Many chefs justifiably say that all of the awards and the “best” lists and the reviews aren’t why they do what they do. Running a restaurant is about providing great food and warm service, telling a story through what you bring to a community. Yes—all of those things, one hundred percent. That said, receiving due accolades must feel pretty damn good. And a James Beard Award is about as covetable as they come. (The semifinalists were announced on February 26.)
At the end of last year, in September, the James Beard Foundation announced that after reviewing regional idiosyncrasies of the U.S., it decided to redistrict its Best Chef categories. It spurted from 10 regions to 12, with Texas as its own category for the first time in the awards’ three decade history. (California got its own, too.)
The nonprofit organization’s method was part data-driven, part art, and entirely challenging. “Carving up the country, it turns out, into distinct and meaningful regions is not an easy task,” says Michell Davis, the chief strategy officer who played a big role in the project. Every few years the JBF reviews the culinary state of the nation. The most recent assessment, he explains, used hard data—demographics, population, number of restaurants, number of urban centers—plus a less objective look at the cultural components of a region. Immigration patterns, for example, may determine a culinary distinction more so than the geopolitical whims of state lines.
Previously, when Texas chefs had to compete with four other states’ worth of chefs in the Southwest category, it perhaps didn’t reflect the specific nuances of place. The redistricting effort may then positively affect how awards are fairly allocated in the future. Of the 20 chefs in this year’s new Best Chef: Texas category, five are from Dallas-Forth Worth which ties only Houston for the most nominations. In the national categories, Dallas is respectably represented too. Houston is the only other Texas city that also popped up in Best New Restaurants alongside Dallas’ Salaryman. The city to our south is the same foe for Outstanding Bar Program; among Texas cities, just Dallas and Houston are there. Meanwhile Dallas reps Texas alone in the Outstanding Pastry Chef list twice over.
“All of us are very much aware of what has been happening in Texas food-wise,” says Davis. “It’s certainly percolated up into the kind of national food media and beyond…whether it’s Dallas, Houston, Austin, even San Antonio.”
But let’s be real, this has timed out nicely with Dallas’ current rising food moment.
We keep on saying it, but Bon Appetit named Dallas the Restaurant City of the Year, with Donny Sirisavath’s Khao Noodle Shop landing at the No. 2 spot on the magazine’s Top 10 Best New Restaurant list. Meanwhile Food & Wine magazine named Misti Norris of Petra and the Beast one of the country’s Best New Chefs of 2019. The delicious happenings in Dallas, right now, are uniquely occurring here. Is there a lot of real estate and development and uninspiring eateries and cookie-cutter spots opening? Sure, but that comes with a rapidly changing city. (See also: every major American city experiencing big population growth.)
I’ll say again, awards aren’t ultimately what the intricate, cultural, joyous, wild, personal, weird world of food is all about. But it is one tool of many that points out what makes places like Dallas such an interesting—and evolving—place to eat at the moment.
As I speak to people in Dallas—chefs, diners, anyone who’s dropped me an email—mind you, I’m only two months into this gig, but there’s one thing that keeps coming up. While Dallas hasn’t yet entirely figured out its food identity, in this current culinary chapter at least, folks tell me dining is what we do here. Because there isn’t a ton of outdoor recreation, eating is a serious part of how we seriously have fun.
Next: We root on our Dallas chefs as the list of contenders shrinks down next month.