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Prestigious James Beard Awards recognizes Texas as its own region

Prestigious James Beard Awards recognizes Texas as its own region

James Beard Foundation Award medal
The Beard Foundation is making big changes to its awards. Courtesy photo

The James Beard Foundation announced sweeping changes to its annual culinary awards, which are widely considered the Oscars of the food world. Instead of 10 regions for its chef and restaurant categories, the foundation has expanded them to 12.

Critically, Texas and California move to their own region, instead of sharing a category with several states each. New York City, previously its own territory, is now combined with New York State and separate from its previous slot in the New England-centered Northeast. States in the Southwest and West have been redistributed into Northwest and Pacific, Mountain, and Southwest. They’re the first changes to the regional alignments since 2012.

“The national restaurant scene and the populations that fuel it are constantly shifting,” Mitchell Davis, the foundation’s chief strategy officer, said in a statement. “We understand that as a foundation, we must continually adapt to serve our community as fairly as possible. ... By increasing our regional awards from 10 to 12 we are recognizing the explosion of food and restaurant culture across the country, and we are pleased to share this news with the food and hospitality community and all those who follow our annual awards.”

Mitchell hinted that these changes might be coming earlier this year at the foundation’s March press conference in Houston when none of the city’s chefs earned finalist status. “[Making changes would not be] for Houston’s sake, it’s not for Chicago’s sake, it’s not for Miami’s sake,” Davis said at the time. “It’s about this dynamic country.”

Restaurateur Tracy Vaught, speaking on behalf of herself and her husband, Beard Award winner Hugo Ortega, tells CultureMap that putting Texas in its own category for the awards could help shine a spotlight on lesser-known restaurants that are outside of the state’s largest cities.

“We don’t believe that Texas became relevant all of a sudden; we believe Texas was producing many great chefs and no one was noticing,” Vaught says. “They are paying attention now. Another great result of this is that we will have a winner every year that is from Texas.”

Where will those winners come from? For at least the next couple of years, repeat Austin finalists like Bryce Gilmore (Barley Swine), and Michael Fojtasek (Olamaie) may finally win medals. That could open room for a new generation of chefs such as Maribel Rivero (Yuyo) and Iliana de la Vega (El Naranjo), who both received their first semifinalist nod this year.

The trick will be for the various voting members to avoid the trap of just focusing on Austin, which tends to draw more Beard Award voters due to events such as South by Southwest and the Austin Food & Wine Festival. Responsibility for selecting the semifinalists will fall on the Beard Foundation’s restaurant and chef awards committee, which now includes a new Texas representative. Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook has replaced Texas Monthly editor Pat Sharpe.