Food Writer — Celebrity Chefs in The Woodlands!

As a food writer, I’ve covered many local and national chefs, including Melissa D’Arabian of the Food Network. But there’s nothing better than interviewing local celebrity chefs who bring such renowned and beloved cuisine to plates in and around The Woodlands and Houston, Texas areas.

The story below features Chef Austin Simmons, Chef Paul Friedman (I absolutely adore him), and Nona Elda Orioli (the matriarch and co-owner of the Orioli Group of restaurants) for City Lifestyle. As I said, it’s fun to be a food writer and share these amazing stories. I love my job!

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Having fun and sharing incredible stories as a food writer!

Article by Melanie Saxton

Photography by Bex Wood

Originally published in The Woodlands City Lifestyle

For the fortunate families and friends of celebrity chefs, dinner du jour might be a restaurant-inspired meal, or something more pared down. Luckily for City Lifestyle readers, three culinary legends graciously share the ingredients for delectable dishes they prepare in their home kitchens (and, at times, in their establishments too).

We chatted with Chef (and proud dad) Austin Simmons of TRIS, Cureight, and The Kitchen, all in The Woodlands, about his restaurant fare and favorite at-home dessert. We caught up with Chef (and proud dad and grandfather) Paul Friedman of The Chef’s Table in Houston and his award-winning fare, influenced by cuisine around the world. We also enjoyed a delightful interview with the Italian-speaking Nonna Elda Orioli (translated by her grandson Enrique Orioli) about her Old World recipes, the foundation of every dish at Emilia Italian Restaurant and Avanti Italian Kitchen & Wine Bar in multiple locations.

Chef Austin Simmons

A sportsman who hunts, fishes, and golfs, Chef Austin has never left Texas despite numerous offers to work in California and New York. He raises his own cattle with an understanding of genetics and is known for his wholesome ranch-to-fork quality beef. This includes Gyulais, an F1 crossbreed of black Wagyu and French Charolais.

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With a slew of awards, including Chef of the Year and a James Beard nomination, and multiple restaurants to manage, Chef Austin believes in nutrient-dense foods seasoned to perfection. “Cooking styles, clean eating, sustainable and renewable food — the cure is in the kitchen,” he says of a healthy palette. He takes pride in the sweet and sour and sweet and bitter nuances that impart flavor and create levels of taste sensations in his restaurant, Tris.

His three young daughters are also an inspiration — Tris, for whom one of his restaurants is named, and his toddler twins Aria and Ember. He is happy to share a favorite family recipe  —his scrumptious gluten-free version of a butter cake.

Chef Paul Friedman

Hailing from South Africa, a melting pot of culinary influences, Chef Paul first worked in a family restaurant as a teenage busboy and waiter before traveling through Europe. With a backpack, bus passes, train tickets, and lodging in hostels, he soaked up the culture and cuisine of five countries. “My inspiration and cooking lessons came from those experiences,” he explains.

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Then it was onward to America and his own lineup of 58 restaurants over a 40-plus year career, including pizzerias. He sold the last Paul’s Pizza Shop across from Klein High School in 2004, and it still bears his name. He was operating Peli Peli when he made an appearance on Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, and also won in an episode of CNBC’s Restaurant Startup.

Today, Chef Paul is the proud owner of Chef’s Table, located in Vintage Park. Beautifully themed in Art Deco and the Roaring Twenties, it’s a place for grownups to enjoy a night out. He has kindly provided the recipe for one of his award-winning restaurant dishes, Vleis Pastei. Enjoy!

Nonna Elda Orioli

Nonna Elda, the matriarch of the Orioli family, hails from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. She transported irreplaceable recipes to Venezuela when her restaurateur family immigrated after World War II. The family started over and eventually opened eight Italian restaurants, including an ocean-side hotel where fresh seafood was caught and served.

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When hardships hit Venezuela, the family relocated to America, again with the Old World recipes intact. These heirloom treasures are foundational to the fare at Via Emilia Italian Restaurant, and influence dishes in all the Orioli restaurants, including Azzurro Italian Coastal Cuisine, slated to open in December this year.  

