CHICAGO – Ten years ago, Ann Kim of Minneapolis was an actor.

On Monday night, she stepped onto the stage of the Civic Opera House to accept the country's highest honor for culinary achievement for her work as chef/co-owner of Young Joni restaurant in northeast Minneapolis.

"I gave up a very unlucrative acting career to be a cook," she told the black-tie audience at the James Beard Foundation's annual awards gala. "By saying 'no' to fear, I said 'yes' to possibility. We cannot be what we cannot see.

"If my work has made a traditionally narrow path a little wider, that will be my greatest achievement."

In an emotional speech, Kim thanked her mother and father. "To my parents, who immigrated to this country from South Korea more than 40 years ago, who mopped floors and cleaned toilets so that my sister and I wouldn't have to. I know your hearts sank when I said 'I'm going to be an actor,' followed by 'I'm going to be a cook.'

"I stand here in front of you today, living my best life."

The audience was moved by her words. Peter Sagal, host of "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" on NPR, placed the medallion around her neck. "My condolences to whomever has to follow that," he said as she exited the stage.

Gavin Kaysen, chef/owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, who won Best Chef: Midwest last year, was at the awards ceremony. "Her speech gave light to her journey, much of which we know back in Minneapolis. But for five minutes, she connected and commanded that stage with the same grace and fearlessness that she does while cooking the food at Young Joni.

"Minneapolis is a force of delicious food where the dining public allows us to all take risks," said Kaysen. "She is a force."

Back in Minneapolis, Rachael Crew, marketing director for Young Joni, was monitoring social media. "Lots and lots of people are sharing their love on Instagram," she said. "We're thrilled for her. It feels really great to have her talent and vision recognized in such a prestigious way."

The James Beard awards have been celebrating American culinary excellence since 1991. Along with a number of national categories, the New York City-based foundation bestows its medallions in 10 Best Chef regional categories. The Midwest represents chefs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

Kim was joined in the category by two Minneapolis nominees — Jamie Malone of Grand Cafe and Christina Nguyen of Hai Hai — along with Michael Gallina of Vicia in St. Louis and Michael Corvino of Corvino Supper Club & Tasting Room in Kansas City, Mo.

Kim was also a 2018 nominee. She's the sixth Twin Cities chef to be named Best Chef: Midwest, following Tim McKee (then at La Belle Vie, now at Octo Fishbar) in 2009, Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma in 2010, Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery in 2011, Paul Berglund (then at the Bachelor Farmer, now at Fiddlehead Coffee Co. in Rochester) in 2016 and Kaysen in 2018.

Kim and her husband and business partner, Conrad Leifur, also operate Pizzeria Lola in Minneapolis and Hello Pizza in Edina. Young Joni was the Star Tribune's 2017 Restaurant of the Year.

Mark Vancleave
Video (02:08) Chef/co-owner Ann Kim talks about Young Joni's first big year.

The Beard gala also included its Leadership Award, for which Twin Cities chef Sean Sherman, known as the Sioux Chef, was honored with five others.

Awards host Jesse Tyler Ferguson noted early in the program that "For those of you who don't know what the Oscars are, they're basically the James Beard Awards of Hollywood movies."

The awards were broadcast live on Twitter, with an estimated 2 million people following the event.

Lee Svitak Dean contributed to this report.