James Beard nominee Ann Ahmed tells us what's for lunch

Four chefs and one pastry chef from the Twin Cities have been nominated by the prestigious James Beard “Best Chef Midwest.” Finalists will be announced March 29.

It’s a huge honor so we wanted to catch up with them this week. And since our show airs over the lunch hour, we’d thought we’d ask them — what’s for lunch?

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with Ann Ahmed, chef and owner of the restaurants Khâluna, Lat14 Asian Eatery and Lemongrass.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Course because it is 12:35. Many of you are eating lunch. Thanks for joining us here on the lunch hour. Coming up, we're going to talk to yet another nominee for the prestigious James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Midwest award, and Ahmed will join us here in just a few minutes to tell us what's for lunch. Right now we're going to get a news update from John Wanamaker. John.

JOHN WANAMAKER: Cathy, the Manhattan District attorney investigating Donald Trump is resisting house Republicans request to turn over documents. The office called the effort and, quote, "Unprecedented inquiry into an ongoing probe." In a letter obtained by the Associated Press, the General Counsel for the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg admonished the Congressional request as, quote, "An unlawful incursion into New York's sovereignty."

The response from Bragg's office comes days after the Republican chairman of three house committees sent him a letter seeking information about his actions in the Trump case which they characterized as, quote, "An unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial authority."

European Union leaders have endorsed a plan for sending Ukraine one million rounds of artillery ammunition within the next 12 months to help the country counter Russia's invasion. EU foreign and defense ministers approved the plan for a fast track purchasing procedure earlier this week, and the leaders of the bloc's 27 member nations gave it their political blessing at a summit in Brussels, Thursday.

The CEO of TikTok is being grilled by a US congressional committee to make the case for why the hugely popular video sharing app should not be banned. TikTok has 150 million American users but is under increasing pressure from US officials who are concerned about data security and user safety.

Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman's office said today he's expected to return soon to the chamber, although Democratic leaders are giving no timeline five weeks after he sought inpatient treatment for clinical depression. The 53-year-old was weeks into his service in Washington and still recovering from the after effects of the stroke he had last May during his campaign, when he checked himself into Walter Reed National Medical Center last month. Doctors say post-stroke depression is common and treatable.

The Nebraska legislature has advanced a bill that would ban gender affirming care for minors, despite threats from two lawmakers that they would filibuster the rest of the session. Today's vote came on the third day of often contentious debate. The bill would outlaw gender affirming therapies such as hormone treatments and gender reassignment surgery for those 18 and younger. This is MPR News.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you, John. We appreciate it. Four chefs, one pastry chef from the Twin Cities have been nominated by the prestigious James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Midwest Award. Finalists will be announced on March 29. This is a huge honor, so we wanted to catch up with all the nominees this week. And since our show airs over the lunch hour, we thought, well, what the heck. We'd ask them, what's for lunch. Today, I'm talking with Ann Ahmed. She's the chef and owner of Khaluna in Minneapolis. Ann, welcome.

ANN AHMED: Yes, hi. Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Oh, I'm so pleased you're here. Thank you for taking the time. I know you guys are busy. So the title of the series this week is what's for lunch. So have you had lunch yet today?

ANN AHMED: Not yet. I had a piece of a granola bar here. But yeah, I've just been running around all morning. So I have not had lunch yet.

CATHY WURZER: Little busy. What do you normally have for lunch?

ANN AHMED: [LAUGHS] Something that has rice in it. I always want rice. But yeah, so you would think that a chef has these beautiful curated lunch but it really doesn't happen that way for me. It's what I'm doing in my day and how much time I have. But yeah, usually I like to grab whatever is available in the kitchen. If it's some rice and some beef jerky, or some noodles and some broth that's ready in the kitchen, I'll grab some of that. But yeah, ideally I like to go out and have a sit down lunch for a little bit cause that's always like a good break for me.

CATHY WURZER: But it sounds like you're so busy it's tough to do.

ANN AHMED: Yeah. But when I do get those moments where I get to sit down or popping somewhere for lunch, I do like, I really enjoy going to Quang because it's close to Khaluna here, and it's really good. It's always solid and it's very comforting and I enjoy it.