The Orioli’s have built a stellar reputation with authentic cuisine and one of the largest vertical wine selections in The Woodlands — more than 350 wines and 3,000 bottles. Nonna Elda, her son Carlos, and her grandson Enrique are co-owners of the Orioli Restaurant Group, and family means everything. Love is apparent in their cuisine, including a favorite soup, Passatelli in Brodo, shared with our readers.

Gluten-free Butter Cake by Austin and Tris Simmons

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This recipe is a favorite father-daughter confection.



  • 1 cup butter, unsalted & softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs, room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste
  • 3 cups King Arthur 1:1 ratio gluten-free flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk

Butter Glaze

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, cubed
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste (must be paste, not extract)


  • Pre-heat oven to 350°. Grease and flour a 10-inch springform pan (Note: I prefer using coconut oil spray for a better crust. It will smoke in the oven a little bit but it’s worth it!)
  • In a large bowl or mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla bean paste.
  • Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Whisk together and add to creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk, beating well after each addition.
  • Pour batter into springform pan.
  • Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 55-70 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes.
  • For the butter glaze, combine the sugar, butter, and water in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat just until butter is melted and sugar is dissolved. Remove the heat and stir in almond extract and vanilla bean paste.
  • Using a fork or toothpick, poke holes on bottom of cake all over. Pour some glaze into the holes and then invert cake onto a plate.  
  • Poke holes in the top of the warm cake and spoon ¼ cup of the glaze over the cake. Let stand until sauce is absorbed. Brush sides with the glaze and let soak in very well. Add the rest of the glaze to the sides and top.
  • Serve with topping of choice such as whipped cream or strawberries.

Chef Paul’s Vleis Pastei

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This classic dish from South Africa is one very dear to Chef Paul’s heart. It brings him back to his roots and allows him to show family, friends, and guests the true flavors of South Africa. This award-winning dish consists of four layers representing four different countries — India, Great Britain, France, and Holland.

Ingredients — Serves 4-6 

  • 4 ramekins 
  • 3 slices of flaky pastry crust 
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large onions, roughly chopped
  • 4 teaspoons medium curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried herbs (whatever you’ve got around – oregano, basil, marjoram, etc.)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 pound ground beef
  • 1 can pureed carrots 
  • 1 large potato 
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream 
  • 1/2 cup fruit chutney
  • 1 tablespoon apricot jam
  • Zest and juice of one medium lemon, divided
  • Salt and pepper


  • Preheat your oven to 350°F.
  • Heat the olive oil in a wide skillet set over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the onions, and cook until soft.
  • Skin and boil your potato. Once it is al dente, add your carrot puree and heavy cream and mash to a smooth consistency. Add some salt and pepper for flavor and set to the side. This is your carrot bredie.
  • Add the curry powder, mixed herbs, ground cumin, turmeric, and garlic, and stirring constantly, allow to cook for a minute or two until the garlic is soft.
  • Add the ground beef, and cook, stirring frequently to break up any big chunks, until browned.
  • Once the beef is browned, remove the skillet from the heat and place a layer in each ramekin
  • Add a layer of carrot bredie in each ramekin 
  • Place the flaky pastry crust on top on top of each ramekin
  • Bake, uncovered, at 350°F for 15 minutes, or until golden brown.
  • Mix your fruit chutney, lemon zest, and apricot jam together and scoop it on top of the flaky pastry crust of each ramekin 
  • Serve! Make sure your guest gets all 4 layers in one bite. 

Passatelli in Brodo

This soup recipe is a traditional dish from the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy, where Nonna Elda is originally from.

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Ingredients — Serves 6

  • 5 oz breadcrumbs (made from stale bread that has become hard enough to grate)
  • 7 oz of Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tsp of flour
  • 1 tsp of finely chopped parsley
  • 8.5 cups of your favorite beef broth


  • Mix dry ingredients together with eggs for a firm consistency to form a dough ball
  • Place the dough in a potato masher with large holes. Press the dough and pass it through the holes to form passatelli. Cut them about 3 inches long with a knife and place them on a lightly floured tray.
  • Bring your broth to a boil and add your passatelli
  • Cook until they come to the surface
  • Serve with fresh grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Are You in Search of a Food Writer or Editor?

Contact me for a consultation! As a food writer and editor, I work with chefs, pastry artists, and various magazines to promote the best and brightest food artists. I also work with authors of cookbooks, food-related memoirs, and other food writer-type projects. Email, and let’s get started!