Minneapolis pastry chef Shawn McKenzie was named a finalist Wednesday for a national James Beard Award in the highly competitive category of Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker. The Café Cerés and Rustica chef and co-owner now faces four others from across the country for the title, which will be announced in Chicago on June 5.
"It's huge," said McKenzie's longtime collaborator and business partner, Twin Cities chef Daniel del Prado. "She's going to do great."
Remarkably, McKenzie was the lone chef from the Twin Cities to be recognized in 2023.
Of the four Minnesota chefs to be longlisted earlier this year as James Beard semifinalists in the Best Chef: Midwest category, none were named as finalists, making 2023 the first year without a Minnesota finalist in two decades.
The local semifinalists for Best Chef: Midwest were Ann Ahmed of Khâluna and Lat 14; Christina Nguyen of Hai Hai; Karyn Tomlinson of Myriel, and Yia Vang of Union Hmong Kitchen. But the five Midwest chefs who were announced Wednesday as finalists hail from Sioux Falls, S.D., Milwaukee, Madison and Omaha.
"Obviously, I'm a little disappointed," said Tim McKee, the first Minnesota chef to win Best Chef: Midwest in 2009. "I would like to see a little more attention brought to our area."
McKee surmised that with Twin Cities chefs and restaurateurs still focusing on pandemic recovery, they did not draw enough attention from outside the region this past year.
"We're still in a lot of ways rebuilding from the pandemic, and everybody is, but I feel the vibrancy of our food culture isn't exactly what it was three years ago," McKee said. "The award is basically what kind of impact you have on the region as a whole, and a lot of people are currently — and they should be — focusing their energies on what's happening inside their four walls rather than the greater culinary direction of the region, which makes some sense."
Minneapolis chef and restaurateur Gavin Kaysen, another previous Best Chef: Midwest winner, said the Beard Awards have a natural "ebb and flow" that shifts attention to some geographic areas more than others each year.
"It's also the question of who are you cooking for? As a chef, are you cooking for the people who are going to nominate you for a Beard award, or are you cooking for your full dining room every night? And I'm sure most of the chefs will tell you the latter," Kaysen said. "Do they want to win that award? It's amazing, and I think for most chefs it's a goal. But to have a full dining room is really important and really special."
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. Six Twin Cities chefs are previous winners of the Best Chef: Midwest category, which encompasses Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
Despite the Twin Cities' strong showing in the regional category over the past 15 years, Minnesota has had a dearth of winners in the national categories. When Dana Thompson and Sean Sherman's Owamni scored the illustrious win for the country's best new restaurant, it was the first competitive win in a national category for a Minnesota restaurant.
McKenzie could be Minnesota's next national winner.
Her category 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 Coffee, bringing her interest in Middle Eastern cuisine to the Linden Hills café. 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. She has since opened two more Café Cerés locations in Minneapolis and is working on another with co-owner del Prado.
"She works hard all the time, so it was about time" for McKenzie to be recognized in such a prominent way, said del Prado, himself a two-time semifinalist for Best Chef: Midwest. "For me, I think this is bigger than to have been nominated as a chef from the Midwest because she's going up against a lot of different cities' [pastry chefs]. I'm very proud of her."
This is McKenzie's first James Beard nomination, as either a semifinalist or finalist.
Established in 1990, the James Beard Awards are often described as the Oscars of the food world. From its inception until 2003, Minneapolis and St. Paul were largely left out of the national awards, with Best Chef Midwest nominees including such titans of the industry as Charlie Trotter in Chicago and Paul Bartolotta in Milwaukee. Minneapolis first entered the field in 2003, with a nomination going to Roger Johnsson of Aquavit. Every year since, Minneapolis has been home to chefs nominated in the category. Former La Belle Vie chef McKee's win in 2009 was the first time a Minneapolis chef took home the honor.
Additional local winners are: 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.
For a complete list of the nominees, go to jamesbeard.org.