Local Tastemakers and Food Slayers – Mpls.St.Paul Magazine

In Conversation with Jessi Pollak
Because we all eventually come together at the table, the eating and drinking landscape is a good measure of how the Cities are evolving. Meet the local chefs, innovators, foodists, and change agents who are pushing our food scene in new directions and showing us how to feed the Twin Cities.
by Stephanie March, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl
March 19, 2023
6:49 AM
Studio portraits by Lauren Krysti. Hair and Makeup by Fatima Olive.
Chef Ann Ahmed of Khâluna and Lat14 hopes to help other female chefs find balance.
Having basically gutted the former Harriet’s Inn space in south Minneapolis to construct gorgeous Khâluna, Ann Ahmed could have done anything with the space. There is a small area in the back where she could have added more money-making seats or carved out a takeout or catering wing of the kitchen. But she didn’t.
Ahmed built out the back space with a small, cozy demo kitchen and counter, then placed a long communal table right next to it. In the crazy world of a buzzy and popular restaurant, Ahmed was excited to create more small moments. “The whole intent of that space is to be more of a personal space for myself to be able to share,” she says. “I need that balance so I don’t lose myself. Being in the great space of a restaurant, you feel that hustle, you hear the ticket machine going crazy all the time. But being able to escape and having a kitchen where I’m surrounded by people who are intriguing and interested in slower moments versus, like, being rushed to put something out, that’s a different peace of mind. I’m lucky.”
But Ahmed knows that not every chef has that kind of space, mentally or physically, in their own restaurant—which is why she decided to invite them in to share and be a part of it. Launched this year, her Cooking with Friends series will bring other female chefs from around the Cities into her small kitchen to help them rekindle passions, find joys in cooking, and interact on a smaller scale with the people they feed.
“I think it’s really important,” Ahmed notes, “for a lot of these chefs to come and experience that for themselves. To see what it’s like to connect with a small number of guests in a space that they don’t have to manage, they don’t have to rush around with a sense of urgency for their staff. We’ll take care of them so they can take care of others. It’s not just about dinner.”
Lachelle Cunningham (right), Christina Nguyen (left), Nettie Colón, and Marla Kissoondath Singh Jadoonanan are just a few of the chefs who will be cooking with Ahmed each month in the back kitchen to spark creativity or play with self-expression. Each month’s meal will be interactive, with questions, storytelling, and curiosity.
“I need that balance so I don’t lose myself. Being in the great space of a restaurant, you feel that hustle, you hear the ticket machine going crazy all the time.”
—Ann Ahmed
“Most of us are consumed by the restaurant business, and it can take the life out of you,” she says. “This is able to anchor me and kind of bring me back to knowing that I can still enjoy what I do and have fun with it.”
Photo by Caitlin Abrams
How does the next generation of restaurant owners show up? It’s not a mystery; the vast majority of independent restaurants are owned by former servers, bartenders, and cooks. The path to ownership isn’t easy, and it may be harder than ever with financing options out of reach for a generation that had to float while restaurants closed. Some fear that people leaving the industry, losing their desire to run this gauntlet, will have a delayed impact on the future vitality of the Twin Cities food scene. Well, not if the Khyber Pass and Bar + Cart families have anything to do with it.
Masooda (center left) and Emel (far left) Sherzad owned Khyber Pass on Grand Avenue for 30 years before deciding to move on from the business after the pandemic. “We had a lot of people walk through,” Masooda says, “but none were the right fit.” Instead, the Sherzads invested in the next generation and passed the restaurant down the family line, to their daughter Mashal’s partner, Ralena Young (center right), and co-owner Brian Riess (far right).
Young and Riess have spent the last few years bartending and creating cocktail programs for Tequila Butcher, Volstead’s, and other restaurants in the Eyes Wide Hospitality Group. Young, specifically, has spent much of her time training suburban kids in the art of the craft cocktail, an act that is destined to have a ripple effect.
But Young and Riess already see beyond their freshly minted status as owners. “We are going to be a training ground, fully transparent, for anyone who wants to open their own place someday,” Young says. “You want to learn how to do books? Need to understand food cost or profit statements? We’ll teach you. If people come in here and give us their best, we’ll give them ours. We actively hope that people who work here will leave to open their own restaurant or bar. That’s paying it forward. It’s just better for all of us.”
