The unstoppables

From openings, expansions and making eating at home more palatable, these 7 chefs didn't let the pandemic slow them down in 2021.

Shawn McKenzie

This was a breakout year for acclaimed pastry chef Shawn McKenzie, who first made her mark in the Twin Cities baking at Burch. (Her baba au rhum was legendary.) Next, she was the executive chef at Penny's Coffee in Minneapolis' Linden Hills neighborhood. When that cafe closed, she teamed with Daniel del Prado to turn the Penny's space into Café Cerés, a daytime spot with a menu inspired by her travels in the Middle East. A second Café Cerés soon followed in the city's Armatage neighborhood. If that weren't enough, McKenzie and del Prado opened Cardamom at the Walker Art Center, another showcase for her winning use of tahini and rye in cookies, among other delights. (SJ)

Jon Wipfli

A fine-dining chef turned smoker boss, Jon Wipfli doubled down on his Animales Barbeque Co. this year with a huge increase in capacity, thanks to a custom-built smoker at his original location outside Able Seedhouse + Brewery in northeast Minneapolis. He then added a burger-centric outpost, also in Northeast, this time outside of Bauhaus Brew Labs. And even in a town filled with burger options, this one stands out as a beefy bit of goodness, with a salty crust exterior and ultra-rich meaty interior. (JS)

Tara Coleman

Tara Coleman took over two newly built strip-mall restaurants and transformed them into her own little corner of the world, or at least St. Paul, serving hungry fans day and night. Hot Hands Pie & Biscuit quickly became a breakfast sensation, and a welcome biscuit delivery during the pandemic. (Side note: pie totally counts as breakfast.) When a neighboring property became available, she partnered with friends and created Chip's Clubhouse, a new supper clubby neighborhood nook that serves hearty fare and sensational cocktails. (JS)

Soleil Ramirez

Since leaping from the kitchen at the Lexington in St. Paul to her own venture at the Midtown Global Market in Uptown Minneapolis, Soleil Ramirez has been applying her fine-dining expertise to the cuisine of her homeland, Venezuela. The counter-service Arepa Bar opened in January, and over the course of the year, Ramirez has become an integral fixture to the international food hall. She has hosted tasting menus to showcase Venezuelan cooking, and she was behind the launch of a market-wide progressive dinner, with seven courses by vendors from around the world. (SJ)

Gerard Klass

Gerard Klass' determination to build a fast-casual restaurant with soul has resulted in not only a reliably tasty Soul Bowl at Graze Provisions + Libations food hall in Minneapolis' North Loop, but also a second location in Richfield that serves serious chicken sandwiches like the Big K.R.I.T. and sumptuous, flavorful bowls. Plus, his B.A.D. Wingz is the only wing stop in town that serves meat eaters and veggie fiends with equal aplomb. Graze has blossomed into a destination for food and fun under Klass' guidance, and he's also created another tasty reason to explore the culinary riches of Richfield. (JS)

Gustavo Romero

From the exterior, Nixta appears to be a humble takeout-only taco shop. But what's happening inside the northeast Minneapolis kitchen is a tortilla revolution. In chef/owner Gustavo Romero's hands, heirloom corn brought in from Mexico is transformed via nixtamalization into some phenomenal tortillas proliferating around the city. The takeout-only menu, which began as family meals during the pandemic, is richly savory and easy to prepare. Through Romero's work, the humble corn kernel is being reexamined, the heritage breeds providing nuanced flavor, and through the chef's deft development, it's become a hot commodity — even showing up in a local beer. (JS)

Gavin Kaysen

Perhaps the most well-known chef in the state, at least nationally, Gavin Kaysen didn't go into the last two years as an underdog by any means. But he didn't coast by, either. From the loss of Bellecour in Wayzata last year, Kaysen picked up the pieces — one particularly sweet piece, in fact — by opening Bellecour Bakery at Cooks of Crocus Hill in Minneapolis with pastry chef Diane Moua. This summer, a second location at St. Paul Cooks followed. In the meantime, Kaysen fleshed out his brand, with the GK at Home slate of cooking classes, and the electrifying return of Spoon and Stable's Synergy Series with guest chefs that most recently brought Thomas Keller and Missy Robbins to Minneapolis. (SJ)
To see more of our look back at Minnesota's food scene in 2021, including our Restaurant of the Year, best dining moments, beloved neighborhood spots and more, use the drop-down navigation bar at the top of this page.