james beard semifinalists revealed

7 Austin chefs, bakers, and breweries score prestigious James Beard semifinalist nods

7 Austin chefs, bakers, breweries score prestigious James Beard nods

Iliana De La Vega of El Naranjo
Iliana de la Vega earned a nod for El Naranjo. Photo by Keith Uyeda

Austin is once again well-represented among this year’s semifinalists for the James Beard Awards. The prestigious culinary awards, considered to be the Oscars of the food world, are awarded annually to chefs, bartenders, restaurateurs, authors, and more in a wide variety of categories.

In all, Austin received seven nominations during the announcement on Wednesday, February 26. 

In the Best Chef: Texas category, the local nominees include: Kevin Fink (Emmer & Rye), Michael Fojtasek (Olamaie), and Iliana de la Vega (El Naranjo). Local impresario Larry McGuire earned a nod for Outstanding Restaurateur. McGuire is a chef and principal in Austin's McGuire Moorman Hospitality, the powerhouse group behind Jeffrey's, June's, Clark's, Lambert's, Pool Burger, and many more.

Also representing Austin is David Norman (Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden), who received a nomination for Outstanding Baker. Jeffrey Stuffings and Michael Stuffings (Jester King Brewery) also clenched a nomination for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer.

Elsewhere in Texas, Houston led Texas with 14 nominations. Squable, the bread-obsessed restaurant in The Heights, and The Blind Goat, Masterchef winner Christine Ha's restaurant in Bravery Chef Hall are nominees for best new restaurant in America. Anvil Bar & Refuge has once again been nominated for Outstanding Bar Program.  

Speaking of Squable, one of its owners, James Beard Award winner Justin Yu, is a nominee for Outstanding Chef for his work at Theodore Rex. Similarly, Theodore Rex chef de cuisine Kaitlin Steets is a nominee for Rising Star Chef.

Houston's Dawn Burrell (Kulture), Manabu Horiuchi (Kata Robata), Anita Jaisinghani (Pondicheri), Trong Nguyen (Crawfish & Noodles), and Jason Vaughn (Nancy's Hustle) were also nominated for best chef.

Hugo's has once again been nominated for Outstanding Hospitality, and its owner, Tracy Vaught, has again been nominated for Outstanding Restaurateur. The Original Ninfa's on Navigation repeats its nomination for Outstanding Restaurant. Rosie Cannonball has been nominated for Outstanding Wine Program. 

The remaining nominees in the Best Chef: Texas category are including San Antonio chefs Steve McHugh (Cured), Alex Paredes (Carnitas Lonja), and Esaul Ramos (2M Smokehouse); and Dallas chefs Misti Norris (Petra and the Beast), Regino Rojas (Revolver Taco Lounge), Teiichi Sakurai (Tei-An), and Donny Sirisavath (Khao Noodle Shop).

Also nominated is Alexandra Gates (Cochineal in Marfa), Molly McCook (Ellerbe Fine Foods in Fort Worth), Aldo Mora (Cafe Central in El Paso), pitmaster "Tootsie" Tomanetz (Snow's BBQ in Lexington), and Laurie Williamson (Rancho Loma in Talpa).

Overall, Texas bars and restaurants earned nominations in a number of national categories, including a Best New Restaurant nomination for Salaryman in Dallas; Maggie Huff (Homewood in Dallas) and Ricardo "Ricchi" Sanchez (Bullion in Dallas) for Outstanding Baker; Kim McPherson (McPherson Cellars in Lubbock) for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Producer; and Bria Downey (Clay Pigeon Food & Drink in Fort Worth) for Rising Star Chef of the Year. 

The state already has one Beard Award winner. Last week, the Foundation recognized Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville as one of six “America’s Classics.” The category recognizes establishments, typically family-owned, that are “cherished for their quality food, local character, and lasting appeal.” Previous Texas winners include Louie Mueller Barbecue (Taylor), The Original Sonny Bryan’s (Dallas), and Irma’s (Houston).

This year will be the first time under the James Beard Foundation’s new rules that increased its chef awards from 10 regions to 12. Those changes included making Texas its own region for the best chef awards; previously, the Lone Star State had been included in the Southwest with Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Utah.

These changes ensure that at least one Texas chef will win a James Beard Award every year going forward. Last year, no one from Texas won an award. Since 2010, six Texas chefs won the Southwest category, split evenly between Houston and Austin.

The foundation has made other changes in the past few years. In 2018, it asked voters to consider behavior and integrity inside and outside of the kitchen, a response to the #MeToo era that exposed behavior by chefs such as Mario Batali. Last year, the foundation sought to broaden gender, race, and ethnic representation by diversifying the people who choose the nominees.

Semifinalists are selected by the Foundation’s restaurant and chef awards committee that’s made up of food writers from across the country, including Los Angeles Times critic Bill Addison, Bloomberg food editor Kate Krader, and Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Allison Cook. The finalists for each category will be announced in Philadelphia on March 25.

The Foundation will announce its media award winners in New York on April 24. The chef and restaurant awards will be presented in Chicago on May 4.