James Beard Foundation Recognizes Houston Chefs; Food & Wine Does Too, In Its Own Way

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Should Randy Rucker (seen here working on one of his "tenacity" supper club dinners) have been recognized by Food & Wine?
It's been a week of ups and downs for Houston chefs on the national radar.

StarChefs.com made a long overdue trip to Houston to recognize a hefty handful of "Rising Stars" chefs, and Eater -- which has mostly ignored Texas save for Austin -- released a very slick "Heat Map" of Houston's 10 hottest new restaurants.

But just as the good vibes were working their way through the city, a wave of disappointment struck: Out of 100 nominees, not a single Houston chef made the list for Food & Wine's The People's Best New Chef 2011.

This oversight seemed particularly incongruous next to the list of semifinalists announced this morning for the 2011 James Beard Awards, arguably the most prestigious honor in America. The James Beard Foundation recognized five food pioneers in Houston for the past year: Bryan Caswell, Randy Rucker (both semifinalists in the Best Chef Southwest category), Michael Cordua (in the Outstanding Restaurateur category), Robert del Grande (for Outstanding Chef, the most distinguished of the five nominations) and Bobby Heugel (for Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional).

Of this group, it seems that the most likely candidate for inclusion in Food & Wine's list would be young Randy Rucker. At the very least, it seemed odd that Austin would see four chefs nominated and Dallas two, with Houston striking out entirely.

I spoke with Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine, about the F&W decision-making process this afternoon. She pointed out that before a chef qualifies for a nomination, there are a set of strict criteria that must first be met.

"They must have been in charge of a kitchen or developing a menu for five years or fewer," Cowin elaborated. And, more importantly, "the food has to be shaping or reshaping the world of food as we know it."

Even with these criteria taken into consideration, I wanted to know: Did any Houston chefs initially make the cut?

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Though not a chef, Bobby Heugel (second from left) is a James Beard Award semifinalist in the Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional category.
"Six [chefs] made the initial round and some didn't qualify because of the five-year cap. One didn't qualify because we didn't feel they were in complete control of the menu," she continued, somewhat cryptically.

The nomination process, which hadn't been explained on Food & Wine's site, is pretty straightforward: A group of "nominators" throughout the country submit their choices from each of the ten regions (Houston falls into the Southwest region, along with the rest of Texas). From that point, F&W collects the nominations and vets them to ensure that they fit the criteria.

The five-year cap is simple enough to understand -- even Rucker likely wouldn't qualify, considering he's been in charge of his own kitchens starting with laidback manor in late 2005 (a point with which Cowin agreed) -- but what about "shaping" the world of food?

Cowin turned to famous Los Angeles food truck demigod Roy Choi as an example.

"He was reshaping the food landscape but not necessarily through technique," she explained, "but through a completely inventive way of getting food to the people."

While it seems commonplace now, the Kogi BBQ truck pioneered using Twitter and other forms of social media to communicate with its patrons. More than that, Cowin said, they were "experimenting with Korean flavors" before any other mainstream restaurant -- or food truck -- had ever done so.

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Coming soon to Houston.
"Fantastic French restaurants that are classics are not really considered," she said. "And the best burger ever made would never make it because the 'chef doing burgers' idiom exploded a while ago -- we don't reward just amazing execution."

Take heart, though, Houstonians: Cowin raved that the Southwest was one of the strongest areas of the entire country, with "more nominations that any region." And F&W certainly recognizes the wealth of culinary talent and creativity that Houston has to offer.

"It seems like we're not interested in Houston," Cowin said. "But we're doing a story in an upcoming issue and sending a writer to eat around Houston."

Watch for that issue in coming months and -- until then -- congratulate our five chefs on their well-earned James Beard nods.


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15 comments
Jeff
Jeff

I don't so much care about the Houston not getting recognized thing (*yawn*) as I do Austin getting so much recognition. I love that town, but the collective dick sucking that goes on surrounding our state's capital makes me want to hang myself with a pair of skinny jeans.

Vigilio188
Vigilio188

Has anyone seen the indie documentary about Randy Rucker called 'Raising Randy'?Someone said that it screened at Sundance.

Clumsy Plumsy
Clumsy Plumsy

Randy Rucker missed the cut by a couple of months? So they must be counting the downtime between his stints at Laidback Manor, Rainbow Lodge, and Bootsie's? Doesn't seem right.

More likely they weren't ever really considering him. Katharine (innocently) suggested an "out" during the interview and Dana Cowin exploited it.

Stuart Reb Donald
Stuart Reb Donald

Great writing as usual, Katharine, I wish Mobile would take its dining scene as seriously as other Gulf Coast cities.

Doak
Doak

It is a bit disappointing, but I don't take much stock in F&W, the late Gourmet, and those sorts of magazines. Likewise, I take little stock in the omnipresent "Best," "Top," and "Places to Go" lists that seem to be designed more to stir up controversy than recognize excellence.

I like the the folks doing what they are doing in Houston are doing it in Houston because they want to do it in Houston. It ain't for the spotlight. Hurrah!

Robin
Robin

Her name is Dana Cowin, not Corwin.

CL91
CL91

I had this exact same thought reading Saveur's "100" issue, wherein "Top cooks share their favorite tools, books, ingredients, restaurants, tips, recipes and more".

There were 100 blurbs by chefs all across the country about the aforementioned topics, and only ONE mention of Houston. Even then, it incorrectly credited it to "Monica Pope, T'afia, Austin".

Good lord. For the 4th largest city in the U.S., food press treats us like we aren't even in the top 50. We eat out more than anyone in the country (and by extension, most likely the world), have one of the best restaurant scenes in the entire nation, and yet just plain don't exist to food journalism.

Perhaps that's a good thing though, because, like everything else about Houston in the context of the country, we stay below the radar. Just that small southeastern Texas city where oil flows through the streets and everyone rides horses to school and work, right guys?

gaston
gaston

Y'know, just plain fuck Food & Wine. They have Pistachio-Apricot Biryani on their favorite recipes today. Just who would bother to make those? Have you actually read a James Beard book lately? He would retch at the F&W website.

Doak
Doak

Hey, I even like THAT the folks doing . . . .

(Is it Friday, yet?)

titianterror
titianterror

I think the press in general ignores Houston because it's not as hipster as Austin and there wasn't a prime time television show named after it unlike the city four hours north of it on I45. And you know what? Fine. Go ahead. Underestimate Houston. We've been underestimated before. The press in general is stupid anyway. Summers are hot here, but they are hot in New York City, too. In Houston, it's cheap to live, no snow is ever shoveled and the food is fantastic. Go ahead and flock to other more buzzed-about cities, press 'powers that be'. Houston is doing just fine, with or without you.

Kingbo44
Kingbo44

I saw that too and thought it was telling.

redonthehead1
redonthehead1

ITA. 100%. I haven't renewed my subscription in YEARS and have no plans to do so in the future.

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