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Best Chef Awards

Is Houston's James Beard Award drought finally about to end? New best chef nominees offer real hope

Hugo Ortega in Mexico at restaurant with tequila February 2014
Ortega is currently traveling in Mexico and has yet to hear that he's a James Beard semifinalist for the third year in a row.  Hugo's/Facebook
chris shepherd underbelly
Underbelly's Chris Shepherd earns his second semifinalist nod; he was a finalist last year. Photo by © Julie Soefer
Oxheart Restaurant diners Justin Yu
Justin Yu has earned his first semifinalist nomination for Best Chef Southwest; last year he was nominated in the Rising Star Chef category.  Photo by © Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Visitors and Convention Bureau
Anvil Bar & Refuge is once again a semifinalist in the Outstanding Bar Program category.  Courtesy photo
Hugo Ortega in Mexico at restaurant with tequila February 2014
chris shepherd underbelly
Oxheart Restaurant diners Justin Yu

The James Beard Foundation unveiled the list of semifinalists for its 2014 awards today. Unlike last year, when Houston restaurants represented in a diverse array of categories including Best New Restaurant, Rising Star Chef of the Year and Outstanding Restaurateur, this year the city's dining scene only earned nominations in two categories. 

As it prepares to turn five next month, Anvil Bar & Refuge earns its second semifinalist nomination in the Outstanding Bar Program category. It is the only Texas establishment to be nominated.

Three Houston chefs are semifinalists for Best Chef Southwest: Hugo Ortega of Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's and Caracol; Chris Shepherd of Underbelly; and Justin Yu of Oxheart. Both Ortega and Shepherd made it to finalist status last year. Yu was a Rising Star semifinalist last year and is a first time semifinalist in this category.

Uchi culinary director Philip Speer, who is based in Austin but makes regular visits to Houston, is a nominee for Outstanding Pastry Chef.

As it only opened in December, Ortega's seafood restaurant Caracol is too new to have merited consideration for Best New Restaurant, but, given the James Beard foundation's regard for his work, it remains a likely candidate for recognition next year. 

On March 18, the foundation will publish the list of finalists in each category along with the finalists in the book, journalism, broadcast and restaurant design categories. That's when Houstonians will learn which local chefs have a legitimate shot at the award. No Houston chef has won a Best Chef award since Robert Del Grande did in 1992.

Is this the year Houston chefs stop knocking on the door and finally kick the son of a bitch in? Stay tuned.

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