Pot Luck

James Beard Foundation Recognizes Houston Chefs; Food & Wine Does Too, In Its Own Way

It's been a week of ups and downs for Houston chefs on the national radar.

StarChefs.com made a long overdue trip to Houston to recognize a hefty handful of "Rising Stars" chefs, and Eater -- which has mostly ignored Texas save for Austin -- released a very slick "Heat Map" of Houston's 10 hottest new restaurants.

But just as the good vibes were working their way through the city, a wave of disappointment struck: Out of 100 nominees, not a single Houston chef made the list for Food & Wine's The People's Best New Chef 2011.

This oversight seemed particularly incongruous next to the list of semifinalists announced this morning for the 2011 James Beard Awards, arguably the most prestigious honor in America. The James Beard Foundation recognized five food pioneers in Houston for the past year: Bryan Caswell, Randy Rucker (both semifinalists in the Best Chef Southwest category), Michael Cordua (in the Outstanding Restaurateur category), Robert del Grande (for Outstanding Chef, the most distinguished of the five nominations) and Bobby Heugel (for Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional).

Of this group, it seems that the most likely candidate for inclusion in Food & Wine's list would be young Randy Rucker. At the very least, it seemed odd that Austin would see four chefs nominated and Dallas two, with Houston striking out entirely.

I spoke with Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine, about the F&W decision-making process this afternoon. She pointed out that before a chef qualifies for a nomination, there are a set of strict criteria that must first be met.

"They must have been in charge of a kitchen or developing a menu for five years or fewer," Cowin elaborated. And, more importantly, "the food has to be shaping or reshaping the world of food as we know it."

Even with these criteria taken into consideration, I wanted to know: Did any Houston chefs initially make the cut?

"Six [chefs] made the initial round and some didn't qualify because of the five-year cap. One didn't qualify because we didn't feel they were in complete control of the menu," she continued, somewhat cryptically.

The nomination process, which hadn't been explained on Food & Wine's site, is pretty straightforward: A group of "nominators" throughout the country submit their choices from each of the ten regions (Houston falls into the Southwest region, along with the rest of Texas). From that point, F&W collects the nominations and vets them to ensure that they fit the criteria.

The five-year cap is simple enough to understand -- even Rucker likely wouldn't qualify, considering he's been in charge of his own kitchens starting with laidback manor in late 2005 (a point with which Cowin agreed) -- but what about "shaping" the world of food?

Cowin turned to famous Los Angeles food truck demigod Roy Choi as an example.

"He was reshaping the food landscape but not necessarily through technique," she explained, "but through a completely inventive way of getting food to the people."

While it seems commonplace now, the Kogi BBQ truck pioneered using Twitter and other forms of social media to communicate with its patrons. More than that, Cowin said, they were "experimenting with Korean flavors" before any other mainstream restaurant -- or food truck -- had ever done so.

"Fantastic French restaurants that are classics are not really considered," she said. "And the best burger ever made would never make it because the 'chef doing burgers' idiom exploded a while ago -- we don't reward just amazing execution."

Take heart, though, Houstonians: Cowin raved that the Southwest was one of the strongest areas of the entire country, with "more nominations that any region." And F&W certainly recognizes the wealth of culinary talent and creativity that Houston has to offer.

"It seems like we're not interested in Houston," Cowin said. "But we're doing a story in an upcoming issue and sending a writer to eat around Houston."

Watch for that issue in coming months and -- until then -- congratulate our five chefs on their well-earned James Beard nods.

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Katharine Shilcutt