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Austin's big night at Beard Awards: Edgar Rico, De la Vega and newcomer Bailey all winners

Matthew Odam
Austin 360
Chef Edgar Rico, left, opened Nixta Taqueria in East Austin in 2019 with Sara Mardanbigi.

Austin had its biggest night in the history of the James Beard Awards on Monday. Two Austin chefs and one out-of-towner who recently opened two restaurants in the city took home major honors. 

Nixta Taqueria chef-owner Edgar Rico earned the title of emerging chef at the awards ceremony held in in Chicago. It is the first time an Austin chef has received a national honor from the culinary nonprofit whose awards are considered by some as crowning achievements in the restaurant world. 

Rico, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, received local and national attention for the creativity and craft he brings to his tacos and tostadas at the East Austin taqueria he opened with partner Sara Mardanbigi in the fall of 2019. The couple's restaurant quickly ascended to the top tier of Austin Mexican restaurants with dishes like a beet tostada and a duck confit taco. 

“Honest to God, I did not expect to win this award tonight,” an emotional Rico said from the stage in Chicago while receiving his award. “This is huge for La Raza. This is huge for my people. For all the taqueros out there in the world, anything is possible, because if you work your ass off, you can be here on this stage.”

Review from 2019:Nixta Taqueria takes craft approach to some of city’s best tacos

Chef Edgar Rico serves food Oct. 30 at the Chichamaw Farm & Ranch booth during the first Field Guide Fest, which was founded to help connect Austin residents to the farms that supply their food. On Monday night, Rico won the emerging chef category at the James Beard Foundation Awards.

Rico worked in the kitchens of the celebrated Son of a Gun, Sqrl and Trois Mec in Los Angeles before coming to Austin. The chef told the American-Statesman by text on Monday night that the award was a culmination of all of the hard work put in by him and Mardanbigi, his fiancé. He also hinted at some future plans. 

“To see this dream come true, it honestly means the world to me," Rico wrote. "And all I know is the future is bright, and you will definitely be seeing some more projects from Nixta hospitality in the future.”

Rico's win set the stage for another big accolade for an Austin chef. El Naranjo chef Iliana de la Vega won the award for best chef in Texas. Because of the cancellation of the James Beard Awards in 2020 and 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, this was the first time the award for Texas had ever been handed out. Texas chefs competed in the Southwest category through 2019.

On Monday in Chicago, chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo won the James Beard Award for best chef in Texas.

Mexico City native De la Vega, who moved to Austin from Oaxaca with her husband, Ernesto Torrealba, more than a decade ago, tearfully accepted the award and thanked her home country of Mexico for "teaching her" and the United States and Austin for receiving her. This was De la Vega's first James Beard Award. 

De la Vega told the Statesman on Monday night that she had worried her business would not survive the pandemic, but even her semifinal nod had helped usher in a new wave of business. 

"We thought we were not going to make it and look at this," she said via text message. "It's an honor that we have to live for."

De la Vega is the first Austin chef to win a regional award from the James Beard Foundation since Aaron Franklin took home the 2015 prize for best chef in the Southwest. Tyson Cole of Uchi, Austin’s first regional James Beard Award winner, garnered the accolade in 2011 and Paul Qui, then of Uchiko, followed that up with a win in 2012. 

Chef Mashama Bailey may not be an Austin chef, but the co-owner of The Grey in Savannah did open two restaurants in Austin in April and Monday night took home one of the evening's biggest prizes — outstanding chef for the country. 

Mashama Bailey, right, who opened two restaurants in Austin in April with partner Johno Morisano, left, won the James Beard Foundation's outstanding chef award Monday night in Chicago.

Bailey, who opened The Diner Bar and Grey Market at the local Thompson hotel with partner Johno Morisano, thanked her parents, mentors, business partners, chefs and employees at her Savannah and Austin restaurants in her speech and said, "Thank you for betting on Black."

Related:Chef Mashama Bailey brings famous Savannah touch to Austin’s new Diner Bar and Grey Market

Bailey acknowledged that Black- and brown-owned restaurants and mom-and-pop businesses had been "bubbling underneath the surface for a long time," and that with her win, "Today a little Black girl or a little Black boy can see themselves as a future outstanding chef."

Dai Due owner Jesse Griffiths is not only a hunter, fisherman, chef and restaurateur; he is also a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author.

The big year for Austin chefs at the James Beard Awards actually started Sunday night, when Dai Due chef-owner Jesse Griffiths won a book award for his "The Hog Book: A Chef's Guide to Hunting, Butchering and Cooking Wild Pigs."