16 Houston Power Players You Need to Know

November 1, 2013
by Amber Ambrose

Houston is hot right now. It's teeming with inventive food, creative drinks, well-thought-out concepts and a dining-and-drinking clientele that's more than ready to try it all. While it's impossible to list every power player in town, here are 16 folks who are currently doing cool things in their own unique ways to help make Houston a dynamic dining destination.

Lindsey Brown

If you've ever heard of or been on one of Houston's Culinary Tours - yes, the all-day eating extravaganzas that sell out in a matter of minutes - you're aware of just a smidgen of what Brown has done for our fair city. Formerly the Director of Marketing and PR for the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau (she just recently left after a decade), Brown developed and launched the program in 2010. Not just for hungry Houstonians, the various tours are a perfect vehicle to nationally promote the bounty of cuisines the Bayou City has to offer.

"In addition to the culinary tour program, my job was to promote the city of Houston to the local, regional and national media as a destination, and the culinary scene was a major part of that story," says Brown. "I'm proud to think I played a small role in the recognition Houston is now receiving nationally."

Staying in the field, Brown recently became the PR director for the Clumsy Butcher restaurant group, in which are some of Houston's heaviest hitters: Underbelly, Hay Merchant, Blacksmith, The Pastry War, Anvil Bar & Refuge and more on the way. No doubt she'll continue to advance the Houston culinary scene in her newest position.

Michael Fulmer and J.C. Reid

Notice a growing fervor of barbecue enthusiasts in Houston? A town once thought barren in the ways of low-and-slow smoked meat has now been elevated thanks to the passionate quest of two men that quite literally put Houston barbecue on the map. Michael Fulmer, full-time front of house at Triniti and J.C. Reid, an independent IT consultant as well as a freelance food and travel writer, have been searching out great Texas barbecue for years, and realized that Houston's local scene deserved some love. Thanks to these two brave souls who took a leap of smoky faith - the Houston Barbecue Festival now exists, and is entering its second year.

Some tenets of the festival include making Houstonians "aware of the long history of barbecue here," showing that "Houston barbecue is comparable to other regional styles of barbecue," recognizing "talent, hard work and dedication of the owners and pitmasters that make Houston barbecue great," and celebrating the "diversity of Houston barbecue."

Tickets for the festival go on sale soon, and they will sell out.

Heather Swift

It wasn't long ago that Downtown Houston was far down the list of destinations within the city for dining, drinking and general merriment. Thanks in part to Heather Swift, the Retail and Residential Programs Manager for the non-profit Downtown District, it's quickly moving up the roster.

Recent additions, or soon-to-open spots near Market Square Park (which is itself a city treasure) that Swift helped woo to the area include Hearsay, Batanga, Fusion Taco, El Big Bad, Little Dipper, Trigger Happy, The Pastry War, OKRA Charity Saloon, Goro & Gun and Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge.

In Swift's own words: "I'm a facilitator, I lead the horse to water, but I can't make it drink. And in the end, a lot of people can share the credit. With the OKRA group I begged them to go on a tour of the spaces while sharing the Downtown District's vision for the area. After that they fell in love and took a leap of faith."

Chris Leung and Chris Balat

They share the same first name as well as ownership of the recently opened Cloud 10 Creamery - a not-your-average-ice-cream shop with flavors like milk chocolate-black sesame - and these two pair as well as two scoops in a waffle cone. Leung is the chef and managing partner behind Cloud 10, and Balat is the real estate genius/founder of Balcor Hospitality, which enabled the development of concepts like Cloud 10. Balat can also be found preparing banana splits at the Creamery on any given day, and might possibly be the most hands-on investor in Houston.

Balat is also behind a five-story Museum District mixed-used development called Parc-Binz that will bring three additional restaurants to the area, two of which are Balcor-backed. Bosta will be a wine bar/coffee shop concept (named in honor of Balat's late grandfather's coffee shop in Palestine) and a still-unnamed casual restaurant headed up by a globally-trained Houston chef, all overseen by Balcor's culinary director, Chris Leung. The third will be an independent tenant (though Balat sought them out for the space personally) serving Korean fried chicken called Dak & Bop.

After Parc-Binz, Balat says there's a possible Phase II. We can only imagine what dining delights these two can dream up after their first wave of concepts bring new life into the Museum District.

