Chef Justin Yu Clinches Second James Beard Award for Houston Within Two Years

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After being a finalist for the James Beard Best Chef: Southwest award three times in a row, chef Justin Yu of Oxheart finally received a heavy, shiny medal to call his own. It's a coveted honor no Houston chef had received since Robert Del Grande in 1992 until Chris Shepherd of Underbelly landed the award in 2014. 

Yu and business partner/baker Karen Man had wisely closed the restaurant for the evening, which enabled the Oxheart staff to come to Chicago and celebrate the big win. The group gathered after the award ceremony at Big Star, a popular industry hangout. 

With two favorite Houston chefs in the running for the 2016 James Beard Best Chef Southwest title, there was no way a win by either wasn’t going to be bittersweet (unless there had been a tie, which would have been cool). Chef Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s, Caracol and Backstreet Café has now been nominated for the same award five times without winning.

That’s a fact Yu subtly acknowledged during his acceptance speech when he mentioned some of the nominees who had come before him, including not only Ortega but chef Tim Keating. Keating was also nominated five times for his work at the former Deville in Four Seasons Houston — and never won. Right now, though, there’s no reason to expect that will be the case for Ortega, especially as he and restaurateur wife Tracy Vaught continue adding to their restaurant empire. The most recent achievements have been becoming a partner in Origen restaurant in Oaxaca and landing a contract for the soon-to-open Hugo’s Cocina in George Bush Intercontinental airport.

Oxheart, a small tasting-menu restaurant in downtown Houston with only about 36 seats, has been something of a Cinderella story. Yu, Man, sommelier Justin Vann (who later moved on to open Public Services Wine & Whisky) and a small group of investors opened the space with a ridiculously small budget. The team did much of the repair and cleanup work needed to open and had to rely on used appliances. Interior designer Gin Braverman of Gin Designs created a spare but elegant industrial design that let the aged beauty of the old building shine through.

What counted more than the space, though, was the talent and experience of the team. Yu and Man had carefully worked for years in building their culinary experience, working around the world and honing their skills. Before opening Oxheart, Yu gained experience at In de Wulf in Belgium, AOC and Geranium in Denmark, Ubuntu in California, and Green Zebra and Spring Restaurants in Chicago.

Man’s own résumé includes Bien Cuit, Bouchon Bakery, The French Laundry, In de Wulf, Kiin Kiin, Relæ, and Meyer’s Bakery. Concurrently, Vann built most of his experience in Houston, becoming the youngest head sommelier at Vic & Anthony’s and leading the beverage program at Central Market in Houston before helping open Oxheart.

Yu, alongside chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan, impressed Houston diners in 2010 with their monthlong Just8 pop-up restaurant, setting the stage for not only Oxheart but Siegel-Gardner’s and Gallivan’s own endeavor, The Pass & Provisions. (The two chefs were James Beard Best Chef Southwest semifinalists this year.)

Fervor for Oxheart grew even more with a series of pop-ups called the Moneycat Brunches. Interestingly, the food served at these was very different, hailing more from Yu’s and Man’s Asian heritage than the precise, seasonal cuisine Oxheart would be known for.

Once Oxheart did open in 2012, it took off with a bang. It made Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurant List. Curmudgeonly restaurant critic Pete Wells of The New York Times visited the following year and praised the team for focusing on what was really important: food, wine and creativity.

Oxheart also topped Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook’s Top 100 Houston Restaurants list in both 2013 and 2014. It slipped to the No. 2  position in 2015, but the aforementioned The Pass & Provisions was due for some top recognition of its own.

It’s a sure bet that Oxheart is going to once again be booked solid for months to come, so diners who want to check out the James Beard-winning chef’s food for themselves should get in touch sooner rather than later.

On a final note, it wasn't just a good night for Oxheart, but for the entire Lone Star State. Houston has good reason to be proud of chef Daniela Soto-Innes of Cosme in New York City, who won Rising Star Chef of the Year. She honed her skills in Houston restaurants, including Brennan's of Houston, Triniti and Underbelly, before moving to New York. Four of the five nominees for Best Chef Southwest were from Texas (Yu, Ortega, Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine and Steve McHugh of Cured). Finally, pitmaster Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, who was last year's Best Chef Southwest winner, drew by far the longest line of people at the post-awards reception who were hankering for a taste of his Texas brisket. "Hey, at least it's not a three-hour wait!" joked a fellow writer, referring to the famously long lines at Franklin's restaurant in Austin. 

It was good to see such substantial Texas representation there and even better to know that Houston's long drought of recognition by the James Beard Foundation seems to well and truly be over. 

Disclosure: This author was one of the original group of investors and has a small financial stake in Oxheart. 

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