Houston is having a culinary moment. This year, 10 chefs and restaurants were Semifinalists in the James Beard Awards competition, known as “the Oscars of the food world.”
BBQ burger prepared by Greg Gatlin
Among those garnering attention are Chris Williams, executive chef and cofounder of Lucille’s restaurant and head of Lucille’s Hospitality Group, a semifinalist for the James Beard Outstanding Restaurateur in 2022 and 2023, and Greg Gatlin of Gatlin’s BBQ and Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers, a semifinalist this year for Best Chef: Texas (the award went to fellow Houstonian Benchawan Jabthong Painter of Street to Kitchen). Even beyond big names like Williams and Gatlin, there’s more to dig into on the Black chef-helmed restaurant scene.
Black Restaurant Week managing partners Derek Robinson and Falayn Ferrell with founder Warren Luckett
Houston is among the top five cities in the US in its number of Black-owned restaurants, notes Warren Luckett, founder of the city’s Black Restaurant Week, held each year in April. With Blacks making up 22 percent of Houston’s population, hundreds of Black-owned restaurants, food trucks and bars contribute to the city’s well-regarded dining scene.
Some of these Black chefs are taking soul food to the next level, such as at Lucille’s, which serves up oxtail tamales with pico black-eyed peas and housemade salsa roja. Mo’ Better Brews vegan coffee shop offers vegan and vegetarian cuisine with cultural twists, like its fried oyster mushrooms over grits drizzled with remoulade. Meanwhile, others like Upper Kirby Bistro are mixing it up with Caribbean and Asian influences, like the jerk salmon Caesar salad and the crispy Asian shrimp in sweet Thai chili sauce.
Their creativity is part of the buzz about what’s cooking in the city’s hottest kitchens. Here, we get to know some of Houston’s top Black chefs.
Chef Christopher Williams of Lucille's
Lucille’s has been the go-to for a celebratory meal since opening in 2012, beloved for its festive vibe, indoor and outdoor seating, casual elegance, and collection of paintings by Black artists. The man behind the attention-getting restaurant, Christopher Williams tickles discerning palates with elevated Southern delights like Lucille’s Yardbird: brined and slow-fried chicken, smoked mashed potatoes, braised collard greens and honey-spiced gravy.
Arrangement of dishes prepared by Chef Williams
Williams and food journalist Kayla Stewart are co-writing the cookbook Colors of Texas!, which will showcase the recipes and contributions of Texas’ Black chefs and culinary entrepreneurs. His plate is also full with a renovation project, funded in part by the locally based nonprofit Project Row Houses, to transform the 1939 Eldorado Ballroom into an art gallery, live entertainment venue, community center and more.
Williams is psyched about what’s happening in Houston’s restaurants. “I’m always looking to strike the balance of what I know people expect us to cook versus what we truly enjoy creating and making in the kitchen,” he says. “Black chefs and restaurateurs [here] are pushing limits and seizing the moment. We’ve switched the conversation about what Black restaurants can look like.”
Chef Akeila Mckreith of Stush Caribbean Fusion
Chef Mckreith owns Stush Caribbean Fusion, which opened this past summer in the Conservatory Underground Beer Garden & Food Hall. But she’s been a name on the food scene since 2013, offering catering at events like political fundraisers and the Houston Reggae Fest.
Oxtail pasta prepared by Chef Mckreith
The Jamaica native can go traditional—think braised oxtails with butter beans, plantains and salt fish—or fuse island fare with Asian, Cuban and other cuisines, creating dishes like jerk pork panini. “Traditional Jamaican food is scary to some because it’s spicy,” she says. “Fusion offers the best of both worlds.”
Mckreith shares the wealth by featuring local Black-owned businesses’ products on the menu. “Food is more than nourishment. It’s how I express myself without speaking,” she says. “Food is a blank canvas where I paint masterpieces.”
Chef Mark Clayton of Squable
Clayton is executive chef and a partner at Squable, a cozy bistro in the Heights neighborhood with a dining room that Houstonia magazine described as being “special without trying too hard.” Similarly, Clayton lets his food speak for itself. His marinated mussels on grilled bread and calico beans has been a favorite of Houstonians since the restaurant opened in 2019. The French cheeseburger is another go-to menu item that entices with its raclette spread.
Arrangement of dishes prepared by Chef Clayton
“[My cooking] is all about proper execution of classic techniques and finding connections between classic techniques and recipes and local, seasonal ingredients,” Clayton says.
This year, he won Chef of the Year in the local CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, and Squable was nominated for Restaurant of the Year in the same awards.
Chef Greg Gatlin of Gatlin's BBQ and Gatlin's Fins & Feathers
More than a decade ago, Houston native Greg Gatlin left corporate America to open Gatlin’s BBQ with his parents. He serves up brisket and beef short rib sandwiches that are beloved by even the fussiest barbecue enthusiasts. Top off the meal with some of the 14 sides on offer, like smoked corn and candied yams.
“Food is an expression of who you are and where you came from,” he says, adding that in the past, “Houston’s Black chefs maybe didn’t get credit or have resources. Now we do and are building our own narrative.”
In July 2022, he opened a second venue: Gatlin’s Fin & Feathers, an 80-seat restaurant specializing in chicken and seafood. Folks love the old-school catfish and the H-town hot sandwich—fried chicken with a Vietnamese and Cajun hot sauce. With creative chefs such as these setting the tone, H-town is having a culinary moment that’s not likely to cool off any time soon.