Discovering the deliciousness of slow-roasted barbacoa wrapped in a homemade tortilla isn’t technically part of the curriculum at the Culinary Institute of America–San Antonio, but assistant professor and chef Lilla Bernal says it’s part of the experience nonetheless.
“We have students who have ideas about what the food culture is here, and it’s exciting to see them experimenting with it,” says Bernal, a former CIA and assistant professor of baking and pastry. .
Sure, breakfast tacos and mangonadas are part of what defines San Antonio’s food scene, but Bernal and other chefs are quick to point out that it’s the diversity of styles and cuisine, and not just the excellent tex-mex, which makes San Antonio a destination for diners. It’s something outsiders have increasingly noticed over the past decade, including earlier this year when San Antonio chefs and restaurants earned a record seven nominations for the award’s semifinals. James Beard.
Known as the Oscars of Food, the awards recognize the best in the industry and although locals have been nominated multiple times over the years (Bruce Auden holds the record with seven nominations), a San Antonian no hasn’t won any awards yet. This year’s semi-finalists included everything from barbecue to Mexican cuisine to fine dining, but chef Steve McHugh, of Healed, was the only local finalist. The winners will be announced at a ceremony later this month in Chicago.
“We’ve had an amazing dining scene and I honestly think people take notice,” says McHugh, who has earned six nominations over the years for his work at Cured. “To the foundation’s credit, they’ve seen the big cities get (a lot) of nominations and they’ve looked at some of the second-tier cities and even smaller cities this year. That’s good. That’s what he should be.
The rise in national awards and media in recent years follows San Antonio’s designation as one of two UNESCO Creative Cities of Gastronomy in the United States.
Stephen Paprocki, one of the city’s UNESCO chef ambassadors and owner of Chefs’ cooperatives, says San Antonio has long been “a city on the rise,” but the designations and awards have been crucial in getting others’ attention. “Every year it gets better,” he says. “With UNESCO and the James Beard Prizes, all eyes are on us. We have to hit the mark.
Maintaining momentum at a time when the industry is also facing staffing issues and record inflation will take work, he says, but these are also the same hurdles faced by chefs in other cities.
“I can name 10 restaurants that closed because of staff and they’re quietly coming out,” says Paprocki, who closed his Gunslingers restaurant in Los Patios earlier this year because of staff. He plans to reopen it as a food trailer, which will serve the take-out meals that people are increasingly looking for while requiring minimal staff. “There are always ways to grow, you just have to find that pivot.”
Berty Richter, the chef behind the upcoming Ladino set to open in Pearl later this year, says it’s San Antonio’s growth and creativity that has drawn him and the Emmer & Rye family of restaurants based in Austin.
“It’s a natural growth path for us as a company,” he says. “San Antonio is growing and there’s talk of how the two cities could become one big metropolitan area, but San Antonio is creating its own momentum and credit goes to San Antonio for doing it.”
Bernal says the growth is exciting to watch and is part of a long history of great food, something San Antonio chefs tend to recognize and honor.
“San Antonio really appreciates everything that happened before this moment,” says Bernal, who is also a UNESCO Chief Ambassador. “We’re the land of the 99-cent taco, but we’re also the land of those high-end restaurants that are forward-thinking when it comes to farm-to-table. We have all these barbacoa places and these tex-mex places that are everyone’s favorites – that’s what’s great about the food scene. There is such a variety not only of styles but also of philosophies.