Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin was in an airport bathroom in Cancun when she received a text that caught her by surprise.
“Congrats on the James Beard nomination,” said the text to Dobbertin at 11:25 a.m. on Wednesday. She thought the person may have contacted the wrong person, but when she opened the link attached, she saw her name under “semifinalist” in the 2023 Emerging Chef category.
Dobbertin, chef and owner of Best Quality Daughter, is the first San Antonio chef to be named a semifinalist in the category.
“I was like literally, ‘Holy s—’ and I was in a state of shock at the luggage carousel for like the next following hour,” Dobbertin said by phone from Cancun, where she had traveled with several close friends to celebrate turning 40 this year.
“Everyone was just like, ‘That’s insane’ and we all hugged each other,” she said.
She was one of nine chefs and one local brewery named as semifinalists for the 2023 Restaurant and Chef Awards in advance of the James Beard Awards, the James Beard Foundation announced Wednesday.
Bakery Lorraine’s executive pastry chef and owner Anne Ng was named semifinalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker.
A number of San Antonio-area chefs also were tapped as semifinalists in the Best Chef: Texas category, including: Nicola Blaque, chef and owner of The Jerk Shack; John Russ, owner and chef of Clementine; Ernest Servantes and David Kirkland of Burnt Bean Co. in Seguin; and Andrew Ho, Andrew Samia, and Sean Wen of Curry Boys BBQ.
Weathered Souls Brewing Company was named a semifinalist in the Outstanding Bar category.
The James Beard Awards is among the nation’s most prestigious honors, recognizing leaders’ talent and achievement in culinary arts.
Finalist nominees will be announced on March 29. Winners will be honored at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Ceremony on June 5 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The news of her nomination was the perfect start to the girl’s trip, but caught Dobbertin off guard. For the past year, Dobbertin has essentially kept her head down, fully committed to “being more present” with Best Quality Daughter, headquartered at the Historic Mueller House at the Pearl.
She had no immediate projects, and awards certainly were not on her radar, she said. Dobbertin described the laser focus on Best Quality Daughter as a time of “tunnel vision,” adding that even now, her focus remains the same.
“I genuinely don’t know,” Dobbertin said when asked how she achieved the title. “I probably work too much. I’m kind of a workaholic. I probably have an addiction to work.”
Dobbertin grew up in a family of restaurant people. A daughter of a Taiwanese immigrant whose family sold street food, Dobbertin watched her parents open a restaurant in the U.S. together as a means of survival.
Her family didn’t want her to go into the restaurant business, so Dobbertin pursued her education, going as far as completing grad school. It wasn’t until her mid-to-late 20s that she realized she had always been connected to food and loved cooking.
After moving back to San Antonio from Bangkok, she eventually became a line cook at The Monterrey while working on projects that led to Best Quality Daughter pop-ups. Because she joined the industry late, Dobbertin knew she had to “fast-lane” herself.
Years of hard work later, Best Quality Daughter opened.
Dobbertin has been passionate about addressing the sparsity of Asian-American female chefs in South Texas, which led to the concept of pop-up dinners and later her restaurant, which she started in 2018 with fellow Beard semifinalist Ng and artist Jennifer Ling Datchuk.
The semifinalist title helps Dobbertin realize there is room for her at the table, she said. “There’s space for me here, in an industry that I’ve sometimes felt like I didn’t belong in.”
“I’m a little stunned. Proud of myself, but stunned a little,” Dobbertin said. “Just happy to be here.”