, Saison. In 2014, Prieto moved to Austin, Texas, to be the pastry lead at Uchiko. There, she meet Damien Brockway who brought her into his new restaurant Counter 3.FIVE.VII as pastry chef, where she also learned about front-of-house service and received her introductory sommelier certification. From there, she joined chef Bryce Gilmore and family as the pastry chef at Barley Swine.

Signature dish: The smoked carrot cake with housemade cream cheese and roast beet sorbet currently on the Barley Swine menu

Dennis Van, executive pastry chef at District Kitchen + Cocktails and Oasthouse Kitchen + Bar

Van studied pastry and baking at Le Cordon Blue College of Culinary Arts before going on to work as assistant pastry chef at Uchi and freelance as a wedding and event cake designer. Now an executive pastry chef, Van creates all of the desserts, pastries and breads for District Kitchen + Cocktails and Oasthouse Kitchen + Bar. His creations include spins on American favorites using fresh, seasonal ingredients — like pink champagne sheet cake with strawberries and cream caviar.

Signature dish: Sticky toffee pudding with date cake, gingersnap crumbles, 3 Nations Stout ice cream, cocoa sea salt tuile and a butterscotch toffee sauce that is poured tableside

Stacy Chen, chef/co-owner at Veggie Heaven and Yoshi Ramen

Chen began cooking with her dad when she was 12, growing up in California. When her parents moved to Austin and opened Veggie Heaven on the Drag in 1998, she made the sauces and created the dishes. The well-loved restaurant closed its doors in 2014, but just recently reopened near Clarksville, back by popular demand. Chen just opened her second restaurant concept — Yoshi Ramen – this month, inspired by her grandmother’s former ramen shop in Osaka in the 1980s.

Signature dish:  Protein 2000: fried veggie protein battered and cooked in a sweet brown sauce with broccoli, garlic and onions

Chris Andrews, executive chef at Ghost Hill Restaurant

Andrews, a San Antonio native, was inspired by his grandparents to start cooking. He started his culinary career at The Driskill Hotel where he worked under chefs David Bull and Josh Watkins. From there, Andrews worked stints at Café Gray in New York City, as chef de cuisine at The Carillon and at Second Bar and Kitchen and Boiler Nine before joining Treaty Oak Ranch Distilling to open Ghost Hill Restaurant in Dripping Springs. The 3,500-square-foot restaurant opened this fall in the original ranch home on the 28-acre property, where Andrews serves smoked, roasted and grilled proteins and vegetables and sides alongside craft cocktails made with Treaty Oak spirits.

Signature dish: Pork spare ribs with sesame bourbon glaze, pickled carrot, Asian herbs and lime

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