CATHY WURZER: So tell us about the food that you most like to prepare, that you just feel so good when you're making it.

ANN AHMED: Oh my gosh, that's so many things. But yeah, I mean I think anything that I prepare I really, I enjoy all of it. So if I had to pick one thing for at the moment, I do really enjoy making curry for my husband at home. It's time that we get to spend together, and it's a meal that brings us closer to our family. And him being that his family lives in New York, so that's one way that I can help him have a sense of family around him when I can cook him some traditional Bengali curries for him.

CATHY WURZER: It sounds like food is definitely your love language.

ANN AHMED: Oh yeah. A little too much.

[LAUGHS] So this is, I understand, the first time you've been recognized by the James Beard Foundation, is that right?

CATHY WURZER: That is right. Yes, that is correct.

ANN AHMED: How does it feel?

CATHY WURZER: It feels a little bit surreal. And it's a bit crazy at the same time. I've opened Lemongrass, it's been 18 years now. And the crazy thing is we're also closing the end of this week. And so but yeah, I've been doing it for so long, and it feels good to be recognized. But at the same time I'm still surprised I'm like, yeah, is that really my name on the list. But it's a recognition not only for myself, but for the work that I do and the people that helped me and as part of my team. So it's a really good feeling.

CATHY WURZER: Every single chef we've talked to this week has been just so gracious in talking about their teams, the people that are behind them and support them. Tell me a little bit more about your team.

ANN AHMED: I am very, very lucky to have such amazing people on my staff. Like from the dishwashers to all of our restaurant managers. It takes a lot for them to be committed to the service industry, and they do it with a lot of passion and an enjoyment of wanting to service the guests and wanting to provide hospitality to every single person that walks in through that door. And it's a lot of work. Restaurant is a lot of work. It's not a one person thing. And so it's just we all have to work together and we all have to be on the same page and have the same mission and drive.

CATHY WURZER: Thank you for making the comment that it is a lot of work. I think most people don't understand that. Can you describe your day for someone?

ANN AHMED: So my day, let's see. I start with getting my kids out of the house and off to school, then that's really when my day starts. And it really depends on their priority of that day. Like having three restaurants and working on the fourth, it's like, OK which one is the 9-1-1, which one is like the most urgent. And I'm lucky enough to have a good strong leadership team where I can lean on a lot of them and we divide and conquer.

So this is on our plate and this is on our agenda for today. You're going to do this, I'm going to do this, and I'm going to do this. So I usually find myself in terms of if a CDC at a restaurant is in need of tweaking a recipe or something's not coming out right, then that's like my emergency, that's where I'm needed for that day.

And then most of the time right now like at the moment, my time is consumed with the new restaurant that we're opening up in Loring Park, which is called Gai Noi and so we're only a few more weeks away from opening. So trying to finish up the menu, getting all of the dishware ordered, talking to vendors, meeting with the design team to make sure things are correct. So I feel like if the restaurants are good in a good place and somebody's taking care of that, then most of my time currently at the moment is being devoted to the new project Gai Noi.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. It's a lot of work. What's the rest of your day look like today?

ANN AHMED: So I'm going to go out and have lunch with my banker.


ANN AHMED: That's very important.


So yes, I'm going to have a late lunch after my call. I'm going to go meet with my banker so we can walk through the work in progress space at Gai Noi. So we're going to do a walkthrough of the project to see where we're at. And then I need to come back to the office and finish my menu and work on another menu that I'm doing, a tasting menu to get a sneak peek. And then respond to a lot more emails, and then picking up my kids.

CATHY WURZER: Oh my gosh. By the way, have the banker pick up lunch. I think that's appropriate.


ANN AHMED: Well, I don't know. Sometimes, I don't know if he might be listening to this. He's in his car.


CATHY WURZER: OK. Anne. Thank you so much. Congratulations on the nomination, and best of luck.

ANN AHMED: Well, thank you so much.

CATHY WURZER: Ann Ahmed's been with us. She's the chef behind Khaluna and a semifinalist for the James Beard Best Chef in the Midwest Award. Finalist will be announced next week. Winners celebrated in June. By the way this summer she said, Ann is planning to open that new restaurant Gai Noi in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis.

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