Opinion: Houston Gets Short Shrift In 2017 James Beard Award Finals

Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega

Out of eight James Beard Award semifinalist candidates Houston ties, only two made it to this year’s James Beard Award semifinals. Considering the well-regarded food mecca that the Bayou City has become, that’s too few to be fair. This is similar to last year, when only two of 10 nominees made it to the finals.

In an entirely expected (and well-deserved) development, chef Hugo Ortega was selected as a Best Chef Southwest finalist for the sixth year in a row. (By the way, let’s remember that the annual pilgrimage is an honor, but it is not free.) In a more surprising move, the James Beard Awards committee also advanced chef Jianyun Ye of the Bellaire location of Mala Sichuan. Both are welcome developments that reflect a commitment to recognizing culinary diversity. (Other chefs in the category are Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine in Austin, Steve McHugh of Cured in San Antonio, Steve Redzikowski of Acorn in Denver and Martín Rios of Restaurant Martín in Santa Fe.)

The problem? That’s the only category in which there seems to be any regard for Houston, or even for Texas. Chef Justin Yu of Oxheart (which coincidentally is closing tonight) won last year and chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly won in 2014. Anyone who thinks that those wins were unfairly balanced towards Houston should remember that Shepherd’s win broke a 22-year drought in the category. No Houston chef had won since Robert Del Grande in 1992. For that matter, after Del Grande’s win, no one and nothing in Houston won any type of James Beard Award until Irma’s was named as an America’s Classic in 2008. (Here’s a detailed history of Houston and the James Beard Awards.)

Chris Shepherd James Beard
Underbelly’s Chris Shepherd won the James Beard Best Chef Southwest award in 2014, breaking a 22-year drought for Houston in the category.

The result of that 22-year drought is that the Beards are now way behind in catching up on recognition for a city that grew rife with talent in the interim. Passed over was Ortega’s wife, Tracy Vaught, a semifinalist in the Outstanding Restaurateur category for the second year running. She is one of Houston’s leading restaurateurs, having developed Hugo’s, Backstreet Cafe, Xochi, Caracol and more. In addition, a nod to Hugo’s for Best Service didn’t translate to the short list.

Ortega’s fellow Best Chef Southwest nominees, Manabu Horiuchi of Kata Robata and the team of Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan of The Pass & Provisions, did not advance to the finals.

Sam Fox, a Phoenix-based restaurateur whose portfolio includes True Food Kitchen and North Italia in Houston; and Ford Fry, a Houston native based in Atlanta who opened State of Grace as a nod to his hometown, were also passed over, as was Rising Star Chef of the Year nominee William Wright.

In the “always a bridesmaid but never a bride” category, Anvil Bar & Refuge once again didn’t make it to the finals after being nominated six times in a row. It’s utterly ridiculous at this point.

Lest ye think this is all sour grapes, here’s a point of real insanity: the entirety of the Great State of Texas only has four finalists in total. Houston has actually had it much better than other Texas cities in recent years!

Consider this: the city of New Orleans is sporting 11 finalists, Chicago has 10 and New York City has a whopping 19, not including the six in the city’s dedicated best chef category. (Some of those nominations are for the work New York City businesses have performed in other cities, such as restaurant design work.) Those numbers speak for themselves.

In a Facebook post, along with a link to the Houston Chronicle’s recap of the city’s finalists, restaurant critic Alison Cook noted, “Does seem odd and irksome that Houston has two finalists while New Orleans has 11 and Chicago, 10. It’s a feature of the unduly large [Southwest] region, with its overload of large cities. Unfair to chefs in each of those cities, not just ours, in my opinion.”

We agree. The entire state of Texas isn’t getting a fair shake. Consider that Houston is competing with Denver, a city that’s 1,029 miles away.

The Great State of Texas encompasses 268,597 square miles and several major cities, including Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso. If New York City can have its own category, is it really so far-fetched that an exceptionally large state might deserve one as well? One argument might be that it would be too insular. If that is a concern, though, it would also apply to New York City.

It’s easy to be happy for Ortega, Ye, McHugh and Gilmore. All of those nominations are well-deserved.

It’s hard to not be bitter for Houston—and for Texas.

Comments (3)

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  • March 16, 2017 at 4:15 amEvan Turner

    Houston gets shut out because the voters must go to the restaurants and eat there. No one comes to Houston as a tourist. We lag behind Austin and San Antonio here in Texas for tourists not to mention the other cities dominating the nominations. Until more people visit Houston, bringing the food media with them, we will wander the James Beard desert.

  • March 15, 2017 at 8:08 pmJames Brock

    “Consider this: the city of New Orleans is sporting 11 finalists, Chicago has 10 and New York City has a whopping 19, not including the six in the city’s dedicated best chef category. (Some of those nominations are for the work New York City businesses have performed in other cities, such as restaurant design work.) Those numbers speak for themselves.”

    The simple reason, in my opinion, is that Chicago and New York have a larger number of great restaurants than does Houston. In New York’s case, a vastly larger number. In like manner, the Michelin Guide is not in Houston because there are not a sufficient number of restaurants in Houston that would make their grade. (I am not making a value judgment about that grade here, just stating an opinion.)

    • April 30, 2017 at 1:11 pmMisha Govshteyn

      I don’t necessarily agree with the article, but your explanation is an oversimplification of the flaws in the JBA model.

      NYC is overrepresented by definition because it has an entire region allocated for just one city, and most food media is concentrated in NYC. Because JBA winners become part of the voting pool, by definition this acts the same way wealth accumulation works over time – as time goes on, more and more awards will be biased to NYC. Another indication that there is an objectivity problem and higher industry footprint on this award than there should be is continual shut out of Saison in San Francisco from finals. There has been consensus for years among serious eaters that Saison is one of top 3 restaurants in US, but because the chef has managed to piss off so many people in the industry, it will never make it.

      Ultimately, the reason why Houston isn’t better represented (and perhaps does not deserve to be featured more prominently) is your point about fine dining. There are no restaurants operating at Michelin 2 and 3 star level in Houston, or even in Texas. Until you see these appear, there is no reason to assume we deserve any more recognition than we get right now. We’re at peak awareness level for a city which does ethnic and casual restaurants best.