Well. What a strange list of semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards. Lots of familiar names were omitted, and lots of new names listed – that’s fun! One person is being savaged in my inbox and via social media. And then there is the tiny restaurant on Lake Minnetonka. So what’s happening?
Let’s start with Kim Bartmann. Bartmann is on the long list for Outstanding Restaurateur. She’s been there twice before, in 2013 and 2015. The Bartmann Group runs Barbette, Red Stag, Book Club, Tiny Diner, gigi’s cafe, Pat’s Tap and Bread & Pickle. In many ways she’s been a pioneer: a woman running and owning a large group of restaurants, one of the early leaders in sustainability (I visited her garden farm in 2016 for WCCO), she’s been a leader on the board of International Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. At the same time, she’s been controversial locally with many complaints from former employees about working conditions and pay. She settled a complaint from the state Attorney General about overtime and wage theft to the tune of $230,000, which started with an investigation into workers laid off during the pandemic and not getting their final paychecks.
Wage theft and OT shenanigans are real issues – sometimes it’s shady, sometimes it’s not. You may have heard about a couple local businesses that have tried to get employees extra hours at their other restaurants that have made errors in OT and had to pay money back. So what should we think about all this? I don’t know. Should Bartmann be excoriated forever because of this? Probably not: assuming she follows the rules, pays employees, and doesn’t have issues again. Should she be a semifinalist for a national award about being good at running a restaurant? That’s a different question. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Best new restaurant: Owamni and Union Hmong Kitchen were both semifinalists. Owamni is a no-brainer for this and frankly I hope it makes it to the finals. I named it the Restaurant of the Year for 2021 because it brings a major contribution to the culinary conversation to the forefront, it’s very good, and it’s hard to see how any other new restaurant in the country could be as important as Owamni is. Union Hmong Kitchen is an interesting choice as it’s been a bunch of different restaurants over the last two years: it was a food truck at Sociable Cider Werks, it was a catering operation, it was inside Republic for a hot minute, now it’s a counter inside Graze Food Hall in the North Loop. The Beard Foundation has been expanding the definition of the types of places it honors, and perhaps this is part of that. I’ve had great food from UHK, but I have a hard time putting it in my mind as a “best new restaurant” but maybe that’s more of a me issue.
Best Chef Midwest: Minnesota is one of 12 regions with Best Chef categories, and other states are taking over this category. Milwaukee has four semifinalists, Madison and Viroqua, Wis., each has one each. We’re also seeing honorees in Sioux Falls, S.D; Fargo, N.D.; Dubuque, Iowa; Omaha, Neb.; and St. Louis. Jorge Guzman has been here before, a semifinalist in 2016 and a nominee in 2017 for Brewing Table at Surly. He’s a fantastic chef and Petite Leon is a really cool restaurant. Sean Sherman at Owamni makes sense as he’s a two-time winner (once for his cookbook and once for Leadership with The Sioux Chef) and his work at Owamni is both inspired and innovative. Yia Vang is fun to see. He’s a very talented chef and has also had a national profile which helps in a competition where so many of the deciders are not from here. But Erik Skaar from Vann was a shocker to me. Not because he’s not talented (he’s extremely talented–read my review of Vann from 2019!), but because there’s almost zero chance anyone from the Beard Foundation has driven the windy road along Lake Minnetonka to Spring Park to eat at Vann.
Omissions: I’m shocked to see Diane Moua wasn’t a semifinalist for baker, especially considering her leadership role at creating Bellecour Bakery. In the baker category we also have John Kraus at Patisserie 46 & Rose Street, one of the best bakers and pastry chefs in the world. Want some new blood? How about Sarah Boettcher, who’s running one of the best bakeries in the Midwest right now, Black Walnut Bakery in Minneapolis. Where’s Bar Brava for outstanding wine program? How about Spoon and Stable for outstanding bar program? It would have been nice to see Chef Jay Sparks in the mix for Best Chef Midwest for the outstanding Lovechild in La Crosse, Wis. And I’m surprised not to see Hai Hai/Hola Arepa’s Christine Nguyen, who was a semifinalist in 2018 and a nominee in 2020.
It’s a weird time. It’s hard to even evaluate restaurants right now, let alone compare them with other restaurants in other cities. COVID-19 closures and mandates and slowdowns have affected everyone. In a way, having a return to James Beard Awards is a positive sign, showing that things are on the way back. The publicity will hopefully give all of these chefs and restaurants a burst of business. This award has always been imperfect: it’s impossible to visit all the restaurants, it’s even difficult to find people who have eaten at the five finalists to judge them fairly. Almost always, it honors people who are worthy– maybe not the best, maybe not your favorite, but always someone who is doing something to a high level of excellence. Let’s hope that continues.