In a terrible time for restaurants nationwide, Maine got a bit of good news late Monday afternoon. The prestigious James Beard Foundation announced finalists in a moving virtual ceremony on Twitter for its 2020 awards. Five Maine chefs were named finalists, or nominees, in the category of Best Chef: Northeast, dominating the category.

Vien Dobui of Công Tu Bot and Ben Jackson of Drifters Wife, both in Portland, as well as Krista Kern Desjarlais of The Purple House in North Yarmouth, and Greg Mitchell and Chad Conley of the Palace Diner in Biddeford all moved on from semifinalist status. They’ll compete against each other and two non-Mainers, both in the Boston area, to win the award often called the Oscars of the food world. In addition to Maine and Massachusetts, the Northeast chef category includes Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Krista Kern Desjarlais has been named a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Desjarlais has been a nominee once before, for her now-closed Portland restaurant Bresca. The others are James Beard nominees for the first time.

Several other Maine chefs, bakers, restaurants or bars that had been named semifinalists in February did not move on in this round of the competition.

The James Beard Foundation Awards honor the work of chefs, restaurants, journalists, authors and other leaders in the food and beverage industry. The announcement of finalists this year was unlike anything in the 30-year history of the awards, with many poignant online moments devoted to the hardships restaurants are suffering in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the ingenuity with which many are facing the challenge. The foundation itself is based in New York City, the hardest hit region of the country, and has furloughed some of its own employees during this crisis.

The winners of the media awards will be announced in a virtual ceremony on May 27. The chef and restaurant winners will be announced on Sept. 25 in Chicago. The foundation decided to go ahead with the awards, Chief Strategy Officer Mitchell Davis explained on the organization’s website, in the hopes the awards could “offer a glimmer of hope to an industry looking for light in a very dark time.

“So many more people now understand the true economic, social, and cultural value of their local restaurants,” he wrote. “They literally make our neighborhoods, our local economies, our food culture come alive. And for that, we celebrate all of them.”

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