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Home Field Disadvantage: Houston Denied James Beard Awards

As all eyes focused on Space City for the nomination ceremony, there was a feeling of shock and disappointment.

By Timothy Malcolm March 27, 2019

Hugo Ortega of H-Town Restaurant Group (Hugo's, Xochi, Caracol, Backstreet Café) speaks at the James Beard Foundation nominee announcement event Wednesday at Hugo's. At right is Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach.

It was a humbling scene: Chris Shepherd, chef and owner of Georgia James and other restaurants, the most visible face of Houston's culinary scene, and semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef of the Year, tightly bringing his arm around Jonny Rhodes, semifinalist for the Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef of the Year, at Hugo's Wednesday morning. A moment after Shepherd let go of Rhodes, the Indigo chef emerged with a visible tear in his eye. He sniffed and nodded.

"I'm hot, man."

Rhodes finally took off his leather jacket, which may have been the reason for his discomfort, but it's possible the emotion had run high for the new executive chef, a brilliant talent who came close to being a finalist in the 2019 James Beard Awards. It wasn't meant to be.

In fact, it wasn't meant to be for all of Houston this year. Even though the James Beard Foundation hosted its annual nominee announcement ceremony at 2017 Beard winner Ortega's Hugo's in "Food City"—dubbed as such by the Houston Chronicleand even though the city scored 11 semifinalist nods—one step before the big awards show on May 6 in Chicago—on Wednesday the city was completely denied of further honors.

Some people in the crowd were stunned, while others played it cool. Shepherd, who won a Beard Award as Best Chef Southwest in 2014, and has been something of an ambassador for the city's food scene, appearing on David Chang's Ugly Delicious and Andrew Zimmern's The Zimmern List, among other programs, was in the latter camp.

"Just the representation to begin with is amazing. What's 'shut out' is when nobody is on that list to begin with—that's shut out," Shepherd said. "But I don't think that's happening. I think the light in the city is shining really bright, and I think we've got a lot to learn and a lot to do now. To be in the finals would be really cool, but now it just makes it a little harder, and we push a little stronger."

That's been the calling card for a city long known to punch up, especially in its culinary scene. Once dismissed by outsiders, Houston recently has become a darling among the national food literati—a truth confirmed by Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach with her comments Wednesday, saying, "The secret of the city's vibrant and dynamic culinary scene is finally out."

"National publications have now discovered what Houstonians have known for years," she continued, "that the diversity and distinctiveness of Houston's dining scene is on par with America's best culinary destinations."

A James Beard silver medallion.

The list of Beard Award semifinalists from Houston paints a picture of the city's diversity and distinctiveness. Best Chef Southwest hopefuls included Kaiser Lashkari of Indian and Pakistani restaurant Himalaya, Trong Nguyen of Vietnamese-Cajun spot Crawfish & Noodles, and Ronnie Killen, a Texas meat connoisseur representing his Killen's Steakhouse. Meanwhile, the Italian Tony's and Mexican Hugo's were on the long list for Outstanding Service (Hugo's restaurateur Traci Vaught was also a semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurateur); Pappas Bros. Steakhouse and Anvil Bar & Refuge had hopes for Outstanding Wine Program and Outstanding Bar Program, respectively; and Houston Tex-Mex landmark The Original Ninfa's on Navigation was among semifinalists for Outstanding Restaurant. 

The locals, who all failed to reach that final step, kept relatively cool, though the room was at times abuzz with a mix of shock and disappointment (maybe the biggest gasp came after Houston was shut out of Best Chef Southwest, a category the city recently has dominated; this year, Austin got three nominations). But the scene between the veteran, cool Shepherd and the young and hungry Rhodes—who serves a tasting menu focused on the history of soul food at his restaurant—seemed to symbolize what's happening right now in the city, and how a morning that didn't go its way could potentially define the future.

"Once you get a taste of it, it's almost like the only thing that you can eat. I feel like it's very disappointing for the entire city to not receive anything, but pressure not only busts pipes but it also makes diamonds," said Rhodes, decidedly more fiery than his chef friends. "They may have shut us out this year but I expect us to shut them up next year in every category." 

Sounds a lot like Houston has more punching to do.

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