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Sacramento’s first James Beard Award finalist was just announced. See who

Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine partner Billy Ngo was announced Wednesday morning as a finalist for the James Beard Award category “Best Chef: California,” a distinction no Sacramento chef has reached before.

Ngo found out in January that he was a semifinalist when a stream of congratulatory text messages woke him up that morning. He was more aware of Wednesday’s finalist announcement but tried not to let his expectations get too high.

On a rare off night after several long weeks of work — and before cooking at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival this weekend — Ngo went out for dinner Tuesday and came home to watch an episode of the FX show “Shōgun,” eventually falling asleep on the couch before heading off to bed early, he said.

Ngo’s wife, social media influencer Mandy Hwang, broke the news to him this time — and was more excited at the time than he was.

“She woke me up at 7:10 and said ‘congratulations!’ I was in such a deep sleep because I was just exhausted, you know, and I was like ‘what? What are you talking about?’” Ngo said. “Then she showed me the post, and I was like, ‘oh, this is shocking.’

“I’m still in shock, but I’m very, very happy.”

Ngo advanced to the final round alongside four other luminaries: Geoff Davis of Burdell (Oakland), Rogelio Garcia of Auro (Calistoga), Lord Maynard Llera of Kuya Lord (Los Angeles) and Tara Monsod of Animae (San Diego).

All restaurant and chef award winners will be announced June 10 at a ceremony in Chicago.

The James Beard Awards, nicknamed “the Oscars of the food world,” have increasingly recognized Sacramento chefs and restaurants in recent years. Craig Takehara of Binchoyaki and Chris Barnum-Dann of Localis were semifinalists for “Best Chef: California” in 2023 and 2022 respectively, while Paragary’s reached the same round for the nationwide “Outstanding Restaurant” category in 2022.

Frank Fat’s also won an “America’s Classic Award” in 2013, recognizing the downtown Sacramento institution’s decades of influence since opening in 1939. But no modern chef had made it to a finalist round before Ngo on Wednesday morning.

“The most prestigious awards — it’s a Michelin star or a James Beard Award, one or the other,” Ngo said. “It’s really high up there as something you could obtain.”

The path to becoming a James Beard Award finalist

Ngo enrolled in the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, returned home to work at The Kitchen under Randall Selland and opened Kru in midtown Sacramento a week before his 24th birthday. Nearly 20 years later, it’s moved a much larger East Sacramento restaurant at 3135 Folsom Blvd. with a private-access dining room rumored to be frequented by visiting celebrities.

While Ngo still prepares sushi at Kru a few days per week, he’s also opened downtown basement hotspot Kodaiko Ramen & Bar and R Street Corridor hangout Fish Face Poke Bar. Kru items can also be found in Elk Grove’s Sky River Casino, and along with Kodaiko, at The Line ghost kitchen in East Sacramento.

Ngo’s next project will be Chu Mai, a Chinese-Vietnamese tribute to his late mother opening at 1717 S St. in late summer. He’s partnered with local chef Tyler Bond and former Kodaiko general manager Michael Ng.

He’ll head to Chicago for the James Beard Award ceremony before then, and plans to make reservations at some choice restaurants. On Wednesday, though, the superstitious chef will go to the same drive-thru as the day he was named a semifinalist: Wienerschnitzel.

Whether or not he’s named California’s best chef, he already feels like a winner, he said.

“Even if I don’t win, I’m not going to be disappointed,” Ngo said. “I feel like I already won.”