Award-Winning Katy Chef & Restaurateur Dies After Battling Cancer — Updated

Alex Au-Yeung of Phat Eatery

The Katy and Greater Houston restaurant community has suffered a shocking and painful loss. Restaurateur and owner Alex Au-Yeung of Phat Eatery in Katy Asian Town has died after a battle with cancer. He died on Thursday, March 21, 2024 at only 52 years old. Au-Yeung was a 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef Texas, as well as the recipient of more accolades that we can list, including the Faces of Diversity and People’s Choice Awards from the Texas Restaurant Association, and a 2021 “Rising 10” award given by the Asian American Chamber of Commerce to the 10 fastest-growing Asian-owned businesses in Houston. He also competed in numerous food competitions (you name it, he probably competed in it — especially if it was for charity) and often placed or won. 

Update, 3/29/2024, 12:50 p.m.: The Texas Restaurant Association has announced that it is naming the above-mentioned People’s Choice Award after Alex Au-Yeung. The Association’s full statement about Au-Yeung’s impact on the restaurant industry is at the end of this article.

Those who wish to honor Au-Yeung’s life may attend visitations on Monday, April 1 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Tuesday, April 2 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Sugar Land Mortuary at 1818 Eldridge in Sugar Land. In lieu of flowers, Au-Yeung’s family encourages donations to the Houston-based Southern Smoke Foundation, which helps hospitality workers in crisis across the country. 

(Speaking of Southern Smoke Foundation, which chef Chris Shepherd founded: you can watch Au-Yeung’s appearance on Shepherd’s TV show, “Eat Like a Local” at this link.)

Alex Au-Yeung and Kevin Lee of Phat Eatery
Owner and 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist Alex Au-Yeung and Kevin Lee of Phat Eatery. Photo by Quy Tran Photography.

Thankfully, Phat Eatery will continue running under its Directors of Operations Kevin Lee and Marvin He. Anyone concerned about changes in the food or service after Au-Yeung’s passing shouldn’t worry, as the co-directors have been helping run the business for the past several months as Au-Yeung underwent cancer treatment. Also, the second Woodlands location should still be debuting soon. As this December 2023 photo shows, tremendous progress has already been made. 

Au-Yeung was born in Malaysia and raised in Hong Kong, but emigrated to Houston when he was only 19. He returned to Hong Kong to train in Cantonese cooking before becoming a partner in Banana Leaf in Bellaire. After leaving, he opened Phat Eatery in June 2018. 

It is at this point in these death announcements when I’d normally go into a purely factual discussion of Au-Yeung’s life journey, referring to him by last name only to keep some kind of journalistic distance. In this case, I can’t do that. This loss is professional, personal and devastating. Through Phat Eatery, Alex was one of Houston Food Finder’s biggest sponsors — he has been instrumental in making our work possible — and almost instantly after meeting, he became one of my best friends. If you find a friend who listens to you, shares with you and treats you with respect as Alex did with me, today is a good day to remind that person how much they are valued. 

The normally packed dining room at Phat Eatery
Phat Eatery’s debut dinner in 2018, hosted by Houston Food Finder. Photo by Chuck Cook.

In the summer of 2018, before Houston Food Finder had even made it to its second anniversary, our salesperson at the time, Estee Grier, and I had the tremendous fortune to be introduced to Alex through his then-PR representative, Rachel Austin (and I’ll be forever grateful). Alex wanted to open a Malaysian restaurant in the new Katy Asian Town development. As silly as it sounds now, I wasn’t sure if Katy diners were going to embrace it. The least we could do was ensure it opened with a big splash. Alex retained my husband, Chuck Cook, for what would be his last big food photography gig in Houston, and Houston Food Finder would host a debut event for a group of loyal readers who were also charged with filling out a survey card at the end. The restaurant was full and buzzing. Our readers were entirely charmed — although some, of course, wrote some suggestions and thought a few dishes needed some improvement. Alex later confessed to me that he read the suggestions — and changed nothing. 

The following day, we published an announcement of Phat Eatery’s opening. I was in love with the food, and I was gratified to see that I wasn’t the only writer who felt the same way. More importantly, Phat Eatery was heartily embraced by diners in Katy and beyond. 

Alex Au-yeung at Phat Eatery in Katy
Alex Au-yeung of popular Malaysian restaurant Phat Eatery in Katy is opening a second, much larger one in The Woodlands. Photo by Kimberly Park.

After the debut event, and with Phat Eatery quite successful, Alex could have dropped his sponsorship of Houston Food Finder at any time. He never did. I think he considered maintaining his professional ties with us something of a lucky rabbit’s foot. It could also be that, as he got to know more about me and the struggles of food journalism, he realized that his business support could mean the difference between us closing and not closing. I will always be grateful that he regarded what we do as important — not just to Phat Eatery, but to the Houston restaurant community in general. 

