Owamni by the Sioux Chef, Minnesota's first full-service Indigenous restaurant, was named on Wednesday as a nominee for Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation Awards. The national category pits the groundbreaking Minneapolis restaurant against 10 others from around the country.
The finalists announced Wednesday pared the contenders down from a list of 30 semifinalists announced last month.
The high-profile awards, widely viewed as the industry's highest honors, recognize and celebrate excellence in restaurants, cookbooks and journalism. The restaurant awards fall into 10 national categories and 12 regional categories.
Best New Restaurant is one of the most competitive national categories. It honors a restaurant that "opened in 2020 or 2021 that already demonstrates excellence in cuisine and hospitality and seems likely to make a significant impact in years to come."
Owamni, which Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson opened in 2021 in the Water Works Pavilion, a picturesque spot overlooking the Owámniyomni (the Dakota name for St. Anthony Falls) of the Mississippi River, has won global accolades, including being named the Star Tribune's Restaurant of the Year. Reservations have been hard to come by for Sherman's deft exploration of Indigenous Native American cuisine. The menu omits any ingredients brought to North America by colonizers, including wheat, sugar and dairy.
"We're different and we do stand out a little bit," Sherman told the Star Tribune Wednesday. "We're the only restaurant out there doing what we're doing. So we're just really excited to get some notice for all the hard work."
Minnesota was last represented in this category by two Gavin Kaysen restaurants, Demi in 2020 and Spoon and Stable in 2015.
Sherman is also on the shortlist as a finalist in the Best Chef Midwest regional category. He faces competition from two other local chefs, Petite León's Jorge Guzmán and Union Hmong Kitchen's Yia Vang. Notably, all three are showcasing the cuisine of their cultures at their Minneapolis restaurants. Sherman, who was born in Pine Ridge, S.D., is Oglala Lakota. Guzmán was born in Mexico City, and Vang, who is Hmong, came to the U.S. as a child refugee.
Sherman previously had been recognized by the James Beard Awards as a cookbook author, but this is his first year inside his restaurant, located on a site sacred to the Dakota and Anishinaabe people.
"To see that people are taking notice of the work that we're doing, it's just a big honor," Sherman said.
Guzmán was previously a nominee in this category, in 2017, and a semifinalist in 2016, for his work at Surly's Brewer's Table. But this recognition is for his work at Petite León, a restaurant he has an ownership claim in.
"It feels great to have that recognition of doing something myself and not for somebody else," Guzmán said.
"It's been a long five years," he added, noting the roller coaster his career has taken since his last recognition from Beard. After Surly closed Brewer's Table, Guzmán left Minneapolis to work in Eau Claire, Wis. Opening Petite León was a homecoming.
"I'm really happy what we're doing here at Petite is being translated into what people feel is important, and to be recognized for that feels really good," he said. "Just the lows I felt to where I'm at now, it's a complete 180, which tells you all about the industry, right?"
This is Vang's first Beard nomination, a remarkable achievement for the chef who has built his reputation with a roving restaurant that didn't have a permanent address until moving to Graze Provisions and Libations food hall last fall. Vang has likened his culinary journey to that of the Hmong people, making the best out of what is available and making the Minneapolis restaurant landscape richer for it.
"I've always said this has always been about the hard work and sacrifices that my mom and dad have always done for us," Vang said. "I'm really emotional, but it's awesome to see this, you know?"
To be nominated alongside two fellow top Minnesota chefs adds an extra layer of excitement for Vang, he said. "To be on this stage with Jorge and Sean, I feel like the little brother who gets to tag along with these two who have been here before," he said.
The three chefs shared text messages congratulating one another when the news broke. "We all were kind of screaming a little bit," Vang said. "We felt a little like girls that just found out that we got free tickets to a Bieber concert."
The Best Chef Midwest category is one of 12 regional chef awards and includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. Minnesota had a relatively strong showing among the nominees — three of the six are from here — despite having garnered its fewest semifinalists in recent years.
Two Minnesotans who did not land nominations were Erik Skaar, who was a semifinalist for Best Chef Midwest for helming the seafood-centric Spring Park restaurant Vann; and Kim Bartmann, who was a semifinalist in the national Outstanding Restaurateur category. Vang's Union Hmong Kitchen had also been on the long list for Best New Restaurant but did not move on.
Bartmann's recognition from the Beard Awards stirred controversy locally among former workers. Bartmann had reached a settlement last year with the state attorney general after an investigation into wage violations. The controversy came at a pivotal time for the awards, which is returning in 2022 after a two-year hiatus brought on by the pandemic — and an internal reckoning over diversity and ethics.
Winners will be honored at a June 13 gala event at Chicago's Civic Opera House.
Staff writer Joy Summers contributed to this report.