Some leading figures on Houston's food scene have been named semifinalists for the 2011 James Beard Restaurant & Chef Awards, often described as the Oscars of the food world. (Disclosure: I serve on the committee that superintends the balloting for the awards.)
On the ballot list of 20 names competing for Best Chef Southwest, a region that includes states from Nevada through Texas, will be chefs Bryan Caswell of Reef and Randy Rucker of Bootsie's Heritage Cafe in Tomball.
Caswell, who is also the founding chef at Stella Sola and Little Big's, a casual slider joint on Montrose, is coming off a year in which he appeared on the Next Iron Chef show and made plans for another restaurant, El Real Tex-Mex, a concept he hatched with Houston food writer Robb Walsh. It is scheduled to open this spring.
Randy Rucker, who appears on the Beard Awards ballot for the first time, leads the talented young team that has turned Bootsie's Heritage Cafe--in the space of a year--from a spot serving twists on Gulf Coast comfort food to a tasting-menu laboratory for modern dishes using foraged and intensely local ingredients, including some from its own farm. The restaurant is named for Rucker's mother and business partner, Bootsie Nicol, a frequent presence in the front of the house.
Bootsie's Heritage Cafe also made the cut for the Outstanding New Restaurant balloting, a national category that includes such names as chef Sean Brock's Husk in Charleston, S. C. and chef Tyson Cole's Uchiko in Austin.
Michael Cordua, founding chef of Churrascos and the Americas mini-empire, will appear on the ballot for Outstanding Restaurateur, a national category that also includes such names as Philadelphia's Stephen Starr and Chicago's Richard Melman. Cordua recently opened Americas River Oaks location, another showcase for the stunning contemporary restaurant design he has pioneered in the city. His influence has helped to make South American cuisine a strong factor in Houston.
Bobby Heugel, the mixologist behind cutting-edge Anvil Bar & Refuge, will appear on the ballot for Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional, another national category in the awards. Through his work as a cocktail consultant at Haven, Catalan, the original Ninfa's on Navigation and projects outside the state, Heugel has been a catalyst for progress on the food & beverage scene, as well as the instigator of collaborative projects with such talents as barista David Buehrer of Greenway Coffee & Tea.
Robert del Grande, of restaurant RDG + Bar Annie, will appear on the ballot for what is perhaps the most prestigious of the national awards, Outstanding Chef. This is reserved for working chefs whose careers have set national standards in the industry, and whose work has served as an inspiration for others in the profession. Del Grande is coming off a busy year in which he planned the two new restaurants: the recently opened Ava, a Mediterranean spot in the glossy West Avenue development on Kirby and Westheimer; and Pizzeria Alto, a yet-to-open restaurant in the same location.
Houstonians will also find some familiar Texas names scattered throughout the ballot. Joining Caswell and Rucker on the list for Best Chef Southwest will be Tyson Cole of Austin's Uchi and Uchiko; Teiichi Sakurai of Tei-An, the rarefied Dallas soba house; Bruce Auden of San Antonio's Biga on the Banks; and Armando Pomales of Cafe Central in El Paso.
Cole in particular has a legion of Houston fans, and he is scheduled to open an outpost here that will combine features of both Uchi and Uchiko. And Auden first made his Texas name in Houston at Charley's 517. His new casual restaurant, Auden's Kitchen, opened in San Antonio this year to good notices.
Paul Qui, the young Filipino-American chef who is in charge of the kitchen at Tyson Cole's Uchiko in Austin, is in the running for Rising Star Chef, an award reserved for chefs 30 years old and under who are likely to have an impact in years to come. In addition to serving as chef de cuisine at the excellent new Uchiko, Qui contributes to Austin's lively food truck culture with his popular cart, called East Side King.
Phillip Speer, the pastry chef at Uchi and Uchiko, appears on the ballot for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Chef Stephan Pyles, of the restaurant of the same name in Dallas, is in the national-level hunt along with del Grande for the title of Outstanding Chef.
The Mansion restaurant in Dallas, at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek hotel, is in the national running for Outstanding Restaurant; while Dallas's French Room (in the Adolphus) and Cafe on the Green (in the Four Seasons Dallas Resort at Las Colinas) are in line for the Outstanding Service and Outstanding Wine Service awards, respectively.
The current round of voting by past winners and over 200 regional panelists will whittle the lists to five finalists in each category. They will be announced in Portland, OR on March 21. Winners will be named at Lincoln Center in New York City on May 9, 2011.