Christina Nguyen Wins James Beard Award Best Chef: Midwest

From Hola Arepa food truck and self doubt to national acclaim

“I’m not a crier,” said Christina Nguyen, as she understandably cried on the food world’s biggest stage. 

Christina Nguyen accepts Best Chef: Midwest award, screen grab via James Beard Foundation livestream

As I watched the livestream of the awards, I felt myself tearing up. So many of us who cover food are drawn to Christina and her husband, Birk Grudem. They’re fun, they’re smart, they’re scrappy—they built their businesses by being one of the first food trucks in Minneapolis, Hola Arepa.

In 2015, I interviewed her for a WCCO-TV story on Hola Arepa. Well, I tried to. At first she wanted me to talk to her then-fiance, Birk. She has always hesitated to consider herself a “chef.” “Before the food truck I hadn’t had any professional experience cooking, but I’ve always loved to cook my whole life,” Nguyen said. 

I love that “best chef” is no longer a culinary school final exam: Are you the most skilled technical chef through the lens of European/French technique? It is about flavor, it is about impact, it is about the contribution a chef makes to the conversation. Christina brought arepas into the mainstream in the Twin Cities. Then she launched Hai Hai, bringing Vietnamese street food and funky flavors into the mainstream. 

At the James Beard awards in Chicago, she credited her family. “As refugees from Vietnam, they had to start their lives over from scratch when they moved here. They taught me that anything is possible and to not be afraid,” she said.

I was struck by the fact that Christina brought her team to the awards with her, and the first words out of her mouth were a thank you to past and present teams. Her culinary director Janene Holig and her director of operations Ruby Scher were there.

Hai Hai
Hai Hai

Photo by TJ Turner

The Beard Awards have been praised and criticized for an increased focus on representation and diversity. It’s complicated. When you have an award that’s designed to honor excellence, you don’t want to grade on a curve. And yet, the definition of “excellence” has been centered for far too long on your skill in creating sauces and braising as opposed to bringing huge flavors or telling your own immigrant story through the American lens. 

Nguyen thanked the “James Beard Foundation for recognizing the value of immigrant food. When we started our restaurant the best a Southeast Asian restaurant could hope for was ‘best cheap eats’ and I feel like we’ve come a long way.”

I looked back at Minnesota Monthly‘s initial review of Hai Hai, written by Joy Summers and me in 2018. 

“So much attention to detail here, and technique: Nguyen won’t be one of our most under-rated chefs for long,” I wrote. “She’s soft-spoken and carries a big flavor stick. I love her palate,” wrote Joy. We named it to our Best New Restaurants of 2018 list as well.

Graze 4 Good 2021

Courtesy the Minneapolis Foundation/Nik Linde

Nguyen joins 7 other Minnesota chefs who have won the Best Chef: Midwest award:

  • Ann Kim, 2019
  • Gavin Kaysen, 2018
  • Paul Berglund, 2016
  • Isaac Becker, 2011
  • Alex Roberts, 2010
  • Tim McKee, 2009
  • Lucia Watson, 2006
  • Owamni won Best New Restaurant in 2022