Houston Fares Impressively Well With its James Beard Award Finalists for 2022
Only three weeks ago, we learned which Houston chefs and restaurants made the James Beard Award semifinalist list, aka the “long list.” That list of semifinalists (available online) has now been whittled down dramatically by volunteer judges in regional committees across the country, and the finalists were announced starting at 11:30 a.m. Central Time in Scottsdale, Arizona.
These are the Houston-area chefs and restaurants that have made it to the finalists list, meaning that nominees, staff members, family, fans and friends will be waiting with bated breath when the winners are announced at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago on Monday, June 13.
A significant development this year is that there are Houstonians in several national categories. That’s a rarity. One Houston restaurant is a finalist in the national-level Outstanding Hospitality category: Hugo’s. In 2017, it was a semifinalist (under the prior category name, Outstanding Service). In 2015, Hugo’s was cited for Outstanding Wine Program in 2015. Of course, the highest honor was when namesake chef Hugo Ortega won the Best Chef: Southwest award, in 2017. (The state of Texas was broken out into its own category in 2019.) Considering those repeated mentions year after year, it seems that this H Town Restaurant Group establishment, under the leadership of Ortega and wife/restaurateur Tracy Vaught, has a fair chance of taking home the big prize.
It’s not the only national category with a finalist from H Town Restaurant Group. Hugo’s brother, Ruben Ortega, is a finalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Ruben has been part of what ultimately became H Town Restaurant Group since 2000, and is well known for his scratch-made, carefully constructed desserts. He even makes his own chocolate from scratch, and one of his most notable desserts is the huge molded cacao bean made of chocolate and filled with smaller treats at Xochi.
A first-time nominee in the the Outstanding Restaurateur category is chef and owner Chris Williams of Lucille’s. With other projects on the horizon, such as Just August, his restaurant with Top Chef 2021 runner-up Dawn Burrell, it won’t be long until he has additional claims to fame. Someday, he could potentially be considered for the Humanitarian of the Year award as well, thanks to his Lucille’s 1913 Foundation, which hosts fundraisers to combat food insecurity and provide training opportunities for underserved communities.
There’s also a Houston finalist for Best Bar Program, another national category: Julep, which is owned by Alba Huerta. The bar’s menu and drink list often has a historical focus, such as the current one that highlights ingredients brought to the United States by migrants. Over time, the bar has maintained an admirable balance of Southern perspective, modern creativity and best-in-class cocktails.
Best Chef: Texas Finalists
There are two Houston finalists in the Best Chef: Texas category — a duo and a barbecue master — and each have good chances of winning for different reasons.
The team of Christine Ha (aka The Blind Cook and a prior MasterChef winner) and Tony J. Nguyen of Xin Chào made it to the finalists list. (Nguyen also owns Saigon House.) This is not the first time Ha has been recognized by Beard Award voters. Her food stand The Blind Goat at Bravery Chef Hall was a 2020 Best New Restaurant semifinalist.
The other finalist is Quy Hoang, the pitmaster of Blood Bros. BBQ in Bellaire, who runs the restaurant alongside brothers Terry and Robin Wong. Those who follow the James Beard Awards closely might recall that a precedent has already been set for a win by a pitmaster. Houston’s winning streak of chefs from 2014 through 2017 (Chris Shepherd, Justin Yu and Hugo Ortega) was broken only once, and it was in 2017 by pitmaster Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin. Blood Bros. BBQ has been getting a lot of press lately for melding Asian ingredients with traditional Texas barbecue. When it comes to landing a James Beard Award, national name recognition matters.
The Houston-area finalists clearly are representative of the James Beard Foundation’s new commitment to diverse candidates. That said, the work is never over. The Foundation can’t fix its past — or present — oversights in a single year. It’s going to take consistent, collective commitment from everyone involved to find balance and maintain this newfound, conscientious perspective.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.