Taiwanese-born Danielle Chang was 5 when she arrived in Houston. "When I got there, I didn’t speak English. I had never had a French fry or pizza. Houston was my first introduction to American culture and American food," she recalls.
Next week, on October 6, she's returning the favor to the city she called home for her first decade in the United States. Chang, formerly CEO at fashion line Vivienne Tam, launched her event series, Luckyrice, in 2010. Since then, the feasts have been a hit from New York to Miami, Boston to San Francisco. But next week will mark Luckyrice's Houston debut. "This is our first foray into the South," Chang says. "Returning to my roots as well is gonna be great."
The key to the events' success is Luckyrice's high-powered culinary council, comprised both of Asian specialists such as David Chang, Anita Lo and Andy Ricker, but also more European-focused chefs like Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert and José Andres. Those big names help select participants and host events in cities where they have restaurants. Houston has lucked out with Memorial-reared native son Justin Yu of Oxheart. "Justin kind of defines what the festival is all about," says Chang of connecting with the recent Beard winner. "He’s Asian-American. He’s coming at it from a different perspective. It’s not mom-and-pop traditional food—it’s about culinary collisions—mixing Western culinary skills with Asian flavors that he grew up with."
For his part, Yu says he tried to choose participants who are underrepresented in Houston. "The best thing about Houston is we’re all friends—in other cities people are at each others’ throats. These are just people I’m a big fan of," says Yu. The chef himself is too busy to present a dish of his own, but will attend the event as a sort of ambassador. The 20 food purveyors currently committed to working the event (Yu says more may come), indeed include some very off-the-radar picks. One of his former cooks at Oxheart recently launched a pop-up called Tea Ceremony that will serve pan-fried pork buns with "old chili sauce." Craft siu mai company Dim Sum Bento will offer—what else?—siu mai with garlic butter sauce, masago and wonton strips. Maba Pan-Asian Diner, slated to open at 510 Gray St., will be representing, too.
Restaurants not synonymous with Asian food are also invited. Brandon Silva of Wooster's Garden will serve hamachi with sturgeon caviar. A recent menu addition at State of Grace, caramelle pasta filled with duck confit in kimchi sauce with crispy garlic will be one of the small plates, too. Triniti chef-owner Ryan Hildebrand is giving full-on fusion with jamon Iberico consommé with fried silken tofu, pickled mustard greens and a soy-marinated quail egg.
One of the coolest surprises, though, is appearing under the heading Macao Government Tourism Office. Yu reveals that this isn't just some consulate private chef—it's a chef from notable Chicago restaurant Fat Rice, possibly co-owner Abe Conlon.
Both Wooster's and Triniti will also be among the businesses serving up cocktails in addition to food. Chang is clear in stating that Luckyrice is "not a wine and food festival. It’s very cocktail-focused." There will be Asahi beer, but the rest of the booze will come from mixology stations both from local bars such as Prohibition Supperclub and Johnny's Gold Brick, as well as reps from Bombay Sapphire, an event sponsor. What to expect? Craft cocktails with Asian flavors, natch. One of Johnny's two cocktails, for example, is the Traveling Plum, which combines Bombay Sapphire East gin with sour plum drink, cream cubed ice and dehydrated sour plum.
Both food and cocktails will be distributed throughout the room in a station format. VIP guests pay $150 and are welcome to arrive an hour early, at 7 p.m. General admission tickets are $88 for the 8 p.m. event. Why pay the big bucks when you could get a meal in Chinatown for less than $10? Supporting quality, says Yu. "We need to move away from the stigma that Mexican food or Asian food should be cheap so it doesn't put a crunch on chefs who are doing really excellent food. Don't force them to use commodity pork or factory vegetables," he explains.
As Chang puts it, "In Houston, it’s still a lot about authenticity and mom-and-pop shops. There’s very few restaurants like Justin’s or Underbelly [whose sous-chef, Gary Ly, is also participating] where they're melding cultures and cuisines." Luckyrice seeks to change that, one feast at a time.
Luckyrice, Oct 6, 8–10 p.m., The Astorian, 2500 Summer St. $88–$150.