This “Top Chef: Just Desserts” Star Is Serving Houston’s Most Playful Pastries
Vanarin Kuch explains the intersection of Hot Cheetos croissants and Cambodian food at Koffeteria
Vanarin Kuch grew up in his family’s bakeries in Houston, Texas, watching old episodes of Iron Chef for inspiration.
“Being of Cambodian immigrants, my entire family, even to this day, has always owned a doughnut shop — so I’ve kind of always been in the industry, totally illegally working at 13 and 14 frying doughnuts,” he jokes.
Kuch went to culinary school and later worked in some of Houston’s best restaurants, including the city’s outpost of Jean-Georges and later at the acclaimed Tiny Boxwoods, where he served for three years as the pastry chef. His work led to a nomination for Food & Wine’s Best New Pastry Chef, and he also appeared on Top Chef: Just Desserts. A move to New York City led to jobs at fine-dining restaurants Gotham Bar and Grill and Boulud Sud.
“Then an opportunity came, and it was pretty much my mom’s scheming way of giving me back to Houston,” he said. “She’s like, ‘I found a really great place. It would be a really good bakery.’ It’s next to my uncle’s old Chinese restaurant; it’s next to our old doughnut shop, so it’s in a very nostalgic area in Houston, which was an old Chinatown.”
Kuch opened Koffeteria, a coffee shop and bakery in Houston’s EaDo neighborhood in late 2019, not far from downtown’s convention center and stadiums. “[The name] derives from the Houstonian word ‘washateria,’ like ‘lavanderia,’” he says. “It’s basically like a laundromat, where you take your clothes. My grandma, the very first business that she ever owned was a washateria on West Gray. I spent a lot of weekends there, just messing up all of her wash-and-folds.”
The menu at Koffeteria is whimsical and creative, taking inspiration from Houston’s international community. Highlights include the crawfish rangoon roll, a spin on the Chinese dish with local crawfish. The breakfast taco includes special flour and corn mix tortillas, Chinese sausage and green papaya pico. And the Hot Cheetos croissant stuffed with nacho cheese just about broke the internet.
“A lot of my inspiration comes from, honestly, growing up poor. Just being creative and finding ways to express my first-generation American version of Cambodian food,” he says. “It’s kind of the [approach] that we take on all of our pastries.”
The coffee shop and bakery also has a custom blend from local roaster Little Dreamer, incorporated into everything from the Tiger Uppercut, a Thai iced tea espresso combination, to Make Ya Halo, made with cold brew and halo-halo, a Filipino dessert.
Activism and community support is also a big part of Koffeteria’s ethos. During the deadly winter storms of 2021, Kuch and his team provided food for their neighbors. They’ve also been supporters of a number of causes including Black Lives Matter, Restoring Justice, and Jane’s Due Process, especially after the recent abortion bans took effect in Texas.
“I’m not going to lie, I’ve had a lot of death threats, I’ve had a lot of people throw things at the wall, at the windows, and stuff like that. No one’s broken in or anything like that, but it has been to the extreme,” says Kuch. “We take stands like that because you have to…I know exactly how it feels to be a gay man in Texas and not have the right to marry the man that I love.”
At its core, Koffeteria is about representing the people of the city. “I just think Houstonians are very…we’re prideful. You can’t really say shit about Houston because we’ll defend it to all end.”
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