The prestigious James Beard Award semifinalists were announced this week, and Houston is represented well by four individuals and one bar in three different categories.
Anvil Bar & Refuge was nominated for Outstanding Bar Program for the third consecutive year, while Chris Shepherd, Hugo Ortega and Justin Yu were all nominated for Best Chef: Southwest. Rounding out the list of Houston nominees is part-time Houstonian Philip Speer, nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef for his work at Uchi in Austin and here in Houston.
This is the third nomination for Shepherd, who was previously a semifinalist in the Best New Restaurant category for Underbelly and a finalist for Best Chef: Southwest. It's also the third nomination for Hugo's chef Ortega, who was a finalist for Best Chef Southwest in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Yu was nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year and Oxheart was nominated for Best New Restaurant. This is Speer's second nomination in the Outstanding Pastry Chef category, and it's the fourth year Bobby Heugel of Anvil has gotten a nod, either individually (Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional) or for the bar.
"I feel overrated," Speer said in response to his nomination. "I'm just kidding; It's awesome. I've been on the long list a few other times, but I've never made the short list. It's always an honor. I'm super-proud."
He went on to praise the work of his pastry teams at Uchi in Austin and Houston, as well as Uchiko in Austin.
"Honestly, It's really a testament to my pastry chefs, who keep the dessert program alive every day at the restaurants," he said. "They're the ones producing that every day and keeping the consistency."
Speer is preparing to open St. Philip, a pizzeria and bakery, in Austin this summer, so the publicity comes at a great time for him.
"To be in that kind of company is awesome," Speer says of his fellow nominees. "Hopefully we're all celebrating at the same time for being on the finalist list."
Heugel echoed Speer's praise of the other Houston chefs nominated.
"I think the three chefs here symbolize what Houston is," Heugel said. "You have Oxheart, which is small and focused; Underbelly, which is ambitious and associated with another great place, Hay Merchant; and Hugo's, which is a staple. And everyone in the industry looks up to Hugo's as the standard of the type of restaurant we'd like to operate."
Heugel is also excited for the talented staff of Anvil, who he says work incredibly hard and deserve the attention of the James Beard Foundation. Then he and Shepherd had a little lovefest.
"I don't think people understand how ambitious of a restaurant Underbelly is sometimes," Heugel said. "Chris has been such a great mentor to me, so it's nice to see him recognized."
"Bobby amazes me," Shepherd said in response. The two work together through the Clumsy Butcher bar and restaurant group. "We meet once a week, religiously, and I learn so much from him. I have a different type of thought process than he does, so he's able to help me think through things and create a plan before I act. The brain is too big on that boy."
Like his fellow nominees, Shepherd has a huge sense of pride in his staff at Underbelly, who he thinks might want the award more than he does.
"Not that I don't want it," he explained. "But they wanted Food & Wine and they wanted James Beard. And they're doing it. They truly believe in what we do and how unique this restaurant is. And I want it all to happen to them too. If some of my chefs eventually get nominated, that would be the biggest compliment. That would be the brightest part of my career."
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For his part, Yu is excited about what multiple nominees mean for Houston's ever-growing and evolving food scene.
"I think it shows consistency in Houston, and the three chefs that were nominated are all from completely different restaurants, so it's amazing to see a population that can support so many different cuisines and chefs and styles of restaurants."
And for Oxheart, Yu's daring eatery, "It shows the guests are enjoying our maturity and growth and the things we're doing at the restaurant."
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Ortega, who recently added coastal Mexican restaurant Caracol to his already impressive resumé, is traveling in Mexico, so he found out about his nomination a bit later than the rest of the Houston honorees. He was able to email us a statement about his nomination:
"¿Como pasó esto? It is such an honor to me to be nominated! I am so proud that several Houston chefs are semi-finalists this year, and, like always, they are going to be tough to beat if we make it to the finals. But I don't want to think much about that because I don't want to get too disappointed if I don't take home the prize. I hope all the Houston nominees get the chance to go to the awards event in May--wouldn't that be fun?!"