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Chefs across the country are leaving the whites at home and packing up their finest party wear for what is often dubbed the Oscars of the food world. The 33rd annual James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards will take place at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago on June 10, and Minneapolis has two chefs and one restaurant representing Minnesota at the event. Before the big awards, let's take a quick look at the nominees and the work that brought them to this prestigious stage.

Kate and Gustavo Romero have turned Oro by Nixta from a tortilleria to one of the country's best Mexican restaurants.
Kate and Gustavo Romero have turned Oro by Nixta from a tortilleria to one of the country's best Mexican restaurants.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Oro by Nixta, Best New Restaurant

Oro by Nixta, the Star Tribune's 2023 restaurant of the year, will compete against nine other U.S. restaurants for the prestigious national award from the James Beard Foundation. The nomination catapults the Oro team — led by Gustavo and Kate Romero — from what was originally Nixta, a to-go taco stand selling heirloom corn tortillas, to the national culinary stage.

"We hope this represents more than just an award nomination, but an opportunity to put Mexican food where it should be, not just for us but for all the Mexican people who live in this country," Gustavo Romero said when he learned of the nomination. "Food is such a representation of culture."

In his review of Oro, Star Tribune restaurant critic Jon Cheng praised how chef Gustavo Romero's "artwork celebrates the tapestry of Mexican cultural heritage" via his signature tortillas, for which he uses nixtamalized corn. "We ate quietly, marveling at the way the tortillas draped like thick, expensive fabric; the way they cradled their delicious fillings," Cheng wrote.

Stats:

Restaurants: One. Oro by Nixta (1222 NE. 2nd St., Mpls., nixtampls.com) grew out of a neighborhood taco stand/take-and-make pandemic business called Nixta. Bonus: Those hearty heirloom corn tortillas are available in grocery stores, co-ops and markets across the metro area.

James Beard nominations: This is the Romeros' first time being recognized by the James Beard Foundation.

Other accolades: Oro was the Star Tribune's Restaurant of the Year in 2023

Fun facts: In addition to being a dedicated advocate for the importance of heritage corn, Gustavo Romero has also been a cultivator of pop-ups and local talent. He was one of the founders of K'óoben, a collective of Latino hospitality talent that works to raise the profile of their cuisine and the people making it.

Ann Ahmed is the chef and owner of Khâluna, Lat14 and Gai Noi.
Ann Ahmed is the chef and owner of Khâluna, Lat14 and Gai Noi.

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

Ann Ahmed, Best Chef: Midwest

As a 14-year-old, Ann Ahmed would fantasize about becoming a chef. She made that dream a reality in 2005 by opening her first restaurant, Lemon Grass, in Brooklyn Park. It could have been an achievement unlocked, but instead it was a door cracked open to the destiny that lay beyond it. Since then, her restaurants have been stitching together the cuisine of her heritage with immersive beauty and hospitality that deftly walks the line between casual and fine-dining.

When the restaurant she's being recognized for, Khâluna, opened in 2021, it was praised as having "food that delivers on both exclusivity and pleasure — the kind that justifies multiple flights across continents and time zones."

Khâluna is "a special place that I poured my heart and soul into," Ahmed told the Star Tribune when she found out about her nomination. "It came from a place of love."

Stats:

Restaurants: Three. Lat14 (8815 7th Av. N., Golden Valley, lat14.com), Gai Noi (1610 Harmon Place, Mpls., gainoimpls.com) and Khâluna (4000 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., khaluna.com) each bring Ahmed's deeply personal take on Lao cuisine to the forefront.

James Beard nominations: This is her first year being recognized.

Fun fact: Ahmed recently returned from Laos, where she prepared a dinner at the posh Rosewood hotel in Luang Prabang. The event was billed as a "homecoming" for Ahmed, who wasn't only cooking for an exclusive set of foodies; her mother was in attendance, making the dinner the first that Ahmed has cooked for her in their home country.

This the fifth time chef Christina Nguyen of Hai Hai has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation, either as a nominee or semifinalist.
This the fifth time chef Christina Nguyen of Hai Hai has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation, either as a nominee or semifinalist.

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Christina Nguyen, Best Chef: Midwest

While other kids might have dreamed of one day being the central character in a storybook, Christina Nguyen was preparing to be an entrepreneur. When she and spouse Birk Stefan Grudem fired up their first food business from a bright turquoise food truck, every dish they sold carried Nguyen's handprint. Her work as a chef came not from formal training, but from doing. Along the way she steadily built a growing following for her bright sauces, depth of flavors and exuberant restaurants. From that food truck, Hola Arepa, to a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and finally, Hai Hai.

Opened in 2018, Hai Hai is inspired by Nguyen and Grudem's travels to Vietnam and Nguyen's family roots. When she first opened the restaurant, she said the menu development was a lot of "more"; whenever a dish was too meek in personality, she'd load up more fresh herbs, more fish sauce and more chiles. The restaurant was an instant hit, with lines still forming for a table on busy nights.

The Star Tribune awarded Hai Hai 3½ stars, calling it "one of those charmed restaurants where nearly every one of its well-engineered components fosters a single emotion: happiness."

Stats:

Restaurants: Two. Hola Arepa (3501 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., holaarepa.com) and Hai Hai (2121 University Av. NE., Mpls., haihaimpls.com)

James Beard nominations: Nguyen was a semifinalist for Best Chef: Midwest for Hai Hai four previous times. She moved on to become a finalist in 2019 and 2020, the year the awards were canceled.

Fun fact: Nguyen and Grudem recently purchased a boat in the British Virgin Islands that is available to charter.

For a full list of this year's James Beard Nominations, see the foundation's website (jamesbeard.org). For more coverage, follow @BTStarTribune for a behind-the-scenes view of the awards ceremony and stay tuned for who brings home the hardware. Want to watch it live? The event will be livestreamed on Eater.com beginning at 5:30 p.m. on June 10.