Maverick Chefs: Meet Five San Antonio Culinary Artists Changing the Way We Think About Food

click to enlarge Maverick Chefs: Meet Five San Antonio Culinary Artists Changing the Way We Think About Food
Josh Huskin

The word “maverick” is an indelible part of San Antonio history thanks to one-time mayor Samuel Augustus Maverick. Maverick refused to brand his cattle, the legend goes, and that earned him a reputation as a rugged individualist.

The word has since come to describe fiercely independent thinkers of all kinds.

When it comes to the culinary world, mavericks set the bar for restaurant excellence, lead food revolutions and advocate for education and collaboration. They’re why we see new faces in the kitchen and new foods at the table.

These five chefs are a sampling of the trailblazers who are transforming restaurants and food culture in San Antonio. They’re five more reasons why it’s still worth going out to eat — and proof that there’s still room for growth and evolution in our culinary scene.

Bruce Auden | Biga on the Banks
Championing young chefs

click to enlarge Maverick Chefs: Meet Five San Antonio Culinary Artists Changing the Way We Think About Food
Josh Huskin
With his 1985 arrival in San Antonio, Chef Bruce Auden was a catalyst for transforming San Antonio’s fine dining scene, though he credits its diverse and supportive culture for making it a prime spot to launch great chefs and restaurants.

“San Antonio is so much more diverse now, not just in dining but in the people who come to cities, and where they live and what they want,” he said. “There’s a [lack of] pretensions in San Antonio.”

A native Londoner, Auden relocated to the United States at 17 and worked his way up in kitchens in Chicago, Dallas and Houston before he helped open Polo’s at The Fairmount Hotel in San Antonio. At the time, the city was more known for down-home Tex-Mex than upscale dining.

Auden helped change that perception, eventually striking out on his own and launching several restaurants. He’s best known for Biga on the Banks, which opened in downtown’s International Center in 2000. Patrons experience Auden’s transformative approach to fine dining via an ever-changing menu that brings a mix of New American and San Antonio flavors.

Biga, which currently occupies two floors of the building, will take over a third floor in the coming months, allowing the restaurant to host and cater big events and weddings. Its bar will also expand, offering a larger number of patrons a place to enjoy cocktails and simple bar food.

Though Auden has earned seven James Beard Award nominations and received offers to build restaurant empires, he prefers to focus on doing one thing well. Biga has served as a training ground for local chefs such as Bliss Restaurant’s Mark Bliss and Barbaro’s Luis Colón. “I guess I’m more focused on what young people are doing rather than what old people like me are doing,” he said.

Auden was recently recognized with a Distinction in the Arts award from the San Antonio Arts Commission, signifying his continued positive impact in the city’s culinary arts. In response, Auden launched a scholarship program at St. Philip’s College to benefit future culinary students in their education. He’s also partnering with the Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department, with plans to work with young offenders in the kitchen starting in 2020.

“Hopefully they will enjoy it, and some of them will even get into cooking,” Auden said. “The restaurant business will always invite a certain lifestyle, but there’s so many talented young people. There’s so much potential that I see.”

Ming Qian | Ming’s Thing
Broadening San Antonio’s palate

click to enlarge Maverick Chefs: Meet Five San Antonio Culinary Artists Changing the Way We Think About Food
Josh Huskin
“Beijing is where it all began,” chef Ming Qian said. “I was born there, I fell in love with food and the hospitality industry there, I met my husband there.”

It was the Chinese capital’s simple, fresh ingredients and Qian’s passion for hospitality that led her to open her first restaurant in Beijing at age 24. She carried that passion with her to San Antonio, when her husband chef Hinnerk von Bargen got a job at the local Culinary Institute of America campus in 2009.

While her husband worked as an instructor at the CIA, Qian began cooking for friends and family again. In 2011, she launched a new business. The aptly named Ming’s Thing operates a catering company, a pop-up food stand at The Pearl Farmer’s Market and a noodle bar in Olmos Park.

“When we arrived in San Antonio, there were a few comfort Asian food places here, but there wasn’t much diversity,” she said. “I decided to share some of what I knew but make it accessible.”

The farmer’s market introduced locals to Chinese street foods such as jiang bing — thin and savory fried pancakes — and “Sloopy,” a nickname for slow-roasted pulled pork served in steamed buns.

When the building next door to her production kitchen became available, she took it over in 2016, turning it into Ming’s Noodle Bar. The restaurant offered both the popular dishes she introduced at The Pearl and colorful, creative and customizable noodle bowls.

“Now people have more choices, there’s more restaurants focusing on authentic and specific cuisines like Pacific and Sichuan, and noodles and dumplings and dim sum. I’m so happy to see that in San Antonio,” she said. “You see it changing now.”

The Ming’s Thing team recently announced plans to open a second restaurant location near The Pearl in 2020. Though Qian is keeping most of the menu under wraps, she says it will introduce diners to Southeast Asian-inspired breakfast dishes.

“I love San Antonio, because people here are so willing to try new things,” she said. “I love to introduce new things. People want to know and learn what’s inside the steamer. And when they love it, it makes all the hard work and the long days worth it.”

Rebel Mariposa | La Botanica
Elevating vegan cuisine

click to enlarge Maverick Chefs: Meet Five San Antonio Culinary Artists Changing the Way We Think About Food
Josh Huskin
“I grew up on the protest lines, in the theaters and art galleries — when you’re in the art world, you meet people on the fringes,” said Rebel Mariposa of La Botanica. “But my first introduction to food was mainly through the women in my life.”

