San Antonio certainly has its share of culinary rockstars. You know the ones: they win national awards, make regular cooking show appearances and have become almost synonymous with the city’s burgeoning food scene.
But those talented chefs aren’t the only ones putting in hard work every day, innovating at the best restaurants, redefining kitchen culture and creating some of the best food in the city. Get to know these five rising chefs now, because they probably won’t remain behind the scenes much longer.
Catch the Wave Chef, Culinary Instructor
- Erik Gustafson
Leo Davila worked in retail for years, but he always dreamed of opening and running a restaurant with his father. Eventually, the duo gave it a try and launched an eatery in Houston.
“We failed miserably,” he laughed. “I knew I still wanted to do this, but I also knew I had a lot to learn.”
So, Davila attended the culinary school at the Art Institute in San Antonio and graduated in 2014. He worked his way through kitchens at Mixtli, Folc and several hotels before becoming a senior director for Humble House Foods, a local hot sauce company with a brunch menu at The Pearl's farmers market.
During that time, Davila returned to the AI campus as an instructor and began teaching introductory kitchen courses to aspiring chefs. Being around students and the educational environment offered a surge of creative energy. After three years of helping Humble House grow, Davila left in December 2018, eager to build something new.
“I’ve had a lot of family and friends tell me that I need to open up my own business, that I was going to ‘miss the wave’,” said Davila, who named his business as a nod to those friendly warnings. “I knew that once I opened, people would know where I was coming from and what I was trying to do.”
Catch the Wave began catering and doing market pop-ups in January. The outfit found new fans during this spring’s Taco Fest at La Villita, where Davila’s creation — picadillo and corn in a cup on a blue corn tortilla — won first place in the specialty taco category.
“I like different food combinations and flavor profiles,” he said. “For the corn in a cup taco, I added a little bit of smokiness, a little bit of sweetness, a little bit of heat. It’s a full body of flavor.”
Since then, business has expanded to new events and food competitions including May’s Barbacoa & Big Red Festival. Catch the Wave is still taking catering orders and hosting pop-ups while selling out both made-to-order dishes and a line of prepared foods, including CBD-infused jams.
But, Davila adds, his desire to work with his father hasn’t gone away. He is just counting on their next endeavor to be better conceived and a lot more successful.
Executive Chef, Ocho
- Erik Gustafson
Growing up in Laredo, Jessica Kukyendall was exposed to both Tex-Mex and the regional flavors of Northern Mexico. She left in 2002 to grow with San Antonio’s culinary scene — starting at chef Johnny Hernandez’s La Gloria then helping open Hotel Emma at The Pearl. Along the way, she relocated to Oaxaca, Mexico, to immerse herself in its regional cuisine before returning in 2018 to open Milpa, a Mexican food truck and catering business.
When Kukyendall was named executive chef at Ocho, Hotel Havana’s Latin fusion restaurant earlier this year, she knew it was time to showcase her own experiences and approaches to dishes found throughout Latin America.
The CIA-San Antonio culinary graduate recently introduced a new lunch menu with standout dishes like the Carnitas Ocho — salty and crispy pork served with cilantro lime rice, Cuban black beans and pickled red onions.
The new menu also features items such as the Havana Hippie Torta, made with fried green tomato, shredded lettuce, red onion, queso fresco and lemon aioli. Beverage options have expanded to include a classic Hemingway daiquiri and a non-alcoholic CBD cold brew.
The new dishes invite patrons to experience flavors and techniques uncommon in San Antonio’s downtown restaurants, Kukyendall points out.
“San Antonio has always had a strong food culture, but it was one type of culture,” she said of the Tex-Mex that long dominated the local food scene. “Now I’m seeing people wanting to explore and experience food fusion. I can mix it up to make it my own story.”
Kukyendall is also eager to share new Latin fusion dishes that go beyond Ocho’s Cuban roots and see people appreciate San Antonio’s food transformation within the last decade.
“Sure enough, it was the best move I’ve made,” she said of her relocation to the Alamo City.
Chef & Restaurant Consultant
- Erik Gustafson
Teddy Liang knows the restaurant industry top-to-bottom, in part because he started at the bottom.
The San Antonio native launched his culinary career working as a dishwasher for Genghis Grill, the Mongolian BBQ franchise. He quickly fell in love with restaurant operations and, over the next eight years, worked his way up to general manager at one of the company’s Dallas-area locations.
After a family trip to Taiwan, he took an interest in his own culinary roots and developed a love for cooking. Still, for Liang, great restaurants begin and end with family dynamics.
