Steve and Michelle Corry weren’t even thinking about the fact that semifinalists for the prestigious James Beard Awards were supposed to be announced Tuesday. They were too busy running two restaurants and raising two small children.
Then they got a text from their former sous chef.
That’s how they found out that Petite Jacqueline, their French bistro in Longfellow Square, had been named a semifinalist in the Best New Restaurant category, alongside restaurants in much larger food towns such as San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles.
“He just said ‘Congrats, nice to see you recognized by Beard,’ ” Steve Corry recalled Tuesday afternoon as he prepared for dinner service at Five Fifty-Five, his restaurant on Congress Street. “I had totally forgotten that today was the day, and then all of a sudden texts and emails started pouring in like crazy.”
Maine chefs and restaurants were named semifinalists in four award categories Tuesday by the James Beard Foundation in New York City. Even though it’s just the semifinals, excitement over the awards, which are often described as the Oscars of the food world, seems to grow every year.
Maine had an especially strong showing in the Best Chef: Northeast category. Maine chefs, remarkably, make up a third of that category, which bodes well for at least one of them making the list of finalists next month.
The semifinalists from Portland for Best Chef: Northeast include Krista Kern Desjarlais, chef/owner of Bresca on Middle Street, who was nominated for the first time last year; Demos Regas of Emilitsa on Congress Street; and first-time nominees Danai Sriprasert and Nattasak Wongsaichua of Boda on Congress Street.
Also on the list were Brian Hill of Francine Bistro in Camden, and Pennelle, Megan and Phoebe Chase and Ted LaFage of Chase’s Daily in Belfast.
In other categories, Melissa Kelly, chef/co-owner of Primo in Rockland, was named a semifinalist for Outstanding Chef. She’ll be up against such star chefs as David Chang of Momofuku in New York City and Charles Phan of The Slanted Door in San Francisco.
Fore Street in Portland is a semifinalist for a fourth time in the Outstanding Restaurant category, which includes such revered establishments as Oleana in Cambridge, Mass., and Balthazar in New York City.
Fore Street was a finalist in this category in 2010, and its chef/owner, Sam Hayward, was the first Maine chef to win Best Chef: Northeast in 2004.
Hayward found out about his restaurant’s nomination in a text from his son Ian, who, ironically enough, is the new chef de cuisine at Best New Restaurant contender Petite Jacqueline.
“The first thing I did when I got to work today was gather everybody around me that was on shift and announce it to them and congratulate them, since it’s their victory,” Hayward said. “I’m really proud of them. They all applauded. We all feel great when a validation like this happens. They work so hard, they really do.”
Steve Corry said that recognition at this level “wasn’t even on our radar, really.”
“It’s a tremendous honor,” he said, “and a lot of it is just due to inspiration behind the restaurant.”
Petite Jacqueline was named for Michelle Corry’s grandmother Jacqueline Derasse, who was born and raised in France and is now 91 years old. At family gatherings, Michelle Corry and her grandmother always do the cooking. Steve Corry has learned a lot about French cooking from his mother-in-law, and has heard a lot of stories about what she and her husband went through during World War II.
The Corrys, along with managing partner Liz Koenigsberg, opened their 45-seat bistro during Restaurant Week last year, and may celebrate the James Beard nod when they mark their one-year aniversary in March. Michelle Corry said she hoped to have a champagne toast tonight with Koenigsberg after completing dinner service.
On Tuesday afternoon, the restaurant’s namesake had not yet heard the good news, but Michelle Corry planned to call her as soon as she could. “It’s going to make Michelle’s grandmother just so happy,” Corry said.
The James Beard Foundation said Tuesday that it had received a record 57,000 online nominations this year for 20 restaurant and chef award categories. Those online entries were tabulated by an independent accounting firm.
The semifinalist list will now be sent to a volunteer panel of more than 550 judges, a group that includes past winners, restaurant critics, food editors and other knowledgeable people in the food world.
Five finalists will be announced in each category March 19 at The Palazzo in Las Vegas. Winners will be announced at a ceremony May 7 at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Hayward noted that judges must sign a disclaimer saying they have actually eaten at the restaurants they’ve voted for, or eaten the food of nominated chefs.
That stipulation, combined with the fact that there are simply more judges in larger cities, makes it “numerically improbable” that Maine would have so many semifinalists.
“I think it’s really exciting,” Hayward said. “I think it shows that Maine is being watched.”
Steve Corry agreed, saying the number of semifinalists from Maine shows that interest in food and restaurants here is not just a passing fad.
“It’s not a trend, so to say,” he said. “Portland is solidifying its place in the nation – not just Portland, but Maine – as a place where you can go and eat well.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]