Heading into the James Beard Awards on May 6, despite a surprising Houston snub, it looked like a Austin was a shoo-in to nab Best Chef Southwest. The math was certainly in the city's favor with Austin holding three of the five finalist spots.
When the name was finally called toward the end of the ceremony at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Texas foodies slumped back in their seats. Ending a 12-year drought for Arizona, Charleen Badman of Scottsdale’s FnB took home the coveted medal, beating Olamaie’s Michael Fojtasek, Barley Swine’s Bryce Gilmore, Emmer & Rye’s Kevin Fink, and Steve McHugh from San Antonio’s Cured.
Win or not, the 2019 season was still flattering to the Texas restaurant industry — or at least the tony class of eateries the James Beard Foundation tends to recognize. The state racked up 27 semifinalist nods in February, including a near-record 8 for Austin. In a somewhat surprising vote of confidence for the emerging High Plains wine scene, Lubbock’s Kim McPherson of McPherson Cellars saw his name on the Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer long list.
The bigger story was a marked change in diversity. In year’s past, the awards have been heavily criticized for lack of inclusion and with good reason — the honor roll since the first 1991 ceremony has been overwhelmingly white and male.
Things started to change, however, in the wake of the #MeToo era that exposed industry titans like Mario Batali and John Besh. For the 2018 cycle, the committees were asked to consider behavior and integrity both inside an outside of the kitchen. That year, Jillian Bartolome made the semifinalist list from Houston’s Aqui. Paul Qui, the 2012 Best Chef: Southwest winner who was then awaiting trial on domestic violence charges, notably did not.
In October 2018, the James Beard Foundation enacted even more changes for the 2019 awards. In order to broaden gender, race, and ethnic representation, the volunteers who oversee the various awards were tasked with increasing the diversity in the awards committees and judges. Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, which was voted on solely by past honorees, was retired. And more transparency to the judging process itself
The new guidelines gave the Austin nods a breath of fresh air. Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo and Maribel Rivero of El Chile Group’s Yuyo, both women of color, were included in the Best Chef: Southwest semifinalist list. They became only the third and fourth Austin women to be included in any chef category, joining frequent semifinalist Laura Sawicki from Launderette and Capital City expat Janina O’ Leary.
Despite those welcome strides, the foundation still has some work to do when it comes to geographical representation. As CultureMap’s Eric Sandler noted when both Houston and Dallas were shut out of the semifinalist round, the Best Chef: Southwest category covers six states, including four of the largest cities in the nation. That’s a lot of culinary talent vying for a few precious spots.
However, that problem could soon be rectified. In March, Beard Foundation chief strategy officer Mitchell Davis told CultureMap that changes may be on the way to the categorical organization.
“We review the regions constantly, because our goal is to make everyone who cooks, no matter where he or she is cooking, have as fair a chance to win an award,” he said. “With that directive, the committees have been asked to review the restaurant statistics, the population statistics.”
Although Davis did not elaborate on just what changes are being considered, separating Texas from the rest of the Southwest field could prove to be a boon for the region’s other culinary hotspots. Since 2010, Texas chefs have won the award six times, with Houston and Austin splitting the score.
Such a shift would be keeping with the spirit of the man who the awards are named after, who famously said, "I don't like gourmet cooking or 'this' cooking or 'that cooking. I like good cooking." Hopefully, it will lead to more chefs like Houston’s Trong Nguyen of strip mall gem Crawfish & Noodles (a 2019 Best Chef: Southwest semifinalist) getting their day in the sun.