There’s good news for Texas restaurants and the people who love them, and there’s bad news. First, the good: In February, Texas enjoyed its strongest showing ever in the semifinals for the James Beard Awards. The bad?  The state seriously slumped in the finals. Even so, it was announced today that four of the five finalists for Best Chef: Southwest are Texan. Invited to attend the James Beard gala in Chicago on May 6 are: Kevin Fink of Emmer & Rye, Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine, Michael Fojtasek of Olamaie, all in Austin, and Steve McHugh of Cured in San Antonio.  (The fifth contestant is Charleen Badman of FnB in Scottsdale, Arizona.)

The awards, first given in 1991, are widely regarded as the Oscars of the restaurant industry.

Will this be the year that Gilmore, who making his seventh consecutive appearance, wins the category? Or maybe it will be McHugh, a fourth-time finalist? Fojtasek has been here once before, while Fink is making his debut on the elite list.

Even though four regional nominees are nothing to sneeze at, the number is only a fraction of the Texas competitors who reached the second round of judging: 27 entries in eleven competitions, including Outstanding Restaurant (Ninfa’s on Navigation in Houston), Outstanding Chef (Chris Shepherd, also in Houston), Best New Restaurant (Petra and the Beast in Dallas and Suerte in Austin), and Rising Star Chef of the Year (Jonathan “Jonny” Rhodes of Restaurant Indigo in Houston). That’s the most Texas has ever landed in the semifinals and an impressive 35 percent jump over the twenty spots in 2018. None of these exciting entries made it to the finals.

Despite falling short in the finals, the state’s growing presence on the national culinary scene was underscored by the fact that today’s live news conference announcing the finalists was held in Houston. The site of the announcement was Hugo’s restaurant, whose executive chef, Hugo Ortega, was named Best Chef: Southwest in 2017.