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From left to right: Peter McStravick of Houston First Corporation, Robert Del Grande, Chris Shepherd, Justin Yu, Hugo Ortega, Irma Galvan, Ruben Ortega, Clare Reichenbach.EXPAND
From left to right: Peter McStravick of Houston First Corporation, Robert Del Grande, Chris Shepherd, Justin Yu, Hugo Ortega, Irma Galvan, Ruben Ortega, Clare Reichenbach.
Photo by Mai Pham

Recap: Friends of James Beard Benefit Dinner A Showcase of Houston's Best Culinary Talent

In anticipation of today’s James Beard Award finalist announcements — which are being broadcast for the first time ever from Houston — last night, the H Town Group, helmed by 2017 JBF Best Chef Southwest winner Hugo Ortega, hosted an all-star Friends of James Beard Benefit dinner at their coastal Mexican seafood restaurant, Caracol.

Samosas by Kaiser Lashkari.EXPAND
Samosas by Kaiser Lashkari.
Photo by Mai Pham

The event, which sold out within hours, featured a who’s who of James Beard Foundation (JBF) celebrity chefs. Canapes were prepared by former and current JBF semifinalists Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel Gardner of The Pass & Provisions, Kaiser Lashkari of Himalaya, Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri, and Irma Galvan of Irma’s Original.  

Smoked brisket fritters with heirloom BBQ sauce by Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrance Gallivan.EXPAND
Smoked brisket fritters with heirloom BBQ sauce by Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrance Gallivan.
Photo by Mai Pham

Mains were presided over by Houston’s four past JBF Best Chef Award winners: Robert Del Grande, Hugo Ortega, Justin Yu, and Chris Shepherd. Ruben Ortega created the evening’s desserts, while H Town Group’s beverage director, Sean Beck, handled wine pairings, as well as custom-crafted cocktails with JBF nominee Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge.

In other words, it was one big celebratory shindig for a good cause. And every part of it was marked by excellence.

Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation.EXPAND
Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation.
Photo by Mai Pham

“This evening is about celebrating the very best of Houston culinary talent,” said Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation, who will co-host the finalist announcements from Hugo’s Restaurant. But last night, she took the time to acknowledge Houston’s fantastic food scene: “Houston is home to almost 100 James Beard Award semifinalists, nominees and winners,” she said. “11 of whom are here this evening kindly giving up their evening to create this wonderful repast for us all.”   

The "Evolucion" margarita, made with El Tesoro tequila, by Sean Beck.EXPAND
The "Evolucion" margarita, made with El Tesoro tequila, by Sean Beck.
Photo by Mai Pham

The wonderful repast started with canapes on the Caracol patio, accompanied by custom crafted cocktails featuring El Tesoro Tequila, Maker’s Mark Bourbon by Sean Beck, and Haku Vodka and Roku Gin by Bobby Heugel. Canapes included samosas by Kaiser Lashkari, desi oyster dogs by Anita Jaisinghani, smoked brisket fritters by Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan, and shredded chicken mole mini-enchiladas by Irma Galvan. Beck’s pink “Evolucion” margarita was a knockout.

Crispy rice salad by Chris Shepherd.EXPAND
Crispy rice salad by Chris Shepherd.
Photo by Mai Pham

H-Town Group’s service was impeccable throughout, providing synchronized service for all courses. JBF winner Chris Shepherd’s first course of Crispy Rice salad herbs, tomato, cucumber and serrano vinaigrette was beautifully paired with a 2017 Hogl “Bruck” Dry Riesling Federspiele from Wachau, Austria. 

Sea Scallop with huitlacoche and hoja santa broth by Robert Del Grande.EXPAND
Sea Scallop with huitlacoche and hoja santa broth by Robert Del Grande.
Photo by Mai Pham

JBF Winner Robert Del Grande followed with a Mexican-inspired second course of sea scallop topped with huitlacoche, in hoja santa broth, featuring what just might have been the standout pairing of the night — a 2017 Henri Lurton “Le Chenin” white from Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe.

Mixiote de pescado by Hugo Ortega.EXPAND
Mixiote de pescado by Hugo Ortega.
Photo by Mai Pham

JBF Winner Hugo Ortega’s dish, a Mixiote de Pescado (fish wrapped win agave leaf with mole amarillo and roasted vegetables) arrived in beautifully wrapped parchment packages tied with ribbon and adorned with tiny bird-shaped Mexican handicrafts. The pairing, a gorgeous 2015 Bodegas Roda “Sela” from Rioja, Spain, was also impeccable.

Roasted duck by Justin Yu.EXPAND
Roasted duck by Justin Yu.
Photo by Mai Pham

JBF Winner Justin Yu’s team prepared the final savory course, a roasted pastured Tejas Heritage Farms duck with local mushrooms and preserved vegetables. The course was paired with not just one, but two wines — a 2014 Domaine Les Alexandrins Crozes-Hermitage from France’s Northern Rhone, and a sumptuous 2015 Ogier “Reine-Jeanne” Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Southern Rhone, which allowed for cool side-by-side tasting of two different seemingly close but totally different terroirs.

Tienda de Chocolate by Ruben Ortega.EXPAND
Tienda de Chocolate by Ruben Ortega.
Photo by Mai Pham

To close out the night, pastry chef Ruben Ortega pulled out all the stops and created hundreds of full-sized chocolate cacao shells filled with a medley of chocolate, from coffee-rosita de cacao cremeux, to chocolate passion fruit cloud, mole and hazelnut river rocks, and Oaxacan chocolate soil. A signature dessert at Xochi since the restaurant opened, it elicited wows from across the room, as guests delightedly opened the cacao shell to uncover the confections beneath. The dessert was also notably paired with another cocktail, made with Legent Kentucky Bourbon, a brand new bourbon debuting for the first time in Texas last night.

“We’re never going to have another night like this,” remarked restaurateur and host Tracy Vaught. Indeed, as a showcase of Houston’s culinary excellence and diversity, from the chef creations to the drinks, to the service and ambiance and the charitable spirit of the event, it was a night to remember.

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