It’s not surprising a Texas chef took home the award for Best Chef Southwest last night at the James Beard Foundation Awards; after all, four out of the five nominees hail from the state. And yet, Houstonians and Texans alike couldn’t help but beam when Chris Shepherd, executive chef of Underbelly in Houston, was called up to accept the prestigious culinary medal.

Shepherd surpassed fellow Texas nominees Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine (Austin), Justin Yu of Oxheart (Houston), Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s (Houston), and Kevin Binkley of Binkley’s in Cave Creek (Arizona) to bring home the food world’s highest honor.

“This is an amazing, surreal experience,” Shepherd told Texas Monthly. “More than anything, I wanted to bring this award back to the city of Houston, and I’m thrilled to be able to do that. I built my restaurant for the city, and this award is for the city.”

Under Shepherd’s helm, Underbelly has utilized homegrown fare and purveyor goods from Houston and its surrounding communities to create a playful-yet-refined, ethnically diverse menu. This was also a record year for Houston chefs, who set a record number of nominations in the Best Chef Southwest category. The last Houston chef to bring home the same honor as Shepherd was Robert Del Grande in 1992 (coincidentally, del Grande, chef and co-owner of RDG/Bar Annie in Houston, was one of the chefs who cooked for the gala following the awards ceremony). Congratulations to Shepherd and all the Underbelly employees.

For more on Shepherd and his restaurant, check out Patricia Sharpe’s review of Underbelly from the September 2012 issue.

(Photo by Julie Soefer)