In a letdown for a food-fanatical city, Portland chefs and restaurants went 0-5 at the annual James Beard Awards ceremony Monday night in Chicago.

The James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast went to a Vermont restaurant, an Arizona chef won the Outstanding Baker award and Best New Restaurant went to Owamni in Minneapolis, leaving Portland’s five finalists disappointed.

Jessica Sheahan and husband Vien Dobui stand, near the range hood, in their Vietnamese restaurant, Cong Tu Bot, on Washington Avenue in Portland, on Thursday, April 13, 2017. Carl D. Walsh/ Staff Photographer, File

The Best Chef: Northeast category, which covers chefs in the six New England states, included nominees Vien Dobui of Cong Tu Bot, Courtney Loreg of Woodford Food & Beverage and Damian Sansonetti of Chaval. Dobui was a finalist in this category in 2020, before the awards were canceled in August of that year because of the pandemic.

The Northeast chef award this year went to Nisachon Morgan of Saap restaurant in Randolph, Vermont.

In the highly prestigious national categories this year, Portland restaurant Leeward advanced to tonight’s ceremony as a finalist for Best New Restaurant, ultimately losing to Owamni by the Sioux Chef in Minneapolis. Baker Atsuko Fujimoto of Portland’s Norimoto bakery was named a finalist in the Outstanding Baker category, though she lost Monday night to Don Guerra of Barrio Bread in Tucson, Arizona.

Despite the losses, Portland remains one of America’s finest food cities. In 2018, Portland was named Restaurant City of the Year by Bon Appetit magazine. The city’s chefs and restaurants have since continued to garner glowing praise from national media.

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Five Maine chefs have won Best Chef: Northeast awards since 2010, including Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor of Eventide Oyster Co. in 2017, Melissa Kelly of Primo in Rockland in 2013 and Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier of Arrows in Ogunquit in 2010. Maine chefs and restaurants earned 17 Beard finalist nominations in that time as well. In 2019, the last year the Beard awards were held until Monday night, Rob Tod of Allagash Brewing won the Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Producer award.

During the last two years when the Beard awards were canceled, the foundation faced internal criticism that questioned, in part, its commitment to diversity. The James Beard Foundation consequently undertook an audit of its awards program. The foundation’s website states that the aim of the audit was “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 a result, when the foundation called for open nominations this fall, it required that anyone who submitted a nomination needed to include a statement that addressed how that nominee’s work aligned with the awards’ missions, a first in the organization’s 36-year-history.

Staff Writer Tim Cebula was previously a Beard Awards judge in both the chef and restaurant and journalism categories.


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