Houston Restaurant Pros & Fans Make Perfect 10 Gala 2023 a Smashing Success
On Tuesday, January 17, the tables were set, food prepped and festive beads ready for wearing at Brennan’s of Houston for Houston Food Finder’s The Perfect 10 Gala. The gala featured 10 chefs and 10 beverage professionals, as well as a pastry chef and local coffee roaster, each selected and invited by Houston Food Finder editor and publisher Phaedra Cook.
Brennan’s spacious, elegant interior was festooned with Mardi Gras decorations. As Houston food fans and business leaders streamed through the iconic entrance, they were greeted by giant carnival masks mounted on the front doors and chandeliers bedecked in sparkly green, purple and gold garland.
Brennan’s of Houston, Katine Nechman McLaurin LLP, David Toy Law Firm, Josephson Dunlap LLP, Chef Mark and Yvonne Holley and Friends, Cornell Law and Raizner Slania LLP sponsored the event. William Price Distilling was the spirits sponsor, and Sysco sponsored ingredients for eight of the dishes. (Other ingredients sponsors are noted below in the dish descriptions.)
A silent auction at the event exclusively benefitting Second Servings of Houston raised $9,000. The non-profit organization rescues perfectly good prepared and perishable food that would be tossed in the trash and redirects it to Houstonians in need. Thank you to the numerous Houston businesses and individuals who donated items for the auction!
Despite its over 55 years in business, this was the first time Brennan’s of Houston had hosted this type of event. The staff cleared the downstairs dining room of nearly all furniture, reconfiguring it for a VIP cocktail hour from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Top Houston chefs, each teamed with either a bartender or sommelier, manned serving stations both inside and outside in the courtyard, delighting attendees with elegant small bites and drink pairings. The featured chefs, sommeliers and bartenders during cocktail hour were:
- Alex Au-Yeung, chef and owner of Phat Eatery and 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist, served Caviar and Truffle Pork Dumplings with caviar and truffles sponsored by Houston gourmet food purveyor DR Delicacy. Marcus Gausepohl, associate executive wine buyer of Houston Wine Merchant and former Brennan’s of Houston “Wine Guy”, selected Domaine Sérol “Turbullent” Rosé Pétillant for the pairing, a certified organic and biodynamic wine made with Gamay St. Romain grapes.
- Hugo Ortega, executive chef, co-owner of H Town Restaurant Group and 2016 James Beard Award Winner for Best Chef: Southwest, served Molote de Cachete de Res — an empanada-style pastry stuffed with beef cheek and bone marrow. For his dish, Ortega selected a variety of wrappers: corn, blue corn and plantain. “Wine Guy” Rich Carter of Brennan’s of Houston selected Les Rougeots du Clos Gamay 2021 from Loire Valley for the pairing.
- Benchawan Painter, chef and co-owner of Street to Kitchen, served Tiger Cry Steak with Pumpkin Three Ways featuring 1855 Black Angus Beef from Henderson & Kane General Store in the Heights. William Price Distilling’s beverage director Taylor Morris’s cocktail pairing was Risky Business with William Price Navy Strength Gin, house honey syrup, house passionfruit syrup, fresh lemonade, Topo Chico and Angostura bitters.
- David Skinner, chef and owner of eculent served Shrimp and Corn Butter, paired with Blue (A-Do-Bo-Dee) cocktail with William Price Distilling’s 101 Rye, chipotle-infused maple syrup, aromatic bitters and blueberry “air” by Chris Morris, Kau Ba Saigon and Aya Sushi.
- Niki Vongthong, executive chef of Hidden Omakase, served Scallop Crudo with radish, pomegranate and Texas pecans, paired with Sardinia Spritz featuring William Price Distilling’s limoncello and Honey Badger amaro by Thomas Cordes, Brennan’s of Houston.
During the cocktail hour, attendees could duck into the John Staub private dining room and capture the moment thanks to a photo booth and Mardi Gras props provided by Photo Booth Supply Co.
With cocktail hour winding down, it was time to lead the 180 gala guests to the upstairs private dining room in the most festive way possible: with a second-line march accompanied by the same jazz band usually playing at Brennan’s Sunday brunch.
VIP guests discovered metallic gift bags in the Mardi Gras colors of gold, green and purple waiting in their chairs. The contents were worth approximately $300 and included gift certificates from Phat Eatery, KP’s Kitchen, downtown food hall Lyric Market, and Henderson & Kane; wine aerators courtesy of David Toy Law Firm; full-sized jars of Italian tomato sauce from Amelia’s and Co.; za’atar spice blend from Phoenicia Specialty Foods; sample bottles of William Price Distilling’s Straight Rye 101 and coffee liqueur, as well as a $150 gift certificate towards venue rental; and a lip balm from Chinola, which produces passion fruit liqueur.
