San Antonio’s food scene was represented on the national stage Monday evening as one of the city’s own, chef Steve McHugh of Cured, was up for one of the highest honors in American culinaria.
McHugh attended the awards ceremony at the Lyric Opera of Chicago as a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef: Southwest.” In the end, the award went to chef Alex Seidel of Mercantile Dining & Provision in Denver.
McHugh was named a finalist in the category in March along with four others, including two chefs from Austin, one from Santa Fe, and the Denver chef. He was a semifinalist for the award in both 2016 and a finalist in 2017.
Speaking with the Rivard Report by phone hours before the ceremony Monday, McHugh was getting red-carpet ready in his custom Limatus Bespoke navy blue tuxedo, and said it had already been a “crazy” day.
“I got a call from the mayor,” McHugh said. “He said, ‘This is Ron Nirenberg. I just want to let you know we’re all rooting for you. The city is real proud of you.’ That registers, when the mayor calls you. It’s the most amazing thing that’s happened in a while.”
After spending a week in the Windy City with family members, who calmed his nerves, McHugh said that call made him start feeling the pressure.
“But it’s a really amazing feeling to know, win or lose … you’re part of the conversation … San Antonio doesn’t always get to be part of the conversation. So I’m really honored to be up here representing the city.”
“Every time I tell someone I’m from San Antonio, they say, ‘Oh, that’s great, I was just in Austin couple months ago,’” McHugh said. “You gotta tell them it’s not the same thing. It’s different. We’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m honored to be that person. But there are a lot of great chefs in the city of San Antonio, there are a lot of great chefs who came before I did. This city deserves a lot of the credit.”
Established in 1990, the James Beard Awards recognize culinary professionals for excellence and achievement in their fields. In addition to best restaurant, chef, and design categories, awards are given for humanitarian of the year, lifetime achievement, design icon, “who’s who” of food and beverage in the United States, and America’s classics.
Award winners receive a medallion engraved with the James Beard Awards insignia.
Past James Beard nominees and semifinalists from San Antonio include Bruce Auden (Biga on the Banks), Andrew Weissman (Le Reve), Jason Dady (Jason Dady restaurants), Michael Sohocki (Restaurant Gwendolyn), David Gilbert (Sustenio), and The Esquire Tavern (Jeret Peña).
James Beard is the “standard bearer and champion of excellence,” Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach said during the awards program, which was live-streamed on Twitter.
In addition honoring chefs and restaurants, the “Oscars” of the culinary world recognize achievements in journalism, books, broadcast media, and restaurant design and graphics. The foundation also gives a prize for lifetime achievements.
McHugh worked with Chef John Besh at restaurants in New Orleans before bringing his love of charcuterie to Cured five years ago. Shortly after, the restaurant was named one of “America’s Best New Restaurants 2014” by Bon Appétit and was selected as a runner-up for Esquire’s 2014 Food & Drink Awards.
Others nominated as a finalist in the “Best Chef” of the Southwest category were Michael Fojtasek of Olamaie in Austin; Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine in Austin, and Martín Rios of Restaurant Martín in Santa Fe.
Last year’s “Best Chef” of the Southwest was Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s in Houston.
“These chefs inspire us to be better every day,” McHugh said. “These chefs make us want to be better because they are doing awesome things.”