Houston chef wins prestigious award for 'Best Chef in Southwest'

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Local chef named best chef in the southwest. (KTRK)

A Houston chef has won the James Beard Award for "Best Chef in Southwest."

Justin Yu, chef and owner of Oxheart, was nominated for the past two years. This time, he's bringing the prize back home.

Chris Shepherd, chef and owner of Underbelly, received the same award in 2014. The last time the city of Houston had a James Beard Winner was nearly 25 years ago.

The award, the winners believe, is an affirmation of Houston's emergence as a dining destination city -- a place where independent chefs create dishes that embrace the different cultures that define the nation's fourth-largest city.

Better yet, those same chefs support each other's success.

"I was screaming for Justin while we were watching the awards. Our whole kitchen staff at Underbelly was cheering."

Shepherd has a montage of photos of Houston's independent chefs on his wall. Any one of them, he said, should get the award.

They're known for using local farms and suppliers to create their menus, and always insisting on fresh. Gulf Coast seafood often finds its way into the dishes, but with a twist, depending on who's making it, and their culinary backgrounds.

Justin Yu closed Oxheart Monday, so he and his staff could attend the award ceremony in Chicago. When we spoke to him by phone, Yu and his friends were at lunch.

"I can't believe it happened to us," he said. I'm so glad for the team and for the city. It's like a dream come true."

Like other chefs, Yu said he realized early on his career would be in food. His aunts own a restaurant in California.

"It was always the setting for our family gatherings," he said. "And I'd help."

He also appreciates the help of his chef friends in Houston.

"We understand each other's struggles, the work it is to find good workers, and the ups and downs," Yu said.

But, it should also serve as inspiration to others who have the same dream.

"You can really make it in Houston. People are willing to come out and try something new. You just have to take a chance on yourself sometime," he added.

Oxheart reopens Thursday, following the staff's return from Chicago. You may have to wait for a reservation.
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