When Greg Mitchell and Chad Conley, Krista Kern Desjarlais, Ben Jackson, and Vien Dobui learned this month that they had been named finalists for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Northeast Award, the news couldn’t have come at a stranger time.

Four southern Maine restaurants are represented in that bunch: Palace Diner in Biddeford, The Purple House in North Yarmouth, and Drifters Wife and Cong Tu Bot in Portland. Of the four, only two are currently able to do business, offering dramatically pared-down menus, while the others remain shuttered for the time being.

Because of Maine’s shelter-in-place order, most of the work being celebrated by these nominations is purely theoretical – it exists only in the memories of the diners who experienced it over the past year.

It is impossible to taste the syrup-drizzled flapjacks, wood-fired bagel sandwiches, crisp-skinned chickens, and delicate pho ga that earned these nominees a shot at one of the most prestigious culinary honors in the United States. What a bewildering time to be a finalist.

Palace Diner’s Greg Mitchell peers into the dining area, while Chad Conley walks by. The pair are nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. It’s a bewildering time to be a finalist. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

A tricky position

To their credit, the executive leadership of the James Beard Foundation understood that proceeding with their annual awards events during such a challenging time was a risky decision. Originally slated as part of a live event to be held at the Barnes Foundation Museum in Philadelphia on March 25, the announcement of finalists was postponed along with the awards ceremony itself, which in recent years has been held in Chicago in early May.

As food media speculated whether the organization would select 2020 winners at all, staff at the Beard Foundation shifted their attention to their Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund program, through which several dozen $15,000 COVID-19 emergency grants have already been issued. Staffers also started chatting with chefs and restaurant owners about the purpose and value of proceeding with this year’s awards.

“We consulted chefs and restaurateurs around the country to see what would be appropriate right now,” Clare Reichenbach, the organization’s chief executive officer, said during a May 4 webcast held to replace the Philadelphia event. “And the feedback was that announcing the nominees would be some welcome good news.”

Chief Strategy Officer Mitchell Davis echoed that sentiment on the Foundation’s blog, explaining that the 2020 awards seek to provide “a glimmer of hope to an industry looking for light in a very dark time.”

Krista Desjarlais in front of The Purple House. When she learned she was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award, she took the dog for a walk seeking a few minutes of quiet. Ben McCanna/staff photographer

Tempered enthusiasm

Talk with the nominees, and you’ll discover that the James Beard Foundation was correct that a nomination still holds the power to spark joy in recipients.

“I was super excited to see it. I was digging a ditch when it came out, and I went back to my car and checked my phone and was like oh my god, oh my god. Then I told myself I was going to take the dog out and be at peace with the cosmos for a moment,” said Krista Kern Desjarlais, chef/owner of The Purple House and Bresca & the Honeybee on Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester.

As good as the news was, it didn’t take long before her gratitude turned practical: “I took it as the greatest news I could get today. Hooray! Now, OK, I need to keep moving forward to get one or both of my businesses open in June and July.”

When the nomination webcast took place, Vien Dobui was also otherwise occupied. The Cong Tu Bot chef/owner wasn’t shoveling dirt, but parenting his 3-year-old child. “I was wrapped up in child care stuff, so I was only tangentially aware of the day it was happening,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got a ton of texts on my phone from people who don’t usually text me. That pulled me out of my current reality of being a dad and reminded me of what a special restaurant we had…and the team…and what we lost.”

Drifters Wife chef Ben Jackson felt much the same when friends texted him to let him know about his nomination. “I’m super excited. I mean, how could I not feel excited?” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I never thought I would be getting nominated for a Beard award. So I’m quite honored and humbled.

“But yeah, it’s kind of bizarre. I have a friend who lives in Madrid who finally left his apartment for the first time since the beginning of March,” he continued. “Let’s be honest, when you think about that, it’s hard to take this award stuff seriously. It’s like, James Beard, thank you very much. It’s so great. But right now if I’m not able to do what I do every single day, then it really doesn’t seem like anything. It’s like being nominated for doing nothing.”

Jessica Sheahan and her husband Vien Dobui pose in 2017, shortly before Cong Tu Bot opened. Dobui is a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award. But with a pandemic on, the opportunities that in past years would have followed such a nomination have vanished.

An honor, minus the extras

Normally, the two stages of nominations – semifinalists are announced in February, followed by finalists in March – trigger a cascade of knock-on benefits for chefs and restaurants.

Desjarlais knows this better than most. Between The Purple House and her much-missed Portland restaurant, Bresca, she has made the semifinal round seven times and the finals twice.

“Every time, it’s great for you personally,” she said. “And it also great for your staff and team, because obviously they’re doing a great job, but it gives them a kick in the pants because the nomination brings a new burst of business and things get can get really busy. But now there’s no chance for that.”

Opportunities beyond the four walls of a nominee’s restaurant have also vanished. “Just making the semifinals list in the past, we would get random casting calls from food shows, e-mails from people wanting us to work with them and collaborate on things, lots of people with fancy titles congratulating us randomly,” Dobui said. “But now it’s just the congratulations that are happening. Nothing else.”

Even in restaurants like Drifters Wife that are serving limited menus during the remainder of the lockdown period, it is hard to determine if the nomination has had any effect on business. (Some restaurants in 12 counties reopened on Monday with restrictions in place. Those in remaining four counties, which include the Greater Portland area, must wait until June 1.)

“We’re trying our best to get back on our feet, but it’s pretty crushing still, to be honest,” Jackson said. “I had to reach back into my experience as a line cook and start doing lunch service here with just two of us in the kitchen. We started doing pantry items for people cooking at home, and that seems to be going pretty well so far. But it’s hard to tell.”

What was, and what might be

The cracks and fissures of uncertainty don’t end there; they extend into the core of what makes each of these four restaurants exceptional.

“It’s all so confusing. It’s all changed,” Jackson said. “We just don’t know what Drifters Wife is without the experience of sitting down with your friends for a glass of wine. Or what it’ll become. We don’t expect to come out of the gates with anything remotely close to what we were doing when we were closed. But one thing I know is that I’m not going to change what I do. I’m going to be cooking for the rest of my life, probably on the line.”

There’s little doubt that, even if all the James Beard Foundation Award finalists come through the pandemic (which they won’t – Bon Temps, a nominated Los Angeles restaurant, has already announced its permanent closure), they will be different businesses on the other side. Which makes the 2020 awards feel a bit like celebrating a memory of a more carefree era.

At the same time, restaurants have always been protean creatures: Dining rooms get renovated, staff come and go, chefs travel and fall in love with new flavors and techniques. Their businesses are like all businesses: They evolve. Lockdown has accelerated the velocity of that change, forcing chefs to grapple with the essence of their work and how that might translate into a medium-term with sparsely positioned tables, partial capacity and laminated menus.

“For me, I see this whole thing as an opportunity to think about what the kernel of Cong Tu Bot is,” Dobui said. “The nomination reminds me that there really is something special there. So when I try to figure out what Cong Tu Bot is without physical proximity, I can keep focused on that thing we’re being recognized for, maybe.

“It also helps that the organization is trying to help out restaurants right now. They are doing a good job of trying to acknowledge how tough things are. So this is in line with what they do, and it doesn’t feel tone deaf,” Dobui continued. “From my perspective, it’s a nice thing. A small, nice thing.”

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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