CHICAGO — Owamni, the groundbreaking Indigenous restaurant overlooking the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, won the highly competitive national honor of Best New Restaurant at the James Beard Awards Monday night in Chicago.
While phones in the Lyric Opera of Chicago blared with alerts about a possible tornado, and at least one part of the building was evacuated as a potential storm loomed, Owamni chef and co-owner Sean Sherman acknowledged the winds of change that led to this historic achievement on a night dominated by immigrant and minority winners.
"White supremacy does not 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 is more like a community spirit than anything else."
This award marks the first competitive win in a national category for a Minnesota restaurant. Sherman was previously recognized as a cookbook author, and he received a 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 Anishinaabe people.
Owamni opened in 2021 to national acclaim and was named the Star Tribune's 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 park board's support, which "created a space for Indigenous people in Minneapolis," she said tearfully, "and we want that to be the same all over this nation."
New York chef Millie Peartree introduced the award, calling the 11 nominees, who 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 all we're doing and trying to do for sovereignty, spiritual well-being and other Indigenous chefs across the country," Thompson said.
"Indigenous food has a place in modern hospitality," Sherman added.
Other Minnesota chefs came up empty-handed 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 Dane 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 category had six nominees, evenly split between Minneapolis and Milwaukee.
Baldwin, who said he visited the Twin Cities once, told the Star Tribune he would love to see a Twin Cities-Milwaukee collaboration.
Minnesota-based television personality Andrew Zimmern introduced the Midwest category, quoting Prince. "I have reached an age and familiarity with this thing called life, to quote my favorite late-great Minneapolitan," Zimmern said, "where I can say, as huge and scary as our problems may be — and yes, we still have some doozies we need to solve — it's vitally important we remember the good stories of our industry."
Though Minnesota chefs didn't claim the top 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 the Bachelor Farmer) in 2016, Gavin Kaysen (Spoon and Stable) in 2018 and Ann Kim (Young Joni) in 2019. Kaysen also was named Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2008 during his tenure at Cafe Boulud in New York City.
Culinary stars and rising talent from around the country converged in Chicago for the black-tie ceremony, hosted by chef Kwame Onwuachi. The high-profile awards, often described as the Oscars for food, recognize and celebrate excellence in restaurants, cookbooks and journalism over a long weekend of events.
At the media awards held Saturday, two Minnesotans took home medals. Filmmaker Jesse Roesler and forager chef Alan Bergo launched a video series during the pandemic, "The Wild Harvest with Alan Bergo." It won the James Beard Award for Instructional Video Series. This is Roesler's second Beard Award and Bergo's first.
The New York City-based James Beard Foundation, named for the influential culinarian and cookbook author, established its awards program in 1990.
The awards returned after a two-year hiatus brought on by the pandemic and an internal reckoning at the foundation over diversity. During that time, the foundation audited its policies and procedures in an aim to increase transparency, avoid bias, and better reflect the diversity of the hospitality industry. Speaking at the event, foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach called it "a fundamental review, overhaul of our awards program and more."
Earlier, on the red carpet, Zimmern spoke about the push to diversify its honorees as an opportunity to "recognize people who have been so deserving for so long — whole classifications and swaths of human beings who toil away in our industry, who are no longer 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 winners from Minnesota include Al's Breakfast and Kramarczuk's.)
This year's event celebrated heartily the two years of hardship for the hospitality industry. Many winners represented the contributions of immigrants in the industry, including Edgar Rico of Austin's Nixta Taqueria as Emerging Chef and Detroit pastry chef Warda Bouguettaya of Warda Pâtisserie as Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Cookbook author Grace Young was recognized as Humanitarian of the Year for her work in preserving and protecting Chinatowns during the pandemic, and pioneering public television host Martin Yan received the 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award.
For a full list of winners, go to jamesbeard.org.