Houstonians who have missed pastry chef Vanarin Kuch’s baked goods are in for a sweet treat. The 35-year-old chef, formerly of Bank and Tiny Boxwoods, gained national attention almost a decade ago as a contestant on Top Chef: Just Desserts and Chopped. After that, he decided to sharpen his skills with stints in New York and Chicago.
“I was a self-taught pastry chef,” says Kuch, “and I felt I needed to learn more. Plus, I was in my 20s and thought that if I wanted to live in New York City, that was the time to do it.”
The time he spent away from Houston also came with an added benefit: he met his husband.
“We met the traditional way,” laughs Kuch, “on OkCupid!” He has been married to opera director Andreas Hager for three years now. Both agreed that the plan would always be to move to Houston, where Kuch could open his own eatery.
Of Cambodian heritage, Kuch’s family settled in Houston and opened a seafood shop and a doughnut shop in EaDo. And that’s where Kuch has opened his very own sweets shop, Koffeteria. Its industrial setting with mid-century furniture from second-hand shops makes for a cozy atmosphere. But of course, the real draw is the pastries.
Even before the shop opened, a photo of Kuch’s Hot Cheeto Croissant was streaking across social media. And yes, it’s exactly what you think it is—but also stuffed with nacho cheese.
“Houston loves Cheetos,” Kuch notes. “That was my lunch when I was in high school here—a bag of Cheetos and a Coke. It’s not that we were poor—that’s just what I wanted to eat!”
Other Koffeteria hits include the top-selling Beef Pho Kolache, the Pistachio Baklava Croissant (Kuch’s own personal favorite), various chocolate-chip cookies, cinnamon rolls, and the Hot Cheeto Grilled Cheese sandwich. (Yes, he really does love those hot Cheetos.)
“Our program also includes coffee roasted by Little Dreamer, and teas by Geva,” adds Kuch. “The Salty Cambodian has been a big hit. It’s a latte combining sweetened condensed milk with a house-made butter cultured with a sourdough starter and topped with Maldon salt. We are also making the Mad Hatter, a whimsical hot chocolate served table-side in a teacup.”
Kuch moved home in May of last year, and he says it took about seven months to build out the shop. Koffeteria opened last November, and things were going well until December 19, when someone smashed the glass door and broke in.
“They only took an iPad,” he says. “But the next day people came pouring in and bought everything! I was floored by the support. EaDo is a very personal place for me that I remember from my childhood. I always knew I would come back here, and I could not have expected a better response to the business from the neighborhood. Being here and having my husband help me in the shop on weekends is just an amazing life.”
Kuch and his husband also live in EaDo, only a few minutes away from Koffeteria, with Isabella, a Hungarian Boxer, and a cat named Hulot. He says the black cat’s former owner was a crackhead, and that the name comes from the hero in his favorite movie, the 1967 French-Italian comedy Playtime. Date night for the couple is usually dinner at Nobie’s, although they also like Tex-Mex.
“When I was in New York, I really missed those sketchy taco trucks we have here,” Kuch admits.
Right now, Koffeteria is only open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, but later this year they hope to stay open in the evening just for desserts.
“I’d also like to do some pop-up dinners, maybe with Cambodian food,” says Kuch. “That would be fun.”
Koffeteria, 1110 Hutchins Street,
Suite 102, koffeteria.com
This article appears in the January 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.