Something delicious is cooking in Houston

Story highlights

Houston is the United States' most ethnically diverse metro area

That diversity means there's a dynamic culinary scene

French Master Chef Philippe Verpiand is making his mark in the Bayou City

Houston CNN  — 

Do yourself a favor and, for a moment, put aside what you think you know about Houston.

Despite what may come to mind – cowboys, oil tycoons, urban sprawl – Houston has emerged as a culinary powerhouse, attracting top kitchen talent from around the world. And with 140,000 out-of-towners expected for the Super Bowl in February, the city is ready to impress.

Critics have already taken notice: The New York Times last year called Houston “one of the great eating capitals of America,” The Washington Post listed the area as one of the nation’s best food cities and the Bayou City recently welcomed Anthony Bourdain and his film crew for an episode of CNN’s “Parts Unknown.”

The city’s food scene has benefited from massive migration from across the globe. More than one in five people in the greater Houston area are foreign-born, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

A convergence of Asian families who settled here after the Vietnam War, Hispanic migrants from Latin America, plus Louisiana transplants who moved after Hurricane Katrina and a multitude of others from around the United States seeking a warm climate and low taxes have transformed Houston into the nation’s most ethnically diverse metropolitan area.

Many have brought their own unique food traditions.

But Houston is no capital of mere mom-and-pop cooking. The gravitational pull of the growing food scene has drawn some of the world’s most talented chefs.

Culinary roots

One such rising star is Chef Philippe Verpiand, from France’s Provence region, who in 2015 was formally recognized as a Master Chef of France, an elite brotherhood of experts in that nation’s cuisine. (He is one of three members who call Houston home.)

Verpiand and his wife, Monica Bui, own and operate the acclaimed French restaurant Étoile Cuisine et Bar in Houston’s Uptown District.

And in the coming weeks, the duo is expanding their small Houston food empire by opening a new restaurant called Brasserie du Parc, a more casual dining option scheduled to open in time for the throng of visitors and locals descending on downtown Houston for the Super Bowl.

Verpiand's training started early.

Verpiand grew up surrounded by food. As the son and grandson of French butchers, he learned at a young age how to handle knives, slicing salamis, veal, lamb and other meats for his father’s customers. At age 5, Verpiand was in the back of the butcher shop peeling garlic and onions.

“When I was 14, I was pretty much already trained as a young butcher,” Verpiand said, holding a knife in Etoile’s kitchen before preparing a pig for cooking.

His family encouraged young Philippe to pursue cooking instead. Verpiand studied at the French Culinary Institute in Avignon, and after working in kitchens across France, he took his talents across the Atlantic.

“I came to the United States when I one day received my tax bill,” Verpiand said. “I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was not making a lot of money, but what they were taking was outrageous.”

He found work in San Diego, California, where he met his wife, Monica, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. They started their own restaurant in nearby La Jolla, a glistening beachside town that hugs the rocky seaside cliffs that tower above the Pacific.

Frenchman takes on Texas

They first came to Houston to visit Bui’s family, and after a week of eating out in the city, they felt the rumblings of a culinary scene on the verge of exploding. They noticed that every restaurant they visited was packed, and customers were spending money on high-end food and wine.

Drawn by more affordable prices in Texas compared to California, the promise of a city full of hungry Texans with dollars to spend and having relatives nearby, they packed up their family and moved east in 2012.

“We took a chance and pretty much sold everything we had in California and moved here,” Verpiand said.

In their new roles, Bui handled the front of the house and the business side of things, while Verpiand ruled the kitchen. The gamble paid off. They found the city to be truly inviting and packed full of foodies.

Their new downtown brassiere has the potential to massively expand their mark on the city.

Verpiand and Bui’s 5,500-square-foot enterprise is in the center of Houston’s rapidly growing downtown area, within sight of the George R. Brown Convention Center and directly across the street from Discovery Green, the park that will serve as a hub for Super Bowl festivities.

Along with other up-and-coming restaurants in America’s fastest-growing city, it should fit right in.

“People just think that being in Texas, it’s a city that is just mainly steaks. But there’s a lot more that we have to offer here,” Bui said. “People are pleasantly surprised.”