Closing in on its 60th anniversary — it opened on E. Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis in 1954 — Kramarczuk’s received a memorable early bird birthday present last week, in the form of a James Beard award.
On May 6 at a gala event at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, the James Beard Foundation bestowed “America’s Classics” status on Kramarczuk’s. Father-and-son owners Orest and Nick Kramarczuk were on hand to accept the award.
“This is not an easy business,” said Orest. “In the last 10 or 15 years it has become a glamorous business, but it’s still a really tough business. But this award reinforces the fact that we’re proud of this business, and we’re proud of Minnesota. What impresses me the most about the James Beard Awards is that it’s the best of the best, and it’s national. It’s the ultimate reward.”
Since 1998, the culinary organization has honored more than 80 family owned restaurants — from Waterman’s Beach Lobster in South Thomaston, Maine, to Helena’s Hawaiian Food in Oahu — with its America’s Classics award, which pays tribute to “restaurants with timeless appeal and that are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community.”
Two other Minnesota restaurants are members of this exclusive fraternity: Al’s Breakfast in Minneapolis, a 2004 honoree, and the Pickwick in Duluth, which won in 2007.
This year, Kramarczuk’s shared the stage with four other inductees: Frank Fat’s in Sacramento, Calif., Keens Steakhouse in New York City, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, Tenn., and C.F. Folks in Washington, D.C.
For anyone who has visited the Kramarczuk family’s remarkable Eastern European-flavored deli and cafe, the recognition is something of a no-brainer.
For starters, the place is steeped in history. Orest was 3 years old when his war-refugee parents Wasyl and Anna bought a long-established butcher shop, put their name on the door and started making sausages. He officially joined the business after graduating from law school; his first memory is the sawdust-covered floors, a long-gone tool for dealing with animal blood.
Nick has followed in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps. His first memory, aside from fear of an older, well-meaning Polish kitchen worker with a penchant for pinching his cheeks, is the shop’s distinctive scent.
“It’s the garlic, and the smoke, and the freshly baked bread, and the cabbage,” he said. “It just gets imprinted on you when you’re young.”
Those qualities seemed to jump off the screen during a brief, evocative video (see it at www.startribune.com/a2250). Each America’s Classics winner is captured on film, and the presentations are always a highlight of the evening. The Kramarczuk’s tribute was no exception, and at the awards’ jam-packed post-party, which fills the concert hall’s lobbies and terraces, father and son were a hot ticket.
“We didn’t have to network much, because people were coming to us,” said Orest. “Most of the comments were about the speech. That seems to have stuck in people’s minds.”
No wonder. Clocking in at just under five minutes, it was one of the longer acceptance speeches in Beard memory, and certainly one of the sweetest.
Orest devoted much of his speech to describing the commitment and passion required to run a busy legacy restaurant, and dedicating the award to his wife, Carrie, and their children Nick, Katie and Andrew.
But aside from acknowledging his shaky voice (“I’m getting a little emotional,” Orest said), what really seemed to capture the hearts of the 2,000-plus black-tie crowd was when he concluded by dedicating the award “to the people in this business who have been doing this for a lifetime, coming to their businesses, serving their customers, living the life 24/7,” he said. “It’s a hard profession. You have to realize that it’s not a piece of cake.”
That earned one of the evening’s most enthusiastic rounds of applause. The Beards have a reputation for length — one of many reasons why the proceedings are frequently referred to as the “Oscars of the food world” — but soon enough the tuxedo-clad Kramarczuks were mingling, sipping rum and grazing their way through appetizers along the lines of bison heart-filled crêpes.
“I’ve done events like that before, where you go and bring a bunch of samples and serve a crowd,” said Orest. “This was probably one of the bigger events that I’ve gone to, and it was nice to finally go to one as a guest instead of being on the other end.”
The award wasn’t the only major news to come out of Kramarczuk’s last week. Early May also marked the debut of “Kramarczuk’s Family Classics” (Beaver’s Pond Press, $27.99), a collection of stories by Orest and nearly three dozen comfort-food recipes from Katie Kramarczuk, based upon her grandmother Anna’s cooking, including borscht, dumplings, cabbage rolls and babka.
For first-timers to the family’s busy counter-service cafe — and if you’ve never been, seriously, what are you waiting for? — here’s a guided tour. Father prefers the sausage sandwiches, and anything with corned beef or pastrami. Son gravitates toward the combo plate — cabbage roll, sausage, sauerkraut and pierogi — with a kolache for dessert. Oh, and for those picking up sausages in the adjacent deli, don’t leave the premises without buying buns. Honest.
“We like to say that they’re custom-made for our sausages,” said Nick. “I tell people that they have to buy them, and I’m not saying that because I’m getting paid on commission or anything like that. If you’re throwing our sausages on the grill, you have got to put them in our buns. Don’t go and get a grocery store-bought sponge bun. Try one of ours.”
As for the actual award — a heavy round medallion, stamped with Beard’s bow tie-wearing image and fashioned on a silver ribbon — it’s quickly transitioning from its position of honor around Orest’s neck to another Kramarzcuk’s pride of place.
“We’re going to hang it next to the chicken legs,” said Orest, referring to the pair of bones — thought to be from the first chicken butchered at the shop — mounted on a horseshoe, a shrine of sorts at the restaurant’s entrance.
“This award doesn’t belong to me,” said Orest. “It belongs to my parents, and my children, and whoever is going to come after that. It belongs to all of us.”
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