All Things Considered

‘The best weekend of my life‘: Minneapolis Chef Christina Nguyen lifts up family after big award night

She was named Best Midwest Chef at 2024 James Beard Awards for her work at her restaurant Hai Hai

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 annual James Beard Awards are sort of like the Oscar Awards, but for cuisine. And this year, Minneapolis chef Christina Nguyen brought home high honors after being named Best Chef in the Midwest. The high praise sheds a light on Hai Hai, the restaurant where she serves as Executive Chef.

The announcement and Monday night’s ceremony was immediately followed by a thunderous applause and an emotional speech delivered by Nguyen. In her emotional acceptance speech, she thanked her team and her family with a side dish of tears in her eyes.

“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.

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.

The Minneapolis-based chef joined MPR News host Tom Crann on All Things Considered to reflect on her experiences after her high honors.

The exterior of a yellow building with a sign that reads "hai hai"
The Hai Hai restaurant in Minneapolis is a second-generation Vietnamese restaurant owned by Christina Nguyen.
Sarah Thamer | MPR News

The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and accuracy purposes. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

What was it like hearing that moment back?

It was, my gosh, it was kind of surreal. I was like, “wait did they actually say my name?” I think I was in a little bit of shock. I don’t think I remember much of what happened after that because it was a little too exciting. And yeah, I think that I had an out of body experience. So hopefully I did my speech right. But I don’t remember all of it.

You have been a semifinalist before, and even a finalist back in 2020. But this year, you crossed the finish line. You brought it home. So what have the celebrations been like so far? You’re still in Chicago, right?

Yeah, still in Chicago right now. Just absolutely fun and amazing. I mean, the James Beard Award Weekend is always such a blast. There’s so many different events where you get to meet all of your idols, your favorite chefs, meet new people that you haven’t and across the country. It’s very celebratory, very fun, so much good food. And yeah, a lot of sparkling wine. Maybe too much sparkling wine. It was a very cool weekend, and probably the best weekend of my life. And yeah, I apologize that my voice is a little raspy today, because I might have done a little too much celebrating and, and yelling and screaming last night.

How important have your parents been on your journey and to the restauranteur that we’re celebrating today?

Oh, I mean, my parents have been such an integral part of my journey. My mom, she’s why I have the entrepreneurial streak in me. To have that person be a role model — and, you know, she quit her very safe job at 3M that she had a while back and just decided to open up her own printing and graphic design business. I think just seeing that, and growing up in a print shop, you know, it seems really normal to me for an Asian woman to just start a business. So I never thought twice about it. But, I think I took for granted that having her influence and seeing her hustle so hard to be self employed and make her dreams come true — that really shaped my life.

What does an award like this encourage you to do next?

I guess we’ll see. Obviously, the implications of getting the award means that things are going to be real busy. So, we’re just gonna just be ready for that and have the team be ready and fired up, and I think they’re all super excited. But also, they know that people are going to be extra critical of the food and wanting it to be perfect. So I think that it’s like, a really exciting time and we will be ready and will be fired up.