If anyone is still under the impression that Houston is trying desperately to play catchup with culinary empires like New York City and Chicago, they only need to look at the 2010 James Beard Award nominations -- released today -- to see that isn't the case at all.
While most people are just grateful that Houston is finally being recognized for the wealth of cooking talent that it contains, a closer look at the nominees reveals that it's not just the people who are being recognized, it's the emergence of Gulf Coast cuisine that's finally being legitimized.
The nominees are all chefs and restaurants who have pioneered the idea of taking local seafood, meat and produce and combining it with the extravagance of exotic, foreign cuisines that are -- by now -- as natural to Houston as barbecue and Tex-Mex. Southeast Asian and Indian flavors commingle effortlessly with Texas seafood; locally ranched and butchered offal and organ meat pair with locally farmed vegetables; elegantly European charcuterie meets Texas meat; sweet mixes with savory; the lion with the lamb. The semifinalists announced by the Beard Foundation aren't simply emulating the ideas of other cities, they're taking the best of Texas -- and of Houston -- and making it their own.
Included in the nominees are perfect examples of the talent in Houston who have engineered and fine-tuned Gulf Coast cuisine over the years: Robert Del Grande, one of the originators of the Southwest movement that's become a staple in not only Houston but most of the country, is in the running for the uber-prestigious outstanding chef title against chefs like his culinary counterpart Stephan Pyles as well as immense talents (both on TV and off) Jose Andres and Tom Colicchio.
Other nominees -- all of whom are true Gulf Coast pioneers as well -- include Justin Bayse (rising star chef of the year) for his work as executive chef at Stella Solla and, previously, as sous chef at VOICE under Michael Kramer; Plinio Sandalio for his work as pastry chef at Textile; and with a triple threat in the best chef of the Southwest category, Bryan Caswell of Reef (who was nominated last year in the same category) and James Knight and Richard Silk of Feast.
And as with nearly every year, it seems, the Goodes were recognized for their contributions to the restaurant community at large as Levi Goode and Jim Goode were nominated for the outstanding restaurateur award. Love or hate Goode Co. anything, there's no denying that the Goodes have had an enormous cultural impact on the dining scene in Houston and, in a much larger sense, proselytizing the word, the truth and the light of Houston barbecue, seafood and taquerias across the world.
The list of semifinalists will be narrowed down to five finalists in each category on March 22, while the awards ceremony will take place in New York City on May 3. Here's to Houston showing NYC and the rest of the world what we're truly made of.