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The Sweet Vanarin Kuch

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Savory beyond the sweets: buffalo burgers, breakfast tacos, and grilled cheese sandwiches with pesto are also among customer favorites at Tiny Boxwood’s Cafe, where openly gay chef Vanarin Kuch runs the show.

On season two of  ‘Top Chef Just Desserts’
by Marene Gustin • Photos by Mitchell Haaseth/Bravo

It’s been a sweet year for Tiny Boxwood’s 26-year-old chef Vanarin Kuch. First the Houston native was recognized as a StarChefs.com Rising Star and now he’s on the second season of Bravo’s popular Top Chef Just Desserts. The new season premieres August 24 and Bravo promises challenges from “fairytale showpieces and edible room décor to high-class gingerbread houses and carnival delights.”

“It was a casting call,” says Kuch. “We had to jump through a lot of hoops, but I had been told by many people that I would be good on TV because of my face and my one-liners. So I ‘work with what mama gave me.’”

The child of Cambodian refugees, Kuch grew up in a family that celebrated food as a link to culture and family. He graduated from The Art Institute of Houston and worked at Bank Jean Georges at Hotel Icon. But after a semester at Rice University, working as a baker and pastry chef, he found his love of sweets.

“I wasn’t as naturally talented at pastry as I was with savory,” the chef says. “But I love the aesthetics of desserts—they’re prettier.”

While riding his bike from his Montrose home to Rice one day, he saw a sign at Hotel ZaZa for an assistant pastry chef and applied for the position, which he got. Then it was on to Tiny Boxwoods and now the new Tiny’s No. 5 in West University.

“It’s a double juggling event, but it’s fun,” he says.

And in the midst of that he found fame on StarChefs.com and then onto Top Chef Just Desserts.

He says it’s been seven years of hard work but now it’s all exploding. “It didn’t hit me until the filming was over and I was back home,” says Kuch. “It was surreal there in L.A., such a whirlwind.” And then: “It was the craziest ride ever, but I feel like it’s the beginning of a lot more crazy.”

Hmmm. That sounds like maybe he won, but his lips are sealed so we’ll just have to watch the whole season to find out.

In fact, Kuch can’t say much about his experience on Top Chef Just Desserts, but he does say he thoroughly enjoyed working with other pastry chefs.“I don’t have a lot of industry friends,” he admits. “So it was great to bond with them and realize that we all face the same challenges in the kitchen. I was a little nervous about meeting them, but they were all wonderful.”

And being gay wasn’t an issue at all.

“I came out very young and I don’t think it’s ever been hard for me,” Kuch says. “You might say I’ve been a trendsetter.”

And, although he introduced himself to chef Monica Pope a while back, he didn’t ask her about her experiences on Top Chef Masters last year. “I wanted to, but I didn’t,” he says.

As for his show’s premiere, Kuch says he probably won’t see it because he’ll be working. And he won’t TiVo it to watch when he gets home because he doesn’t even own a TV.

“I’ll just Google it on my laptop the next day,” he says.

For someone who wants to brand his name and maybe have his own TV food show someday, it seems odd that he doesn’t have a TV, but he doesn’t have a lot of free time these days.

So what does a single pastry chef do in his rare downtime? He likes to ride his bike and work out when he has the energy. But most of all, he likes to cook.

“What can I say?” he laughs. “I like my own food. I’ll get off of a 12- or 13-hour shift and come home, have a glass of wine and cook mole in my underwear. Mole is my favorite dish, all the spices and chocolate. I feel like I’m a walking pot of mole.”

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Rebecca Masson

‘Just Desserts’ Season 2

You could call this season Top Chef Texas. Besides Kuch, Houston’s own Rebecca Masson (left, aka the Sugar Hooker, whose famous Fluffernutters, pies, and cakes fly out of the dessert case at Revival Market) is on the show this season. Kuch says they didn’t know each other before, but when they met it was all “Houston? Houston!” And then arm linking. “She’s adorable,” he says. “She’ll snort at anything. How can you not love a snorter?” And Amanda Rockman of Katy (who works as the executive pastry chef at The Bristol and Balena?in Chicago) and Lina Biancamano (executive pastry chef at Stephen Pyles in Fort Worth) are also part of the 14 chefs competing this season. Go Texas. Top Chef Just Desserts premieres August 24 at 9 p.m. on Bravo.

Marene Gustin is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

 

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.
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