Dallas' culinary scene was left empty-handed once again March 27, when none of the six nominees in the James Beard Awards advanced to the group of finalists.
A morning that began with optimism also ended in disappointment in Houston. For the second year in a row, none of that city’s record-breaking 11 semifinalists moved on to the finalist status for the awards, which are widely considered the Oscars of the culinary world. That disappointment is exacerbated by the James Beard Foundation’s decision to announce the finalists in Houston, live from Hugo’s in Montrose.
On February 27, the foundation announced the semifinalists for its chef awards, and once again, Dallas was well-represented in the category of Best Chef: Southwest. This year's local nominees were Bruno Davaillon (Bullion), Regino Rojas (Purépecha Room by Revolver Taco Lounge), and David Uygur (Lucia).
Dallas had earned nominations in three other categories. Ricardo "Ricchi" Sanchez of Bullion was a first-time nominee for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Fine dining restaurant The French Room joined two Houston establishments (Tony's and Hugo's) as nominees for Outstanding Service. Petra and the Beast joined Austin's Suerte as two of the nominees for Best New Restaurant in America.
Overall, Texans had earned 27 entries in the various categories, which Texas Monthly noted was the most ever and was up from 20 last year.
While Dallas and Houston were shut out of the finals, Austin and San Antonio garnered several nominations. Austin dominated the list for Best Chef: Southwest with Kevin Fink of Emmer & Rye, Michael Fojtasek of Olamaie, and Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine all made the cut. Steve McHugh of San Antonio’s Cured also was named a finalist for the fourth consecutive time, joined by Charleen Badman of Scottsdale, Arizona’s FnB.
“The reality is the voting is done by independent volunteers, it’s a national body [with] lots of judges. I can’t explain the results," Beard Foundation chief strategy officer Mitchell Davis said from Houston. "All I can say is there’s a tremendous amount of integrity.”
Certainly no one is questioning the integrity of the results or even the worthiness of the chefs selected as finalists for Best Chef: Southwest. Still, it does highlight a problem of a region that includes six states competing for a very limited number of spots: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah. It’s an issue the foundation is aware of.
“We review the regions constantly, because our goal is to make everyone who cooks, no matter where he or she is cooking, have as fair a chance to win an award,” Davis says. “With that directive, the committees have been asked to review the restaurant statistics, the population statistics. I think, in the coming months, there will be some changes that will try to make good on that directive.”
Houston and Dallas aren't the only cities that suffer under the current organization, which has been in place since 2012. All of the finalists in the Great Lakes region come from Chicago. Florida, which occupies the South region, didn’t earn any finalists, but New Orleans, which is in the same region, had three.
“It’s not for Houston’s sake, it’s not for Chicago’s sake, it’s not for Miami’s sake. It’s about this dynamic country,” Davis says. “New York was originally its own region because there was so many activity there vis-a-vis the rest of the country. That’s not true either. You can’t keep up. Our committees are constantly reviewing, looking at data, trying to figure it out. I think come next year there will be some changes to help recognize some of the challenges in recognizing chefs from across the country.”
The awards will be presented in Chicago on May 6.