CHICAGO — Owamni, the leading Indigenous restaurant overlooking the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, won the highly competitive national honor for Best New Restaurant at the James Beard Awards Monday night in Chicago.
As phones at Chicago’s Lyric Opera sounded alerts about the possibility of a tornado, and at least one part of the building was evacuated as a possible storm approached, Owamni chef and co-owner Sean Sherman acknowledged the winds of change that led to this historic achievement on a night dominated by immigrants. The winners are minorities.
“White supremacy doesn’t like to be broken up, but we can do it together,” Sherman said on stage.
“This is so much bigger than us,” co-owner Dana Thompson said. “Awamni is more like a community spirit than anything else.”
This award represents the first competitive win in a national category for a Minnesota restaurant. Previously recognized as a cookbook author, Sherman received the James Beard Leadership Award in 2019, but this is the first recognition for his own restaurant, located on a site sacred to the Dakota and Anishinabe people.
Owamni opened in 2021 to national acclaim and was named Star Tribune Restaurant of the Year. It is the centerpiece of the newly developed Water Works park, which is owned by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. In her acceptance speech, Thompson acknowledged the support of the park board, which has “created a space for indigenous peoples in Minneapolis,” she said, sobbing, “and we want it to be the same throughout this nation.”
Presenting the award, New York chef Millie Petrie described 11 nominees, who opened their restaurants during the pandemic, as a “courageous and inspiring group.”
Next, Thompson and Sherman reflected on the historical homage.
“We are very proud to recognize everything we do and try to do for the Sovereignty, spiritual well-being, and other Native chefs across the country,” Thompson said.
“Aboriginal food has a place in modern hospitality,” Sherman added.
Other Minnesota chefs came up empty-handed in a regional class.
Three chefs from the Twin Cities — Sherman and Jorge Guzman of Petit Leon and Yea Fang of Union Hmong Kitchen — were nominated for Best Chef: Midwest, but lost to Dan Baldwin of The Diplomat in Milwaukee.
The award celebrates the “culinary skills and leadership abilities” of chefs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. The class had six candidates, evenly distributed between Minneapolis and Milwaukee.
Baldwin, who said he once visited the Twin Cities, told the Star Tribune that he would like to see a collaboration between the Twin Cities and Milwaukee.
Andrew Zimmern, a Minnesota-based television personality, introduced the Midwest category, citing Prince. “I have come of age and know this thing called life,” said Zimmern, “in the words of my favorite late great Minapolitan,” where I can say, as huge and dreadful as our problems may be—and, yes, we still have some douses that we need to solve—it is vital that We remember the good stories of our industry. “
Although Minnesota chefs did not receive the highest regional honor in 2022, six Chefs from the Twin Cities have been recognized in this category since 2009. They are: Tim McKee (formerly of La Belle Vie) in 2009, and Alex Roberts (restaurant Alma) in 2010, Isaac Baker (112 restaurants) in 2011, Paul Berglund (formerly a Bachelor farmer) in 2016, Gavin Kaysen (spoon & stable) in 2018 and Ann Kim (Young Johnny) in 2019. Kaisen has also been named chef for the rising star 2008 during his tenure at Bouloud Café in New York City.
Culinary stars and rising talents from across the country gathered in Chicago for the Black Tie Party, hosted by Chef Kwame Onwachi. The high-profile awards, often described as the Oscars for food, honor and celebrate excellence in restaurants, cookbooks, and journalism during a long weekend of events.
At Saturday’s media awards ceremony, a Minnesota resident received an award. Chef Alan Bergo launched a video series during the pandemic, “The Wild Harvest with Alan Bergo.” She won a James Beard Award for Educational Video Series.
The New York City-based James Beard Foundation, named after the influential cookbook and cookbook author, established its own awards program in 1990.
The awards are back after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, and an internal appreciation for diversity is essentially prima facie. During that time, the organization has revised its policies and procedures with the goal of increasing transparency, avoiding bias, and better reflecting the diversity of the hospitality industry. Speaking at the event, Foundation CEO Claire Reichenbach called it a “fundamental review and overhaul of our awards program and more.”
Earlier, on the red carpet, Zimmern spoke of the push to diversify the honorees as an opportunity to “get to know the people who have been deserving it for so long — entire ratings and segments of the people who toil in our industry, who are no longer recognizable unless they last three generations and were” America’s Classic.” (The America’s Classics Award honors restaurants that are pillars of their communities. Past winners from Minnesota have included Al’s Breakfast and Kramarczuk’s.)
This year’s event celebrated warmly two years of hardship for the hospitality industry. Several winners have represented immigrant contributions to the industry, including Edgar Rico of Nixta Taqueria in Austin as a budding chef and Detroit Pastry Chef Warda Bouquet of Warda Sweets as a distinguished pastry chef.
Cookbook author Grace Young was awarded Humanitarian of the Year for her work preserving and protecting Chinatowns during the pandemic, and leading TV host Martin Yan received the 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award.