Ronnie Killen earned a James Beard nomination for Best Chef - Southwest. (Photo by Kimberly Park)
Coltivare's Ryan Pera is a semifinalist for Best Chef: Southwest.
Kitchen 713 chefs Ross Coleman and James Haywood are jointly nominated for Best Chef: Southwest.
Pax Americana's Chef Martha de Leon is a semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year.
Xochi turned heads.
Pappas Bros. Steakhouse is a semifinalist for Outstanding Wine Program.
Houstonians take their food seriously, and there’s proof the rest of the nation is, too. Here in Clutch City, you can find outstanding chefs, amazing restaurants, and innovative restaurateurs by the dozen.
And that’s exactly how many nominations the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards heaped upon Houston’s food scene, an unexpectedly full bounty. Houston boasts 12 James Beard Award semifinalists.
That’s more than Dallas (one), San Antonio (two) and Austin (six) garnered combined. It also continues Houston’s recent James Beard hot streak. Bayou City chefs have won three of the last four Best Chef: Southwest awards after the city endured a 22-year drought in the coveted category. Underbelly’s Chris Shepherd (2014), Oxheart’s Justin Yu (2016) and Hugo’s Hugo Ortega (2017) now wait to see if another Houston chef can make it four of the last five.
The Beard Awards were established almost 30 years ago in 1990.
“Going back, it’s been present since I was a dishwasher many years ago,” Coltivare’s chef Ryan Pera tells PaperCity. Now, Pera is one of six Houston chefs up for The Best Chef: Southwest this year.
Pera’s worked with a number of Houston’s recent James Beard winners.
“I always respected who won it,” he says. Pera has come a long way, from viewing the James Beard Awards as “something that was not achievable,” to getting recognized for his hard work and talent.
“It feels great today that I was nominated,” he says.
Pondicheri’s Chef Anita Jaisinghani is a semifinalist in the same category. This makes her fourth overall James Beard Awards nominations. “They are like the ultimate authority, so it’s very exciting,” Jaisinghani says. The announcement took her by surprise.
She does not use a PR firm and came upon her honor by happy accident, seeing it on a friend’s Instagram account. She’s extremely excited but a little bit stressed. “I’m going to keep doing what I do, reinventing my food and looking at what I can do better to keep it exciting.”
The “Oscars of Food” are voted on by more than 600 culinary professionals. Let’s jump into the complete rundown and analysis of the Houston semifinalists:
Best Chef: Southwest
Anita Jaisinghani, Pondicheri
Trong Nguyen, Crawfish & Noodles
Ryan Pera, Coltivare
Ronnie Killen, Killen’s Steakhouse
Ross Coleman and James Haywood, Kitchen 713
Rising Star Chef of the Year
Martha de Leon, Pax Americana
Best New Restaurant
Outstanding Bar Program
Anvil Bar & Refuge
Outstanding Pastry Chef
Jill Bartolome, Aqui
Tracy Vaught & H-Town Restaurant Group
Outstanding Wine Program
Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
Vaught, the wife of last year’s Best Chef: Southwest winner Hugo Ortega, is honored to be recognized, “especially among such a wonderful group of industry professionals.”
“We will be blowing on the dice and rubbing the crystal ball and hoping we make it to the finals,” she tells PaperCity.
Almost all of the nominated chefs are first-time semifinalists — Chef Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri has received the honor before. Other repeat Houston nominees include Vaught and Anvil Bar & Refuge.
The James Beard Awards are shaking things up in a #MeToo World, adding an integrity component for the first time this year. The foundation notes that it values “respect, transparency, diversity, sustainability, and equality” and makes it clear they expect restaurateurs to operate “with integrity.”
The equality aspect is evident in the gender split for this year’s awards. Only 27 percent of the semifinalists were women last year. This year, that stat leapt up to 40 percent. In Houston, four of the 12 nominations are women.
The finalists will be announced in Philadelphia on March 14. The winner will be revealed in an awards ceremony held in Chicago on May 7.