When Mariposa moved from the Alamo City to California in 2006 to be closer to family and pursue her passion for arts and activism, she studied under a vegan chef to learn how to create dishes — including familiar ones — in a new way. She understood that the key was putting seasonal fruits and vegetables front and center.

“You really do understand how the earth works in harmony with us to supply us with what we need and when we need it,” she said.

Mariposa eventually returned to San Antonio, armed with a new food education, but found that most people were unaware of veganism as a lifestyle. When she was approached to open a vegan-friendly restaurant, she was unsure how it would be received.

“The idea of what vegan is and who vegans are has expanded and changed so much,” she said. “Now you go to almost any establishment and there’s an option or at least an understanding of what it is.”

She launched La Botanica in 2015, introducing the city to plant-based, Mexican-inspired dishes like oyster mushroom ceviche, empanadas and molletes topped with spicy cabbage tinga. Her restaurant also became a safe space for several San Antonio communities — LGBTQ groups, artists and activists.

“Running a restaurant was never a dream, but I do love it,” she said. “I love bringing up other people.”

Mariposa has teamed up with local organizations to provide more room for those groups, recently working with nonprofit Vegan Initiative Dynamic Association to host the inaugural VegFest, San Antonio’s first vegan food festival. Next up is developing La Botanica locations for other cities, connecting local causes with the restaurant’s community-driven focus.

“There was no blueprint for this place, and it’s still not done,” she added.

Michael Sohocki | Restaurant Gwendolyn, Kimura, Il Forno
Championing sustainability

click to enlarge Maverick Chefs: Meet Five San Antonio Culinary Artists Changing the Way We Think About Food
Josh Huskin
Although Michael Sohocki’s culinary journey took him to restaurants in San Francisco, and Osaka, Japan, it wasn’t until he moved to San Antonio and began working at chef Andrew Weissman’s Le Reve that he became interested in fine dining.

Following the closure of that award-winning restaurant in 2009, he opened Restaurant Gwendolyn in its space in 2010. He put the focus on hyper-local cuisine, eschewing any technology requiring a plug and using only sustainably sourced ingredients found within 150 miles.

“Everything is handmade, so the menu has to be representative of the local land and people and keep money in our community,” he said. “I wanted the food to make some kind of difference in the world.”

While that’s a tall order, Sohocki didn’t stop there. He’s since opened Southtown pizza spot Il Forno and downtown ramen shop Kimura. As he’s become a fundamental part of the city’s culinary landscape, he’s seen both the shortcomings and potential in the city’s food system.

“When I started Gwendolyn I really hoped that supporting sustainability and local agriculture would start a movement,” he said. “But we’ve seen the rise and fall of the farmer’s market. Those farmers are really struggling, and we don’t have the wind behind us anymore.”

To that end, Sohocki is working to make his sustainable approach more accessible. Sohocki expects Gwendolyn to evolve into more of a tavern atmosphere with an emphasis on small plates in 2020.

The chef also continues to advocate for sustainability, recently lecturing at large national conventions such as the American Culinary Federation. He sees it as his duty to pass on his knowledge to the next generation.

“If local agriculture is going to survive, there’s going to be a sort of shift,” he said. “Whether that’s an app or through a more convenient technology that I don’t have the skill set for. Our current system is broken, we need people to make the change.”

Lisa Astorga-Watel | Bite, Bistr09
Making fine dining accessible

click to enlarge Maverick Chefs: Meet Five San Antonio Culinary Artists Changing the Way We Think About Food
Josh Huskin
In an era of takeout and UberEats, there’s still a need for fine dining. According to chef Lisa Astorga-Watel, presentation and traditions still have their place in the culinary experience.

Astorga-Watel grew up cooking with her family, and attended the Art Institute in Houston to help turn her hobby into a career. By the age of 22, she launched her own catering company, and eventually went on to become a personal chef for clients such as movie star Tommy Lee Jones. But it was the opening of her Southtown eatery Bite in 2012 that brought her love of fine dining together with a modern presentation of bold colors and funky shapes, pop art and a constantly evolving menu that blends flavors of France and her native Chile.

“I’ve seen fine dining wash away a bit, and it is disappearing, but we are making the experience more accessible,” she said. “Anybody can go to a chain, and anyone can find fine dining in cities like Los Angeles. But fine dining belongs in San Antonio too.”

Astorga-Watel recently partnered with husband Damien Watel to open Bistr09 in Alamo Heights. The restaurant has drawn rave reviews for its masterful takes on French classics like escargots comme d’habitude and desserts including crème bruleé and ile flottante that almost look too beautiful to stick a spoon into.

The beauty of presentation is a key part of the dining experience, Astorga-Watel added. Though Astorga-Watel is in no rush to open new restaurants, she does hope to open another spot with her husband in the coming years, ideally focused on Italian cuisine. Planning for a restaurant is a slow, arduous process, but once in motion, things happen quickly.

The same goes for drawing diners out of their comfort zones and exploring new flavors and cultures.

“We are here to take traditional cuisine — in this case French — and elevate it,” she said. “It’s easier to open places like chains because you know they work, but Damien and I are very driven. We’re always hungry for more.”

Editor's Note: A previous version of the story misspelled chef Ming Qian's name as Ming Qiang. The article has since been updated for accuracy.

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