Photo by Caitlin Abrams
In the food world, is it still location, location, location? Or is it followers, followers, followers? For Karen and Cristian DeLeon, it’s a bit of both. The husband-and-wife team opened El Sazon, a taco shop, in the back of a BP gas station in Eagan. And they are killing it.
Social media may have tipped the scales, elevating a questionable location such as a suburban gas station, but you still have to show up with something that will lure people away again and again from a Heggies and Cool Ranch grab. The DeLeons’ specialty is birria, the braised meat tacos that are cooked with a richly spiced broth, also served on the side for dipping. As one guy standing next to the Mountain Dew cooler said, while jamming some into his mouth, “Whoa. I’ve been hearing about these and had to come try them. As soon as I finish this, I’m going back to order more for the drive home.” He did.
Maybe for social media taco hunters, part of the charm is the gas station. The DeLeons are not taking a moment of their hidden-gem status for granted. Now that they have the foodists’ attention, they’ve begun expanding their offerings with specialty menu items and parking lot burger pop-ups, even hosting five-course tasting-menu dinners held at long tables set in the mart. Seemingly against all odds, gas station dinners sell out.
If you spend enough time in restaurants, at some point you’re going to run into a dreamer who wants to make wine. Or two dreamers. Luke Shimp (right), who owns Red Cow and Red Rabbit, and Chris Foster (left), who owns local wine distribution company Libation Project, are those dreamers.
Here’s another dream: You finally get to a spot in life where you can imagine buying vineyard property and retiring in Sonoma. In January of 2017, Foster’s parents did just that. They bought the land and started renovating the house on the property. Suddenly, Shimp and Foster had a real shot at being winemakers. They could have control over fruit sourcing and creative licensing. They knew the grapes being grown on the land were good, and they began to form the business model that would become Side Hustle Wines.
“We didn’t want to just private-label a wine,” Shimp explains, “because while you get to put your name on it, you don’t really get to create the brand, really work with the ingredients to make something your own. This way, we could literally get our hands in the soil.”
By October, the house was ready for visitors, so Foster brought friends out for a little pre-harvest ballyhoo. No less than a week later, the fires began. “I had a friend call me and say, ‘Hey, Chris, I don’t want to be an alarmist, but you guys are in a bad spot,’” Foster recalls. Turns out their spot just south of Valley of the Moon, between Sonoma and the coastal range, is really great for growing grapes but really bad if things are on fire.
But it wasn’t a total nightmare, and all was not lost—yet. The vines prevailed, and Shimp and Foster managed to get out there and pull their first harvest in 2018 and a second in 2019. The two worked collaboratively—on everything from the shape of the bottle to the textured paper used on the label—and Moonshot was born. Labeled as a Sonoma Valley red wine, it’s an easy drinker for under $25. “We wanted it to be approachable,” Shimp says, “and we didn’t want it to be about any single varietal, because we wanted to make wine without being hung up on any single vineyard and what they might be growing.”
A smart move, it turns out, as Foster’s parents decided to sell their property in 2020. The farming had become too much to handle, between the fires, drought, and the health of the family, and when a great buyer surfaced, they acted. “I’m not going to tell my parents to walk away from a potential windfall just because I want to make wine,” Foster notes.
The good news is, neither Shimp nor Foster counts this as done—they’re looking at other vineyeards and juice to procure. As they see it, their Moonshot has just begun. Right now, there’s a small amount of the 2019 vintage around the Twin Cities that you can find in bars and restaurants.
“We’ve learned so much in this process and have made so many great connections,” Shimp declares, “but no matter whose grapes we source in the future, this will always represent Sonoma County. It’ll represent family growers, and always have its heart in the same place.”
Above all, Shimp says, “Moonshot should represent drinkability and approachability. And hopefully deliciousness. I think that there’s a lot of different directions you can go and still end up at that kind of resolve.”
Many local foodists have lamented the lack of a Chinatown in the Twin Cities. Perhaps, as the birthplace of Southdale, America’s first shopping mall, it’s more appropriate that we just waited for this. Finally, late last year, Asia Mall, a collective years in the making, opened in the former Gander Mountain store in Eden Prairie.
You’ll find two levels filled with bubble tea, mochi donuts, a hot pot restaurant, Korean corn dogs, Hong Kong noodles, and more, as well as a huge Asian Mart grocery store (with a notable fresh seafood department) anchoring the main level. Planned additional tenants include a hair salon, a travel agency, and even a car showroom.
