Now that Texas has its very own category for best chef, the state made its strongest showing by far in the semifinals of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Award competition, capturing 39 individual nominations in the list that was announced Wednesday—a big jump from 27 last year. Previously, Texas was part of the Southwest region for best chef and had to duke it out with four other states. But this year, Texas joined California and New York as states big and important enough to warrant their own categories, with twenty chefs competing for the title of Best Chef: Texas.
Continuing the recent trend of recognizing more diverse and less formal restaurants, the semifinalists range from a Vietnamese food hall counter in Houston to a Laotian cafe in Dallas. Two barbecue joints are also on the list (no surprise there). There is also a mix of old and new nominees, with a solid number of hardy perennials and an impressive quota of newcomers. The finalists will be announced March 25, and then the winners will be revealed at the glittery Beard Awards Gala—considered the Oscars of the food industry—in Chicago on May 4.
In the prestigious category of Best New Restaurant, Texas racked up ten percent of the entire list, with three nominations out of thirty (only California matched that number). The Texas entrants were the Blind Goat in Houston (the aforementioned Vietnamese food hall counter); Salaryman, a tiny Japanese ramen and yakitori venue in Dallas; and Squable, an innovative European/American restaurant in Houston. Both Salaryman and Squable made Texas Monthly’s list of ten best new restaurants for 2020, released last week.
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In another big-deal national category, Outstanding Chef, Justin Yu of Theodore Rex, in Houston, garnered a nomination. (He has won big before, capturing the 2016 title of Best Chef: Southwest.) The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation is up for Outstanding Restaurant, the Houston institution’s second consecutive time to vie for that award. For Rising Star Chef of the Year (reserved for candidates age 30 or younger), Texas has two nominees: Bria Downey of Clay Pigeon Food & Drink, in Fort Worth, and Kaitlin Steets of Theodore Rex.
In the Outstanding Baker category, Texas is represented by Clyde Greenhouse, of Kessler Baking Studio, in Dallas, and David Norman, of Austin’s Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden. There are two Texas nominees, both in Dallas, for Outstanding Pastry Chef: Maggie Huff, of Homewood (also on Texas Monthly‘s best new restaurants list for 2020), and Ricardo “Ricchi” Sanchez, of Bullion. As usual, Houston’s Tracy Vaught, of H Town Restaurant Group (which includes Hugo’s, among others), is nominated for Outstanding Restaurateur, joined by a newcomer to the list, Austin’s Larry McGuire, of McGuire Moorman Hospitality (which includes Jeffrey’s and other restaurants).
Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, the hardiest of hardy perennials, is vying for Outstanding Bar Program. It is challenged by Las Almas Rotas in Dallas, a first-time nominee. Hugo’s, of Houston, has been nominated yet again for Outstanding Hospitality. Rosie Cannonball, of Houston, is the sole Texas nominee for Outstanding Wine Program. In the category of Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer, Texas has two returning entrants: Kim McPherson, of McPherson Cellars in Lubbock, and Jeffrey Stuffings and Michael Stuffings, of Jester King Brewery, in Austin.
Of those twenty Texans vying for the newly minted title of Best Chef: Texas, nine have never competed before: Dawn Burrell, of Kulture, in Houston; Alexandra Gates, of Cochineal, in Marfa; Molly McCook, of Ellerbe Fine Foods, in Fort Worth; Aldo Mora, of Cafe Central, in El Paso; Alex Paredes, of Carnitas Lonja, in San Antonio; Esaul Ramos, of 2M Smokehouse, in San Antonio; Donny Sirisavath, of Khao Noodle Shop, in Dallas (also on TM’s best of 2020 list); Jason Vaughan, of Nancy’s Hustle, in Houston; and Laurie Williamson, of Rancho Loma, in Talpa.
The returning contenders are: Kevin Fink, of Emmer & Rye, in Austin; Michael Fojtasek, of Olamaie, in Austin; Manabu Horiuchi, of Kata Robata, Houston; Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri in Houston; Steve McHugh, of Cured, in San Antonio; Trong Nguyen, of Crawfish & Noodles, in Houston; Misti Norris, of Petra and the Beast, in Dallas; Regino Rojas, of Revolver Taco Lounge, in Dallas; Teiichi Sakurai, of Tei-An, in Dallas; Norma Frances “Tootsie” Tomanetz, of Snow’s BBQ, in Lexington; and Iliana de la Vega, of El Naranjo, in Austin.