January 31, 2024 507 PM
MARFA — Local restaurants Cochineal and Convenience West were named semifinalists last week for the 2024 James Beard Awards, an annual recognition program of the country’s top talent in the food and hospitality industry.
“To have two James Beard noms in this weird little town is pretty cool,” owner-operator of Convenience West Mark Scott said. “And the fact that we’re one of them is really wild.”
Convenience West joins establishments from across the country in the Outstanding Restaurant category, and Cochineal Chef and Owner Alexandra Gates was nominated in the Best Chef Texas category. In April, the James Beard Foundation will announce a handful of finalists from each category, which will be invited to an awards ceremony in Chicago.
“That would be really exciting if we both got to go,” Gates said. She was a semifinalist for Best Chef Texas back in 2020 and was invited to cook at the awards ceremony in Chicago in 2021. Gates and her then pastry and sous chefs, Jacqueline Agans and Jocelyn Jerrils, traveled to the gala to prepare a dish for the event.
Gates, along with her husband James Harkrider, purchased Cochineal in 2017. She said the nomination was an honor, and that it’s nice to be recognized for the hard work it takes to run a successful restaurant. “There’s so many really great restaurants and really great chefs out there,” she said. “That’s why it feels like such an honor that they would even consider me.”
The news of the nominations came as a surprise to both Gates and the owner-operators of Convenience West, Mark Scott, Kaki Aufdengarten-Scott and Katy Rose Elsasser. Scott said he received a congratulatory text from Texas Monthly Barbecue Editor Daniel Vaughn who tipped him off about the news.
“And then just like immediately, Instagram mention, Instagram mention, comment,” Scott said. “The phones just started blowing up. It was a real wild day on social media because it’s like, the love was pouring in from everybody.”
Elssaser said Convenience West’s recognition, as well as that of other barbecue restaurants across the state, shows the James Beard’s commitment to expanding beyond the traditionally-lauded Los Angeles and New York-centric culinary world.
“The fact that barbecue would be on there really says something, I think, about how food culture in America has changed,” Elsasser said. “It’s not like, beurre blanc on sole, there’s no gastriques; it’s cool that it’s become that much more American.”
Convenience West opened in 2017 and has previously been named to Texas Monthly’s Top 25 and Top 50 barbecue restaurants since their opening. The trio credits their early success to their unique approach of not trying to replicate other barbecue joints and reflecting the town of Marfa in their menu and attitude — offering something for everyone.
“Regionally, we tried to really appeal to what we know, like Tex-Mex,” Aufdengarten-Scott said. “Trying to kind of weave the identity of the community into the barbecue restaurant instead of slapping a barbecue restaurant on top of the community.”
The Convenience West team was excited by the news that they were nominated in the Outstanding Restaurant category because it is a reflection of the holistic experience diners get when visiting their establishment, they said. Once a gas station, the characterful cinder block structure is outfitted with booths from an old town bar, Ray’s, and a giant smoker made by local welder Mac White where Scott honed his pitmaster skills.
“The definition of owner-operated,” per Scott, the trio handles everything themselves including the restaurant’s finances and cleaning, splitting firewood, making sausage and visiting with customers. The model is demanding, the owners said, but perhaps one of the reasons they have put Marfa barbecue on the national map.
“I think it’s the reason six years into it, we could pick up an Outstanding Restaurant [award] because I really do feel like our food that we make really has gotten better over the years, and we have been able to maintain some real consistency.” Scott said.