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Texas Dominates James Beard Awards, But Houston and Dallas are Stunningly Snubbed

Austin and San Antonio Chefs Rule Food Oscars in the Bayou City's Spotlight Moment

BY // 03.27.19

It was an epic day for the Texas food scene before the clock even hit noon. For the first time ever, the James Beard Award Foundation held its finalist nomination announcement in Houston, a true honor for the city’s food scene.

The morning at Hugo’s was one to remember — in all sort of ways, including some major surprising disappointment. It all happened in a fitting locale, given that Hugo Ortega himself won the award for Best Chef: Southwest back in 2019.

It would be a tasty treat regardless, but it felt huge because the Lone Star State shattered its record of semifinalist nominations this year back in February. Texas earned a whopping 27 semifinal nods, split between Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Lubbock.

You could cut the tension with a knife.

While The Bayou City may have played gracious culinary and cultural host, it didn’t get any more love from James Beard on this day. Neither did Dallas or Lubbock.

But Texas still made a huge impact, positively dominating the Best Chef: Southwest category.

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Out of just five finalists total in the most important chef category, four came from Texas — three from Austin and one from San Antonio. That’s the only category that Texas earned finalists in, but four out of five is a huge deal. The lone Arizonan on the list has some stiff competition.

The four Texas finalists are Kevin Fink of Emmer & Rye, Michael Fojtasek of Olamaie, Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine of Austin, and Steve McHugh of Cured in San Antonio.

So far, only three Austin chefs have ever taken home a James Beard Award — Paul Qui of Uchiko, Tyson Cole of Uchi and Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue. McHugh would mark the first win in the category for San Antonio.

Sadly, there was no luck in the other 11 categories Texans were semifinalist nominees for. That includes Restaurant of The Year, Outstanding Pastry Chef, Rising Star Chef of the Year and more.

You could call the Outstanding Chef finalist announcement a snub — no nod to Chris Shepherd, one of Houston’s most prolific and beloved chefs. But the man behind UB Preserv, Georgia James, One Fifth and beyond took it in stride, smiling, chatting and standing out in a button down and jeans in a sea of blazers and slacks.

And hey, Shepherd’s already got a Best Chef: Southwest trophy on his mantle.

He’s one of four Houston chefs to ever win that title, along with Ortega, Justin Yu and Robert Del Grande.

Houston’s Spotlight Moment

Houston was an obvious choice for this kind of major foodie reveal.

“We’ve been here for 24 hours and are just struck by the dynamism. It feels incredibly vibrant and wonderfully diverse,” Clare Reichenbach, CEO of James Beard Foundation, tells PaperCity.

 “It’s warm here in terms of climate and also in terms of hospitality and philosophy here. It’s palpable.”

Reichenbach announced the nominees, alongside Mitchell Davis, James Beard’s chief strategy officer, and Anne Quantro, James Beard Foundation award winner and chair.

The announcement lasted just under an hour, starting at 9 am. Hugo’s looked better than ever, gussied up with James Beard’s velvety purple backdrop and rows and rows of the restaurant’s chairs to accommodate the dozens upon dozens of guests.

The Oscars of Food would never skimp on eats, and Hugo definitely delivered. There were your typical pastries and fresh fruit, only taken to the next level with house-made churros. A classic omelet station greeted fans of the old school.

But the signature Hugo’s dishes really shined, with breakfast tacos, gorditas, tamales, red and green chilaquiles and quesadillas.

Hugo Ortega chef
Hugo Ortega is known for revolutionizing the Mexican food scene in Houston, and Xochi brings a Oaxacan flair.

Refreshments abounded, with some a little intense for 9 am, but it was a celebration, after all. Bloody Mary Bars with all the fixings sat next to bottles of red and white wine, alongside cans of White Claw, one of the sponsors.

Gorgeous flower arrangements dazzled on the table ends, bursting with red roses and pink and white hydrangeas.

The James Beard Award winners will be revealed on May 6th at Lyric Opera House in Chicago.

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