PORTLAND — Krista Kern Desjarlais didn’t have much time to celebrate her nomination for a James Beard Award this afternoon because she was driving up to Boothbay in a snowstorm to – what else? – cook for a room full of people.
Those 40 lucky diners at the Maine Coastal Botanical Gardens will be getting a nice little side dish to go along with their roast pork loin and panna cotta with strawberry rhubarb and warm hazelnut cake: The knowledge that the chef cooking for them tonight is the only chef from Maine nominated for a James Beard Award this year.
The award nominations were announced live today via Twitter from Portland, Oregon. Desjarlais, the chef/owner of Bresca, a tiny but popular restaurant at 111 Middle St. in Portland, is one of five nominees in the Best Chef:Northeast category, and a lot is riding on her shoulders. Although Mainers were semifinalists in several other award categories, none made it to the finals.
“I don’t even know what to say yet, I guess,” Desjarlais commented by phone on her way to Boothbay. “I don’t know, it’s awesome. It’s a great group of people to be nominated with. There’s not a whole lot of women that got nominated throughout the country, so I feel like that’s great, too.”
Other nominees in the Best Chef: Northeast category are Tim Cushman of o ya in Boston; Gerry Hayden of The North Fork Table & Inn in Southold, N.Y.; Matt Jennings of la Laiterie in Providence; and Tony Maws of Craigie On Main in Cambridge, Mass.
The James Beard Awards have been called the Oscars of the culinary world. Desjarlais said she has been watching the nominations every year since she was a teenager, “so it feels pretty surreal to be on that list.”
The chef found out about her nomination from her husband, Erik Desjarlais, who is also a chef and now a stay-at-home dad to the couple’s daughter, Cortland. “Looks like I have to get a tux,” he said, breaking the news to her.
Erik Desjarlais said the nomination is “well deserved.” He said his spouse’s innate talent in the kitchen is “like magic.”
“I’ve watched her cook, I’ve cooked with her, and she just has a really great palate,” Erik Desjarlais said, “and she just knows what’s going to work.”
Krista Desjarlais said she thinks it’s her personal touch with food that translates into a good dining experience for her customers. Bresca has been open a little over four years, and she has been in the kitchen every night. The restaurant only has 18 seats and a staff of four, including the chef.
“”Every night that we’ve been open, I’m the one on the line,” she said. “It’s as personal as it gets. I think that has to translate, as I develop as a cook. Every night I’m working on the dishes. Every night I’m there touching the ingredients and putting it out, so the food has to evolve as I see it.”
Last year, Clarke Frasier and Mark Gaier of Arrows in Ogunquit won Best Chef: Northeast. Sam Hayward of Fore Street was the first Maine chef to win the honor, in 2004. Rob Evans, chef/owner of Hugo’s, won in 2009, and Melissa Kelly, chef/owner of Primo in Rockland, won the title in 1999, before she opened her restaurant in Maine.
The winners of the James Beard Awards will be announced May 9 at the Lincoln Center in New York City. To view a complete list of nominees, go to www.jamesbeard.org