After a two-year hiatus from its prestigious awards program, the James Beard Foundation in New York City has announced its list of chef and restaurant award semifinalists for 2022, including 10 in Maine, overwhelmingly in Portland, and two for Italian restaurant Leeward.

Leeward, on Portland’s Free Street, was nominated in the category of Best New Restaurant, and its pastry chef, Kate Fisher Hamm, was nominated in the Outstanding Pastry Chef category.

“What a lovely surprise. Oh my gosh!” said Raquel Stevens, who co-owns Leeward with her husband, Jake. “My husband called me this morning, and I thought he was going to ask me to run another errand, and I treated him with some light annoyance and then he told me some very good news.

“I have been trying to relish it because we haven’t got a lot of good news,” she added, speaking about the pandemic. Leeward first opened its doors just three days before the pandemic hit in 2020. “It feels extra good. Honestly, though, there is no way I could feel any way but great about it.”

Atsuko Fujimoto, owner of the Japanese-inflected bakery Norimoto in Portland’s Deering Center neighborhood, was nominated in the category of Outstanding Baker.

Also in Portland, Bao Bao, which is co-owned by chef Cara Stadler (who, in 2015, was a finalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year), was named in the category of Outstanding Hospitality; and quirky cocktail bar Jewel Box, owned by Nathaniel Meiklejohn, in the Outstanding Bar Program category.

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The most Maine nominations, as usual, came in the regional category Best Chef: Northeast, which includes the New England states – Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Chef Ben Jackson works in the kitchen at the now closed Drifters Wife. For 2022, Jackson has been nominated by the James Beard Foundation in the Best Chef: Northeast category for his work at Magnus on Water in Biddeford. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

For 2022, there are five Maine nominees for Best Chef: Northeast, namely:

Bowman Brown of Elda in Biddeford, who was six times a semifinalist for Best Chef: Southwest, when he lived and cooked in Salt Lake City.

Vien Dobui of Cong Tu Bot in Portland, who was a finalist in this category in 2020, before the awards were canceled in August of that year because of the pandemic.

Ben Jackson of Magnus on Water in Biddeford, who, like Dobui, was a finalist in this same category in 2020 for his work at the now-defunct Drifters Wife.

Courtney Loreg of Woodford Food & Beverage in Portland.

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Damian Sansonetti of Chaval in Portland’s West End, which he co-owns with his wife, pastry chef Ilma Lopez, herself twice a semifinalist in past years for Outstanding Pastry Chef.

The chef and restaurant finalists will be announced on March 16, and the winners on June 13 at a ceremony in Chicago. The nominations for journalism, cookbook and media awards will be announced on April 27.

During the two years in which the James Beard Foundation awards were canceled, the 36-year-old nonprofit organization underwent some soul-searching, in part in the form of an audit of its awards program. The audit’s objectives, according to the foundation’s website, were “to continue the work to remove any systemic bias; increase the diversity of the voting body; ensure that communities far and wide know about the Awards and how eligible candidates may apply; increase transparency in how the Awards function; and align the Awards more outwardly with the Foundation’s mission and values.”

As usual, the foundation issued an open call for nominations in the fall. The names of restaurants and chefs submitted were reviewed by and combined with recommendations from the awards program’s voting body; judges are chosen for their expertise in the industry. For the first time, the foundation required that anyone who submitted a nomination needed to include a statement that addressed how that nominee’s work aligned with the awards missions and values.

(Disclosure: Reporter Peggy Grodinsky worked at the Beard Foundation for seven years and has served as a judge in its cookbook and journalism categories.)


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