If you're into food, you look forward to the yearly James Beard Foundation Awards with the same fervor as cinephiles look to the Oscars. And the Beard Foundation knows it, spreading out the nomination announcements over weeks at a time. Who was unfairly snubbed? Who just keeps coasting in on their laurels year after year? Who'll make it from the broad "semi-finalist" category into the more fiercely contested "finalist" category?
The semi-finalists for the 2014 Beard Awards were announced this morning, and Houston was...well...we weren't well-represented (especially as compared to last year's eight semi-finalist nods), but we managed a good line-up of talent, with three chefs in the Best Chef: Southwest category—Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, Justin Yu of Oxheart, and Hugo Ortega of Hugo's.
We also racked up talent elsewhere: Philip Speer, pastry chef and current director of operations for Uchi—who spends much of his time at the Houston location—is a semi-finalist in the Outstanding Pastry Chef category. And in the spirits arena, Anvil Bar & Refuge was once again recognized in the Outstanding Bar Program category.
Last year, Yu was recognized as a Rising Star Chef of the Year; his move into the Best Chef: Southwest category as semi-finalist this year can be seen as confirmation that Yu's work at Oxheart continues to evolve. This is the third year in a row Ortega—who recently opened a second concept, Caracol, to wide acclaim—has been named a semi-finalist.
In 2013, he and Shepherd both moved on to the finalist round in New York City, where awards were announced last May. Neither chef won, perpetuating Houston's quiet streak: though our city's dining scene has been recognized with increasing frequency by the national media, we haven't had a winning Beard chef since Robert Del Grande won Best Chef: Southwest for his work at the now-closed Cafe Annie.
But while this year is quieter than past years, Houston's dining scene feels poised to ride the crest of another creative wave. If Ortega keeps raising the bar at Caracol, I'd expect to see it on next year's semi-finalist list for Best New Restaurant—as of now, however, Caracol is too new to be on the 2014 list. I predict the same for Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber's gorgeous new Coltivare, and although it's far too soon to tell—specifically because they haven't opened yet—I have a feeling we could maybe even see Hunky Dory or Foreign Correspondents get Beard nods as well some day in the future.
You can view all of the semi-finalists for the 2014 James Beard Foundation Awards online. Finalists will be announced on March 19, while the awards will be presented in New York City on May 5.