By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Jun 10, 2024 at 7:53 PM

This evening the annual James Beard Restaurant & Chefs Awards ceremony took place at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. 

The awards honor the talents of intrepid chefs who creatively approach their work and contribute to their respective communities.

And while Wisconsin was biting its nails with the hope that Chefs Dan Jacobs and Dan Van Rite of EsterEv would bring home an award, it was not to be so.

Among tonight’s awardees, Chef Christina Nguyen of Hai Hai in Minneapolis, Minnesota was honored with the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef Midwest.

During her acceptance of the award, she thanked the Beard Foundation for its work in recognizing and raising up “immigrant food”, a category of cuisines that have been traditionally marginalized and limited to recognition in categories like “Cheap Eats” and the like.

2024 marked the second Beard nomination for Nguyen, who earned her first in 2020 (when the awards were canceled due to COVID-10). She also made the semi-finals in 2018 and 2023.

Nguyen and her partner and spouse, Birk Stefan Grudem, opened their first restaurant, Hola Arepa in 2011. In 2018, they opened Hai Hai, an eatery focused on Southeast Asian street foods and dishes Nguyen grew up eating. The restaurant’s varied fare introduced the Twin Cities to a mix of lesser-known regional Vietnamese dishes alongside original dishes that showcase the bold, bright flavors of Southeastern Asian cuisine.

In its first year, the Star Tribune gave the restaurant 3½ stars, calling it "one of those charmed restaurants where nearly every one of its well-engineered components fosters a single emotion: happiness."

Wisconsin’s rich James Beard history

Wisconsinites should still feel a great sense of pride in the culinary prowess we've built. We have countless chefs in both our city and state who deserve acknowledgment for their resilience, leadership, innovation and creativity. That includes nearly 100 semi-finalists and finalists who've been honored by the Beard Foundation over the past 35+ years.

Among them is Sanford D'Amato, founder of Sanford, blazed new territory when he broke into the New York scene and made a name for himself in New York, a city largely ruled by French-born chefs in the 1970's. Years later, after moving back to Milwaukee, he also made his mark as the first chef in Wisconsin to win the prestigious James Beard Award, which he did in 1996, earning the title of Best Chef in the Midwest.

Justin Aprahamian, who purchased Sanford from D'Amato in 2012, was nominated four times before achieving his win in 2014. His win was preceded by Adam Siegel's 2008 honor as Best Chef Midwest for his work at Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro.

Most recently, the honor of Best Chef Midwest was bestowed upon Dane Baldwin of The Diplomat, who brought home the first post-pandemic Beard award in 2022. 

Other Beard winners have hailed from Madison. Chef Tory Miller was the 2012 winner for his work at L'Etoile. His award was the second for a L'Etoile chef, with founder, Odessa Piper, taking home the award in 2001.

Wisconsin natives who have been recipients of James Beard Awards include Paul Bartolotta, who was the first chef to win a James Beard in two regions. The first was in 1994 when he headed up the kitchen at Spiaggia in Chicago; the other was in 2009 for his work at Ristorante di Mare in Las Vegas. Kenosha native Tony Mantuano also won the award for best chef Great Lakes for his work at Spiaggia in 2005.

In addition to chef-based awards, restaurants including the now-shuttered Milwaukee classic, Watts Tea Shop, the Cream City's serbian gem, Three Brothers and the home of the butter burger, Solly’s Grille, have all brought home the prize for American Classics. Bryant's Cocktail Lounge also has the distinction of being a 2013 semifinalist in the category of Outstanding Bar Program.

Here's to next year, Wisconsin!

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.