Ronnie Killen

Before all the acclaim, before graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, before he was serving steak dinners to Houston Texans linebackers, Ronnie Killen began his culinary journey at the tender age of 23, firing up the smokers at his first restaurant, Killen's Kountry BBQ. As of this year, it looks like his carnivorous journey has finally come full circle. When it comes to meat, there's not much Killen can't do: he created a world-class steakhouse in a Houston suburb and is now luring in-the-loopers to Pearland with his critically acclaimed barbecue. Part of it has to do with using only Prime certified beef that includes brisket and short ribs, as well as Killen's experience firing up a pit.

Did we mention that the permanent barbecue restaurant doesn't even open until this December (if all goes as planned)? Crowds gather every weekend for a pop-up Killen's been conducting to get folks excited about his newest namesake barbecue restaurant. If the sell-outs are any indication, he's accomplished just that.

Chris Cusack, Benjy Mason and Joey Treadway 

Perhaps you've never heard of Treadsack, but it's a safe bet you have heard of Down House. Treadsack is the restaurant group owned by Chris Cusack and Joey Treadway, with culinary director Benjy Mason, that's helping put more hip into the Heights with places like the aforementioned Down House - a cozy coffeehouse/bar/restaurant that's proven a popular neighborhood go-to as well as a destination-worthy brunch and lunch spot.

Treadsack also opened D&T Drive Inn - a laid-back craft beer bar - in the neighborhood recently, with plans for two additional concepts to open next year. Foreign Correspondents (farm-to-table Thai restaurant) and Hunky Dory (a tavern and whiskey bar with a wood-burning grill as the main cooking vessel), will have chefs P.J. Stoops and Richard Knight - formerly of Feast - respectively heading up those kitchens.

If that's not enough, Treadsack also just published the first edition of local magazine Sugar & Rice, which focuses on the food and culture of the Gulf Coast.

Lance Fegen, Lee Ellis, Carl Eaves and Will Davis

Comfort food in Houston will never be the same thanks to this merry band of restaurateurs who've been busy over the last year. The group responsible for the already opened concepts of BRC Gastropub, Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar, Petite Sweets and most recently Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette have even more concepts on the way. Those would be Lee's Fried Chicken & Doughnuts - behind Liberty Kitchen in the Heights - Surfing Cowboys in Oak Forest and an Austin outpost of their thriving Liberty Kitchen concept. (You're welcome, Austin.)

With an army of four - Lance Fegen is responsible for the culinary planning, Lee Ellis the big picture vision and restaurant design along with Carl Eaves, who also works on the build-outs while Will Davis takes care of the real estate aspect - this diverse group of partners has a winning formula that continues to create successful ventures in all areas of the city, as well as Austin in the near future. Who knows how far their reach will grow.

Paul Petronella

If you know Paul Petronella as the owner/operator of Paulie's Restaurant, you'd know that his casual neighborhood Italian restaurant has undergone some changes over the last few years. House-made pastas were introduced to rave reviews, coffee service became top-notch and possibly the biggest change of all was the addition of an entirely new concept next door: Camerata. The wine bar is a partnership with Petronella and former beverage director for Uchi and advanced sommelier, David Keck, and has also seen plenty of positive press since its summer unveiling. (It even made an appearance on our inaugural "Hottest Bars" list.)

In addition to running Paulie's and opening Camerata, Petronella is one of OKRA's - the Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs - most active council members. He runs the kitchen at The Original OKRA Charity Saloon - a not-for-profit bar that donates all its proceeds to charity - lobbies for the small, independent restaurant owners and continues to advance the cause of community-supported advocacy. If that weren't enough, Petronella recently launched a site called Paul FEEDS, meant to be a virtual gathering place for industry professionals.

Jonathan Horowitz

Chief brand officer for Lasco Enterprises, LLC - the group that owns and operates The Tasting Room, Max's Wine Dive and the Boiler House Texas Grill & Wine Garden concepts - Jonathan Horowitz is unstoppable. It's hard to believe he was once a lawyer before joining the company as its 12th employee in 2005. Since then, he's utilized his marketing savvy, business-smarts, ambition-filled side to grow the business, which now employs over 650 people at a rapidly growing number of locations.

Overseeing all the marketing and communications for all the concepts as well as plotting new locations, Horowitz won't have much time to rest in the near future. In addition to the four Tasting Rooms throughout the greater Houston area, five Max's Wine Dives throughout the state (with more on the way - including a Chicago location and a second Houston locale) and the Boiler House Texas Grill & Wine Garden, Horowitz is also a full-time husband and father.

power players