Culture / Foodie Events

Houston’s James Beard Award Surprises, Standouts and Service Truths

City Restaurants Have a Long Way to Go In One Department

BY // 02.17.16

When I asked Tracy Lee Vaught for her thoughts this morning about being nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s 2016 Outstanding Restaurateur award, she responded as I expected she would: “I was taken off guard. Absolutely surprised but very happy and grateful.” That’s because Vaught is a seasoned pro whose no-ego approach has been pleasing diners for years at Hugo’s, Prego, Backstreet Cafe and, more recently, Caracol.

Evan Turner, whose Helen Greek Food and Wine is up for the foundation’s Best New Restaurant Award, was as equally humble and appreciative. “It’s a great day,” he said, his excitement clearly audible. “Really, though, this is about William Wright and what he’s been doing in the kitchen,” Turner continued, giving his chef all the credit. His humility is commendable, but his drive to open the space, and his passion and evangelizing for Greek wines, are also exemplary. If you haven’t sat at Helen’s bar and had him pour you a few glasses, get there soon.

Nominated couple: Tracy Lee Vaught and Hugo Ortega

The nominations were announced this morning (February 17), and Houston is well represented, especially by, in my opinion, Vaught and Hunter. Joining them are Phoenix-based Sam Fox, of Fox Restaurant Concepts (The Arrogant Butcher, Culinary Dropout, Olive & Ivy, and others) and Atlanta-Based Ford Fry Ford Fry, (The Optimist, St. Cecilia, State of Grace, and others) in the Outstanding Restaurateur category; Anvil Bar & Refuge (Outstanding Bar Program); The Pass (Outstanding Service); and Justin Yu (Oxheart), Hugo Ortega (Caracol, and husband of Vaught), Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan (The Pass), and Manabu Horiuchi (Kata Robata) in the Best Chef: Southwest category. Ortega and Yu have been mainstays in the category for the past several years, and are fan favorites.

Turner’s Helen Greek Food and Wine is in heady environs in the Best New Restaurant contest, mingling with Kinship, Shaya, Death & Taxes, and Coquina, to name but a few promising newcomers. (Click here for a look at Turner’s wine philosophy.)

The service award is one I follow closely, and am glad to see a Houston restaurant on the list (in fact, The Pass is the only Texas-based establishment in the category, and I commend the team there for this. They are rubbing shoulders with, to name but a few culinary temples, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Eleven Madison Park, Quince, and Saison.) Too many meals in the city at would-be fine-dining restaurants are made much poorer by shoddy tableside manner, and the nomination should be a catalyst for other restaurateurs to improve their approach.

Houston is not represented in the Outstanding chef category, though Austin’s Tyson Cole (Uchi) made the list, the only Texas entry. Sean Brock, Donald Link, and David Kinch are but a few fine chefs competing for that accolade. Outstanding Restaurant is another Texas-less category, a situation that I hope will soon change.

Statement Makers

  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 2 - Statement Makers
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 2 - Statement Makers
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 2 - Statement Makers
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 2 - Statement Makers
  • J McLaughlin - Card Deck 2 - Statement Makers

The finalists will be announced on Tuesday, March 15, and the awards gala will take place in Chicago on May 2. The foundation — which has not been without scandal and has its share of critics, most notably perhaps Anthony Bourdain — get their name from one of the most colorful and dynamic culinary personalities America has ever known, the larger-than-life James Beard, whose honest and enthusiastic approach to the nation’s foodways reverberate today.

Look for our Dallas Beard round-up soon.

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