Houston and the James Beard Foundation Awards: A History From 1987 to 2015
Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly gets a big hug from Bizarre Foods' Andrew Zimmern as he accepts his 2014 James Beard Best Chef Southwest Award.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Many Houstonians are eagerly awaiting today's 11 a.m. announcement of the 2016 James Beard Award finalists. This year features the most concurrent semifinalists from Houston ever, so it’s a good time to look back on this city's history with the awards.
Before the James Beard Foundation Awards, there was the Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. In 1987, Robert Del Grande (formerly of Café Annie and now at RDG + Bar Annie) was the first Houston chef recognized in that capacity.
The James Beard Foundation Awards were established in 1990 and only a year later, Del Grande was nominated for the Best Chefs In America—Southwest category. He didn’t win that year, but did in 1992.
It was the last win — on the chef and restaurant side — for Houston until 2008.
As the saying goes, it’s an honor simply to be nominated, and Tony’s was — twice — in 1992 for both Outstanding Service and Outstanding Wine Service.
Chef Robert Del Grande serving his signature Southwestern cuisine at the 2014 James Beard Awards after-party.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Chef Robert del Grande went back on the Beard radar a few more times in the 1990s and early 2000s. His restaurant, Café Annie, was nominated for Outstanding Restaurant in 1993 and Outstanding Wine Service in both 1999 and 2001.
The James Beard Books, Broadcast and Journalism awards are a process separate from the chef and restaurant awards. There are no semifinalists, only finalists, and there’s a fee for submitting entries (which is typical for journalism competitions).
Updated, 3/15/16, 4:05 p.m.: a reader let us know about Margo True, a writer for Houston Metropolitan magazine at the time who won the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award for "Backstage at Café Annie." The article detailed her experiences learning kitchen technique under chef Robert Del Grande.
In 1995, an exceptionally talented restaurant critic and food writer scored a win on the journalism side for Houston when she was honored for her work at this very publication, the Houston Press. Her name, of course, is Alison Cook, and she won not only in the Newspaper Restaurant Review category but also the M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award for her articles “Church of the Immaculate Barbecue” and “Tempting Tapas.”
The latter was about the South American food of Michael Cordúa of Churrascos, who would be a Best Chef Southwest finalist in 1997.
The category would later be renamed the Craig Claiborne Distinguished Restaurant Review Award, and Cook won again for her restaurant criticism in 2004, this time for her work at the Houston Chronicle. She’s been a finalist repeatedly since then, including in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Cook declined to enter the competition in 2015.
Meanwhile, an Austin writer named Robb Walsh, who would later relocate and have a great deal of influence on Houston, won his first James Beard award for Best Magazine Feature Writing with Recipes in 1996 for an American Way Magazine article entitled, “Hot Sauce Safari.” It was the first of many wins for the author and radio host. He won again in 1999 for an NPR Weekend Edition Sunday segment called, “Spam Luau.”
Despite being nominated nine times during his decade of work for the Houston Press, and again for his Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook, Walsh’s next win wouldn’t come until after he left the publication in 2011. It was for his contribution to a Garden & Gun magazine article titled "The Southerner's Guide to Oysters."
Back on the chef and restaurant side of the Beards, the early 2000s, it was chef Tim Keating’s turn in the spotlight for his work at Deville Restaurant at Four Seasons Houston, which would later be rebranded as Quattro. (Chef Maurizio Ferrarese is in charge there these days, while Keating went on to an interesting gig at The Flying Fish Café in BoardWalk Inn at Walt Disney Resort in Orlando.) Keating was nominated five times for Best Chefs In America—Southwest — and never won.
Monica Pope of T’afia (which is now Sparrow Bar + Cookshop) was Houston’s first (and, so far, only) female chef nominated for a Beard award. A woman with an even longer history in Houston would secure the first Beard win of any sort since del Grande won in 1992. Irma Galvan’s Tex-Mex haven, Irma’s Restaurant, was named an America’s Classic in 2008.
For the next two years, there were no Houston finalists. Then, in 2010 and 2011, Bryan Caswell was nominated for Best Chef Southwest for his Gulf seafood-focused restaurant, Reef. On the journalism side, Katharine Shilcutt was nominated in the Multimedia Food Feature category for her in-depth look at charcuterie for the Houston Press. The article was called “Designer Meats” and was accompanied by a butchery video that featured chef Chris Shepherd, who at the time was still at Catalan. He’d be up for his own James Beard award soon after.
Chef Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s was first nominated in 2012 for Best Chef Southwest, and he’s been a finalist every year since. Joining him in 2013 was chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly. The following year, Shepherd won and became the first since Robert del Grande to win Best Chef Southwest.
In 2014, another chef became a finalist — Justin Yu of Oxheart. Yu and Ortega were nominated again in 2015, but lost to barbecue guru Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin.
Will Ortega and Yu be finalists again in 2016? Will any of the other Houston semifinalists — especially restaurants like The Pass (an Outstanding Service semifinalist), five-time semifinalist Anvil Bar & Refuge or newcomer Helen Greek Food & Wine (a semifinalist in the Best New Restaurant category) break through to the finals this year?
Soon, we will know.
(Thanks goes to Paula Murphy of Patterson & Murphy Public Relations for saving me some research time by forwarding a handy spreadsheet she had received from the Beard Foundation.)
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