Shawn McKenzie doesn't know how to feel about the fact that she's headed to the James Beard Awards in Chicago next week as the lone representative of the Twin Cities restaurant scene.
The pastry chef and entrepreneur behind Cafe Cerés and its signature Middle Eastern-inflected baked goods, McKenzie knows one thing for sure: "It's weird."
When nominees were announced earlier this spring for the annual awards — considered by many to be the culinary Oscars — there was a lot of hubbub over the dearth of Minnesota chefs on the list. This small and talkative restaurant community may have felt wronged. But the Beards got one thing undeniably right. McKenzie is a bright star in pastry — and she is getting her due as a nominee in the highly competitive national category of Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker.
"I'm pretty humbled by it," said McKenzie, standing at a steel table in her kitchen at Cafe Cerés, wrapping bundles of cookies for the Taste of Linden Hills event that would take place later that day.
"I wish I knew the person or persons that were like, 'Hey, you know what? Shawn McKenzie.' It's kind of weird to think people are talking about you. I was just scratching and itching and everything, and then I find out, oh, that's why."
But there are plenty of reasons why McKenzie's ears have been buzzing since the Washington native came to Minneapolis from Portland, Ore., in 2013, at the urging of her friend, mentor and eventual business partner, Daniel del Prado.
McKenzie's first job here was opening pastry chef at Burch Steak under Isaac Becker, and she quickly became a prominent name in the Twin Cities pastry world. After five years at Burch, McKenzie came on board as the executive chef for Penny's Cafe, and that role gave her the opportunity of a lifetime: a tasting trip to Jerusalem.
When Penny's closed, McKenzie and del Prado together took over the Linden Hills cafe, opening the first Cafe Cerés at the end of 2020. There are now two more. McKenzie is also a partner with del Prado in Cardamom at the Walker Art Center. Last year, she joined Rustica Bakery, where she is responsible for their sweets, treats and pastries.
The influence of Middle Eastern flavors has become inseparable with McKenzie's expert lamination skills; she is now known locally as much for her chocolate chip tahini cookie and Turkish bagel with labneh as she is for impeccable French croissants.
Soon the rest of the country will know her, too. The James Beard Awards will be handed out June 5 in Chicago. (The event will be livestreamed on Eater starting at 5:30 p.m.)
"It's huge," del Prado said about McKenzie's nomination when it was announced. "She works hard all the time, so it was about time" for McKenzie to be recognized in such a prominent way. "I'm very proud of her."
We spoke to McKenzie ahead of the ceremony about her culinary influences, her favorite ingredients, and about carrying the Minnesota mantle to the glitziest mingling of big-name chefs in America.
Q: How are you feeling about the nomination?
A: It's nice to be recognized. I know that sounds really dorky, but I'm just having fun with it. The idea of going, taking our chefs, we're just hoping to enjoy ourselves and kind of take in the spectacle of it all, you know?
Q: Have you ever gone before, even just for the parties?
A: Never gone. I actually thought about reaching out to Isaac Becker and being like, "Hey, what do you do? How do you do this?"
Q: Do you know any of the four pastry chefs you are up against?
A: I don't. I've never been to their spots. I'm such an introvert in that sense, where I don't really go out. Like, I don't think I've left the state in a while.
Q: How does it feel to be the sole Minnesota representative this year?
A: It's nice, but it's weird to think people like Diane [Moua] and Sarah [Botcher], that they're [not nominated]. I don't know, I guess, everyone maybe gets their turn in some ways.
Q: What's your favorite thing on your menu, currently?
A: I'm really boring, but I'm just a classic croissant girl. That's my go-to. Since I started learning how to do croissants, I've always felt like you just need that. Maybe jam, if you want to get fancy.
Q: In developing new recipes, did you ever have an idea that just didn't work?
A: We tried to do this vegan sunflower seed cookie at Rustica. And everybody was like, "Omigod, this is so good." And then we learned there was a reaction that baking soda and vegan butter, or something like that, makes it turn green. It was actually around Halloween, so we were like, maybe we say it's a witch's brew cookie. But it was just temperamental, which was a bummer.
Q: Do you have a favorite ingredient at the moment that you're using more of?
A: I really like anise seed. That's one of my favorites. Anytime I can sneak in pink peppercorn, I always like that. It's more for the look than the flavor. The flavor is great, but it's just beautiful to have this little splash of pink. Anise seed is more fall and wintry.
Q: It's controversial, too.
A: I get it. It's that black licorice flavor. I am a black licorice fan.
Q: Are you still drawing from your travels in the Middle East?
A: Yeah, especially here [at Cafe Cerés]. We've been talking about things that we could do, playing around with making some kind of chicken Cobb salad with za'atar, yogurt chicken. The avocado toast has a little bit of that Israeli and Moroccan feel to it, but it's not heavy. So we want to, in the next round, introduce a little more of those flavors.
Q: What was it about that trip that was so inspirational for you?
A: Even beforehand, I was into that kind of cooking. I worked for an Iranian lady and really fell in love with making stuff with a lot of crazy spices, and then going there and seeing it firsthand was pretty cool. For a while after I came back, I was actually working with our guide to get the spices from there. It was kind of expensive, obviously. But for a while, you couldn't get za'atar here like you can there.
Q: Do you always travel in the same way, where you take ideas from the flavors you come across?
A: I feel like everybody, a little bit, like you can't help it. You're like, "OK, I can't think about work." But you're like, "That would be so cool." Even sometimes when I'm reading something, I'm like, "Oh, man, if we made some of these elements into a pastry, that'd be really cool."
Q: Where are you going to go next?
A: I have no idea. I have kind of been wanting to go to New Orleans. But traveling across the sea, it's a little daunting to think about how to do it. The cafe setting is a weird grind compared to restaurants. You can miss little things that can eventually make a big deal in a week or two weeks or a month. We're going to Chicago, and I'm like, "Hopefully everyone's cool!"
Find pastry chef Shawn McKenzie's goods at these locations:
Cafe Cerés: 3509 W. 44th St., Mpls.; 5401 Penn Av. S., Mpls.; 100 Washington Av. S., Mpls.; cafeceresmpls.com; open daily 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
Cardamom: 723 Vineland Place, Mpls., cardamommpls.com; open daily 11 a.m.- 9 p.m.
Rustica: 3220 W. Lake St., Mpls.; 200 Southdale Center, Edina; rusticabakery.com; open daily 7 a.m.-6 p.m.