Benchawan Painter is First Houston Woman to Win James Beard Chef Award
Last night at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago, Houston chef and co-owner Benchawan Jabthong Painter of Street To Kitchen at 6501 Harrisburg won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Texas. She is the first woman chef in Houston to win that category — and that includes the Best Chef: Southwest category for which Texas chefs used to be considered. (View the full list of Houston winners on the James Beard Award website.)
Prior to Painter’s win last night, chef Monica Pope got closest to being named best chef in the region during her time running T’afia. She was a nominee in 2007 and a semifinalist in 2008 for Best Chef: Southwest. Irma Galvan’s eponymous Houston restaurant, Irma’s, was honored as an America’s Classic in 2008. Last year, Alba Huerta’s restaurant Julep won the Outstanding Bar award.
Watch Painter’s post-win interview below (courtesy of the James Beard Foundation and Getty Images):
Painter, affectionately known as “Chef G”, runs Street To Kitchen along with husband Graham. They opened the restaurant at one of the worst possible times — August 2020 — next to a gas station. While the exterior is humble, the sparkling interior and Benchawan’s “unapologetically Thai” cuisine does a great job of transporting diners into the curated experience. The icing on the cake is Graham’s fun, irreverent menu design, called “Karen Hates Street To Kitchen—the Musical,” which features bad reviews of the restaurant.
Benchawan’s recipes are based on those of her grandmother, who operated a restaurant in Thailand. It was there that Benchawan learned to cook. She and Graham moved to Houston in 2015, got married, and she further honed her skills at restaurants such as James Beard Award-winning chef Justin Yu’s Oxheart (now Theodore Rex under head chef Kaitlin Steets).
Speaking of Justin Yu: his former Public Services Wine & Whisky cohorts Justin Vann and Sean Jensen were up for Beard Award consideration too, in a sense. Jensen’s restaurant, Nancy’s Hustle, which he runs alongside chef Jason Vaughan, was in the running in the Outstanding Wine Program category. Additionally, Houston restaurant Tatemo was a nominee in the Best New Restaurant category. Sadly, neither won, with Nancy’s Hustle losing to upscale sake bar OTOTO in Los Angeles and Haitian restaurant Kann in Portland taking the Best New Restaurant win.
Benchawan had tough, worthy competition for the Best Chef: Texas award: Emiliano Marentes of ELEMI in El Paso (you’ll hear more about this one from me soon — it’s worth the drive), Ernest Servantes and David Kirkland of Burnt Bean Co. in Seguin, John Russ of Clementine in San Antonio and Reyna Duong of Sandwich Hag of Dallas.
The Beard Awards cited Black Truffle Durian Crab Curry as Benchawan’s signature dish. Other dishes that she serves at Street To Kitchen are a variety of curries, dumplings called Kanom Jib stuffed with pork, shiitake mushrooms and green onion and Tom Yum Fried Rice.
Graham accompanied Benchawan for her acceptance speech on stage. Her dress made a statement of its own, as it was a multicolored, fringed dress by Thai designer Nata showcasing indigenous Hmong designs and symbols. “My husband is always with me. On a tough day — a long workday — he’s the one who always supports me and tells me, ‘Don’t give up.’ He always believes in me no matter what,” Benchawan said. She also thanked the rest of her family and Yu, for “being a good teacher and telling me how to be a better chef.”
The Painters just embarked on a new restaurant adventure, teaming up on th_prsv (“The Preserve”) in Kemah. There, Benchawan showcases indigenous Thai ingredients alongside David Skinner of eculent, whose dishes incorporate ingredients from his Choctaw heritage. It’s off to a very good start.
Reservations for Street To Kitchen are likely to become more scarce for a while thanks to the Beard Award win. These can be made in advance on Open Table; a credit card is required to secure the reservation. The th_prsrv experience is only offered on Thursdays and Fridays, so you should plan ahead for those reservations as well.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.