Houston Makes Strong Showing in 2019 James Beard Semifinalist List

The 2019 James Beard Award Semifinalist list was announced this morning and eleven nominees are in the greater Houston area. In recent history, Houston chefs, restaurateurs and bars have gained the city a great deal of culinary credibility by way of the awards. The city had a big presence on the semifinalist list in 2018, too. Granted, it doesn’t always translate to the finals. Last year, only one of the dozen Houston semifinalists made it to the end: Anvil Bar & Refuge for Outstanding Bar Program. It was the seventh time the bar made it to the “long list” and it lost to New Orleans cocktail bar Cure in the finals. (With this new list, make that eight.)

For now though, Houston can bask in the glory of its semifinalists — and there are some terrific surprises this year. With the James Beard Award’s new commitment to diversity in its judging committees and nominees, the Bayou City — and its broad spectrum of culinary professionals — may even have a new advantage. Yesterday, Food & Wine magazine reported that the James Beard Foundation’s efforts resulted in a 14-percent increase of people of color and a five-percent increase in women on the chef and restaurant award judging committees. The end result is a seven-percent increase in representation of people of color among the chef and restaurant nominees. Curiously, female nominees were down six-percent over last year — although those statistics can certainly change in either direction once the finalists are announced.

The view of Anvil Bar & Refuge from Westheimer. Photo by Julie Soefer.

As mentioned, Anvil Bar & Refuge has made it to the national-level Outstanding Bar Service category for an eighth time. New for this year in a different national-level category, Outstanding Chef, is Underbelly Hospitality executive chef and owner Chris Shepherd for his new steakhouse, Georgia James. Shepherd won the Best Chef Southwest category in 2014, when Underbelly stood where Georgia James is now at 1100 Westheimer.

Kaiser and Azra Lashkari of Himalaya
Kaiser and Azra Lashkari of Himalaya Restaurant in Houston. Photo courtesy of Kaiser Lashkari.

This year, the Best Chef Southwest Houston nominees represent the diversity for which the James Beard Foundation aimed. Kaiser Lashkari, whose Pakistani restaurant Himalaya just turned 15 years old, is among the nominees. A native of Karachi, Pakistan, he opened his first restaurant after graduating from the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston. Joining him on the list is Trong Nguyen of Crawfish & Noodles and Ronnie Killen of Killen’s Steakhouse, both return semifinalists from last year’s list.

Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega
Married team Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega (pictured here at the 2015 James Beard Foundation Awards) have more to nominations to be proud of. Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Back in the national-level categories, Pappas Bros Steakhouse in the Galleria is another repeat semifinalist for the Outstanding Wine Program category after making its first appearance in the category last year. Tracy Vaught is nominated for a fourth consecutive time in the Outstanding Restaurateur category for her Houston dining empire of Xochi, Caracol, Hugo’s and Backstreet Cafe. In addition, Hugo’s has landed back on the Outstanding Service semifinalist list, another redux from last year.

Donna and Tony Vallone
Tony Vallone and wife Donna at Tony’s, the long-respected fine dining restaurant in the Greenway Plaza area. Photo by Chuck Cook Photography.

In the most surprising and perhaps gratifying comeback story, restaurateur Tony Vallone’s eponymous Tony’s is also up for Outstanding Service after a 27-year absence. Tony’s got a nomination in that same category in 1992. It’s a rare nod for Houston. Other than Hugo’s and Tony’s, the only restaurant to make it into the category is The Pass (the fine dining half of The Pass & Provisions), which happened in 2016. No Houston restaurant has actually won the category to-date.

Alex Padilla on The Chew set
Executive chef of The Original Ninfa’s On Navigation and Antone’s Original Po’ Boys shows off his Astros baseball hat on the set of ABC’s “The Chew.” Photo courtesy of The Original Ninfa’s On Navigation.

Here’s another surprise: 46 years ago, The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation opened under the legendary Ninfa Laurenzo. Today, under owner Legacy Restaurants and executive chef Alex Padilla, the James Beard Awards finally named it for the national-level Outstanding Restaurant category.

Chef Jonny Rhodes inside his new restaurant, Indigo. Photo courtesy of Christopher Anderson.

Finally, chef and restaurateur Jonathan “Jonny” Rhodes of Restaurant Indigo was named as a semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year. His tasting menu restaurant, located in the unlikely neighborhood of Lindale Park, puts an elegant spin on soul food while honoring African-American culinary history through its dishes.

So, while there are fewer James Beard Award semifinalists in Houston than last year, the good news is that it’s the city’s strongest showing yet in the national-level categories. Gone for now at least are the days where a chef in Houston was lucky to get a Best Chef Southwest nod. Now, it’s a matter of waiting to see what the finalists list looks like.

Perhaps it is a good omen that those are being announced in Houston for the first time. On Wednesday, March 27 at 9 a.m., the 2019 James Beard Award nominees are being revealed at a press conference and breakfast at Hugo’s, located at 1600 Westheimer, following an all-star dinner at Caracol the night before. Houston mayor Sylvester Turner and Clare Reichenback, CEO of the James Beard Foundation, are hosting the press conference and the event is being live-streamed.

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