The Houston Culinary Awards Get a Facelift

"You can't help but feel great when you're honored and respected by your peers and Houston diners," said Sean Beck today, after bringing home a stunning two awards at the annual My Table Houston Culinary Awards last night, for Favorite Mixologist and Service Person of the Year.

"I've spent my entire adult life working in the Houston culinary scene," he related. "It's a great job, one that affords endless chances to make someone's day and leave a lasting impression. Occasions like last night -- an evening spent in the company of like-minded individuals -- is just the icing on the cake." And while Beck may have spent his entire adult life working in positions like his current one as sommelier to Backstreet Cafe and Hugo's, you can't help but notice that he's a young guy. And he's not the only one who looks young.

Chalk it up to everything from Teresa Byrne-Dodge's daughter, Taylor, coming on board at My Table, to things like blogs and food trucks finally gaining a measure of respect from the establishment, to more attention than ever being shown to the culinary arts in all their forms. Whatever the reason, the annual Culinary Awards received a facelift this year and it looks good on them.

That's not to say that the awards -- now in their 13th year -- aren't showing their age a bit. Or rather, showing the age of the average voters who decided on the winners in infant categories like Favorite Late Night Spot or Favorite Ethnic. These two categories, along with 13 others, were added to the list of awards for 2010, increasing the number of winners from 10 to 25 for the first time ever.

Those infant categories were given their own distinction -- Houston Foodie Star Awards --while the classic categories remained intact. And as KUHF's St. John Flynn took the stage as emcee last night at the University of Houston Hilton Hotel, it became clear that the awards would never be the same again.

The most glaringly obvious change was that -- unlike in previous years -- the awards ceremony featured a seated dinner that wasn't held at Feast, which was the 2009 winner for Restaurateur of the Year (a joint award between James Silk, Meagan Silk and Richard Knight). Instead, nine of Houston's best chefs partnered in the Hilton's vast kitchen to prepare a multi-course meal for the 350 attendees. Passed bites like Robert Del Grande's shellfish chorizo and John Sheely's veal sweetbreads were gobbled down before the meal, which featured an amazing salad of farro and purple hull peas from Monica Pope as just one of the courses.

In the Houston Foodie Star categories (which most people seemed to be anticipating as much as the standard categories), some of the more obvious nominees lost each time to odd choices like French Riviera Bakery & Cafe for Favorite Bakery over favorites like Slow Dough Bread Co. and El Bolillo.

Goode Co. won out over places like Pierson & Co. and Thelma's for Favorite Barbecue, while Fadi's won Favorite Ethnic over amazing restaurants like Darband Shishkabob and La Guadalupana. Central Market over Phoenicia? Blasphemy. And Empire Cafe for Favorite Coffeehouse? It boggles the mind. Then again, there are doubts as to whether My Table's primary demographic has ever set foot inside places like Thelma's, Darband or Catalina.

In the classic categories, too, the winners skewed towards Houston's old-school establishments, in keeping with the decidedly old-school Mandola family winning the magazine's Legend of Houston Restaurant Awards: Capital Grille won for Oustanding Bar Service, for example, while David Cordua won for Up-and-Coming Chef of the Year over talented chefs like Ryan Pera and David Grossman. And in a win perhaps colored by Houston's excitement over having a grande dame revived from her death bed, Alex Brennan-Martin won for Restaurateur of the Year for Brennan's and Bistro Alex.

Beck himself noticed a propensity for more established choices even in the younger categories. "To be honest, I was really surprised to win Favorite Mixologist. It felt like when Jethro Tull won the Grammy for Hard Rock/Metal Performance," he laughed. Acknowledging the wealth of talent in his category, he continued: "I was nominated with a slew of really creative and talented individuals who are pushing the envelope and shaping the way we drink. My approach is perhaps more low-key and restrained in nature. It's great to see the passion behind the bar these days."

And it was passion that ultimately did win out in several categories: the driven and endlessly creative Chris Shepherd winning for Chef of the Year was the most well-deserved award of the evening, with Haven winning Best New Restaurant coming a close second.

Despite residual weird feelings over some winners, no one could disagree that Shepherd hadn't earned his award and that the nominees this year -- both in the Houston Foodie Star category and the classic category -- weren't closer in line with Houston as an entire scene, as opposed to the Houston that the most affluent My Table subscribers frequent. It was a refreshing and welcome change, one that will hopefully carry into 2011 as well.

A full list of winners is on the following page.

Favorite Bakery: French Riviera Bakery & Cafe Favorite Barbecue: Goode Co. Texas Bar-B-Que Favorite Breakfast: The Buffalo Grille Favorite Burger: Beck's Prime Favorite Coffeehouse: Empire Cafe Favorite Houston Food Blog: Cook's Tour, Alison Cook Favorite Food Truck/Cart: Little Miss Cupcake Favorite Late Night Spot: House of Pies Favorite Mixologist: Sean Beck Favorite Outdoor Dining: Backstreet Cafe Favorite Supermarket: Central Market Favorite Pub or Bar: Anvil Favorite Sweets/Ice Cream: The Chocolate Bar Favorite Wine Seller: Spec's

Restaurateur of the Year: Alex Brennan-Martin, Brennan's and Bistro Alex Chef of the Year: Chris Shepherd, Catalan Up-and-Coming Chef of the Year: David Cordúa, Américas Outstanding Wine Service: The Tasting Room Pastry Chef of the Year: Ruben Ortega, Backstreet Cafe and Hugo's Outstanding Bar Service: Capital Grille Service Person of the Year: Sean Beck, Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's and Trevisio Houston Classic: Carrabba's Best Interior Design: Américas in The Woodlands Best New Restaurant: Haven

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