Billy Kin of Blackbird Izakaya gets going with torching his binchotan.

Image: Mai Pham

The tagline says it all: “Bon Vivant Houston: A culinary experience to remember.” And what an experience it was. For the past 10 years, this fundraising dinner for Houston’s Youth Development Center, which provides literacy and math development after-school programs for at-risk students in the Fifth Ward, brings together a gaggle of Houston’s finest chefs, each tasked with creating a one-of-a-kind experience for multiple tables of 10 VIPs each, who pay a cool $1,000 per person for the privilege. This is not a walk-around dining event where you have to eat standing up, but a seated, elegant, chef’s table experience where the chef is right alongside you, serving and presenting the dishes as if you were in a private dining room at his or her restaurant.

For philanthropically minded bon vivants, it’s the chance to give to a worthy cause while indulging in an extravagant meal. For the participating chefs, it’s the chance to exercise culinary freedom, show off what they’re passionate about, and hopefully, wow the guests so much that they become regular patrons outside of the event. 

The unique setup, wherein each chef only needs to cook for 10 people, is part of what makes Bon Vivant such a success. The chefs focus on their guests and their menu, with many of them pulling out all the stops with culinary acrobatics that people end up talking about for years. One such chef, Richard Knight once cooked an entire Flintstone-sized rib roast, sending guests home with to-go boxes of bones the size of tomahawks.

This year, Knight, formerly of Harold's Restaurant & Tap Room and now on the cusp of opening up Atlas Dinery at the upcoming Bravery Food Hall in downtown Houston, went with a preview menu of what he plans to offer at his new eatery: chicken liver mousse ice-cream shaped mini cornets topped with colorful Indian sprinkles; cauliflower soup; allotment salad; a caldo gallego of slow-braised pork shanks with mortadella, root vegetables, and white beans; and his wife Carrie’s goat cheese cheesecake, made with chèvre from Blue Heron Farm.

Crab cake with uni by Billy Kin.

Image: Mai Pham

Over at the Sysco-sponsored table, chef Javier Lopez sought to wow guests with a lagniappe of drunken oysters with a vodka shot; mezcal-glazed diver scallop with pineapple gelee and Russian caviar; Louisiana barbecue shrimp with Karbach Crawford Bock beer; big-eye tuna and seared foie gras; dry-aged ribeye heart with roasted broccolini, carrots, and bone marrow ganache; and cornmeal pound cake with Meyer lemon curd. 

There were so many others: Host chef Robert Graham of Ara at the Royal Sonesta had a long corner table where he served popcorn with tajin all in a cloud of smokey liquid nitrogen, lump crab potstickers, salmon mi-cuit, tarragon-braised short ribs and a unique dessert of nitro-frozen fromager d’Affinois with almond shortbread and Amarena cherries.

Lyle Bento and JD Woodward of the recently-debuted 1751 Sea & Bar also used liquid nitrogen for wow-factor, serving pan-seared scallops in a smoky haze, topped with frozen shavings of foie gras. 

At our table, guests enjoyed an introduction to the Japanese izakaya experience at the hands of chef Billy Kin of Blackbird Izakaya. Among the most memorable courses (he went all out and decided to serve nine courses as opposed to just five) were a “taco” of whole Hokkaido scallop and Hokkaido uni, which we were instructed to eat in one bite, a blue crab crab cake topped with uni and served in its shell; a wonderful Japanese dashi soup with enoki mushrooms and Italian summer truffle; a labor-intensive dual course of Wagyu katsu ribeye and Wagyu short ribs seared with binchotan coals; and an uni panna cotta for dessert.

The remaining 17 chefs included: Adison Lee of Kuu, Ara Malekian of Harlem Road Texas BBQ, Krystle Lung of 1600 Bar & Grille, Ryan Braden of Brenners on the Bayou, JC Ricks of Dandelion Cafe, Peter Garcia of El Meson, Sean Hochstein of Grotto Downtown, Kathy Elkins of Harold’s Restaurant and Tap Room, Jacob Weaver of Hotel ZaZa, Elizabeth Stone of Silver Stone Events, Jonathan Levine of Jonathan’s The Rub, Manuel Pucha of Maison Pucha, Angelo Cuppone of Roma, Dominick Lee of Poitin Bar & Kitchen, Kevin Naderi of Roost, Beto Gutierrez of The Tasting Room, and Jordan Economy and David Guerrero of Andes Cafe.