For the second year in a row, there are a plethora of Houston chefs and restaurants represented among the James Beard Award semifinalists. Is Houston a great food city? Tuesday's announcement is another reason to say "Hell yes!"
Anita Jaisinghani is Houston's big winner, with Pondicheri as the only restaurant in Texas in the prestigious Best New Restaurant category. Jaisinghani also got a nomination herself in Best Chef: Southwest for her flagship Indian-fusion restaurant, Indika.
"I never thought about it, I didn't think they paid much attention to ethnic food or to women chefs, so I'm very excited to be nominated," Jaisinghani says. "It's a boost of confidence. When you do something new that hasn't been done before, it's a little scary. New York gets so much of the fame and the glory but we do great things in Houston as well."
"I never thought about it, I didn't think they paid much attention to ethnic food or to women chefs," Jaisinghani says.
Joining Jaisinghani in the Best Chef Southwest semifinalists is Hugo Ortega of Hugo's and Manabu Horiuchi of Kata Robata. The inclusion of the trio — all of whom have been creating exciting ethnic food in Houston for years — is a bit of a departure from previous Houston-based semifinalists like Bryan Caswell, Randy Rucker and Monica Pope, who all make different kinds of modern American and Gulf cuisine.
"It's thrilling," says Tracy Vaught, owner of Hugo's and wife of Ortega. " It's been a long time coming and I think he is definitely deserving. It's exciting to have Houston finally be recognized."
Bobby Heugel and Anvil Bar & Refuge are semifinalists for the second year in a row, this time for Outstanding Bar Program. "It feels great to be part of such a good group of people from Houston," Heugel says. "The more that our bar gets recognition I think it's good for the city.
"I like that people are writing and talking about things going on in Houston. It's truly exciting to see that happen."
In the Rising Star Chef category, which honors outstanding chefs under the age of 30, Tony's 25-year-old executive chef Grant Gordon was also named a semifinalist. It's another honor for Grant, who took over the Tony's kitchen just under two years ago and received a rare four-star review from Alison Cook in December.
Considered the Oscars of the food world, the James Beard Awards include about 20 chefs and restaurants as semifinalists in each of the 20 categories. (You can read the full list of semifinalists here.) The list of nominees (five finalists in each category) will be announced on March 19 and the awards are given out in New York on May 7.