Rising star chef of the year: Justin Sutherland
Suddenly, it seemed as if Justin Sutherland was everywhere. There was the Apple Valley native, climbing up the pressure-cooked ranks on Bravo's "Top Chef" (yes, he was robbed during a mentor challenge, when he cooked for former boss J.D. Fratzke, now at Falls Landing in Cannon Falls, Minn.) while personifying all the genuinely nice aspects of Minnesota Nice, coordinating the food-and-drink offerings at St. Paul's dazzling new Allianz Field soccer stadium, taking the helm as managing partner at the Madison Restaurant Group (Handsome Hog, Gray Duck Tavern and five other St. Paul properties) and quickly remaking several of the company's restaurants (including transforming Fitzgerald's into the Fitz pizzeria), and then opening a pair of counters — Chickpea and Obachan Noodles & Chicken— at Rosedale's Potluck food hall. His ambitions aren't stopping there. For starters, Sutherland is reviving his Pearl and the Thief, moving it from Stillwater to downtown Minneapolis, and inserting a branch of Chickpea in St. Paul's Keg and Case Market.
Maverick of the year: Ann Ahmed
After a decade of ownership of a well-regarded Thai restaurant in Brooklyn Park, chef Ann Ahmed busted a breakout move, taking a deep dive into her Laotian heritage and love of Southeast Asian flavors. It was a gamble that paid off, big time. Her transformation of a former Perkins outlet in Golden Valley into the welcoming, stylish and appealing Lat14 proves all kinds of truisms: Ahmed, a talent to watch, has all the right instincts and audacity for her challenging industry, and she and her crew are delivering an exciting, highly polished experience that's countering the outdated notion that "suburban dining" is equivalent with "boring."
Titan of the year: Hector Ruiz
A busy schedule is the norm for Hector Ruiz; that's what happens when a chef owns and operates multiple restaurants. But 2019 really stands out because the hardworking Ruiz built (literally, the man not only cooks, he's good with power tools) his fifth Minneapolis restaurant, adding to a portfolio of spirited, small-scaled neighborhood gems that includes Cafe Ena, La Fresca, Rincón 38 and Costa Blanca Bistro. Ruiz created his latest in a sliver of a spot at 50th and Xerxes in south Minneapolis, christening it Don Raúl, an affectionate nod to his grandfather. What a career: Ruiz is all about merging his Parisian training with the flavors and traditions of his parents' native Mexico, an equation that impresses his work into the hearts, minds and taste buds of an ever-growing number of Minnesotans.