Ben Jackson, chef at Drifters Wife (pictured here) in Portland, is a semifinalist for Best Chef: Northeast.

Twelve Maine chefs, restaurants, bakers and bars were named semifinalists Wednesday for a prestigious James Beard Award, the annual awards that recognize excellence in the restaurant and food publishing industry.

The semifinalists include eight chefs who are nominated in the Best Chef: Northeast category, including one team of two chefs. They are Vien Dobui of Công Tu Bot in Portland; Devin Finigan of Aragosta at Goose Cove in Deer Isle; Erin French of The Lost Kitchen in Freedom; Ben Jackson of Drifters Wife in Portland; Krista Kern Desjarlais of The Purple House in North Yarmouth; Greg Mitchell and Chad Conley of the Palace Diner in Biddeford; and Ravin Nakjaroen of Long Grain in Camden.

The regional Best Chef awards recognize chefs who “set high culinary standards and also demonstrate integrity and admirable leadership skills in their respective regions,” according to the New York-based James Beard Foundation. Nominees may be working in any style of restaurant but must have worked as a chef for at least five years, with the three most recent years spent in the region for which they are nominated. All but two of the Maine-nominated chefs – Finigan and Jackson – have been semifinalists in previous years.

Other nominees from Maine are:

Briana Holt of Tandem Coffee + Bakery in Portland in the Outstanding Baker category.

Novare Res Bier Cafe in Portland for Outstanding Bar Program.


Melissa Kelly, chef/owner of Primo in Rockland, in the Outstanding Chef category, which recognizes a chef “who sets high culinary standards and who has served as a positive example for other food professionals.” Kelly has won the Best Chef: Northeast award twice, once for Primo and once when she at Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Inn in the Hudson Valley of  New York.

Fore Street in Portland is a semifinalist for the eighth time in the Outstanding Restaurant category, which honors a restaurant that is at least 10 years old that “demonstrates consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, service, and operations.” Fore Street was a finalist in this category in 2010. In 2004, Fore Street’s founding chef, Sam Hayward, was the first chef from Maine to ever receive a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast.

Fore Street has been named a semifinalist for a James Beard Award in the Outstanding Restaurant category. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the awards, which honor the work of chefs, restaurants, journalists, authors and other leaders in the food and beverage industry.

The path to an award begins with an online open call for nominations in all 21 categories beginning in mid-October each year. Those entries, along with input from a group of 250 volunteers, are then sent to a nominating committee that determines the semifinalists. The semifinalists will be voted on by more than 600 judges from across the country – restaurant critics, food and wine editors (including this writer) and past winners – to determine the final nominees, five or six in each category.

The finalists will be announced on March 25 in Philadelphia. Winners will be announced at an awards gala in Chicago on May 4.

The James Beard Foundation Media Awards honoring cookbook writers, food broadcasters and food journalists will take place at a separate ceremony April 24 in New York City.

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