Chef of the Year: Daniel del Prado of Martina and Colita

Opening two influential — and very different — restaurants in south Minneapolis within 12 months of one another is a feat that Daniel del Prado can look back upon with pride. The four-star wonder that is Martina illuminates del Prado’s Italian-Argentine parentage as it lights up Linden Hills with a joyous alchemy of rustic wood-fired cooking, brilliant pastas and a standard-setting weekend brunch. Colita, del Prado’s second venture, is an energetic and idiosyncratic platform for his obsession with smoked meats and southern Mexican seafood, complemented by a cocktail program (from Martina maestro Marco Zappia) that focuses on fermentation. “I love surprising people,” del Prado said this year. And we love being surprised, especially if he’s doing the cooking.

Rising Star Chef of the Year: José Alarcon of Popol Vuh and Centro

After being mentored by chefs in a number of first-rate Twin Cities restaurants — most notably Lyn 65 — José Alarcon channeled all that he learned, blended it with his Mexican background and created a pair of instantly influential restaurants under the same roof. Colorful, casual Centro is the central gathering place for painstakingly prepared tacos and an impressive selection of mezcals, Popol Vuh is the forward-thinking laboratory for exciting and delicious hearth-centric cooking. Like most dazzling debuts, this one appears — from the outside, anyway — as an overnight sensation, but in reality, Alarcon’s success is the result of years of quiet dedication and determination. Well done.

Trailblazer of the Year: Craig Cohen of Keg and Case Market

Keg and Case Market developer Craig Cohen saw a delicious future for a forgotten building at St. Paul’s historic Schmidt Brewery, but the task wasn’t easy. Cohen is the key figure behind the Twin Cities’ first iteration of the trendy, modern-day food hall, and he devoted several years of expertise — and millions of dollars — to go from dream to reality. “Craig had a vision not only for this space, but for this community,” said Thomas Boemer, chef/co-owner of the market’s anchor restaurant, In Bloom. “I’ll be honest, sometimes I walk into the market and think, ‘How did this even happen?’ For Craig to see this through was a monumental undertaking.”

Breakout Talent of the Year: Christina Nguyen of Hai Hai

Chef Christina Nguyen became familiar with Twin Cities diners via Hola Arepa, a crazy popular operation that exploits the seemingly limitless possibilities of the humble masa cake. But it was late last year, after she created Hai Hai in a former northeast Minneapolis strip club, that Nguyen revealed the true depths of her culinary gifts. The infectiously appealing restaurant is a headlong dive into her Vietnamese heritage and a reflection of her love of Southeast Asian street food fare, a passion shared with her husband, business partner and fellow food freak, Birk Grudem. The national food media has laid on the accolades — as they should — which has only fueled a justifiably long line at Hai Hai’s door.

 

Tops in their class

The year’s top-reviewed restaurants include In Bloom and Martina (4 stars), Bardo, Hai Hai, Octo Fishbar and Popol Vuh and Centro (3½ stars) and Bungalow Club, Edwards Dessert Kitchen, Meyvn and Sweet Chow (3 stars).

 

Medallion Man

Spoon and Stable chef/owner Gavin Kaysen was named Best Chef: Midwest by the James Beard Foundation at its annual Oscars-like gala in Chicago in May. Kaysen’s first Beard medallion dates to 2008, when the foundation named him the nation’s Rising Star Chef of the Year (which honors chefs ages 30 and under) during his tenure at Cafe Boulud in New York City.

 

Busy year

Justin Sutherland has spent 2018 in the spotlight. The Handsome Hog and Pearl and the Thief chef was named managing partner of the Madison Restaurant Group, which includes Gray Duck Tavern, Public Kitchen & Bar and other St. Paul properties. Not only did he emerge victorious during an episode of “Iron Chef America,” but he’s developing a nationwide cheering section on the current season of “Top Chef.” Go, Justin!

 

Culinary royalty

Corner Table chef Karyn Tomlinson was crowned the “Queen of Pork” at the annual Cochon555. She’s the first female chef to win the prestigious pork-centric national competition since its inception in 2008.

 

Hot/not

Hot: Cashless transactions, ’70s-inspired decor, ice bars, wood-fired cooking, vegan everything. Not: Cashless transactions, and that exasperating evergreen, “Are you still working on that?”

 

Going meat- and dairy-free

Plant-based cooking (a different way of saying vegan) really took hold in 2018, with the advent of Vegan East bakery, Crepe & Spoon ice cream parlor/creperie and Fig + Farro and Trio Plant-based restaurants.

 

Whole hog

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Twin Cities diners are enjoying a barbecue boom. Witness the creation of Animales Barbeque Co. and Revival Smoked Meats and the upcoming debuts of Beast Barbecue and Minnesota BBQ Co.

 

In the park

It’s great to see continued growth in dining opportunities in Twin Cities parks, including Lola on the Lake at Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun) and Spring Cafe and Sweet Science Ice Cream in Como Park. Look for Cajun Twist to materialize in the new Trailhead at Theodore Wirth Regional Park.