Along with Food Network stars and culinary artists from around the world, Cloquet community members may recognize a familiar face in this year’s Favorite Chef award competition.

Chef Kevin Aho grew up in Cloquet, and currently finds himself in first place.

Aho works as the executive chef at Restaurant Umbra inside the Canopy by Hilton hotel in Minneapolis, where he said competition is fierce.

“You’ve gotta be ahead of the game on the trends,” he said.

Aho feels honored to be selected for the Favorite Chef nomination, especially when he saw some of the “heavy hitters” he was going up against, he said.

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An ahi tuna tataki dish prepared by Kevin Aho. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Aho)
An ahi tuna tataki dish prepared by Kevin Aho. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Aho)

The winner of the award will receive a $50,000 cash prize. In addition, Favorite Chef will purchase an ad in Bon Appétit Magazine to spotlight the contest's winner. If Aho wins, he said he will split the cash prize with his team.

A driving bond

Aho's wife, Angel, said she often finds him awake at 3 a.m., writing down ideas for dishes. The two of them work together to perfect his work.

“Our journey has been ... amazing,” Angel said. “I never realized that food could be such an art.”

Aho first met Angel while cooking at Izaty's Resort in 2003, and he said she is the driving force behind much of his creative work.

“She pushes me to go that extra mile all the time,” he said.

Kevin Aho (left) and Angel Aho (right). (Photo courtesy of Kevin Aho)
Kevin Aho (left) and Angel Aho (right). (Photo courtesy of Kevin Aho)

Humble beginnings

Aho started his culinary experience as a 15-year-old line cook at a Hardee’s restaurant in Cloquet.

He continued to work part-time in the industry for the next several years, and by the time he graduated from Cloquet High School in 1987, Aho was working as the lead breakfast cook at the local Family Tradition restaurant.

Despite his high school hustle in the industry, Aho said it wasn’t always obvious that he wanted to cook professionally.

After graduating, Aho moved to the Twin Cities and spent time touring the U.S. with the heavy metal band, Down and Dirty.

“We were … the late 80s, big hair, leather pants, metal band,” Aho said of his days as a musician.

Two years later, in 1989, he attended the Culinary Institute of America and continued to play with the band in his spare time.

Eventually, Aho traded his leather pants for a chef’s coat, and began working full-time at various restaurants in the state.

Taste of home

In 1990, he found himself back in the Duluth area. He completed an internship with chef Glenn D'Amour, working at Little Angie's Cantina and Cafe D'Amour.

D’Amour greatly influenced Aho's Italian cooking style. He would travel Italy to record locals making authentic dishes in their homes. Then, he would have Aho listen to the recordings and recreate the dishes.

“I was taught how to really make a true gnocchi," Aho said.

While he has recently shifted his focus to French cuisine, Aho’s favorite dish to prepare is still an Italian seafood pasta called frutti di mare, which means “fruit of the sea” in Italian.

Furthermore, Aho said he enjoys putting a Minnesota twist on the classic dishes he prepares. He never strays too far from his roots and often returns to Cloquet to visit family in the area.

“I can kind of just get away from the hustle and bustle of being in the Cities all the time," he said.

It was in Duluth where Aho first earned the title Executive Chef when he helped Dan Cohen open the Italian restaurant Bella Vita, and it was at Keyport Restaurant in Superior where he earned his first award.

A cowboy caviar and quinoa dish prepared by Kevin Aho. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Aho)
A cowboy caviar and quinoa dish prepared by Kevin Aho. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Aho)

Dishing out inspiration

In addition to his work in restaurants, Aho has also spent time filming segments of his television program “Cooking with Kevin,” which currently airs through the Some Great People network in Minneapolis.

The show originally started as an instructional guide on PBS geared towards helping culinary school graduates perfect their craft. The show has since taken on a broader angle and has a larger audience.

Last year, Aho filmed a segment while working during the COVID-19 shutdowns, hoping to spread inspiration.

“It changed a lot of chefs spiritually,” Aho said of the pandemic.

During initial shut downs in the state, he worked alone in the restaurant at the hotel, serving essential health care workers being housed in the rooms.

Aho did everything from bartending to cooking and said he often felt isolated from his peers in the industry.

Sharing messages on social media helped him stay connected. He said he wanted to show others that “we’re gonna keep the lights on, and we’re gonna keep cooking.”

Since filming the episode, Aho has received feedback from many chefs in the area who shared how it helped them.

How to vote

To vote for Aho, visit favchef.com and search “Kevin Aho.” One vote per day is allowed, with more votes available for purchase.

The competition runs until Thursday, Feb. 25, with winners announced April 8.

Proceeds from purchased votes go towards Feeding America.

This story was updated at 11 a.m. Feb. 28 to reflect a clarification from Bon Appetit Magazine that said the contest is not sponsored by the magazine, but by Favorite Chef. It was originally posted at 4 p.m. Feb. 23.