Bayougraphy

Meet the Chef Personifying Houston Through Cooking

Chef Evelyn García is a Houston native representing Bayou City on the latest season of Bravo’s Top Chef.

By Shelby Stewart Published in the Summer 2022 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Chef Evelyn García at a pop-up event featuring fresh ingredients from the gardens at Houston Botanic Garden

The Houston native represents Bayou City on the latest season of Bravo’s Top Chef. What goes on in the brilliant mind of Chef Evelyn García? We’ve seen García cool, calm, and collected every week on Bravo’s Top Chef, all while going up against some of the best kitchen masters in the world. The Emmy-winning series has raised the stakes, putting even more on the line each season. Champions win cash prizes of up to $250,000 and get the chance to be featured in major publications worldwide. For its 19th season, Top Chef came to Space City and gave fans an inside look at the culinary diversity that makes up Houston. Executive Producer Doneen Arquines told Houstonia that the city’s extensive offerings are one of the most impressive things. 

“I think what makes Houston so special is that people outside of Texas may not know how diverse it really is. There are so many amazing markets and restaurants catering to every type of cuisine.”

But for García, the only Houston-based contestant, her palate has always had range. “For me, it was very normal for us to, you know, on Sunday, go get pho or go get bubble tea. So growing up, it became normal to me,” she recalls. The cheery native isn’t new to the intensity of competitive cooking shows, having been named a “Chopped Champion” on Food Network’s Chopped in 2014. “My background is all in New York,” García says. “And I feel like it has a lot to do with the way I work in the kitchen. It’s very fast-paced, that hustle and bustle.”

On Top Chef, she makes it look effortless, creating dishes influenced by her life and culinary experiences – from growing up in Houston and having Sunday dinners with her family to trips to India and Thailand. García, a first-generation Houstonian born to Mexican and Salvadoran parents, was inspired by their entrepreneurial efforts. Her first introduction to food was with her family, helping her dad on their family farm and observing her mother in the kitchen making traditional Latin cuisine, including stuffed poblano peppers. 

“I still need her approval. I still call her up and get a refresher in the steps,” she says candidly. 

Working her high school summers in her parents’ now-defunct Mexican restaurant, Chelyn’s Grill, made a career in the kitchen inevitable for García. “What I think is so amazing about Houston is that even growing up as Mexican-Salvadoran, you can eat any cuisine you could imagine. It’s multicultural. The two (Latin and Asian food) aren’t that different.

“I was the first person in my family to make (cooking) a career," she adds. "I’m going to go to school and do everything I need to do to learn as much as I can and make it a career for myself.”

García furthered her home-taught knowledge by earning her degree from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. She went on to work under such acclaimed chefs as Anthony Ricco at Spice Market, Larry Reutens at the Singaporean restaurant Masak, and Kin Shop, the Thai restaurant in the West Village headed by Bravo’s Top Chef Season 1 winner, Harold Dieterle. Between her chef gigs in New York, García took trips to India and Thailand to taste some Asian countries’ best dishes. She found herself captivated by the ethnic flavors, eventually making it her specialty. 

“It kind of blew my mind in the sense of like, ‘whoa, the flavors are so good.’ At the root of it all, I enjoy eating that style of food,” she says. “My weak conception of Southeast Asian food is actually 50/50 — Mexican-Salvadoran to Asian.”

Her first restaurant, Kin HTX, was her brainchild, where she created Asian-influenced fare alongside chef and comrade Henry Lu. The restaurant opened in the Rice Village food hall Politan Row in 2019 but eventually shuttered because of mandatory COVID-19 shutdowns in November 2020. Nonetheless, García relentlessly continued to display her love of food. To keep her dream alive, she pivoted — that December, she launched a series of pop-up catering and cooking classes where she was able to sell her line of Southeast Asian-inspired condiments and spice rubs. You can easily find her selling her products throughout the city, from places such as Local Foods and Urban Harvest’s Farmers Market. 

Chefs Evelyn García and Henry Lu hosted a pop-up dinner at Houston Botanic Garden featuring fresh ingredients from the gardens.

After García found out that she would be one of the contestants on Top Chef, she was in a quarantined box starting in September 2021 for roughly seven weeks of filming. The show used must-see destinations in the city, such as The Post, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and J-Bar-M Barbecue. Chefs were also encouraged to purchase ingredients from local grocers like Hong Kong Food Market and Viet Hoa. 

“For Top Chef, I was more comfortable with myself and my cooking style. I feel like I have a voice within food, and I felt myself,” García says with a laugh. “Top Chef is the biggest competition a chef can do, and I had to be mentally prepared.”

Compared to her experience on Chopped, García was more confident going into Top Chef because she had completed her experience working as a line cook in kitchens throughout New York City. Her lengthy résumé allowed her to enter the Top Chef kitchen with assurance. García’s passion is a knockout compared to her counterparts — her dedication to work and ability to make emotional connections to the food she cooks add heightened meaning to all of her dishes. Soon, though, she will introduce Jūn by KIN, her second concept with Lu. The restaurant will feature her signature, elevated Southeast Asian cuisine, but like Kin, the new restaurant will maintain a shareable food concept. 

“My brand itself is South Asian inspired because I like those ingredients. But really, it’s just very Houston,” García says. 

 Houstonia interviewed García before the Bravo’s Top Chef Season 19 winner was announced. Going into the final episode, which airs June 2, García remained in the competition as one of three finalists.

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