Those who consider themselves foodies likely know by now that Houston's culinary scene is considered one of the best and most diverse in the nation. From down-home burger joints to high-end interior Mexican restaurants, creative Asian fusion and just about anything else you can think of, there's something for all palates in the Space City.
So perhaps it should come as little surprise that the prestigious James Beard Foundation award for best chef in Texas has gone to a Houstonian: Benchawan Jabthong Painter, the mastermind behind Street to Kitchen, serving up authentic Thai food in Houston's East End.
Finding out she was a finalist for the honor was, however, a surprise to Painter.
"We had no idea. I don't even know when [the judges] came here," she said. "We had no idea until we saw the names they put out of all the chefs. That's how we found out."
Still a relative newcomer to Houston's restaurant scene, Painter's star has been rapidly rising since she and her husband, Graham, opened Street to Kitchen in 2020. Before that, she worked at Theodore Rex under the guidance of chef Justin Yu, who she credits as an influence in her career. But even after learning of her nomination, she wasn't expecting to take home the prize.
"I had a hope, like I hope I might get it," Painter said. "But another one, I just feel a little bit like, ‘Oh, you know what? I'm still new on this business.' It was a back-and-forth kind of thing. And when we won it, it was like, oh God, we really need to prepare pretty good for what's coming next."
She's getting ready for an uptick in business at the small restaurant, which shares a building with a Valero station convenience store on Houston's Harrisburg Boulevard. The menu features "unapologetic" authentic Thai favorites, like drunken noodles, pad Thai and tom yum soup – food she grew up cooking in the kitchen of her grandmother's restaurant in Nakhon Sawan, in north-central Thailand.
"I tell people, you know, when you walk into Street to Kitchen, I want you to feel like you walked into my grandma's house," Painter said. "All the flavor I grew up with, what my grandma cooked for me, like how happy I am in that time, I want to make sure everybody just gets that same feeling."
And if she didn't have enough on her plate, Painter also is working with Houston chef David Skinner on a new project called Th Prsrv – pronounced The Preserve – located in Kemah. The tasting menu draws on both indigenous Thai and Native American cooking traditions (Skinner is Choctaw), charting the evolution of the respective cuisines.
"It's different from Street to Kitchen, more like a 15-course fine dining," she said. "It's more like historical food, so like from maybe 1,000 years ago, what did we eat in that time? And we're already booked up through the end of June."
So Painter will have to get right back to work once she arrives home from Chicago, where the James Beard award ceremony – known as the "Oscars of the food world" – was held. But she isn't complaining.
"Yeah, it's a good problem to have," she said. "We just have to make sure we deal with it in a really good way."
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