Today, March 16, the James Beard Foundation announced its list of 2022 finalists, naming Minnesota restaurant Owamni a nominee for best new restaurant, and chefs Sean Sherman, Yia Vang, and Jorge Guzmán for best chef Midwest.
Owamni has brought Indigenous cooking to the forefront of the national restaurant scene: chef Sean Sherman’s decolonized menu features only those foods that existed here before European settlers arrived. Venison tartare, white nixtamal, and duck and maple cakes take the place of beef and pork, flour, dairy, and white sugar. Owamni is just one of Sherman and his partner Dana Thompsons’ projects through their business The Sioux Chef and nonprofit NATIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems) — others include the Indigenous Food Lab, a training center and kitchen, and a successful cookbook. In its early days, Owamni broke a Kickstarter campaign record, bringing in almost $150,000 in a month. Seven years later, the restaurant sits in a white stone building on the Mississippi River, near St. Anthony Falls — also known as Owámniyomni in the Dakota language, which means whirlpool or eddy.
“Sean is humbled to receive his third and fourth nomination from the Beard Foundation, and excited to be among two other Minnesota based chefs in the Best Chef Midwest category,” says Thompson, noting that it’s especially powerful for a Native and woman-owned business (Thompson co-owns The Sioux Chef) to receive the finalist recognition. “These awards will help us to raise awareness about Indigenous foods and our mission to reclaim the foods of our ancestors in order to build health in our communities.”
Chef Yia Vang earned his best chef Midwest nomination with his first permanent restaurant, Union Hmong Kitchen. An homage to Hmong home cooking, Vang’s menu features chili-glazed barbecue pork, Hmong sausage patties, brothy noodle dishes, and ginger and lemongrass chicken, with sides of delicate purple sticky rice and pickled vegetables. Much of Vang’s cooking is based on recipes passed down from his parents, Hmong immigrants who met in Thailand’s Ban Vinai refugee camp — his new restaurant Vinai is set to open in 2022.
“Sharing it with the chefs in the kitchen today, we were all screaming a little bit,” Vang tells Eater. When the news broke, he talked to his sister about what the nomination meant to their family. “For us, it’s a proud moment to look at my mom and dad and be like — everything you guys have done for us, people are recognizing it, people are seeing it.”
Chef Jorge Guzmán’s south Minneapolis restaurant Petite León draws on roots in the Yucatán peninsula with dishes like mole poblano duck confit, black garlic adobo steak bavette, and escabeche. Guzmán — former head chef of Surly Beer Hall — persevered through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, sharing Petite León’s kitchen with his charcoal-grilled chicken pop-up Pollo Pollo al Carbon, and eventually opening the full restaurant with bar lead Travis Serbus to great success.
“It’s been quite a comeback story,” says Guzmán. “I wasn’t expecting anything, but it’s a really amazing surprise. I’m super, super excited, and I guess a little overwhelmed.”
The James Beard Foundation Awards have returned after a two-year hiatus: in August of 2020, the foundation abruptly canceled its awards, citing the toll of the pandemic on the restaurant industry. The New York Times, however, reported that a lack of any Black award winners and unfolding allegations of abuse and mistreatment against a slew of nominated chefs may have influenced the decision to cancel. The 2021 JBFA awards were also canceled, as the foundation worked to remove systemic bias from its selection process, and audit its ethics policies and voting practices.
This year, though, marks a full return of the awards: 2022 semifinalists from Minnesota included Owamni and Union Hmong Kitchen for best new restaurant, Sherman (Owamni), Yia Vang (Union Hmong Kitchen), Erik Skaar (Vann), and Jorge Guzmán (Petite Léon) for best chef, Midwest, and Kim Bartmann of Bartmann Group for outstanding restaurateur.
Bartmann’s semifinalist nomination was marred by controversy shortly after the announcement: in 2020, Bartmann Group employees alleged that she laid them off during COVID-19 shutdowns without paying them their final checks, reports the Star Tribune. An investigation by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office found that Bartmann had missed payroll and also failed to pay overtime hours — in 2021, the Bartmann Group reached a settlement of more than $230,000 in back wages and overtime wages. (Note that a settlement does not legally equate to a conviction, nor does it count as an admission of guilt.) When her nomination was announced, some former employees and other commenters took to social media, saying that Bartmann’s nomination violated the James Beard Awards’s revised code of ethics; Bartmann told the Star Tribune she had never violated the code.
James Beard Foundation award winners in the restaurant and chef categories will be announced at a ceremony in Chicago on June 13, 2022.
Disclosure: Some Vox Media staff members are part of the voting body for the James Beard Foundation Awards.
Update: March 16, 2022, 3:28 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from the finalists.