2020 James Beard Award Nominees Include Five Houston Finalists — Updated

To help add a touch of joy in one of the darkest times in restaurant and bar history, the James Beard Foundation opted to go ahead and reveal the list of 2020 award finalists. While there are a few bright spots for Houston, only three of the 14 area semifinalists for the restaurant awards made it to the short list of nominees. In addition, though, the city has a brand-new finalist in a media award category.

The Houston-area finalist in the Media Awards is not known as a journalist, or even best known in Houston as a writer. He does, however, already have a James Beard Award. That is chef, Underbelly Hospitality owner, Southern Smoke founder and 2014 Best Chef Southwest Chris Shepherd. He, along with co-author Kailyn Golan, are nominees in the American cooking category for the cookbook, Cook Like A Local: Flavors That Can Change How You Cook and See the World. He joins finalist Toni Tipton-Martin for her book Jubilee. Tipton-Martin is co-founder and past president of Foodways Texas and includes a recipe inspired by Houston’s own Lucille’s. The third finalist is Sean Brock for his book South.

The rationale for the restaurant award announcement timing was posted on Twitter: “Today we’re announcing the 2020 #jbfa nominees. We consulted chefs, restaurateurs, and pros from across the country to get their perspective on what the industry wants and needs right now. It was clear that those whose work in 2019 led them to be selected as a semifinalist—and perhaps ultimately a nominee or a winner—deserved the recognition they earned.”

This is going to be a very strange year for the awards, a fact that the Foundation seems to recognize, also posting to its Twitter feed. “Some of the restaurants announced today are temporarily closed. Some are operating in another form, such as take-out only or meal relief operations. And some have already announced that they will permanently close.”

Groundbreaking cocktail bar Anvil Bar & Refuge is a nominee for Outstanding Bar Program. It’s been a semifinalist a staggering eight times and was a finalist in 2018. Co-owner Bobby Heugel earned a nod for Best Outstanding Wine & Spirits professional in 2011. With this history, it is entirely possible 2020 is Anvil’s year — but the competition is very stiff as usual, and includes well-regarded Lost Lake in Chicago, with which the Anvil staff has a good relationship. The bar once hosted a pop-up at Lost Lake.

Anita Jaisinghani from Pondicheri Bakery
Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri. Photo by Darren Lafferty.

This is the first year that Texas is its own region, and that certainly is giving the state’s chefs a better opportunity to have their work recognized. Out of the five Houston semifinalists — Dawn Burrell of KultureManabu Horiuchi of Kata RobataAnita Jaisinghani of PondicheriTrong NguyenCrawfish & Noodles and Jason Vaughan of Nancy’s Hustle — only Jaisinghani and Nguyen made it through to the finals.

Disappointingly, other than Anvil, none of the other semifinalists in national-level categories are nominees. These include Tracy Vaught for Outstanding Restaurateur, her restaurant Hugo’s — also operated by husband and 2017 James Beard Best Chef Southwest winner Hugo Ortega — for Outstanding Service, and 2015 James Beard Best Chef Southwest winner Justin Yu’s nod for Outstanding Chef for his work at Theodore Rex.

Still, even with only three nominees out of 14 semifinalists — this is a better year for Houston than last year! Embarrassingly, even though Hugo’s hosted the 2019 nominee announcements, as well as a James Beard Foundation charity event at Caracol, the Houston semifinalists were completely shut-out.

In addition, Houston design firm Flywheel Co. is a finalist for a Restaurant Design Award in the 75 Seats and Under category for its work with Spoon Bill Watering Hole & Restaurant in Lafayette, Louisiana. Founded several years ago in an apartment, the Houston firm shares the nod with Lafayette-based Vermilion Architects. Flywheel’s local clients include Slantways Brewing Company and Sugar Land’s Blendin Coffee Club.

The winners for the restaurant awards will be announced in Chicago on Friday, September 25, 2020, while the media awards we be announced via press release on Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

Flywheel’s nomination was added and the headline changed to reflect a fifth Houston finalist at 11:00 a.m. on May 5, 2020.

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