"This is a great city to work in," said Hugo Ortega as he accepted his award for Chef of the Year at last night's My Table's Houston Culinary Awards. "And this is truly a great country," he finished to loud cheers and applause. It was well-deserved recognition for the man who fought his way out of one of Mexico City's worst slums to eventually become the executive chef and owner of the highly acclaimed Hugo's along with wife Tracy Vaught.
Along with Hugo's, plenty of other Houston classics were recognized at the 15th annual awards ceremony. Several of these classics scooped up several awards each, including Niko Niko's (for Houston Classic and for Favorite Mom & Pop Ethnic), Three Brothers Bakery (Pastry Chef of the Year and Favorite Bakery) and Brennan's (Best Interior Design, Best Bar Service and Best Wine Service). Haven took home two awards of its own, too, for Up-and-Coming Chef of the Year (which went to sous chef Jean Philippe Gaston) and Favorite Mixologist (which went to Justin Burrow).
And a Houston classic of a different sort was recognized last night, as Jim Gossen was presented with the 13th annual Legends of Houston Restaurants award.
Gossen has been instrumental in importing now-popular Cajun foods and fish to Houston since he opened Don's Seafood in the 1980s. He was also honored with a proclamation from the City of Houston, to which Gossen simply responded later with a grin: "I can't believe they'd honor a poor, old, coon-ass boy like me."
It was the second year for My Table to have readers cast their votes for 15 Houston Food Stars in addition to the 10 standard Houston Culinary Awards.
Eating Our Words was nominated in the Favorite Houston Food Blog category, but lost to 29-95. Greg Morago of the Chronicle accepted the award to his great surprise, the same surprise that made Ryan Soroka and Matt Marcus of the Eatsie Boys leap gleefully up from their table in the Hilton College's ballroom to accept their award for Favorite Food Truck.
Not all winners were on hand, however, especially in the Houston Food Stars category. The $150 ticket price -- while going to benefit Foodways Texas -- was deemed too steep for many chefs and other nominees. While there has been some grumbling the past two years about My Table not giving free tickets to nominees, there are two sides to every argument.
As it stands, the event sells out every year and had to be moved to a larger venue last year -- the Hilton College at the University of Houston -- just to accommodate the expanded awards ceremony. If all of the nominees were given tickets, where would they all go? I don't have the answer, which is why I'm not in the business of organizing events.
In spite of this, the event proceeded smoothly throughout the evening as guests dined on food prepared by some of this year's nominees. Grant Gordon of Tony's teamed up with Matt Marcus on the main course, while Jeramie Robison from CINQ offered up an unusual salted cod with avocado as the appetizer. But it was Rebecca Masson's silky chocolate syllabub for dessert that was the hit of our table.
KUHF's St. John Flynn announced the Houston Food Stars awards before proceeding to the "big" awards of the night. Chris and Harris Pappas took home the coveted Restaurateur of the Year award, while El Real Tex-Mex Cafe gathered up their entire crew to take home the Best New Restaurant award.
It was the second time Robb Walsh took the stage that evening, after thanking My Table for presenting Foodways Texas with a check to support the organization's mission of preserving and promoting Texas food culture.
As the evening wound down amidst hugs and photo opps, and the chefs headed to the afterparty at Grand Prize Bar, Greg Morago echoed Hugo Ortega's earlier remarks on stage: "You know, I love this city," Morago said. "We all fuss and fight but at the end of the day, it's just such a great community."
For the entire list of winners, head to the next page. And for more photos, check out our slideshow.
Houston Culinary Awards
(Chosen byMy Table
Restaurateurs of the Year: Harris Pappas & Chris Pappas, Pappas Restaurant Group Chef of the Year: Hugo Ortega, Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe Up-and-Coming Chef of the Year (age 35 or younger): Philippe Gaston, Haven Outstanding Wine Service: Brennan's of Houston Pastry Chef of the Year (includes breadmakers): Bobby Jucker, Three Brothers Bakery Outstanding Bar Service: Brennan's of Houston Service Person of the Year: Hector Andrade, Mockingbird Bistro Wine Bar Houston Classic (a restaurant in business for 10 or more years): Niko Niko's Best Interior Design: Brennan's of Houston Best New Restaurant (must have opened since June 1, 2010): El Real Tex-Mex Cafe
Houston Food Star Awards
(Chosen byMy Table
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Favorite Mom & Pop Ethnic: Niko Niko's Favorite Late Night Spot: Katz's Deli Favorite Bakery: Three Brothers Bakery Favorite Mixologist: Justin Burrow Favorite Barbecue: Luling City Market Favorite Food Truck/Cart: Eatsie Boys Favorite Breakfast: The Breakfast Klub Favorite Supermarket: H-E-B, Buffalo Speedway Favorite Burger: Hubcap Grill Favorite Pub or Bar: The Ginger Man Favorite Coffeehouse: Brasil Favorite Sweets/Ice Cream: Amy's Ice Creams Favorite Houston Food Blog: 29-95 Favorite Wine Seller: Central Market Favorite Outdoor Dining: Brenner's on the Bayou