An eighty-two-year-old pitmaster, who spent much of her life as a meat market owner in a Central Texas town of just over 1,000 people, is up for one of the most prestigious awards in the culinary world. As Texas Monthly just reported, Norma Frances “Tootsie” Tomanetz was announced today as a James Beard Award semifinalist in the best chef category for the Southwest region. She has run the pits at Snow’s BBQ in Lexington since it opened fifteen years ago. It has since been named the best barbecue in Texas, twice, by this magazine, most recently in the 2017 Top 50 BBQ list.
Tomanetz is as famous as she is beloved among Texas barbecue fans. Despite her fame, during an interview for the 2016 story, Snow’s Queen, about her life in barbecue, Tomanetz told me, “I’m the old country girl, and I like the low profile.” When I reached her by phone this morning, she was working at her day job at an elementary school in Giddings. I told her the good news. “Well that’s great,” she said, looking to get back to work. I explained the significance of her nomination, you know, “Oscars of the food world,” and all that. Tootsie was most interested in whether Kerry Bexley, the owner of Snow’s BBQ, would also be invited to any awards ceremony. She signed off with, “Thanks for telling me, and I’ll try to get excited,” and then asked if I’d let her know when and if she made it to the next round.
A pitmaster hadn’t been recognized in the best chef category until Aaron Franklin, of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue, won Best Chef: Southwest in 2015. A pitmaster was again recognized last year when whole-hog cook, Elliott Moss of Buxton Hall, was a semifinalist out of North Carolina. This year, Rodney Scott, of Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston, S.C., and Sam Jones of Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville, N.C., were nominated for Best Chef: Southeast. So, including Tomanetz, that makes five pitmasters in four years as James Beard semifinalists. The trend is evidence of a shift in attitude toward the culinary skills of pitmasters. We’re just happy that Tootsie, who began her barbecue career a decade before Franklin was born, is here to enjoy it.
Tomanetz isn’t the only pitmaster in this year’s class. She’s up against Ronnie Killen, who owns Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland, but he’s technically been nominated for his work at Killen’s Steakhouse. In total, eleven other Texas chefs are also semifinalists in the category. The nomination of Tomanetz also bodes well for whichever pitmaster reaches the top of Texas Monthly’s next barbecue list in 2021. Franklin was number one in 2013, and Tomanetz unseated him at the top spot in 2017.
Aaron Franklin’s 2015 win paved the way for a new level of pitmaster recognition. In his acceptance speech he thanked “all the barbecue cooks before me and those to come.” Franklin understood he was the bearer of a Texas barbecue torch lit by pitmasters like Tomanetz, who began her career in 1966 at City Meat Market in Giddings. Now she gets to enjoy the spotlight for those decades of hard work as (probably) the oldest first-time semifinalist in the history of the James Beard awards. Maybe Tomanetz can keep carrying the torch for pitmasters into the next round. We’ll find out on March 14th if she makes it onto the list of finalists.