Forget the overblown Grammys and the boozy Golden Globes: For anyone who loves food and restaurants the real awards season started today with the announcement of the semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards.
The Oscars of the culinary world, a Beard nod is admittance to the A-list — and several Houston chefs and restaurateurs made the cut.
Most notable is the inclusion of Tomball's Bootsie's Heritage Café in the Best New Restaurant category, among the most anticipated and celebrated new restaurants in the country like Jean-Georges Vongerichten's ABC Kitchen in New York, Philadelphia's Barbuzzo, and The Girl and the Goat in Chicago. Bootsie's chef/owner Randy Rucker also received a separate honor as a semifinalist in the Best Chef: Southwest category.
Alongside Rucker in the Best Chef: Southwest category is Bryan Caswell, who was a finalist for the award in 2010. Caswell is chef and co-owner at Reef, Stella Sola, Little Bigs and the forthcoming El Real, a Tex-Mex spot on Westheimer set to open in March.
"I couldn't be happier," Caswell tells CultureMap. "There are more people from Houston than ever on the list. There have only been three chefs from Texas to ever win a James Beard — Dean Fearing, Stephen Pyles and Robert Del Grande — so it's exciting."
Asked what would happen if the Best Chef: Southwest award came down to him and Rucker, Caswell joked "We might just have to go out to the parking lot and scrap."
Robert Del Grande of RDG and the new Ava Kitchen & Whiskey Bar is once again a semifinalist in the rarefied category of Outstanding Chef, putting him among the likes of José Andrés, Michael Symon, Michael Mina and Dallas' Stephen Pyles.
"It doesn't wear off," says Del Grande, who has been a finalist four times and won Best Chef in 1992. "Mainly becuase it's a kind of recognition amongst your peers. It's also nice to know they haven't forgotten me. In the 1980s it tended to be a lot about Dallas and we were overlooked. Houston has gained a lot of stature and I think that's good."
Del Grande says the semifinalist title only motivates him. "I always have an overreaction. I don't want to let anyone down so I just work even harder," he says.
"It's a great way to start the day," Cordúa says of his semifinalist news. "The first thing I saw this morning was a text from [my son] David, it said 'Good morning, wingman. Congrats.' "
"When we first started in 1988 we said we wanted to be legendary. And we created a new dining category, not just in Houston but nationally, and people like what we're doing," adds Cordúa. "It's a great time to be Latin in America."
Fans of Anvil Bar & Refuge will be excited by proprietor Bobby Heugel's inclusion in the Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional category.
"I was really surprised," says Heugel, who first heard about making the semifinalists list from Catalan's Chris Shepherd. "It's been a cool morning. To be on a list with some of these people like Sam Calagione, who makes Dogfish Head beer — I was shocked." Heugel says he's too busy with work on Hay Merchant to celebrate, but he plans to do something to reward the hard work of his staff.
And Austin's Uchi, which is currently working on a Houston location, will only have more Houston buzz with Uchi and little sister Uchiko receiving a quartet of nominations for Best New Restaurant (Uchiko), Best Chef: Southwest (Tyson Cole), Outstanding Pastry Chef (Philip Speer) and Rising Star Chef (Uchiko's Paul Qui).
You can check out all the James Beard Award semifinalists here. The finalists will be announced on March 21, with the winners chosen in New York on May 9.