The 2015 James Beard Award Finalists - Best Chef Southwest

By Bev Garvin, Foodable Contributor

Chef Hat

The 2015 James Beard Awards will be held at Lyric Opera in Chicago, hosted by Alton Brown, on Monday, May 4, 2015. The annual James Beard Foundation (JBF) Awards also known as “The Oscars of Food” honors the best chefs, restaurants, bars and industry professionals and has a long-standing reputation of being the highest ranking food award in America. Here is a rundown of the finalists for the JBF Best Chef Southwest 2015.

The chef who will take the coveted title will remain a mystery until May, but Texas was well represented, managing to take four of the six coveted spots for the Best Chef Southwest category as follows:

Aaron Franklin - Franklin Barbecue, Austin, TX

Aaron Franklin got into the food industry at an early age, his parents owned a barbecue stand in Bryan, TX. He experimented with brisket in a backyard smoker when he was young. In 2009, he launched Franklin Barbecue in an East Austin parking lot from the walk-up window of a travel trailer-turned brisket stand. Patrons recognized the undeniable quality of his smoked meats, and his barbecue quickly began to draw lines that went around the block. Today, Franklin’s barbecue has been touted as the best in America, and possibly the world, by many in the culinary industry.

The Franklins opened a brick and mortar location of Franklin Barbecue in 2011. The original trailer is still parked in the back of the restaurant. However, despite the new location and their efforts to increase production, the line at Franklin Barbecue is still as long as it has ever been, with people lining up each day before they have even opened.  The restaurant sells out of brisket every day, just as it has every single day of its’ existence. This is Aaron Franklin’s first James Beard nomination.

Bryce Gilmore - Barley Swine, Austin, TX

Barley Swine's Crab and Rice Porridge | Facebook

Barley Swine's Crab and Rice Porridge | Facebook

Bryce Gilmore grew up in Austin. His first job was in the kitchen at the popular Z' Tejas Grill, owned by his father in Austin’s vibrant restaurant scene, where he worked while he was in high school. Gilmore went on to attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, then returned to Austin where he worked as a line cook at Wink and Moonshine. After two years as a Sous Chef at Café 909 in Marble Falls, TX, Gilmore returned to San Francisco to refine his skills at Boulevard. Then he went on to work at Montagana in Aspen, CO, where he immersed himself in his passion for local, sustainable ingredients.

Gilmore went back to Austin for his first solo venture, Odd Duck, a food truck that turned brick and mortar restaurant in 2009. Odd Duck features creative local cuisine, prepared with simple wood-burning grill and sous vide techniques. Gilmore was a JBF Semi-Finalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2012 and 2013 and a Finalist for Best Chef Southwest 2013 and 2014.

Justin Yu - Oxheart, Houston, TX

Chef Yu has worked some of the most notable restaurants in North America, such as *17 in Houston, TX, Green Zebra and Spring Restaurants in Chicago, IL and Ubuntu in Napa, CA. After staging abroad at In de Wulf in Dranouter, Belgium then at AOC and Geranium Restaurants in Copenhagen, Denmark, Yu came home to open Oxheart to convey a progressive perspective on local and regional ingredients. Chef Yu was nominated as a Semi-Finalist for JBF Rising Star Chef in 2013 and was a Semi-Finalist for Best Chef Southwest in 2014.

Hugo Ortega - Hugo’s, Houston, TX

Chef Ortega came to Houston from Mexico at an early age, starting as a dishwasher, he learned to speak English and basics about the restaurant industry. He started at Backstreet Café as a dishwasher and worked his way up to the kitchen. The owner was impressed with his skills and offered to enroll Ortega in the Culinary Arts program at Houston Community College. Ortega seized the opportunity and became Executive Chef of Backstreet Café in 1995.

Hugo's Ensalada de Jaiba | Facebook

Hugo's Ensalada de Jaiba | Facebook

He became a U.S. Citizen in 1996, and today is Executive Chef and co-owner of Backstreet Café, Caracol Restaurant and his signature concept, Hugo’s in Houston, TX. Ortega was a guest chef at the James Beard House twice in 1999 and was named a James Beard Foundation Award Finalist for Best Chef Southwest in 2012 and 2013.

Kevin Binkley - Binkley’s, Cave Creek, AZ

Chef Kevin Binkley is the most decorated candidate in the Best Chef Southwest category. He’s been nominated as a JBF Award Semi-Finalist for Best Chef Southwest every year for ten years in a row beginning in 2005 through 2014,.  While he has not yet won a JBF Award, he was named a Finalist in this category in 2012 and again in 2013.  Chef Binkley owns four restaurants in Phoenix, AZ: Binkley’s Restaurant, Café Bink, Bink’s Midtown and Bink’s Scottsdale. Chef Binkley graduated from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in 1995.  

He has worked under Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and at the prestigious Inn at Little Washington. Throughout his culinary career, Binkley has incorporated the freshest, highest-quality ingredients into his menus and focused on providing an experience for his guests.

Martín Rios - Restaurant Martín, Santa Fe, AZ

Chef Martin Rios is a 20-year veteran of the restaurant industry.  His award-winning progressive American cuisine was designed to create the perfect balance of refined and comfortable. Chef Rios is a native of Guadalajara but grew up in Santa Fe, NM starting as a dishwasher at age 17. Eventually, he worked his way up to Executive Chef at several restaurants and hotels.

Chef Rios received his formal training at the Culinary Institute of America and supplemented that with experience and training in some of the world’s most honored restaurants and with well-known culinary masters. Chef Rios has been a JBF Semi-finalist for Best Chef Southwest in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

So which chef do you think should win?