Sure, it’s a mall that’s open 365 days a year, but it feels like a neighborhood. And like a traditional Chinatown, these independently owned businesses support immigrant families. “We’re all just small owners—we don’t have big corporations backing us; it’s just us,” says Michael Bui, who owns the Pho Mai restaurant, along with the Bober Tea/Mochi Dough kiosk. “It’s a big risk for most of us. But I’ve been living in Eden Prairie for 26 years, and I think it’s going to work out.”
Given the fact that the mart had to limit the number of durians to one per customer due to high demand during the first months, it’s a good bet.
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Photographs by Tim Evans
A potato dog with sweet chili sauce from CrunCheese Korean Hot Dog.
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Crab legs for sale in the seafood market.
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Ocean Bomb sparkling water cans line a shelf in Asian Mart.
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Customers shop for produce in the center aisles of Asian Mart.
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Pho Mai diners enjoy a family meal.
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A make-your-own-spring-roll meal at Pho Mai.
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Bubble teas from Uni Uni Bubble Tea.
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Donuts from Mochi Dough.
You almost can’t contain the energy that cascades off of baking celebrity Zoë François. It telegraphs through her wild mane of curly gray hair, it crackles in the air while she dances in her kitchen, and it travels through screens to her nearly half a million followers on Instagram. It makes total sense that Chip and Joanna Gaines would snap her up and launch a Zoë Bakes show on their new Magnolia Network.
“Working with them has been a blast. They have such an eye for creating cool and approachable programming, and there’s so much joy in their projects,” François says.
While the show centers on François baking in her Lowry Hill home kitchen, each episode is really a glimpse into the food world of the Twin Cities. She has taken her camera crew out to local apple orchards; into restaurant kitchens, such as Handsome Hog’s and Tilia’s; and into the homes of other bakers and bloggers, such as Sarah Kieffer (the inventor the of the viral pan-banging cookie), to showcase what our eating life is really like here. And though he doesn’t appear in any of her episodes, none of this would have happened without Andrew Zimmern.
Zimmern started his own production company, Intuitive Content, eight years ago, and it is behind the Zoë Bakes deal with Magnolia. Since its launch, Intuitive has not only created shows for AZ but has also opened the broadcast doors for many others.
When you look back over the past few years, you can’t help but be awed by the number of local fooderati riding the airwaves. Chef Justin Sutherland’s 2019 appearance on Top Chef launched him toward his TruTV show called Fast Foodies, as well as a series about untold BIPOC food stories known as Taste the Culture. Obviously, having chef Ann Kim be one of only seven profiles for the popular Netflix program Chef’s Table is amazing. And Yia Vang has moved from hosting a local TPT program called Relish to having his own show on the Outdoor Channel. His show, Feral, centers on Vang hunting invasive or overpopulated species, from feral hogs to common carp, and then showing us how to cook them.
“They have such an eye for creating cool and approachable programming, and there’s so much joy in their projects.”
—Zoë François on Magnolia Network
According to a freelance cameraman around town, there are more jobs and assignments than people to film them—which feels like a creative boom to videoed food and a way for the rest of the world to see that we’re more than a bunch of burger-eating kids in fly-over country.
Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Through her BIPOC Foodways Alliance, she’s worked on podcasts and articles highlighting the food stories of diverse and multicultural tastemakers. Read More
Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Growing up as a child of bed-and-breakfast innkeepers in San Francisco, Alison Arth thought that welcoming strangers into your home was every kid’s normal experience. She remembers the warmth of feeling that people chose to leave their homes and come stay at hers. No surprise, then, that she ended up going to the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and working with chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud for her first job out of college. She eventually became a hospitality consultant, starting her own company, Salt and Roe, and landed in Minnesota to support the opening of Spoon and Stable. While she has clients all over the country, this is now her home base.
Arth had already been seeing cracks in the hospitality industry even before the pandemic took it down. “I had chosen a word at the beginning of 2020, and it was chaos. So, sorry for that,” she says. “I was beginning to shed my consultancy skin and working toward figuring out what was next. I didn’t know I would find what feels like an intersection of what I most want to be doing in the world and what the world needs from me.” This meaningful work, it turns out, is in leadership coaching: guiding chefs, restaurateurs, managers, or anyone who influences others to think and live differently.
