Houston chefs celebrate the city’s culinary scene by winning James Beard nominations

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Champagne corks popped at some of the city’s top restaurants and bars as the James Beard Foundation announced the finalists for its 2022 awards.

As Houston continues to bask in the culinary spotlight brought by the ongoing “Top Chef” series set in Bayou Town, prestigious Beard Award nominations have given the city even more reason to celebrate its culinary culture. melting pot.

After two years without receiving the awards – 2020 and 2021 were skipped amid the pandemic and internal controversy over the foundation – and a disastrous 2019 season when local chefs and restaurants failed to score a single Nominated for what is often called “the Oscars of the Food World,” Houston triumphed on Wednesday with finalists in major categories, including three chefs for Texas’ Best Chef.

WINNERS ANNOUNCED: Houston earns multiple James Beard Award finalist nominations

” It’s like a dream. I can’t contain myself,” said bar owner Alba Huerta, whose Julep on Washington Avenue was nominated for the Outstanding Bar program. “It’s our first year of nomination, so there are a lot of emotions. The difficulties of returning to work after the pandemic are still real. It is wonderful to have this recognition. It’s recognition for Houston. We love this city.

Alba Huerta at the Julep bar

Julie Soefer / Julie Soefer

As the finalists were announced via Twitter, Alba found herself in the elite circle and called her friend, pastry chef Ruben Ortega, to offer her congratulations on her nomination as Outstanding Pastry Chef. Ortega, the pastry chef at H-Town Restaurant Group, said he forgot about the announcement of the finalists.

“I was looking at my phone because Alba was calling. I was wondering what was going on. It took me by surprise,” Ortega said of his first nomination for his work at downtown Oaxaca-inspired restaurant Xochi. , where his Mexican chocolate desserts include a cocoa pod that diners open at the table. “I’m overwhelmed and so proud.”

Pastry chef Ruben Ortega makes a chocolate pyramid as he works in the kitchen at Hugo's Wednesday, just hours after being named Best Pastry Chef finalist at the 2022 James Beard Awards for his work at Xochi.  Ortega oversees pastry operations at the H-Town Restaurant Group restaurants of Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught.

Pastry chef Ruben Ortega makes a chocolate pyramid as he works in the kitchen at Hugo’s Wednesday, just hours after being named Best Pastry Chef finalist at the 2022 James Beard Awards for his work at Xochi. Ortega oversees pastry operations at the H-Town Restaurant Group restaurants of Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught.

Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer

Ortega said he wanted to pop a bottle of champagne but realized he didn’t have any at home that was already chilled. “I’m waiting for it to cool down,” he laughs.

For her brother and sister-in-law, chef Hugo Ortega and restaurateur Tracy Vaught, Wednesday was also a joyful day. Their flagship restaurant Hugo’s was selected as a finalist for one of Beard’s top awards, Outstanding Hospitality, a category that recognizes the highest standards of restaurant service in the country.

Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega

Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega

Gary Fountain, Houston Chronicle / Contributor

“It’s a prize for what we’re all trying to accomplish. All restaurants and service businesses in general want to be hospitable, welcoming and warm,” said Vaught, who along with Hugo Ortega (2017 Southwest Best Chef James Beard winner) operates the restaurant group that includes Hugo’s, Backstreet Café, Caracol, Xochi and Urbe. “Hospitality is what we’re all looking for. There are days when you get it wrong. It’s an ongoing effort. It’s never perfect. You always try to get as close to correcting as possible.

Vaught was quick to credit COO Carlos Neri for the finalists’ nod. Neri, she said, rose through the ranks from busboy to general manager of Hugo’s.

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Chris Williams, chef/owner of Lucille’s restaurant in the Museum Quarter, wasn’t even in town when he learned he was nominated for the Outstanding Restaurateur award. While on vacation in Portugal, he said his phone began to light up fire emojis of friends and co-workers congratulating him on his work at the 10-year-old restaurant named after his maternal great-grandmother, culinary pioneer Lucille Bishop Smith. The Outstanding Restaurateur nomination is not only a major blow for Lucille’s, it also recognizes the philanthropic work of Lucille’s 1913, the nonprofit foundation that Williams founded to help feed underserved communities in Houston.

Chef Chris Williams at Lucille

Chef Chris Williams at Lucille

Steve Gonzales, Houston Chronicle/Staff Photographer

“It’s a tribute to the team,” he said. “It’s group work.”

For the first time, the Beard Awards will include a new category, Best Chef Texas, recognizing the work of Lone Star State chefs who have traditionally competed in the Best Chef Southwest category along with chefs from New Mexico, Arizona and the Colorado. The Best Chef Texas category was created in 2019, although James Beard has yet to award an award in this area.

On a long list of semifinals filled with Houston hopefuls, three chefs emerged as finalists for Best Chef Texas: the team of Christine Ha and Tony J. Nguyen of Xin Chao, and Quy Hoang, the famous pitmaster of Blood Bros. BBQ in Bellaire.

Quy Hoang, pitmaster at Blood Bros.  BBQ

Quy Hoang, pitmaster at Blood Bros. BBQ

JR Cohen / JR Cohen

For Ha, the Houstonian who was the first blind contestant in the “MasterChef” cooking competition, which she won in 2012, Beard’s nomination was bittersweet. She returned to Houston on Tuesday after traveling to Vietnam for a memorial service for her father, who died in January. Tired, a little groggy and full of emotion, Ha says she expected the worst and hoped for the best on Wednesday. But she and chef/partner Nguyen withdrew the nomination.

“I’m just very proud. It is very hard work. I’m just one of thousands of people who go about their daily lives,” said the chef who operates The Blind Goat and modern Vietnamese restaurant Xin Chao, which she opened with Nguyen in 2020. “Being a woman of color and a disability, it means even more to me to break that barrier.

“It puts a sharp focus on Houston and shows the rest of the nation that maybe the Michelin Guide needs to come here next,” she added.

Hoang was already at work with the smokers of Blood Bros. when he learned of his appointment.

“It’s surreal. Even when I made the list of semi-finalists, we never thought we would make any list,” he said. “I don’t have a culinary background, so I don’t consider myself a chef. We started cooking and having fun, and it turned into something really awesome.

This “thing” obviously impressed the Beard judges who called on the pitmaster for his work with his partners Terry and Robin Wong in creating a distinctive Asian-style barbecue that reflects Houston eating habits. Blood Bros., which opened in Bellaire in December 2018, struck a chord not just here but nationwide: The partners opened an outpost in a posh Las Vegas casino last summer.

“I think barbecue has grown so much. Everything is elevated. It’s not just brisket, ribs and sausages: people are making mixed dishes out of smoked meats. It shows the diversity of what barbecue can be,” Hoang said.

The Houston finalists — winners will be announced June 13 in Chicago — are bringing culinary distinction back to the city still grappling with pandemic-induced restaurant industry disruptions. The rewards program itself is also emerging after a dark period of soul-searching.

After scrapping the 2020 awards, the Beard Foundation conducted an internal audit after accusations of a lack of transparency and a lack of racial inclusion in its nomination and awards process. The foundation said it “heard calls from the restaurant community and the public for a more inclusive and transparent awards process” that recognized broader issues within the restaurant industry, including “the injustice and racial inequality”. The objectives of the audit were to remove any bias from the system and to increase diversity within the electoral body. »

Huerta said it was time to celebrate. “There is a lot of good energy today. Lots of happy people,” she said. “We’re going to throw a party in Chicago and have a great time.”

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