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Houston's Culinary Trendsetters

Chefs Justin Yu, Felipe Riccio and Sash Kurgan on motivation, memories, and cooking during a pandemic.

Article by Gabi De la Rosa

Photography by Yvonne Villegas-Vasquez

Originally published in River Oaks Lifestyle

Justin Yu

Theodore Rex, Squable, Better Luck Tomorrow, Public Services Wine and Whisky


How do you spread your time across different concepts/kitchens?

It's hard to map out exactly how my days or weeks will go concretely, but I'd say that my time in the kitchens is based on seasonal needs or just plain "putting out of the fire" (ideally figuratively, not literally) in the kitchens. I'm fortunate to have very talented chefs on-site at all the different restaurants and bars, so I can sort of draw a loose blueprint of where I need to be at a particular time.   


James Beard Award Winner – does it still thrill you to hear that even 4 years later?

It's still crazy to me. It was an unforgettable experience that you only dream about and never think that you might actually get there. It was amazing to hear my name, be on that stage looking across a sea of captains of the industry and celebrate it with my restaurant family and the city that raised me. That being said, I refuse to let it be paramount of my career.


Do you feel that you are scrutinized more than other chefs because you have so many accolades? How do you stay out from under that? 

Of course, some expectations come with the amount of attention that we've been lucky to receive, but I take it as a charge to continue to push and consistently over-deliver on expectations. Whether it is food, service, guest comfort, or small bits and touches to make every experience memorable, we're continually self-scouting for areas we can improve on.


What is your most memorable meal? 


I had spent most of my life saving to cook for free and learn in European kitchens when I ate at the Sportsman outside of London. From the simplicity in its food, the restaurant’s unassuming nature, to how every bit and piece of the dining experience was curated – it was a meal I’ll never forget.

Felipe Riccio  

Rosie Cannonball, Montrose Cheese&Wine, March Restaurant, Goodnight Charlie's


 What got you interested in cooking? 

Growing up, my family would get together often, and my grandma and my dad would spend the whole day cooking. I saw cooking as an essential thing to do, and I took a lot of interest in it. Early on, I told my parents I wanted to be a lawyer and a chef on the side. After I took one criminal justice class, I quickly realized I didn't want to become a lawyer and instead, I looked into the culinary program at my high school. I went straight into culinary school after graduation and besides a short hiatus to study wine, I've been cooking. 

 You have traveled quite a bit in your career - what international sensibilities do you bring to your dishes? 

I am originally from Mexico City, but I grew up in Veracruz. My parents are of Spanish and Italian origins, so I grew up surrounded by three different cultures. As a teenager, I moved to Houston and as an adult, I lived in Europe. All these things have undoubtedly influenced my palate and the way I see food. 

 What is the most important thing you learned as a chef during a global pandemic?

I think our entire culinary team learned the value and importance of serving people in our restaurants. Most of us are chefs, because we love cooking and because we love cooking for people. Takeout has been a survival tool for most restaurants, but it is not enough to feed the drive in our hearts and minds to cook day in and day out. Seeing people enjoy each other's company while eating the food we prepared is key to our industry's survival.

 What is your most memorable meal?  

My most memorable meal so far was at Reale in Abruzzo, Italy. The three-star Michelin restaurant is led by Niko and Cristiana Romito, a brother and sister team. Located in Cassadonna, a 16th-century former monastery turned into a 6-bedroom hotel. Chef Niko's way of viewing flavor is a continued inspiration for me. 

Sash Kurgan

Doris Metropolitan 

Chef, Co-owner (Culinary Director)


How is the food scene in Houston different from other places you've worked?

Houston's food scene is very dynamic – I feel like it would take years to explore the diverse culinary scene Houston has to offer. We're fortunate that we live in such a strong multi-cultural city with unique cuisines that accurately reflect those ethnicities – especially in China Town. 

How do you stay creatively inspired in the kitchen?

In today's world, it's like a huge amusement park for chefs. Cooks can learn and get inspired by searching the internet, which takes away from the craft and makes the world a much more accessible place. You can now travel the world and get inspired sitting on a chair in your room.

What is the most important thing you learned as a chef during a global pandemic?

The most important thing that I've learned from the pandemic is the ability to be flexible, but creative while remaining open-minded. We were forced to think outside the box within such a short time, and the ability to adapt to the evolving situation is the real test.

What is your most memorable meal? 

My most memorable meal took place in Tuscany, Italy, at a beautiful farm called "poggio del Castagno." I was 23 years old, and it was my real first farm to table feast. I was on a gorgeous farm with the beautiful people who ran it, and together we spent the entire day cooking. Nothing was rushed, and you could feel that a significant part of dinner was the time you used to make it, the complete opposite of the fast world I was used to and living in. It was the longest and most satisfying meal I ever had, but it wasn't all about eating, it was about gathering.