CHICAGO — Owamni, the groundbreaking Indigenous restaurant overlooking the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, won the highly competitive national award for Best New Restaurant at the James Beard Awards Monday night in Chicago.
While phones at the Lyric Opera of Chicago rang with warnings of a possible tornado and at least part of the building was evacuated as a potential storm loomed, Owamni chef and co-owner Sean Sherman acknowledged the winds of change bringing about this historic event had succeeded in a night dominated by immigrants and minority winners.
“White supremacy doesn’t like being dismantled, but we can do it together,” Sherman said from the stage.
“This is so much bigger than us,” said co-owner Dana Thompson. “Owamni is something that’s more like a community spirit than anything else.”
This award marks the first competition win in a national category for a Minnesota restaurant. Sherman was previously recognized as a cookbook author and received a James Beard Leadership Award in 2019, but this is the first recognition for his own restaurant, located in a place sacred to the people of Dakota and Anishinaabe.
Owamni opened in 2021 with national recognition and was named Star Tribune’s Restaurant of the Year. It is the centerpiece of the newly developed Water Works Park owned by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. In her acceptance speech, Thompson acknowledged the Parks Authority’s support in “creating a space for Indigenous peoples in Minneapolis,” she tearfully said, “and we want that to be the same across the nation.”
New York chef Millie Peartree introduced the award, calling the 11 nominees who have opened their restaurants during the pandemic “a brave and inspiring bunch”.
Afterward, Thompson and Sherman both reflected on the landmark honor.
“We are so proud to be recognized for sovereignty, spiritual wellbeing and fellow Indigenous cooks across the country for everything we do and try to do,” Thompson said.
“Indigenous foods have a place in modern hospitality,” Sherman added.
Other Minnesota chefs missed out in a regional category.
Three chefs from the Twin Cities — Sherman, Petite León’s Jorge Guzmán and Union Hmong Kitchen’s Yia Vang — were nominated for Best Chef: Midwest, but lost to Milwaukee’s Diplomat’s Dane Baldwin.
The award recognizes the “culinary skills and leadership” of chefs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. The category had six nominees, split evenly between Minneapolis and Milwaukee.
Baldwin, who said he had visited the Twin Cities once, told the Star Tribune he would like to see a collaboration between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee.
Minnesota-based television personality Andrew Zimmer introduced the Midwest category and quoted Prince. “I’ve reached an age and familiarity with this thing called life, to quote my late favorite Minneapolitan,” Zimmer said, “where I can say, as big and scary as our problems are — and yes, we still have them.” Fools we need to solve – it’s vital that we remember the good stories of our industry.”
Although Minnesota Chefs did not claim the highest regional honor in 2022, six Twin Cities chefs have been recognized in the category since 2009. They are: Tim McKee (formerly of La Belle Vie) in 2009, Alex Roberts (Restaurant Alma) in 2010, Isaac Becker (112 Eatery) in 2011, Paul Berglund (formerly of Bachelor Farmer) in 2016, Gavin Kaysen (Spoon and Stable) in 2018 and Ann Kim (Young Joni) in 2019. Kaysen was also named a Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2008 during his tenure at Cafe Boulud in New York City.
Culinary stars and emerging talent from across the country gathered in Chicago for the gala ceremony hosted by Executive Chef Kwame Onwuachi. Often referred to as the Oscars for food, the high-profile awards recognize and celebrate excellence in dining, cookbooks and journalism over a long weekend of events.
A Minnesotan took home an award at the media awards held on Saturday. Collector chef Alan Bergo launched a video series called “The Wild Harvest with Alan Bergo” during the pandemic. It won the James Beard Award for instructional video series.
The New York City-based James Beard Foundation, named after the influential foodie and cookbook author, established its awards program in 1990.
The awards were returned after a two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic and an internal reckoning at the foundation over diversity. During this time, the Foundation reviewed its policies and procedures with the goal of increasing transparency, avoiding bias, and better reflecting the diversity of the hospitality industry. Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the foundation, spoke at the event of a “fundamental review, overhaul of our awards program and more”.
Previously on the red carpet, Zimmer talked about the urge to diversify his honorees as an opportunity to “recognize people who have done so well for so long — whole classifications and swathes of people struggling in our industry who don’t.” more are unrecognizable unless they last three generations and are an ‘America’s Classic.'” (The America’s Classics Award honors restaurants that are pillars in their communities. Past Minnesota winners include Al’s Breakfast and Kramarczuk’s.)
This year’s event warmly celebrated two difficult years for the hospitality industry. Many winners represented the contributions of immigrants to the industry, including Edgar Rico of Austin’s Nixta Taqueria as Emerging Chef and pastry chef Warda Bouguettaya of Detroit’s Warda Pâtisserie as Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Cookbook author Grace Young was recognized as Humanitarian of the Year for her work to preserve and protect Chinatowns during the pandemic, and pioneering public TV host Martin Yan received the 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award.