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James Beard 2024 Semifinalists: Houston Nominees

Hamsa is part of Sof Hospitality.
Hamsa is part of Sof Hospitality. Photo by Kirsten Gilliam

The James Beard Foundation announced its list of semifinalists for its 2024 Restaurant and Chef Awards today. The finalists will be announced April 3. The winners will be honored at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony, to be held June 10 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The James Beard Foundation was established in 1986 to honor the legacy of James Beard, an American chef, cookbook author, teacher and television host. He passed away in 1985. In 1990, the James Beard Awards were established and began giving awards in 1991. Its stated mission is "to recognize exceptional talent and achievement in the culinary arts, hospitality, media and broader food system, as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability and a culture where all can thrive."

While the full line up can be found here, we have the list of our local Houston semifinalists.

Outstanding Restaurateur: Itai Ben Eli and Itamar Levy, Sof Hospitality Group (Doris Metropolitan, Hamsa, and Badolina Bakery & Cafe)

Sof Hospitality Group has three upscale concepts in Houston. Both Ben Ali and Levy are Israeli-born and the duo brought their Israeli steakhouse, Doris Metropolitan, which first opened in Costa Rica in 2010, to Houston in 2017. They followed it with Badolina Bakery in 2021 and opened Hamsa, a modern Israeli restaurant in May 2022.

Outstanding Restaurant: Nancy's Hustle

Owners Sean Jensen, Chef Jason Vaughan and Pastry Chef Julia Doran are not new to the James Beard Awards nominations. In 2020, Vaughan was a semifinalist for Best Chef: Texas in 2020 while Jensen and his bar team were JBA finalists in 2023 for Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program.
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ChopnBlok is coming to Westheimer this summer.
Rendering by Gin Design Group
Emerging Chef: Ope Amosu, ChopnBlok

This is a big year for Amosu, who is set to open the brick and mortar location of his West African restaurant later this summer on Westheimer. Currently, he operates ChopnBlok as a food court vendor at POST Houston. 

Best New Restaurant: Jun

This Heights-area restaurant is about to have its first-year anniversary and what a way to celebrate. It has two talented chefs, Evelyn Garcia and Henry Lu, leading the way, blending both their culinary points of view in a menu described as New Asian American.
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Koffeteria is a good idea for breakfast or any time of the day.
Photo by Brooke Viggiano
Best Bakery: Koffeteria

This bakery/cafe was named Best of Houston 2022: Best Bakery by the Houston Press. And it's no wonder: Owner and pastry chef Vanarin Kuch is a former Top Chef: Just Desserts and Chopped contestant. His flaky and buttery croissants get a lot of love but so do savory items such as the Beef Pho Kolache and Chinese Sausage Taco.

Koffeteria is hosting a vegan Cambodian tasting dinner January 26 with two seatings at 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. for those who would like to see why it's a JBA nominee.

Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker:
Stephanie Velasquez, Ema HTX

Velasquez has staged all over Houston while honing her craft, including stints with Underbelly Hospitality and with JBA semifinalist Ruben Ortega at Xochi. Now its is paying off in a big way.

Outstanding Hospitality: Bludorn

This dining destination from Chef Aaron Bludorn and wife Victoria Pappas Bludorn opened in August 2020 and receives almost as much attention for its wine list as it does its creative menu.

Best Chef: Texas: Thomas Bille, Belly of the Beast

This talented chef originally opened Belly of the Beast in the touristy hubbub of Old Town Spring in 2020 but it shuttered in July 2021. Bille reopened the Mexican concept in a Spring shopping center this past November. To already be catching the eyes and capturing the bellies of James Beard Award committees is an impressive feat.

Best Chef: Texas: Emmanuel Chavez, Tatemo

The Houston Chronicle loves him. Food and Wine magazine loves him. And the good folks at the James Beard Awards selected him as a finalist last year for Best New Chef. Now he's nominated for Best Chef: Texas. We'd say things are pretty a-maize-ing for Chavez this year.

Best Chef: Texas: Mark Clayton, Squable

Hospitality veterans Bobby Heugel and Chef Justin Yu, known for their neighborhood bar and grill Better Luck Tomorrow, opened Squable in April 2019 and their decision to have former Oxheart chef Mark Clayton lead the kitchen was an obviously wise choice. The menu has a mix of European and American dishes with a few touches of Asian and Middle Eastern flavors.
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Cochinita & Co. delivers on true Mexican flavors.
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
Best Chef: Texas: Victoria Elizondo, Cochinita & Co.

Cochinita & Co. was recently chosen as Best of Houston 2023: Best Mexican by the Houston Press. Chef and owner Victoria Elizondo offers authentic Mexican flavors and fresh ingredients in an atmosphere that is family-friendly with prices that don't decimate the budgets of its loyal customers.

We reached out to Elizondo for a comment on her nomination and she told us "I'm very honored and thankful for my team. They work hard and are very dedicated to Cochinita."

Elizondo went on to say, "I would also like to take this opportunity to make an example of how far we can reach as immigrants and DACA recipients. My people run the food industry and we are finally getting some recognition and there is still more to go. "
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Lorretta Ruggiero is a Houston Press freelance writer based in Cypress, Texas. She loves entertaining her family and friends with her food and sparkling wit. She is married to Classic Rock Bob and they have two exceptionally smart-aleck children.