“Restaurants have families — there’s the front of house, the back of house. It’s a little circle,” he said. “The family helps keep everyone in check and moving together. I got into restaurants because I wanted to create better family teams.”
Liang grew his role within Genghis Grill to establish working families for more than 23 locations, before launching his own business as a restaurant consultant in the New Orleans area.
A few hears ago, Liang moved back to the Alamo City, working as both a restaurant and private chef. Since his return, he’s helped launch the food programs at Francis Bogside and Hanzo and joined local nonprofit Chef Cooperatives.
Liang can also be found at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, working with chef Dave Terrazas, or hosting monthly food popups throughout the city. Often, his dishes draw on his Taiwanese heritage but give them a Texas twist via local ingredients. At one recent event, he put a new spin on fried rice by incorporating purple mustard carrots, green onions, roasted sesame seeds, red beet soy glaze and a spicy aioli — all while maintaining the dish’s traditional essence.
Longer term, Liang hopes to open his own San Antonio restaurant. Also on the drawing board is a mentoring program to connect current and new chefs with the skills and spaces they need to succeed in the industry.
“I came back to build San Antonio to the next level,” he said, adding that small structural and cultural changes can have a big impact on restaurant staffs. “I believe in the city, and I see the passion, but I see a lot of waiting and no action. If you want to do [something], we have to start moving now.”
Sous Chef, Antlers Lodge at Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort & Spa
- Erik Gustafson
Chef Samuel Butzke’s culinary start was something of a fluke.
He was fresh out of the military and applying for a security job when he struck up a conversation with a chef outside the HR office.
“He asked how I would like cooking, and I said, ‘Why not?’”
It’s been nearly a decade since the chance encounter pulled Butzke into his first restaurant job, and he credits that early culinary training and banquet experience for helping land his current gig with Hyatt Regency.
Butzke worked as chef for the Tavern 64 restaurant in Reston, Virginia, before arriving at Antlers in January.
The resort allows Butzke to cook and learn something different every day, whether it’s for special banquets, corporate dinners or even Indian weddings. Exposure to diverse cuisines has helped the kitchen expand its menu to include more local products and introduce gluten-free and vegan options.
“I know that people are looking for something different when they come here,” he said. “We’ve embraced that. We work with local producers and have locally sourced meats like elk, venison, wild boar, even the only local Wagyu steak found in Texas — things that most people wouldn’t usually see in a fine-dining restaurant.”
Butzke also worked to champion local producers like Broken Arrow Farm and Deerheart Ranch since landing at the resort. Within six months of his arrival, he brought back its previously unattended garden, raising crops like corn, tomatoes, okra and lettuce for the restaurant. That fresh produce gets a starring role in seasonal dishes such as Antlers’ smoked beet salad with red quinoa.
“Before I came on, 10% of my menu was local,” he said. “Now, it’s about 75% local.”
Butzke is currently working with the grounds crew to establish a larger public garden patrons can visit to see where their food comes from. Beyond that, he plans to create new specialty products like deer jerky, made with locally sourced meats, to offer resort visitors.
“That’s the best part about it. I take things that you don’t see every day and make them your everyday,” he said.
Chef, Miss Chickpea’s Bakeshop
- Erik Gustafson
A new vegan food wave has arrived in San Antonio, and chefs like Tatiana Martinez of Miss Chickpeas Bakeshop are leading the way. Martinez attended the Cordon Bleu in Austin, where she learned about dairy and animal practices in addition to increasing food allergy rates. Armed with that knowledge, she was inspired to make delicious and beautiful pastries without animal products.
“My standard when I [bake desserts] is that they should taste just like the real thing. They should be comparable to normal, non-vegan desserts,” she said. “There are people who enjoy these foods without realizing they’re vegan. They just know it tastes good.”
Things have moved fast for Martinez. Using organic ingredients, she developed several vegan-friendly sweets to sell at the Vegan Stop Shop in 2017. Then she began hosting vegan pop-up events in 2018 and launched her bakery storefront early this year. Since the grand opening, Miss Chickpea's has been embraced by vegans and non-vegans alike.
The shop offers a variety of sweet and savory items including vegan cakes, kolaches, gansito and vegetable quiche. Also on the menu are coffee and bites from fellow vegan business Hip Peaz Vegan Eats that offer both breakfast and lunch options.
There’s even an export market for Miss Chickpea's baked goods. The bakery has become well-known for colorful and flavorful pop-tarts, which can be found during the week at Gold Coffee at Freight, Eat Binge Kitchen in San Marcos and at San Antonio’s Folklores Coffee shop on weekends.
“This is a place where people don’t have to worry,” Martinez said. “They can try anything they see.”