Owamni nominated for ‘best new restaurant’ James Beard Award

Owamni by the Sioux Chef, Minnesota’s first full-service Indigenous restaurant, was named a nominee for Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation Awards. The national category pits the groundbreaking Minneapolis restaurant against 10 others from around the country.

The finalists were announced Wednesday, paring the contenders down from a list of 30 semifinalists announced last month.

The high-profile awards, widely viewed as the industry’s highest honors, recognize and celebrate excellence in restaurants, cookbooks and journalism. The restaurant awards fall into 10 national categories and 12 regional categories.

Best New Restaurant is one of the most competitive national categories. It honors a restaurant that “opened in 2020 or 2021 that already demonstrates excellence in cuisine and hospitality and seems likely to make a significant impact in years to come.”

Owamni, which Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson opened in 2021 in the Water Works Pavilion, a picturesque spot overlooking the Owámniyomni falls of the Mississippi River, has won global accolades, including being named the Star Tribune’s Restaurant of the Year. Reservations have been hard to come by for Sherman’s deft exploration of Indigenous Native American cuisine. The menu at Owamni omits any ingredients brought to North America by colonizers, including wheat, sugar and dairy.

“We’re different and we do stand out a little bit,” Sherman told the Star Tribune Wednesday. “We’re the only restaurant out there doing what we’re doing. So we’re just really excited to get some notice for all the hard work.”

Minnesota was last represented in this category by two Gavin Kaysen restaurants, Demi in 2020 and Spoon and Stable in 2015.

Sherman is also on the shortlist as a finalist in the regional category, Best Chef Midwest. He faces competition from two more local chefs, Petite León‘s Jorge Guzmán and Union Hmong Kitchen‘s Yia Vang.

That category is one of 12 regional chef awards. The Beard’s Midwest region includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

Three of the six nominees for Best Chef Midwest are operating restaurants in Minneapolis. All three of them are, notably, showcasing the cuisine of their own cultures at their restaurants. Sherman, who was born in Pine Ridge, S.D., is Oglala Lakota. Guzmán was born in Mexico City, and Vang came to the U.S. as a Hmong refugee as a child.

Guzmán was previously a nominee in this category, in 2017, for his work at Surly’s Brewer’s Table. But this recognition is for his work at Petite León, a restaurant he has an ownership claim in, and where he utilizes some Mexican ingredients.

This is Vang’s first Beard nomination, a remarkable achievement for the chef who has built his reputation with a roving restaurant that did not have a permanent address until last fall. (It’s part of Graze Provisions and Libations food hall.) Vang has likened his culinary journey to that of the Hmong people, making the best out of what is available and making the Minneapolis restaurant landscape richer for it.

Sherman had previously been recognized by the James Beard Awards as a cookbook author, but this is his first year inside his restaurant, located on a site sacred to the Dakota and Anishinaabe people. Diners are greeted as they enter with a neon sign reminding them that they are on native land.

Minnesota had a relatively strong showing among the nominees, despite having garnered its fewest semifinalists in recent years.

Two Minnesotans who did not land nominations were Erik Skaar, who was a semifinalist for Best Chef Midwest for helming the seafood-centric Spring Park restaurant Vann; and Kim Bartmann, who was a semifinalist in the national Outstanding Restaurateur category. Vang’s Union Hmong Kitchen had also been on the long list for Best New Restaurant, but did not move on in the competition.

Bartmann’s recognition from the Beard Awards stirred controversy locally among former workers. Bartmann had reached a settlement last year with the state attorney general after an investigation into wage violations. The controversy came at a pivotal time for the awards, which is returning in 2022 after a two-year hiatus brought on by the pandemic — and an internal reckoning over diversity.

Winners will be honored at a June 13 gala event at Chicago’s Civic Opera House.

This is a developing story.

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