Minnesota Is Snubbed in 2023 James Beard Best Chef Awards

No Minnesota chefs named finalists but Shawn McKenzie honored in Outstanding Baker category

I hate starting with the bad news, because I don’t want that to take off any of the shine of the incredible achievement of Cafe Ceres co-founder and terrific pastry chef and baker Shawn McKenzie making it to the finals of the national Outstanding Baker category. The national category! This is a big deal!

Shawn McKenzie at work at Café Cerés
Shawn McKenzie at work at Café Cerés

Photo by Yasmin Yassin

But none of the chefs made it from the long list of semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation awards to the short list of semifinalists for Best Chef: Midwest. Surprisingly (to me) two chefs from Madison, Wisconsin made the list, as well as a chef from Milwaukee, one from Omaha, Nebraska, and one from Sioux Falls, South Dakota advanced. (Congrats to Sanaa Abourezk, Sanaa’s Gourmet Mediterranean, Gregory León from Amilinda in Milwaukee, Francesco Mangano from Osteria Papavero in Madison, Itaru Nagano and Andrew Kroeger from Fairchild, also in Madison, and David Utterback from Omaha’s Yoshitomo.)

Who didn’t move on? Christina Nguyen from Hai Hai and Hola Arepa, Karyn Tomlinson from Myriel, Yia Vang from Hilltribe and Union Hmong Kitchen, and Ann Ahmed from Khaluna. I’m shocked! Now look, I can’t compare our team to these other chefs, although I’m super curious to get to Madison again. But I also can’t remember the last time a Minnesota chef hasn’t been in the finals of this category. This seems like a big deal. Remember, Owamni won Best New Restaurant last year.

So who are the judges? I don’t know. I know that Jon Cheng, Star Tribune food critic, says on his Instagram bio that he’s a judge. The restaurant committee includes a public radio host from Milwaukee, but that’s the only person from the region as far as I can tell. Former winners get to vote, if they’re invited to be a part of it. That’s a change, and it’s only the former winners from the last three years. (Here are the procedures from the JBF).

What do you make of this? Do you agree with me that it’s a snub? Or has the torch passed and the center of top-notch culinary achievement is Madison and Milwaukee?

Shawn McKenzie

Café Cerés