The featured chefs, bartenders and sommeliers during the seated dinner were:
- Owner Jeff Weinstock of Cake & Bacon, a Brennan’s of Houston alumnus, provided Kalamata olive rolls, ciabatta pillows and challah pull-aparts for the bread baskets. Cake & Bacon not only supplies top Houston restaurants, but can also be found at local farmers markets.
- Executive chef Austin Simmons of TRIS kicked off the savory courses with ahi tuna sashimi with orange supremes, daikon, serrano pepper and ponzu dashi. For the wine pairing, 13 celsius general manager and reigning Iron Sommelier Adele Corrigan Wade selected Château De Brézé Cremant de Loire Rosé.
- For the second course Winnie’s chef, co-owner and Brennan’s of Houston alumnus Chris Roy brought classic Louisiana flavors to pasta in his Muffaletta-Stuffed Tortellini in Parmesan rind and ham brodo. To pair alongside, former Brennan’s “Wine Guy” and Cherry Block Craft Butcher and Texas Market owner Felix Florez selected Donatien Bahuaud L’Alcove Vouvray Chenin Blanc.
- Executive chef Paul Peddle of Four Seasons Houston teamed up with his own bar manager, Jonathan Jones, for the third course. The generous portion of Buttermilk-Fried Pork Belly with pickled okra, garlic aioli, Crystal Hot Sauce and beurre blanc was accompanied by Swamp Water, a cocktail of William Price Navy-Strength Gin, Green Chartreuse, lime juice and pineapple gum syrup sponsored by Levels of Grandeur, a local cocktail syrup company. Jones finished the drink with an herbal spray and celery microgreens.
- The fourth course reunited former Brennan’s of Houston chef de cuisine Mark Holley, now executive chef of Alife Hospitality and Davis Street at Hermann Park, and “Wine Guy” James Koonce, who now runs My Place Catering. Holley brought back a classic dish from his former Holley’s Seafood & Oyster Bar: blackened grouper with Carolina Gold Rice, lady cream peas, kimchi collards and ham hock pot liquor. To pair alongside, Koonce selected Anne Amie Pinot Noir. Holley’s dish was sponsored by Sysco, Blue Horizon Wholesale Seafood & Retail Market, Airline Seafood and Chefs’ Produce.
- The Brennan’s of Houston chef team of Carl Walker, John Salazar and José Arevalo came in with the grand finale of the savory courses: Bourbon Lacquered Hill Country Quail with crawfish boudin stuffing, sunny-side-up quail egg, wilted greens and sweet potatoes. To pair alongside, Andy Charlton, bar manager of Rhapsody Bar at Lyric Market created The Honey Badgered, a cocktail made with William Price Rum Ryder (a blend of rye and two rums), William Price Honey Badger Amaro, honey syrup, and tiki and orange bitters.
- No fine meal is complete without dessert, and that was provided by pastry chef and Koffeteria-owner Vanarin Kuch, a former Top Chef “Just Desserts” competitor. In the kitchen, Kuch painstakingly flambéed the meringue of each of his 180 Bananas Foster Baked Alaskas with William Price Distilling’s Jamaican rum. The desserts, an homage to both Brennan’s famous bananas foster and Kuch’s Cambodian heritage, were made with red Thai bananas and galangal. Dean Borgerding, production manager and roaster of Boomtown Coffee, provided some much-needed caffeine with an iced-coffee drink called Crüd, a take on New Orleans-style Vietnamese iced coffee.
Pulling off this gala was a huge team effort. We owe thanks to Brennan’s of Houston, especially owner Alex Brennan-Martin — who we surprised when we announced he was our gala honoree for his work as a Houston restaurant industry leader — marketing manager Whitney Guarisco, host chefs Carl Walker, José Arevalo and John Salazar, all of the visiting chefs, sommeliers and bartenders (and, in some cases, their PR representatives for keeping them updated), plating volunteers Edwin Hui, owner of AtCha, chef Richard Knight (previously featured at the 2019 The Perfect 10 Gala), chef Staci Davis (also a former Houston Food Finder writer) and chef Nahum Hernandez.
Additional gratitude goes to gala co-coordinators Lisa Hopkins and Shannon Almes, gala host committee members Ryan Kasey Baker (check out his articles on Houston Food Finder), Houston Food Finder social media manager Mario-Sebastian Berry, Kelly Laudadio, Jessica Householder and Stacee Sobin and last but certainly not least, Second Servings of Houston founder Barbara Bronstein, Amber Chestnut and all the other Second Servings volunteers.
We hope to offer another The Perfect 10 Gala in 2024. Thanks to everyone who made this one a success!
(The total raised from ticket sales to support Houston Food Finder’s work is not yet available, but we’ll update this article when it is.)
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.