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'This is huge for La Raza': Austin chefs take home two James Beard Awards

(Laura Figi/Austonia)

Austin chefs were well-represented at the James Beard Foundation Awards on Monday night as two local restaurateurs took home the coveted award—more than any other Texas city.


Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo, 2717 S. Lamar Blvd., took home the title of Best Chef Texas and chef Edgar Rico of Nixta Taqueria, 2512 E. 12th St., took home Best Emerging Chef at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Nearby, Houston’s Julep was recognized for Outstanding Bar Program as the only other Lone Star State mention. The award has often been compared to high-caliber awards like the Oscars or the Grammys of food.

De la Vega told Austonia she wasn’t expecting to win—she hadn’t even prepared a speech—she was just happy for a weekend vacation with her husband and business partner Ernesto Torrealba. De la Vega said she considers it a joint award for the two of them.

“It was a little bit shocking, emotional, a little bit of everything. When we had to move from Mexico to here, I thought at some point, you know, it has to have a meaning,” de la Vega said. “We finally came to be recognized for the love and the sharing of the traditions from Mexico that we feel very proud of.”

De la Vega said when she originally started El Naranjo in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1997, it was the “perfect place, the perfect life and the perfect everything.” After the economy collapsed, de la Vega and her family had to move to the U.S.

They bounced from New Mexico to San Antonio, when she was asked to create and lead the Latin American Studies program for the Culinary Institute of America, which she accepted. Soon after, they moved to Austin and started a food truck for their lost restaurant in Oaxaca before they were able to build a brick-and-mortar shop in 2012. The rest is history.

De la Vega said she was proud to share the stage with Rico and represent her native cuisine, she just hopes she can live up to the hype of newcomers.

“To recognize Mexican cooking as one of the best cuisines in the world, I think it's huge,” De la Vega said. “Maybe there will be new people coming in that didn't even know that we existed and they may have bigger expectations so (I’m trying to) live up to the challenge right now.”

Rico echoed de la Vega’s pride in his emotional acceptance speech, mentioning it's huge for "La Raza," which directly translates to "the race."

“Honest to god I did not expect to win this award tonight, but it’s been a trial to get here,” Rico said. “This is huge for La Raza, this is huge for my people. For all the taqueros, anything is possible.”

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