Since the James Beard Foundation announced its semifinalists last month, the city's culinary community has been buzzing about the diversity of Houston's nominees. Will another Houston chef join Underbelly's Chris Shepherd and Robert Del Grande (RDG + Bar Annie) as a winner of the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest?
On Tuesday, the Foundation announced that two men will have that opportunity when the awards are announced May 2, because they have been named finalists for the award.
Hugo Ortega, chef/owner of Hugo's, Caracol, and Backstreet Cafe, has been named a finalist for the fifth year in a row. Joining him is Oxheart chef/owner Justin Yu, who makes his third consecutive appearance on the list. Neither of Houston's other semifinalists The Pass & Provisions chef/owners Seth-Siegel Gardner and Terrence Gallivan nor Kata Robata executive chef Manabu Horiuchi, made the list of finalists.
Elsewhere, Texas chefs in the running for Best Chef Southwest are Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine in Austin and Steve McHugh of Cured in San Antonio. Denver chef Alex Seidel is the fifth finalist in the category. Austin restaurant Launderette is a finalist in the Best New Restaurant category, and Grae Nonas of Austin restaurant Olamaie is a finalist for Best Rising Star Chef. Former Underbelly cook Daniela Soto-Innes is also a Rising Star finalist for her work at Cosme in New York City.
Both Anvil Bar & Refuge and Helen Greek Food & Wine received semi-finalist nominations for Outstanding Bar Program and Best New Restaurant, respectively, but neither moved on to finalist status. Similarly, The Pass did not earn a finalist nod for Outstanding Service nor did Tracy Vaught for Outstanding Restaurateur.
Emotionally, many Houstonians will likely be rooting for Ortega due to his classic rags to riches story of rising from busboy to chef, how outstanding both Hugo's and Caracol are, and that he's one of the nicest human beings in Houston's restaurant community. However, Yu would seem to be more likely to win. He has a higher national profile thanks to his status as a Food & Wine Best New Chef, his participation in high-profile culinary events like the 12 Days of Meadowood, and his inclusion on national lists like Eater's 38 most essential restaurants in America.
Houstonians won't have to wait long to find out the results. The Foundation's Book, Broadcast, and Journalism Awards will take place in New York City on April 26. The chef awards will be handed on May 2 in Chicago.