Arts and Culture

Hai Hai and Hola Arepa’s Christina Nguyen wins Best Chef of the Midwest at James Beard Awards

The exterior of a yellow building with a sign that reads "hai hai"
Hai Hai in Minneapolis is a second-generation Vietnamese restaurant owned by Christina Nguyen and her husband Birk Grudem. Nguyen delights in the diverse crowd her business draws, attracted by the food, drink, and the other clientele.
Sarah Thamer | MPR News

And the James Beard Award winner is … Minneapolis chef Christina Nguyen!

She won the James Beard award for Best Chef of the Midwest at the ceremony Monday night. In an emotional acceptance speech, she thanked her team and her family.

"Thank you to my parents, who have always had my back. As refugees from Vietnam, they had to start their lives over from scratch when they moved here, with no warning, and they've taught me that anything is possible, to not be afraid,” she said.

Nguyen serves Southeast Asian street food at Hai Hai in northeast Minneapolis, but the self-taught chef first opened Hola Arepa in south Minneapolis.

“Thank you to the James Beard Foundation for recognizing the value of immigrant food. When we started our restaurants, the most that a Southeast Asian restaurant could ever hope for was 'Best Cheap Eats,’ and I feel like we've come a long way, so this is an honor,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen told Cathy Wurzer earlier this year that she doesn’t do her work for awards, but she is “super honored” to be nominated again. She was nominated in 2019 and 2020 for Best Chef of the Midwest.

“But it is absolutely a nice acknowledgment to have, for me and our entire team, who work so hard all the time,” Nguyen said. Hai Hai has gotten busier since her nomination, she added.

A person holds a drink.
Hai Hai restaurant owner Christina Nguyen says her bar welcomes a diversity of patrons through her takes on Southeast Asian food and drink.
Sarah Thamer | MPR News

The Twin Cities had three nominees up for the honors, among the nation’s most prestigious in the culinary industry, but Nguyen was the only winner.

Ann Ahmed of Khâluna in East Harriet was also nominated for Best Chef of the Midwest.

Oro by Nixta was one of ten finalists up for Best New Restaurant. Oro’s chefs and co-owners are Kate and Gustavo Romero. The northeast Minneapolis eatery highlights Mexican heirloom corn.