The James Beard Foundation announced sweeping changes to its annual culinary awards, 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 moves from the Southwest region to its own region.
Other changes include California also becoming its own region. New York City, previously its own region, is now combined with New York State in a new region that separates the state from the Northeast region that will now be centered on New England.
States in the former Southwest and West regions have been redistributed into Northwest and Pacific, Mountain, and Southwest regions.
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 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.”
Count Houston chef Justin Yu as a fan of the decision. Yu, the winner of Best Chef: Southwest in 2016, says he hopes putting Texas in its own region will allow the foundation to shine its spotlight on lesser known chefs.
“With Southwest being such a large region, a lot of the time the restaurants that really help define a city — a lot of them being restaurants that are defined by a culture — get overlooked. So we end up with a lot of that higher end, mostly American or quasi-American food on the finalist list,” Yu says. “I really hope this means that Kaiser Lashkari [Himalaya] ends up as a finalist this year or Teiichi Sakurai [Tei-An] from Dallas. Or Tootsie Tomanetz [Snow’s BBQ in Lexington], who to this day has served me the best plate of barbecue I’ve ever had.”
Both Beard Award winner Chris Shepherd and restaurateur Tracy Vaught, speaking on behalf of herself and her husband, Beard Award winner Hugo Ortega, say 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 finalists like Steve McHugh (Cured in San Antonio), Bryce Gilmore (Barley Swine in Austin), and Michael Fojtasek (Olamie in Austin) may finally win medals. That could open room for a new generation of chefs such as Martin Stayer of Nobie’s or Ryan Lachaine of Riel.
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.