Fargo’s Andrea Baumgardner, a James Beard Semifinalist, and the Magic of BernBaum’s
The James Beard award is given to the best chefs in the business with at least ten years in the game. Think of Andrea Baumgardner as the Elizabeth Gilbert of the culinary world. Like the “Eat, Pray, Love” author, the Fargo-based chef has found love and success in unexpected places — including her hometown.
At the turn of the millennium, Baumgardner was a hot West Coast chef. But a passion for community brought the Fargo native home. And her longtime love of fresh, local ingredients has helped put her small bagel and sandwich shop in the national spotlight.
Baumgardner launched BernBaum’s in 2016 with her husband Brett Bernath. The beloved downtown Fargo lunch counter is inspired by the couple’s Nordic and Jewish roots. Earlier this year, she was nominated for a James Beard Award as the best chef in the Midwest.
Melons and Matadors
Baumgardner initially came to her culinary career through her love of language. She studied romance languages in college and was considering a pre-med track when a school year abroad changed her perspective on food forever. A semester in Avignon in southern France brought home a lifelong appreciation for fresh, local, real food.
“I lived with a family that, being completely a normal French family, was obsessed with food,” she said. “Sitting down for a meal and enjoying food and wine was a part of their everyday experience. Also, having such amazing ingredients and markets available was mind-blowing for me. An experience that still remains vivid to this day is the father of my French boyfriend cutting open a melon from his garden and giving it to me with my morning cafe au lait. I had never smelled anything so fragrant and delicious. It’s so simple yet something that was harder to come by in the United States at the time.”
Baumgardner returned from her program in Europe still considering studying pre-med. But she couldn’t shake the cooking bug. So any thought of pursuing the medical field was put on the shelf, and Baumgardner enrolled at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. After an externship at the pioneering farm-to-table Northern California restaurant Chez Panisse and working at several San Francisco hotspots, she moved to Los Angeles to open the trendy tapas restaurant Cobras and Matadors.
A Historic Hotel and a Return Home
But Fargo eventually called her back. When the celebrity entrepreneur Karen Stoker reopened the historic Hotel Donaldson in downtown Fargo as a trendy boutique hotel in 2003, she sought out Baumgardner to open the new HoDo restaurant. It was an opportunity Baumgardner couldn’t pass up. And what she found was a Fargo changing from the sleepy small town of her childhood to a city in motion.
“I originally thought that I would open the property’s food outlets and return to LA, but I came back to a city that was in the early stages of revitalizing its downtown and found many things to keep me here,” she said. “Since then, 19 years ago, downtown is packed with dining options, retail, apartments and condos, and tons of college students.”
Baumgardner launched her popular farm to table cafe Green Market Kitchen in 2006, with a focus on local produce and meats. She met Bernath, another Fargo native and culinary up and comer, on the job. The couple worked side by side at the restaurant until Bernath took time off from Green Market to care for their young son. When Green Market closed its doors in 2013, Baumgardner took a break from the restaurant biz to spend more time with her family, and Bernath also shifted gears, opening a mid-century modern furniture store.
The Lunch Counter that Boomed
But the kitchen called again. The couple opened BernBaum’s as a 17-seat lunch counter inside the vintage furniture store “with little more than a home kitchen,” Baumgardner says.
The concept was a laid-back sandwich and bagel shop with super-fresh local ingredients, combining Bernath’s Jewish roots and Baumgardner’s Nordic heritage. BernBaum’s built a following with a sophisticated take on deli classics, Baumgardner’s trademark attention to detail and passion for locally sourced foods. The menu features classics like authentic New York-style bagels and killer matzo ball soup, potato latkes, knishes and blintzes, along with inventive small plates and gorgeous salads.
As its regional reputation grew, BernBaum’s moved to a new space in 2019. The restaurant also caught the attention of the prestigious James Beard Foundation. Baumgardner was a semifinalist in the 2020 competition for Best Chef in the Midwest.
The Lox Connection
For Baumgardner, BernBaum’s was a chance to explore the nexus of Eastern European Jewish and Nordic cuisines.
“When my husband and I thought about a bagelry and small lunch counter, we thought of the ways in which Scandinavian cuisine overlaps with Ashkenazic cuisine — smoked, cured and pickled fish, lots of pickling and fermenting, rye bread and other flours, potatoes (of course, you can’t be in the Midwest without all forms of potatoes), cabbage and some of the flavor profiles as well…Some of the dishes actually combine elements of both, sometimes we go straight Nordic or Jewish.”
Baumgardner has also enjoyed exploring the sephardic Jewish cuisine of the Middle East and North Africa at BernBaum’s. “…Because it is so tasty and it’s a learning opportunity for all of us.” The classic Mediterranean eggplant casserole moussaka has become a house speciality.
The couple initially launched BernBaum’s as a daytime-only joint, intent on preserving their evenings at home. With a James Beard award nomination under her belt, Baumgardner gently added a popular early dinner service a few nights a week just before COVID hit. Like restaurants around the country, BernBaum’s has had to adapt: returning to daytime hours with a focus on take-out and delivery. Bernath has even returned to his passion for vintage furniture, offering cool pieces for sale in the restaurant where tables have been removed for social distancing.
“Like most businesses in the past six months, we have had to pivot on some of our plans,” Baumgardner said. “ It’s always changing, although sometimes I joke that we are just repeating the same three things in different combinations!”
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.