Wine glasses, plates and napkins seen through the window of the closed restaurant Piccolo on Middle Street in downtown Portland in April. The owners announced the permanent closure of the tiny bistro two months later. Photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

After six months of social distancing, it doesn’t take much to get me choked up. This weekend, the culprit was an e-mail from a reader.

Seven words long, it could have been a Tweet with a few hundred characters to spare. Except this message felt too personal, too private for social media. Its uneasy question confessed the difficulties of the past year and sounded like something you might whisper to a sibling across a darkened bedroom: “When will things go back to normal?”

I put off replying until I could come up with an answer other than the even shorter response I couldn’t stop envisioning. “It won’t” might be truthful, but I wanted to be more empathetic than brusque.

But that’s the reality of the matter. Like it or not, the world of food and restaurants has been altered forever. It’s more than individual businesses at this stage, although those remain the clearest, most gripping evidence of the damage the pandemic has unleashed. At every level, from farms and fisheries to the organizations that support and promote restaurants and writers, things have changed.

***
Late last month, the James Beard Foundation announced that, instead of proceeding with a virtual awards ceremony this September, it would be cancelling the 2020 James Beard Awards, apart from the limited roster of winners they had honored earlier this year.

For the first time in three decades, this meant there would be no Best New Restaurant, no Outstanding Chef, no Rising Star Chef of the Year, and no Best Chef: Northeast – the last a category that this year featured four Maine finalists.

What’s more, the organization also eliminated its 2021 awards program, substituting it with a planned broadcast focusing on members of the restaurant community whose work during the pandemic “made a significant impact on the industry and their communities when it was needed most.”

COVID-19 is only part of the story. Sure, as the voting process for this year dragged along far beyond its usual time frame, more and more nominees announced they’d be closing their restaurants permanently, making celebrating those chefs and their businesses uncomfortable, at the very least.

But over the past few months, abusive workplace behavior, misrepresentation and scandal have further complicated the roster of finalists. A few, like Jessica Koslow of Los Angeles restaurant Sqirl, dropped out on their own, while others were encouraged to remove themselves from contention or were struck off for “eligibility reasons.” What remained, by the time votes were tallied around the middle of the summer, was a problematic, gap-filled list of award-winners.

The foundation began a re-vote, but as Chief Strategy Officer Mitchell Davis told Family Meal author/editor Andrew Genung, “We looked around at an industry continuing to reel from COVID-19; an industry reckoning with its role in perpetuating racial inequalities; and an industry wrought with current and former restaurant workers speaking out about hostile working conditions. Compounded, it felt less and less appropriate to celebrate or hand out awards to fewer than two dozen people when so many are facing hardship and inequity.”

Instead, the organization will take the next 18 months to reflect and realign its mission, purpose and makeup, with the assistance of Rally, a communications firm with a clear social-justice orientation. This is a wise move. The organization began a move toward diversifying its committee memberships in 2018. This more-ambitious, mission-level reassessment is probably overdue, considering that these committees, along with past winners and regional panelists, vote to determine award winners.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was nominated (twice) to be part of the Northeast judging committee last year. When I was not selected, an acquaintance with ties to the foundation told me it was because of the organization’s push toward making regional committees more diverse, reflecting the demographics of the regions they represent.

Reader, as much as I would have enjoyed being part of the selection process, this was absolutely the right decision. Here’s to more like it.

***
August also brought news that, after nearly 50 years of guiding, promoting and celebrating food writing, the Association of Food Journalists would cease operations at the end of 2020.

No longer financially viable, the organization was a second-degree casualty of the broader struggles of traditional print media. For much of its existence, the association stayed solvent through dues and fees paid for by its members’ employers (mainly newspapers and magazines). Today, membership comprises mostly independent, often underpaid freelance journalists. Its original funding model no longer works.

Then there’s COVID-19, which swiftly dispatched the organization’s other main source of income: conferences.

I have mentioned the AFJ before, in an article on making the difficult decision to put reviewing on hiatus until restaurants return to a stable equilibrium. Much of my thinking about fairness and responsible action was informed by the association’s forward-thinking ethics policy.

That document will likely live on as one of the many resources offered by journalism advocacy non-profit The Poynter Institute. But now, more than perhaps ever before, food writers – and especially restaurant critics – need an adaptive, situationally respectful perspective on fairness.

The association’s ethics policy was useful precisely because it wasn’t static. Sadly, now it will be.

***
Locally, we have seen our share of restaurants and food businesses disappear. By any measure, this has been a rough summer.

One recent loss worth noting is that of David Levi’s Portland restaurant, Vinland.

In pre-pandemic days, Vinland owner and chef David Levi paused to say a prayer, thanking the lobsters that he was about to cook, for giving their lives for food. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Levi was, in many ways, Maine’s most ambitious chef. The animating principle behind Vinland was extreme constraint: Every ingredient used in the restaurant was both organic and local. Where others might use lemons “from away” to deliver an acidic pop, Levi opted for cranberries, foraged sumac or homebrewed vinegars. Nothing about his frequently changing menu came easy.

In the eating, that meant meals at Vinland felt high-concept and underscored by the constant thrum of the restrictions that confined them. (And if you were ever in doubt about what those constraints were, the restaurant’s website featured a 1,600-word mission statement, complete with a reference list.)

Consequently, the Vinland dining experience was a bit like watching a Dogme 95 film by Lars von Trier, dimly illuminated only through natural light, or reading a piece of Oulipo literature like a Georges Perec novel that doesn’t contain the letter “e.”

In the handful of meals I ate there, I tasted some special dishes: a chunky, rustic apple-and-celeriac soup in early springtime; seared hake with ground cherries and mushrooms late one summer; and of course, lobster, plated with radish-and-black-trumpet mushroom crisps designed to shatter upon first bite.

No doubt, greatness can be birthed from restriction, and it’s no accident that Vinland sat across a street from the Portland Museum of Art. But a restaurant’s food must overcome the intellectual framework that bounds it. That happened occasionally at Vinland, but just as often, dishes tasted a bit makeshift.

Ultimately, I enjoyed stopping by Vinland to read the evening’s menu – to see what wild ideas Levi had conjured to life – more than I did eating there.

None of this is to say that Levi isn’t a talented chef with a good palate. We saw flashes of that at his casual Italian restaurant Trattoria Fanny, and before that, Rossobianco, which despite its unfortunate behind-the-scenes staffing drama, was Levi’s strongest restaurant.

When Portland is ready for its next David Levi endeavor, I’ll be one of the first diners to make a reservation – even if it does come with homework.

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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