These Houston Restaurants & Chefs Are 2024 James Beard Award Semifinalists
It’s that time of year again when some of the best in Houston’s restaurant industry get really good news from the James Beard Foundation. The 2024 James Beard Award Restaurant & Chef Award Semifinalists list is out, and Houston continues to be well-represented. Some of the nods went to people and businesses that have been on the list before, while others are appearing for the first time.
Something I was recently asked to explain: in James Beard Foundation parlance, “semifinalist” is a specific honor that is not equivalent to “nominee”. That term is specifically reserved for finalists. You can see how it’s broken out for past Houston notables — as well as view past winners, nominees and semifinalists — on the James Beard Foundation Awards search page.
National Award Categories
Nancy’s Hustle, a finalist last year in Outstanding Wine & Other Beverages, made the semifinalist list again — this time in the prestigious Outstanding Restaurant category. This makes the third time that Nancy’s Hustle has appeared, as executive chef and co-owner Jason Vaughan was a Best Chef: Texas semifinalist in 2020. The chef’s business partner is Sean Jensen and the beverage director is Justin Vann. (It’s worth noting that Vann was beverage director at Oxheart when chef and owner Justin Yu won the 2016 Best Chef: Southwest award.)
Jūn, the restaurant from chefs Evelyn Garcia and chef Henry Lu, is one of only three restaurants in Texas named as a 2024 semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. (The other two are Barbs-B-Q in Lockhart and Ramen Del Barrio in Austin.) Garcia earned national fame and hometown-heroine status when she fought her way to second place during the Top Chef: Houston competition. We named Jūn one of the Best New Houston Restaurants of 2023, and clearly are not the only ones to hold it in high regard.
Itai Ben Eli and Itamar Levy of Sof Hospitality Group are making their first appearance as James Beard Award Semifinalists for Outstanding Restaurateur. The company operates Israeli steakhouse Doris Metropolitan and restaurant Hamsa in Houston, as well as artisan bakery Badolina. Sof Hospitality also operates the original Doris Metropolitan in New Orleans.
Koffeteria, the east-of-downtown bakery operated by chef Vanarin Kuch, received a nod in the Outstanding Bakery category. Kuch channels his heritage through special Cambodian pop-up dinners (there’s one coming up on Friday, January 26, by the way) and innate creativity through baked goods such as Beef Phở Kolache and dishes like Pork Belly Quiche.
There’s proof this year that food hall chefs have a legitimate chance to be recognized by the James Beard Foundation for superb work. Another contender in the national categories is Ope Amosu of ChòpnBlọk, a West African restaurant in the Post Houston food hall. Amosu is a semifinalist for Emerging Chef, and he’s only the second Houston chef ever to be named in that category. (The first was Victoria Elizondo of Cochinita & Co. — and her name is going to come up again shortly.) ChòpnBlọk’s received some national attention, including on celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s “No Passport Required” and is set to open its first brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Montrose area later this year.
Stephanie Velasquez of Ema HTX, located in Finn Hall and serving traditional pastries with Mexican and El Salvadoran influences, is a semifinalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker. It’s been a while since any Houston pastry chef was named in that category, and only three ever. The prior ones were Jillian Bartolome of Aqui in 2018, and before was Plinio Sandalio of Textile in 2010. Some examples of Ema HTX’s sweet pastries are conchas in vanilla and cream cheese, and Strawberry Black Sesame Twist, and savory offerings include volovans (hollow pastries known as vol-au-vents in France) filled with ingredient combinations such as Poblano, Mushroom, Potato and Gruyère or Chorizo and Sweet Potato with Cheddar.
Appearing in the Outstanding Hospitality category is Bludorn, chef Aaron Bludorn’s eponymous restaurant in Montrose. A protégé of renowned chef Daniel Boulud, Bludorn was a Best Chef: Texas semifinalist in 2022. Along with his wife, Victoria Pappas Bludorn, and business partner, Cherif Mbodji, the chef also opened Navy Blue in Rice Village and is soon opening a third concept in the Memorial Villages area.
Best Chef: Texas Semifinalists
Last year, Houston won this category when Benchawan Painter of Street To Kitchen was the first woman from the city named Best Chef: Texas. Her husband and business partner, Graham, was a co-winner of this award. This year, we’ll be watching to see if one of the three men and one woman nominated can secure bragging rights for a second year in a row.
Executive chef and owner Thomas Bille of Belly of the Beast in Spring, another restaurant we named as one of the Best New Houston Restaurants of 2023, is making his first appearance as a Best Chef: Texas semifinalist. It’s a new location for the restaurant after a prior run that ended during the pandemic. Bille then gained further attention during his time as a chef at now-closed Chivos in the Heights. Bille runs Belly of the Beast along with his wife, Elizabeth.
Squable was a Best New Restaurant semifinalist back in 2020. Three years later, the restaurant — owned by James Beard Award-winning chef Justin Yu and Bobby Heugel, owner of multiple-time James Beard semifinalist Anvil — is being recognized by the James Beard Foundation judges again. This time, it’s with a semifinalist nod specifically for its chef, Mark Clayton. Clayton has worked his way to that recognition, as he’s spent many years gaining experience at prestigious restaurants such as Stella in New Orleans and Oxheart (where current boss and chef Justin Yu collected his own Best Chef Southwest James Beard Award).
Remember when I said I’d be bringing up Victoria Elizondo of Cochinita & Co. again in this article? The 2023 semifinalist for Emerging Chef is now a semifinalist for the Best Chef: Texas category. This may have been helped along by the debut of her brick-and-mortar space in the Lawndale/Wayside area, and you can read more about it in our April 2023 article. She’s also the author of the Taco-tastic: Over 60 Recipes to Make Taco Tuesday Last All Week Long.
Last but certainly not least: Emmanuel Chavez of Tatemó is one to keep an eye on, as this is the second year in a row he’s been a semifinalist. Last year, it was thanks to Tatemó being a Best New Restaurant candidate. Like a fellow multiple-time Best Chef: Texas semifinalist, Emiliano Marentes of Elemi in El Paso, Chavez is working to recapture and reinvigorate the art of nixtamalization of heirloom corn, a cornerstone of traditional Mexican cuisine.
As is always the case, the competition for these awards is not to be underestimated, and the number of names that make it to the list of finalists will be significantly smaller. (I’ll never forget when the Beard Award finalists announcement was hosted in Houston, and to my growing horror, not one Houstonian made it.) Many of the Houston-area chefs are going up against not just peers in Texas, but across the nation.
Still, just being one of the James Beard Award semifinalists is quite an honor, and something of which to be proud.
The James Beard Chef & Restaurant Award finalists will be announced on Wednesday, April 3. The winners’ announcements and award ceremony will be held at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago on June 10.
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.