Not every business venture was sunshine and roses for Alex. His foray into a Houston food hall as Phat Kitchen was short-lived due to a mismatch between his standards for quality and the food hall design and operations. For that venture, he retained Cuc Lam, a respected Houston caterer who’d previously run another restaurant. (Disclosure: Cuc is like the sister I never had, so there’s another deeply personal connection.) They’d open Yelo, next door to Phat Eatery in Katy Asian Town, primarily as a gourmet banh mi shop. Despite steadily increasing business, Alex decided the space would better serve his guests as part of Phat Eatery, so he closed Yelo after about 18 months. Phat Eatery’s expansion also allowed room for a central, wrap-around cocktail bar, making Phat one of the few places you can get a craft cocktail in Katy. 

cuc lam and alex auyeung
Cuc Lam and Alex Au-Yeung in the days leading up to YELO, next door to Phat Eatery. Photo by Kimberly Park.

Alex was an incredibly clever restaurateur who never rested on his laurels. He knew the value of marketing, of showing up to events and food competitions and always adding something fresh and novel to his menu. His success never interfered with his support of his peers. He was a patron, as much as his schedule allowed, as well as a fellow restaurateur and chef. The last time I got to see Alex was on September 15 over a terrific dinner with mutual friends at Amrina in The Woodlands. I took photos of the stunning food and drinks. I regret not taking photos of him. I thought that he might feel like he didn’t look his best. I’d wait for a happier time. Unfortunately, that time will never come. Every time I lose a friend, I feel like I failed to seize enough moments. 

I could go on and on with the acts of kindness Alex showed me — some of them quite funny and a little subversive, like when he wore a Houston Food Finder T-shirt to an event after the organizer backed out of promoting the event with us. Or that time he and his team raced from the governor’s inaugural lunch event in Austin back to Houston so they could still participate in our The Perfect 10 Gala in 2023

The biggest lessons that people should take from Alex’s life are from his humanity. Alex was loyal, giving, caring, genuine, funny and vibrant. He played as hard as he worked. I won’t give away his favorite bar, but I won’t be surprised if the owners are creating a drink-and-a-shot special in his honor right now. 

Alex was protective of his personal life, and although I never got to meet them, I do know that he left behind a wife and kids. That fact utterly and completely breaks my heart. 

Alex and I had a years-long running conversation on Facebook Messenger. Although I had asked and been assured by people charged with protecting his privacy that he was “doing okay”, I knew he wasn’t, because that conversation had gone quiet. In typical Alex fashion, his last message was to check on me after I had two surgeries in February. I said I knew my issue was “not nearly as serious as what you’re dealing with”. 

Even though it had turned into a one-way conversation, I kept sending him things that I thought he would enjoy once he got better and had a chance to see the messages. “Think this will make you smile. I got this from our newest writer: ‘Also I finally tried Phat Eatery and I’m so glad it’s all the way out in Katy. I’d go broke otherwise. It’s the only place I know of in Houston that has ikan bilis. Usually I have to make it myself, and it isn’t nearly as good.’” (Thanks, Meredith. That means so much more now than it even did last week.) 

Losing Alex feels like losing a brother-in-arms, partially because we could identify with our business challenges. The restaurant industry is hard. Running a food publication is hard. However, Alex imparted that you do not give up, ever, unless it is simply the correct decision. 

Until then, you push. You create. You innovate. You keep going until it’s clear that you can’t. 

Phat Eatery thrives to this day because I’m not the only one who learned this from Alex. 

Some days — especially days like today — I want to throw in the towel. In Alex’s honor, I’m going to try and keep pushing. That’s what he’d want me to do. 


Statement from the Texas Restaurant Association

“It’s difficult to explain the shock and heartbreak that the Texas Restaurant Association family is feeling after the loss of Alex Au-Yeung. Alex was one-of-a-kind, personifying the traits that make the hospitality industry so special. He’ll be remembered as a leading chef and entrepreneur because he excelled at bringing delicious global flavors and impeccable service to Houston-area diners. But even more than that, we’ll remember Alex as a servant leader whose joy in lifting up his team members, family and friends was infectious.

“To ensure Alex’s legacy is never forgotten, the TRA is proud to announce that we’re naming our annual People’s Choice Award after Alex, a fitting tribute to the man who won the award multiple times and used his acceptance speeches to remind us all that people are the essential ingredient to the hospitality industry’s success.”

— Emily Williams Knight Ed.D, president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association

Comments (2)

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  • March 29, 2024 at 9:20 pmGary Yan

    My dear friend Chef Alex Extraordinaire
    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the wisdom and guidance you provided when we embarked on our journey of opening a Fusion restaurant in Sugar Land way back in 2010. Your expertise in Oriental cuisine knowledge, assistance in familiarity of the Houston Oriental scene was invaluable to us. Alex your support has left most certainly left a lasting impact on our business. Your passing has left a void in the H Town community, but I take solace in knowing that heaven has gained a passionate and caring soul who will continue to spread love through food. May your soul rest in eternal peace…. Till we meet again

    Reply
    • March 30, 2024 at 10:53 amPhaedra Cook

      Thank you so much for sharing what Alex meant to you and your business. He will be forever missed.

      Reply