“I’m really glad that a lot of people are giving up on living a miserable life. Where did that come from, this idea that you have to live like that, to a degree, to be in service?” An entire pillar of Arth’s curriculum—which includes one-on-one coaching—focuses on managing your own emotional well-being. This has not been a typical part of hospitality training. Her mission is to help create sustainable, purpose-driven businesses.
Arth guides from experience: “I believed that my greatest gift was picking up the shit, rescuing everything. It’s such a process to recognize that the amount of help I can give authentically is limited by the amount of help I’m willing to accept. So I can’t be generous if I am not willing or able to be generous to myself—that’s not authentic.”
Kamal Mohamed might hold the current title of Minnesota’s most dazzling food innovator. The 33-year-old owner of Northeast’s chic and hip restaurant Stepchld has a résumé that’s downright staggering. He founded one of our state’s first food truck festivals right after graduating from St. Thomas, sold it, vaulted to Silicon Valley to launch a cold-pressed-juice robot start-up, got bounced from that by investors, returned to the Twin Cities to found the red-hot (and cayenne-hot) fried chicken mini chain Nashville Coop, then opened Stepchld.
He then founded a packaged grocery brand called Gallant Tiger, which debuted with an upscale PB&J that garnered a cease-and-desist from Uncrustables owner Smuckers (an experience he subsequently turned into a business-press underdog story). He now has two more food brands coming! One is a Japanese siphon coffee and breakfast bar concept called Blue Star Egg, slated for this year. The other is a sort of futuristic health-food destination planned for 2024.
“People don’t understand innovation. It’s not invention, or it’s not just invention,” explains Mohamed. “It’s the execution of an idea. Everyone has ideas. Ideas are easy.” What innovation really is, explains Mohamed, is an idea that solves a problem.
“Can you identify a need in the marketplace; get all the pieces, from licensing to investors, employees to branding; get everyone to agree to your one vision; then get the customer to see it, agree, buy in, and continuously come back? That’s innovation,” he explains.
“People have the wrong idea about innovation. They think, Uber is innovation. They did this totally new thing. But did they? They used Google Maps, iPhones. Uber didn’t invent the touch screen; they didn’t invent phone calls. So what did Uber really do? Identified a need in the market and made all the little pieces that needed to work together actually work together. That’s the hard part.”
Innovation can be a product, a restaurant, or an idea you spend a decade considering, he says. “With Gallant Tiger, we’re going to launch a vegan ice cream—not because it’s the best vegan ice cream but because it’s the best ice cream, period. We identified a need in the market; now we’re working on executing it incredibly well. But until we can execute it well, we’ll keep tinkering. I can’t tell you when it will be available, because we’re working on all the little parts. In fact, a really good innovation is one you’ve executed so well people don’t notice that it even has parts.”
Looking back, he says, “When I was a person going to restaurants, I’d think, This place is cool. Everything feels easy and seamless. These people just must be geniuses. When I started actually launching restaurants, I was texting my heroes, Gavin Kaysen and Ann Kim. What should my food costs be? How do I do this and that? They were so generous, so patient. Sean Sherman invited me to a cookout.”
In these moments, he says, “all I could think was, If I ever get to your level, I hope I’m this chill and nonchalant. They helped me get over my imposter syndrome in this fantastic but challenging industry. They helped me realize: Anything that feels easy and seamless is just a ton of hard work and a million problems all solved before the customer showed up. So that’s what innovation is, for real. It’s a need in the market that you solve, and you execute it so well your customer just thinks, That works; that’s cool.”
The Twin Cities bounced back better than ever last year, and you’re likely not caught up on where to eat now. Here’s a handy-dandy checklist of hot new restaurants for you to tape to the fridge.
The food hall resulting from a Zen Box Izakaya and Bebe Zito collaboration is the HOTTEST open for 2023: ramen, Brazilian pizza, ice cream, and more!
Food and Dining editor Stephanie March writes and edits Mpls.St.Paul Magazine’s Eat + Drink section. She can also be heard Saturdays on her myTalk107.1 radio show, Weekly Dish, where she talks about the Twin Cities food scene.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl was born in New York City little aware of her destiny—to live well in Minnesota. Dara writes about food, people, places, and now and then, things! She has five James Beard awards out of 13 nominations, and has won three CRMAs.
March 19, 2023
6:49 AM
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