Paul Berglund, chef of the Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis, was named Best Chef: Midwest by the James Beard Foundation at its annual awards gala in Chicago on Monday evening. We caught up with him two days later, back in Minneapolis.
Q: What does it mean to you to have won this award?
A: It’s an incredible honor that I feel really fortunate to have won. It’s wonderful for our team. It’s a testament to the hard work that everyone is doing here, to do the best that they can, day in and day out, year in and year out. There are so many people that are deserving of this recognition that might not be on the national radar, so to be honored this way is just a terrific feeling.
Q: What was your mind-set going into the awards?
A: To be honest, my mind was not prepared to go to Chicago, because Kelli [his wife] was graduating. She was getting her Ph.D in counseling psychology on Friday. That was just a great time. Basically from Thursday to Saturday, it was about celebrating with her whole family and all of her peers and colleagues and advisers, and it was just amazing to be in that environment of such accomplishment, and the culmination of a terrific six-year effort on her part. It was a wonderful way to kick off the weekend.
Q: Were you nervous?
A: I didn’t really get nervous until Monday morning. Then the switch flipped, and I became very nervous. It ebbed and flowed throughout the day. But Monday was a lot of fun, just spending time talking with people.
One of the great things about these weekends is that I get a chance to see, to meet, to connect with people that have really influenced our industry and our culture in pretty significant ways.
I met one of the people I respect the most in our industry, Jeremy Fox. He’s a chef at Rustic Canyon in Los Angeles. He works with vegetables in a way that very few people do. Eating a meal at Ubuntu in Napa when he was the chef there was one of the pivotal moments in my career in terms of my understanding the direction I wanted my food to go in. So I had the chance to meet him and thank him for that meal, and that was really awesome.
Q: What’s it like, the experience of going to the James Beard awards?
A: First of all, it’s surreal. There’s actually a red carpet that I got to walk. Admittedly, Paul Berglund from Minnesota is not who all the food paparazzi are looking for. They have their eyes out for Marcus Samuelsson, Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. Nonetheless, it’s still a terrific experience. It makes you feel special.
Q: Then you sit and wait for your category. What was that like?
A: Once I was seated, I felt more comfortable. I felt happy to be there. I felt joy to be there. Plus, there are a lot of distractions. You look over and see the crew from Alinea. You see people from San Francisco who cook world-class food. They’re the people I’ve always looked up to, and they’re sitting all around us.
Q: You hear presenter Ming Tsai call out your name. What happens?
A: I took a breath, and everyone else in my row got up and just started hooting and hollering. I was shocked and filled with joy. I kissed Kelli and gave Eric and Cory [Dayton] a big hug and made my way to the stage. At the end of the row was [New York City chef] David Chang. I was so excited that I shook his hand and said, ‘Yeah,’ and I think he thought that was pretty funny. Then I just rushed to the stage. My only thought was, ‘Just don’t stutter,’ or more like, ‘Stutter as little as possible,’ and then get off the stage with some dignity. That’s all I was after.
Q: You gave a great speech. What happens after you’re escorted into the wings?
A: They really know how to do this next step. The first thing they do is give you a glass of champagne. There’s something about that token that sort of soothes you, and you start celebrating.
Q: Walking through the gala party afterward, wearing your Beard medallion, had to have been a rush. Right?
A: It was a lot of fun. A lot of people saw the award and congratulated me, and that was really a wonderful feeling.
I didn’t even realize he was there, but I looked up and Thomas Keller was looking at me. He just held out his hand and there was this silent acknowledgment as we clasped hands. That was pretty awesome.
I will say that one of the highlights of the evening was dancing to Justin Bieber with Rick Bayless. We were at the after-party at Leña Brava, his new restaurant. That was pretty awesome, one of the crown jewels of my culinary career.
Q: What was the reaction back here at the restaurant?
A: Sam Gilman was running the kitchen, and I told him to give everyone a kiss for me. I don’t know if he did that or not. I think they toasted with some champagne, but then they went down the street to Red Cow and apparently took over the restaurant, and apparently celebrated as much as we did in Chicago.
Q: What are you going to do with the medallion? Did you wear at it at breakfast this morning?
A: I don’t think Kelli would go for that, although she did try it on yesterday. It looked pretty good on her. We’re figuring out exactly what to do with it, how to display it. We’ll frame it for sure.
Q: How big did your phone blow up, post-awards?
A: A hundred times bigger than anything else that has ever happened to my phone. One of the coolest parts about all of this has been feeling the support and recognition, from people from my elementary school in St. Louis, to my friends and family, to people in the food world here.
Q: Who was your first call?
A: I called my folks. They just moved from St. Louis to Florida. But it was 11:30, and they didn’t pick up. But we managed to connect the next morning, and it was great to share it with them. But my Mom did mention — to make sure that my head didn’t swell too big — that she used to change my diapers.
Q: Keeping you humble. What happened when you returned to the restaurant?
A: We had a chance to celebrate, and I got a chance to hug everyone. But you would not believe how quickly everyone went back to work. Because everyone has a job to do, and they needed to get it done. And I don’t mind that at all. I’m grateful for everyone’s continued focus, and for getting back to what’s most important.
Q: What did you wear to the awards?
A: I didn’t wear a tuxedo. I wore a sharp blue suit from Askov Finlayson [the Bachelor Farmer’s sibling establishment, a men’s fashion store]. I bought it especially for the occasion two years ago, and I wore it each time until I won.
Q: This was your third consecutive nomination. Aside from winning, of course, was this time different from your previous Beard experiences, or similar?
A: It was different. I went into this year with a greater appreciation for the honor. In 2016, I’ve been really excited about what I’m doing as a cook and chef, and what we’re doing here at the Bachelor Farmer. It’s a perfect year for winning, from my perspective, because during this past year we’ve accomplished so much together as a business.
Q: What does winning the award say about where you are in your career?
A: I’ve spent 13 years in this career, and I’ve worked really hard to get to be where I am. I have a lot of personal goals, and this is one step along the way. I don’t think of this as a finish line.
I hope that I can look back at this event as a wonderful milestone for a lot of people, not just me.
There is a real sense of team accomplishment with this award. I don’t have any doubt about that. The things that people do here, day in and day out, don’t always get recognized.
This award is one of the crowning bits of recognition that a restaurant can get, so I think that it’s just wonderful for all of our cooks, and servers, and accounting and HR people — really, everyone here — to be really happy, and smile.
The Bachelor Farmer
50 N. 2nd Av., Mpls., 612-206-3920, thebachelorfarmer.com