The 2022 Truffle Masters Proved That Some Houston Chefs are Hard to Beat
Crowds enjoying the glitz and glamour of The Truffle Masters event, hosted at the C. Baldwin Hotel by luxury foods purveyor DR Delicacy, was a welcome sight after two years of a pandemic. At the center of the event was the competition among high-powered Houston chefs to determine who was this year’s Truffle Master (or Mistress, as the case may be). As it turned out, three prior winners — and a dark horse restaurant that’s not even open yet — nabbed the top three judges’ honors, plus the People’s Choice award.
The team of about 15 judges included myself, Pat Sharpe of Texas Monthly, chef David Cordúa of David & Michael Cordúa Events and forthcoming restaurant The Lymbar, Katie Stone of The Cleverley Stone Foundation (the entity behind Houston Restaurant Weeks and the newly debuted Eat Drink HTX fundraisers), longtime Houston food writer Mai Pham, food editors Greg Morago and Emma Balter of the Houston Chronicle and Joe Monastero, Chief Operating Officer of the Texas Restaurant Association, just to name a few.
Chef Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi and his team at Kata Robata entered the competition as three-time Judges’ Choice winners, having won in 2016, 2017 and 2019 (the last year of the in-person competition before the pandemic). This year, they again took top honors — but this time, thanks to the will of the people. Kata Robata won the People’s Choice award for its silky, perfectly pink fatty tuna wrapped in nori, as well as for a remarkable mini truffle ice cream sandwich made with light-as-air ice cream cone “cookies”.
For the Judges’ Choice awards, last year’s winner, Hidden Omakase — led this time by chef Niki Vongthong rather than chef Billy Kin, a fellow competitor this time for his own restaurant, Kinokawa — wowed both judges and the crowd with not one, but three dishes, all made with fresh black truffle.
The restaurant that captured second place came as something of a surprise, as it’s not even open yet. Money Cat, as previously reported, is expected to open this summer in the Upper Kirby area. Chef Sherman Yeung, who also runs Tobiuo, a sushi restaurant in Katy, led his team to the second-place win with the dual dishes of Mushroom Truffle Rice with Wagyu and Chocolate Bonsai Tree with Truffle Ice Cream.
(Interestingly, it was not the only chocolate tree of the night, as Mussafer entered its own version along with chocolate truffles buried in chocolate cookie “soil.” For the visually spectacular judges’ presentation, there were even pig-shaped wafers, apparently hunting for those precious truffles.)
Taking the top Judges’ Choice honor was another repeat winner — with a similar dish, too. Acclaimed pastry chef Karla Espinoza and the team of MAD Houston, led by chef Luis Roger, won the 2019 Truffle Masters with one of Espinoza’s black truffle desserts. Clearly, that’s a strategy that works, as this time, it was Espinoza’s Basque Cheesecake Bon Bon filled with citrus and truffle that won first place.
With 500 attendees, and no shortage of decadent food and drinks, it’s a fair bet that The Truffle Masters will return around the same time next year — and all the competing chefs are likely to be scheming the whole time on how they’re going to wow the judges and attendees with new, delightful black truffle dishes.
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.