Five Twin Cities chefs are semifinalists for the 2023 James Beard Foundation awards.
The high-profile culinary awards, widely viewed as the industry's highest honors, recognize and celebrate excellence in restaurants and food media, "as well as a demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive," according to the foundation.
The restaurant awards fall into 10 national categories and 12 regional categories.
Shawn McKenzie, co-owner of Minneapolis' two Café Cerés locations, is a semifinalist for the highly competitive national award of Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker. The award recognizes a pastry chef or baker who "demonstrates exceptional skills" and "contributes positively to their broader community."
McKenzie has been a star Twin Cities pastry chef for a decade, since she was on the opening team at Isaac Becker's Burch Steak in 2013. After five years at Burch, she became executive chef for Penny's Cafe, bringing her interest in Middle Eastern cuisine to the Linden Hills cafe. When Penny's closed during the pandemic, McKenzie and longtime collaborator Daniel del Prado reopened the space as the first Café Cerés, a Middle Eastern-infused daytime eatery known for its Turkish bagels and tahini cookies. She also joined Rustica Bakery as executive pastry chef last year.
This is McKenzie's first time as a James Beard Awards semifinalist.
She is one of 20 on the long list for her category, which merges two separate categories (for pastry chef and for baker) for the first time, making room for the addition of an Outstanding Bakery category in 2023.
The shorter list of nominees will be announced March 29.
Beyond McKenzie's recognition, Minnesota was otherwise unrepresented in the national categories, just one year after Dana Thompson and Sean Sherman's Owamni scored the prestigious win for the country's best new restaurant. It was the first competitive win in a national category for a Minnesota restaurant.
But the Twin Cities had a strong showing in the regional category Best Chef: Midwest, with four honorees out of 20. They are: Ann Ahmed of Khâluna and Lat 14; Christina Nguyen of Hai Hai; Karyn Tomlinson of Myriel, and Yia Vang of Union Hmong Kitchen.
The award recognizes "chefs who set high standards in their culinary skills and leadership abilities, and who are making efforts to help create a sustainable work culture in their respective regions while contributing positively to their broader community." The category encompasses Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
Vang was a finalist in 2022 in this category. Nguyen was a semifinalist in 2018 and a finalist in 2019 and 2020. Tomlinson was a semifinalist in 2019. This is Ahmed's first recognition from the James Beard Foundation.
Six Twin Cities chefs are previous Best Chef: Midwest winners: Tim McKee (formerly of La Belle Vie) in 2009, Alex Roberts (Restaurant Alma) in 2010, Isaac Becker (112 Eatery) in 2011, Paul Berglund (formerly of the Bachelor Farmer) in 2016, Gavin Kaysen (Spoon and Stable) in 2018 and Ann Kim (Young Joni) in 2019. Kaysen is Minnesota's only national James Beard award-winning chef; he was named Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2008 during his tenure at Cafe Boulud in New York City.
Established in 1990, the James Beard Awards are often described as the Oscars of the food world. The 2023 awards ceremony will take place in Chicago on June 5.
In 2022, the James Beard Awards returned from a two-year hiatus brought on by the pandemic and an internal reckoning at the foundation over diversity. During that time, the foundation audited its policies and procedures in an aim to increase transparency, avoid bias and better reflect the diversity of the hospitality industry.
"After a year of fundamental changes, we look forward to building on the progress made, celebrating those paving a better future for us all — through their talent and craft, service to others, and commitment to a better, more sustainable industry," said Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation, in a statement.
"It is exciting to see deserving talent across the industry be recognized for their achievement — and that the changes we made to our policies and procedures are still bearing fruit," said Tanya Holland, awards committee chair.
For a complete list of the semifinalists, go to jamesbeard.org.
Meet the local semifinalists for Best Chef: Midwest:
Ann Ahmed opened her first restaurant, Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine, in Brooklyn Park in 2005. Since then, she has steadily dug deeper into her heritage and Southeast Asian regional cuisine while expanding her presence in the Twin Cities. In 2018, she opened her second restaurant, Lat 14 in Golden Valley; Khâluna in Minneapolis followed in 2021, drawing local praise and national attention. Through her evolution as a chef and restaurateur, she has also expanded diners' expectations and understanding of the region's cuisine from favorite classic dishes like pad thai and red curry, to sumptuous and gallery-worthy presentations of sticky rice with flower petals or whole fried fish bathed in a nuanced curry broth.
Christina Nguyen began her cooking career with her food truck Hola Arepa alongside partner and now spouse Birk Stefan Grudem. The two were on the forefront of a mobile food movement, selling Venezuelan-style arepas before parking the truck in 2014 at their first restaurant of the same name. In 2017, their second restaurant, Hai Hai, opened in northeast Minneapolis to immediate acclaim. In that kitchen, Nguyen reached back into her ancestry for punchy bursts of flavor with fish sauce and copious amounts of herbs. Her confident cooking has earned her a reputation for bold flavors and vibrant sauces.
Karyn Tomlinson began her professional career as a fine-dining pastry chef before switching to the savory side as chef de cuisine at the now-shuttered Corner Table. At the time, guests would clamor for bar seats in front of the open kitchen to observe Tomlinson's delicate hand with the French-influenced fare. She quickly made a reputation for deftly creating dishes where vegetables and freshly foraged ingredients would shine against a backdrop of lush sauces. During the pandemic, she turned to hosting her own Instagram series and pop-up, "Karyn's Quarantine Kitchen," before opening her first restaurant, Myriel in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood. The small bistro highlights her Nordic roots with both an a la carte menu and a tasting experience.
Yia Vang's first professional cooking experiences came through church cookouts, where he would pull out a grill to serve the community, sometimes cooking dishes that he learned to prepare from his parents. He trained in professional kitchens around the Twin Cities before launching his roving pop-up Union Hmong Kitchen. It's a restaurant that has worked as a metaphor for his personal journey as a Hmong immigrant. Born in a refugee camp, his family eventually found their home in Wisconsin, where Vang was raised. He has steadily built Union Hmong Kitchen from a nomadic idea into a popular stand inside Graze Provisions + Libations food hall. Vang has also become a bit of a TV celebrity, with appearances on cooking competitions and hosting gigs for "Relish" on TPT and "Feral" on the Outdoor Channel. He also made his State Fair debut, is a favorite guest chef at pop-ups around the Twin Cities and continues to work to bring his next restaurant, Vinai, to fruition.