CHICAGO – After being nominated in the Best Chef: Midwest category five times, Minneapolis chef Christina Nguyen picked up her first win at Monday night's James Beard Awards, held at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

"Thank you so much to my teams, past and present. Without you none of this is possible," said Nguyen, who owns Hai Hai and Hola Arepa restaurants with husband Birk Grudem. "Your consistency and dedication to excellence is so inspiring to me."

Nguyen also thanked her parents, refugees from Vietnam, and the James Beard Foundation for "recognizing the value of immigrant food. When we started our restaurant, the most a Southeast Asian restaurant could ever hope for was 'best cheap eats,' and I feel like we've come a long way."

Presenting the award was previous winner — and fellow Minneapolis chef — Ann Kim, who was visibly emotional as she placed the hallmark medal around the neck of her good friend.

"I love her. She's my friend. She and Birk worked so hard. They're self-made, those two. It's not just cooking. Christina, she's my heart. And last night, I almost didn't come, because of everything that's going on," Kim said later, referring to the recent vandalism at her Uptown restaurant and ongoing labor issues. "My husband said, 'You gotta go, you gotta go.' And I'm so glad that I did. Because being able to say her name and put that medal around her neck … I'm so proud of her. So proud."

"Today feels unreal," Nguyen told the Star Tribune shortly after her win. "I don't know. I just feel like I'm having an out-of-body experience. I think it's a mix of feelings. It's everything."

Owamni chef and James Beard Award winner Sean Sherman also was on hand to give post-award advice: "It just opens doors. I think that's what really happened with me, it really helped create a path, just a lot of doors."

Nguyen was already thinking about what will change for the restaurant should she return a James Beard Award winner.

"My team was like if we win we're gonna be under so much pressure," she said. "So there's obviously the pressure of, you know, continuing to deliver. But I'm just like, we just keep doing what we've been doing, because that's why we are where we are. We've been consistently making good food and putting love and passion into it."

Perhaps the win was foreshadowed by her team. When they were getting ready, Nguyen asked if she should wear a necklace with her outfit. Janene Holig, her culinary director, and Ruby Scher, director of operations, said, "No necklace. You're going to get one."

Also representing Minnesota at the award was Ann Ahmed, who was a finalist with Nguyen in the Best Chef: Midwest category with Khâluna, and Oro by Nixta, which competed against nine other U.S. restaurants for the prestigious award of Best New Restaurant, the category won by Minneapolis' Owamni in 2022. Dakar Nola in New Orleans picked up that honor.

When Nguyen and Grudem opened Hai Hai in 2018, it was an immediate success. The Star Tribune gave it 3½ stars, calling it "one of those charmed restaurants where nearly every one of its well-engineered components fosters a single emotion: happiness."

The couple did much of the interior design and handiwork themselves. Nguyen even thanked Grudem in her speech for knowing how to fix things at the restaurant. It's become an inside joke, she said later.

As a self-taught chef, she said her ascendance in the Minneapolis culinary scene has come with impostor syndrome, a feeling that still nagged at her on the red carpet, where she said she had "butterflies," and even during her winning speech.

Could the medal around her neck help her overcome it?

"It may make it scarier," she said. "I'm not sure."