Houston didn’t have to wait another 22 years for one of the city’s chefs to take home a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest.
Only two years after Underbelly’s Chris Shepherd joined RDG + Bar Annie’s Robert Del Grande as the city’s only James Beard winner, Justin Yu (Oxheart) joined their ranks Monday night at a ceremony in Chicago.
Yu won the third time his name appeared as a finalist in the category, just as Eater predicted he would. It represents a triumph for the 31-year old chef, whose use of rigorously-sourced, carefully-prepared vegetables from local farms has earned him a host of national honors, including a Food & Wine Best New Chef nod in 2014 and an invitation to cook at the prestigious 12 Days of Meadowood alongside three-star Michelin chef Christopher Kostow in 2015.
"Oh fuck," Yu said on stage before launching into a heartfelt acceptance speech in which he thanked "everybody in the city of Houston" and "everybody who came before me, the Tim Keatings, Robert Del Grandes, Mark Coxes, Bryan Caswells, and Hugo Ortegas of the world."
He also thanked Coltivare chef Ryan Pera, his staff at Oxheart, Oxheart/Public Services sommelier Justin Vann, and his business partner Karen Man, among others.
After appearing as a finalist five times, Ortega may have begun to feel like the Susan Lucci of the Beard Awards Best Chef Southwest category, but he's held in wide esteem by Houstonians both for bringing the authentic flavors of Mexico to Houston and for supporting the city's culinary community. His story of rising from dishwasher to national prominence is a classic American tale, and someday he will get his due.
Yu’s victory comes at a time when Houston is received unprecedented national attention for its diversy culinary scene. In his James Beard Award-winning series on America's best food cities, Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema ranked Houston fifth, ahead of places like New York City and Chicago. The New York Times recently called Houston "one of the great eating capitals of America," and Eater critic Bill Addison penned his own "love letter" to the city's culinary diversity that included dishes from Shepherd, Yu, and Ortega.
With Yu out of the running, another Houston chef will have the opportunity to appear on the national stage. Will Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan (The Pass & Provisions) make the leap from two-time semifinalist to the prestigious list of finalists? We'll find out next year.