Houston Heats Up: Eight Semifinalists Announced for the 2013 James Beard Foundation Awards

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Everything's bigger in Texas, including the number of chefs, restaurants, bars, wine programs and more that were nominated as semifinalists in this year's James Beard Foundation Awards. You know the one -- the so-called "Oscars of the food world." It's kind of a big deal.

The Lone Star State received 25 semifinalist nominations from the James Beard Foundation, ranging from restaurants in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio way out to El Paso and Marfa. But it was Houston that netted the most nods, with eight.

Oxheart and Underbelly are both semifinalists for the Best New Restaurant award, with their chefs independently nominated in two other categories: Oxheart's Justin Yu is a semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year, while Underbelly's Chris Shepherd is a semifinalist for Best Chef: Southwest. Shepherd says he was taken by surprise this morning when he heard the news.

"I was just standing at Blacksmith getting coffee, and my sous chef calls me and says, 'You might want to check Twitter,'" Shepherd said. He laughed, thinking, "Oh no, this is going to be bad."

Of his and his restaurant's nomination, Shepherd simply said: "It's cool when you can do what you want to do and people like that. It's cool when your staff believes in it and when your cooks believe in it and when the city believes in it. That really means something to me."

Joining Shepherd in the Best Chef: Southwest category is Hugo Ortega of Hugo's. Ortega was nominated as a semifinalist last year as well, and advanced to become a finalist at the James Beard Awards in New York City, although he ultimately lost to Paul Qui.

The Goodes, a multigenerational Houston restaurant family, were also recognized by the Beard Foundation. Levi Goode of Goode Company Restaurants is a semifinalist in the Outstanding Restaurateur category for the restaurants that he and his father, Jim, have made into Houston success stories over the years: Goode Co. Seafood, Goode Co. Taqueria, Armadillo Palace and Goode Co. Texas Bar-B-Q.

"That's amazing to me," said Shepherd, who was happy to see longtime restaurateurs recognized as well. "They started this little barbecue joint and all of a sudden it's an empire. They keep it family run. It hasn't been taken over; it's theirs and it's what they believe in."

"It's a testament to the city."

Fleshing out the Houston semifinalist nominations were Anvil Bar & Refuge for Outstanding Bar Program and Tyson Cole for his work at both the Houston and Austin locations of Uchi. Cole is a semifinalist in the Outstanding Chef category.

Dallas racked up seven semifinalist nods and Austin six, with notable mentions for Stephan Pyles in Dallas (Outstanding Chef), Nick Badovinus in Dallas (Best Restaurateur for Flavor Hook, Off-Site Kitchen, Tried and True and more) and Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine in Austin (Rising Star Chef).

Alongside Ortega and Shepherd in the Best Chef: Southwest category were fellow semifinalists Jason Maddy of Oak in Dallas, Teiichi Sakuri of Tei An in Dallas, David Gilbert of Sustenio at Éilan Hotel Resort & Spa in San Antonio, Michael Sohocki of Restaurant Gwendolyn in San Antonio, Armando Pomales of Café Central in El Paso, Maiya Keck of Maiya's in Marfa, Rene Ortiz of La Condesa in Austin and Bryce Gilmore, once again.

"You can really see that Houston is kind of really on its way now," said Shepherd of the city's serial semifinalists. "And it's really good to see that." Quickly, he added with a chuckle: "Not that it hasn't been before -- but you start to see us being up for multiple nominations, and it's cool to see that."

"You know how I feel about this city and how great it is," Shepherd said. "It's always been either Dallas or Austin, but now it's our time."

The finalists for the 2013 James Beard Foundation Awards will be announced on Monday, March 18. The awards themselves will be presented in New York City on Monday, May 6.

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