2017 James Beard Semifinalist List Has Some Great Surprises For Houston This Year

Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega

All that national attention on Houston’s restaurant and bar scene seems to be paying off in spades lately. The 2017 James Beard Award semifinalist list has some expected repeat appearances—and some lovely, unexpected surprises that highlight the city’s diversity.

First off, it’s not unexpected but welcome nonetheless that Tracy Vaught of Hugo’s, Caracol, Backstreet Café and more is nominated in the Outstanding Restaurateur category for the second year in a row. Her husband, chef Hugo Ortega, is also shortlisted for the sixth time in a row for the James Beard Best Chef Southwest Award. To steal a phrase once used by Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook, Ortega is rapidly becoming the Susan Lucci of the category. Atlanta-based restaurateur Ford Fry, who grew up in Houston and has a restaurant here, State of Grace, is also a repeat nominee in the Outstanding Restaurateur category, as is Phoenix-based Sam Fox, who owns the True Food Kitchen and North Italia locations in Houston.

This year, Ortega has a lot of competition right in his own backyard. Also semifinalists in the James Beard Best Chef Southwest category are repeat nominees Manabu Horiuchi of Kata Robata and the team of Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan (named specifically for The Pass, the fine dining side of The Pass & Provisions).

Shortlisted in the Outstanding Bar category for the sixth year in a row is Anvil Bar & Refuge, a fellow Lucci-level candidate.

Here’s where those nice surprises come in. After a four-year absence, chef-owner Anita Jaisinghani has returned to the semifinalist list for her West Ave restaurant, Pondicheri. Possibly the biggest surprise of all is that chef Jianyun Ye of Mala Sichuan Bistro has also made the semifinalist list, a rare nod for skill in authentic Chinese cuisine. Ye is specifically the chef at the Bellaire location.

Ortega and Vaught’s restaurant Hugo’s has a nomination of its own in the Outstanding Service category. Last year, it was The Pass that received that rare nod for Houston.

Chef William Wright at Arthur Ave
Chef William Wright of Helen Greek Food & Wine (and also Arthur Ave) is on the shortlist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award. Photo courtesy of Arthur Ave

When Helen Greek Food & Wine was named as a semifinalist in the Best New Restaurant category last year, that was a tip that there were great things to come for its chef, William Wright. Sure enough, this year Wright is on the shortlist for Rising Star Chef Of The Year.

As the saying goes, it’s an honor just to be nominated, but it is important to see which of these Houston hotshots will make it to the finals. The James Beard Foundation will name the finalists (as well as nominees in the Book, Journalism, Broadcast Media, and Restaurant Design Awards) on Facebook Live and Twitter on Wednesday, March 15. The James Beard Awards will be held at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Monday, May 1, while the Book, Journalism, Broadcast Media, and Restaurant Design Awards will be held in New York as usual on Wednesday, April 25.


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