Wednesday morning, the James Beard Foundation announced the semifinalists in its prestigious Chef and Restaurant Awards, and Texas has come out swinging.
The state landed 27 entries in five cities. That’s the largest number ever for Texas, which claimed twenty semifinalists in 2018. (Another good year was 2013, when the state got 25 nods.) The awards have been given since 1991 and are widely regarded as the Oscars of the restaurant industry.
What’s to account for the increase? In general, it was a matter of incremental growth overall rather than a big jump in one or two areas. It also tracks with Texas’s growing presence on the national culinary scene generally.
Where did Texas shine? Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Houston’s Original Ninfa’s on Navigation—a restaurant that has never been nominated before—is up for Outstanding Restaurant. In the no-surprise category, Beard winner Chris Shepherd has been nominated for Outstanding Chef (the Houston chef has three restaurants: Georgia James, One Fifth Mediterranean, and UB Preserv, all of which recently claimed the top spot in Texas Monthly’s annual list of best new restaurants in the state). Texas gets two contenders in the Best New Restaurant slot: Suerte, in Austin, and Petra and the Beast, in Dallas. Chef Jonathan “Jonny” Rhodes of Restaurant Indigo, in Houston, has been nominated for the prestigious Rising Star Chef of the Year award. Tracy Vaught has been singled out in the Outstanding Restaurateur contest—she runs the H Town Restaurant Group, which includes Hugo’s, Caracol, and Xochi.
For Outstanding Wine Program, Houston has a well-known entrant: Pappas Bros. Steakhouse at the Galleria. Two Texans are up for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Producer: Jeffrey Stuffings of Jester King Brewery, in Austin, and Kim McPherson of McPherson Cellars, in Lubbock. For Outstanding Bar Program, Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge is making yet another appearance, having been nominated repeatedly in the past.
For Outstanding Pastry Chef, Texas garnered two nods: long-time semifinalist Laura Sawicki of Launderette, in Austin, and first-timer Ricardo “Ricchi” Sanchez of Bullion, in Dallas. In the Outstanding Service arena, Texas’s two largest cities both have hopefuls: the French Room, in Dallas, and Hugo’s and Tony’s, both in Houston.
The Southwest regional chef competition is an area in which Texas historically has done very well. This year, the state’s twelve semifinalists are: Austin: Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo (a first-time semifinalist), Kevin Fink of Emmer & Rye, Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine, Michael Fojtasek of Olamaie, and Maribel Rivero of Yuyo (also new to the list). Dallas: Bruno Davaillon of Bullion, Regino Rojas of the Purépecha Room by Revolver Taco Lounge, and David Uygur of Lucia. Houston area: Kaiser Lashkari of Himalaya (new to the list), Trong Nguyen of Crawfish & Noodles, and Ronnie Killen of Killen’s Steakhouse, in Pearland. San Antonio: Steve McHugh of Cured.
This is all indicative of Texas’s growing national presence as a culinary powerhouse. In addition to the Beards, the state frequently appears on notable best restaurant and chef lists compiled by Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, and Esquire. Since 2000, six Texas chefs have been named winners in the Beard Awards’ Southwest regional chef category. (If you’re curious, the six aforementioned Southwest regional winners are Shepherd of Underbelly, Justin Yu of Oxheart, and Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s—all from Houston—and Tyson Cole of Uchi, Paul Qui of Qui, and Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue, all from Austin. Dallas had significant semifinalists and nominees, but no winners, in that time period.)