Twelve Twin Cities chefs and bakers have been named semifinalists for the 30th-annual James Beard Foundation awards.

The highly coveted awards, the so-called "Oscars of the food world," recognize and celebrate excellence in 21 categories.

The category with the most local names? It’s Best Chef: Midwest.

The Midwest region includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. The award -- it's one of the Beard's 10 regional chef honors -- goes to "Chefs who have set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions. Eligible candidates may be from any kind of dining establishment and must have been working as a chef for at least five years with the three most recent years spent in the region."

This year’s Best Chef: Midwest semifinalists include:

Lenny Russo, Heartland Restaurant & Wine Bar. This is Russo’s ninth semifinalist nod (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016) and he’s a five-time (2010, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015) nominee.

Paul Berglund, the Bachelor Farmer. This is Berglund’s third time as a semifinalist (2014, 2015, 2016), and he’s a two-time (2014, 2015) nominee.

Russell Klein, Meritage. Klein is a four-time (2011, 2012, 2015, 2016) semifinalist.

Mike Brown, James Winberg and Bob Gerken, Travail Kitchen & Amusements. This is the trio’s fourth appearance as semifinalists (2012, 2013, 2015, 2016); Brown and Gerken were on the 2012 list, and Gerken joined the partnership for 2013 and 2015. (from left to right, that's Winberg, partner Kale Thorne, Brown and Gerken; photo by Travis Anderson).

Jorge Guzman, Surly Brewing Co. Guzman is a first-time semifinalist.

 

Jim Christiansen, Heyday. Christiansen’s first time on the semifinalist list was in 2015.   

 

Thomas Boemer, Corner Table. Boemer is a first-time semifinalist.

In the highly competitive national Beard categories, three Minnesotans made the cut:

Michelle Gayer of the Salty Tart for Outstanding Baker (that's Gayer with daughters Isabelle, left, and Ava, center), and

John Kraus of Patisserie 46 for Outstanding Baker. The award honors “a chef or baker who prepares breads, pastries or desserts in a retail bakery, and who serves as a national standard-bearer of excellence. Must have been a baker or pastry chef for at least five years.”

The much-nominated Gayer has been recognized as a two-time Outstanding Pastry Chef nominee (2002, when she was at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, and 2010 for her work at the Salty Tart) and a two-time semifinalist in the same category (2011, 2012). In addition, she is a three-time semifinalist (2013, 2014, 2015) and nominee (2013, 2014, 2015) in the Best Chef: Midwest category. This is her first appearance in this category, which began in 2015.

This is Kraus’ second semifinalist appearance in this category; the first was in 2015.

Diane Yang of Spoon and Stable for Outstanding Pastry Chef. The award honors “a chef or baker who prepares desserts, pastries or breads in a restaurant, and who serves as a national standard-bearer of excellence.  Must have been a pastry chef or baker for the past five years.” This is Yang’s first appearance on this semifinalist list. 

Minnesotans were not recognized in Outstanding Chef, Outstanding Restaurant, Rising Star Chef of the Year (bestowed upon chefs ages 30 or younger), Best New Restaurant, Outstanding Bar Program, Outstanding Service, Outstanding Wine Service and Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional categories. For a complete list of semfinalists, go here.

The semifinalist announcement is the first step in a three-part process. Last month, the foundation's Restaurant and Chef Committee selected 20 candidates in each one of the awards’ 21 categories. (Full disclosure: I am a former member of this committee.)

The ballot goes out to a pool of 500-plus voters, including critics, writers and editors, culinary educators and past chef and restaurant award winners. (Releasing the semifinalist list to the public is a fairly recent phenomenon; until 2008, the list was a not-so-carefully-guarded secret.)

The top five vote-getters in each category ascend to the nominee level (that’s Beard-speak for "finalist"). This year's nominees will be announced on March 15 at an event in San Francisco (follow along that morning on the foundation’s Twitter feed). Once the nominees' names are made public, a second ballot goes out to the same voting pool.

The top vote-getter in that second round of voting is awarded the coveted Beard medallion at a gala awards ceremony. (All winners receive a certificate and a medallion engraved with the James Beard Foundation insignia. There are no cash prizes). This year's event is being held on May 2 at Chicago’s Civic Opera House and will be hosted by Carla Hall of ABC TV’s “The Chew.”

Nominees in the foundation’s cookbook, journalism, broadcast and design awards will also be announced on March 15 (there are no semifinalists in these awards). Winners in these categories will be announced at a dinner in New York City on April 26.

Congratulations to all the semifinalists.

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