Atsuko Fujimoto of Norimoto Bakery has been nominated for a James Beard award for outstanding pastry chef. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Four Maine finalists, all from Portland, are up for 2024 James Beard Awards, three of them competing in national categories.

The finalists, named Wednesday, include Zu Bakery for Outstanding Bakery, Atsuko Fujimoto of Norimoto Bakery for Outstanding Pastry Chef or Baker, Woodford Food & Beverage for Outstanding Hospitality and Jake Stevens of Leeward for Best Chef: Northeast.

They were among 10 Maine semifinalists named in January. The winners will be announced June 10 at a ceremony in Chicago.

“I’m very happy, but I foresee stress,” Fujimoto laughed. “People get excited, and that excitement can be a pressure. I just want to get it over with.”

Fujimoto, who was a finalist for the same award in 2022, said achieving the level of quality and consistency that Beard judges value can be challenging at a bakery that produces laminated dough pastries, which can be easily affected by atmospheric conditions.

“Summer is a really tough time to bake something laminated with butter, because it leaches out when it’s hot and humid,” she said. “Being able to adjust our baking to the weather conditions is really a true skill. Being flexible is part of the way to keep your quality.”


Fujimoto and her Deering Center bakery are vying for top honors with four finalists from around the country, including Anna Posey of the Scandinavian-inspired restaurant Elske in Chicago; Susan Bae, pastry chef of the acclaimed Vietnamese fine-dining restaurant Moon Rabbit in Washington, D.C.; and Crystal Kass of Valentine restaurant in Phoenix, who was nominated in the same category last year and was featured among five chefs last fall in the Eater article “The Pastry Chefs Defining Restaurant Dessert Right Now.”

Birch Shambaugh, owner and general manager of Woodford Food & Beverage, said he’s humbled that his restaurant has been nominated for a James Beard award for Outstanding Hospitality. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Like Fujimoto, Woodford Food & Beverage was nominated for a national category, Outstanding Hospitality, which last year was awarded to Maine’s only finalist, The Quarry in Monson.

Woodford Food & Beverage – whose chef, Courtney Loreg, is a previous finalist – is up against four other restaurants, including Melba’s in New York City and Lula Cafe in Chicago.

“This is all the more humbling to find ourselves in the company of venerable institutions,” said Birch Shambaugh, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Fayth Preyer. “We’re excited and humbled and sort of overwhelmed all at the same time.

“I can’t imagine that any of us thought when we started out that this sort scruffy and beloved undertaking of ours in Woodfords Corner, the hinterlands of Portland, would ever find itself in the conversation of hospitality on a national level,” he added.

Shambaugh said the philosophy of hospitality at his restaurant isn’t limited to traditional notions of crisp white tablecloths and attentive service.


“We’ve always believed that hospitality done right is something that is intentional and warm and welcoming in equal measure,” he said. “It transcends the transactional.”

At Leeward, Stevens noted that his Free Street restaurant was nominated for a Beard award in 2022 in the Best New Restaurant category and said the experience “is just as stunning now as it was then. I was pretty shocked this year, to be honest. I kind of thought in 2022 when we got nominated it was a fluke. It’s a huge honor to be recognized in the deep field of talent in this town, state and region. It floored me.

Chef Jake Stevens of Italian restaurant Leeward is nominated for a James Beard award for Best Chef: Northeast. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“It’s very heartening to get recognition for the work the entire staff at Leeward has put in,” he added. “The nomination may have my name on it, but I think everybody knows that these things are a representation of everything that goes into a restaurant experience, from the bottom up.”

Stevens is up against four other New England finalists in the category, including Conor Dennehy of the tasting menu restaurant Tallulah in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Maria Meza, who specializes in Oaxacan mole dishes at Dolores in Providence, Rhode Island; David Standridge of Mystic, Connecticut’s The Shipwright’s Daughter, featuring seafood-centric fine dining; and Cara Tobin, a four-time James Beard award finalist who is chef-owner at the Eastern Mediterranean mezze restaurant Honey Road in Burlington, Vermont.

Stevens said he thinks what appeals to the James Beard judges about Leeward’s food are the same factors that his regulars love.

“Pasta is very approachable and comforting in a place that has long, tough winters,” he said. “Even though we’ll have Italian, unrecognizable names for our pasta shapes, we’re able to combine them with a lot of amazing local products, like braised veal shanks from Wolfe’s Neck Center, for instance.”

Barak Olins bags biscotti at Zu Bakery in Portland on Wednesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Zu Bakery, a “micro-boulangerie” in Portland’s West End, is competing against four other finalists nationwide in the Outstanding Bakery category, including JinJu Patisserie in Portland, Oregon, opened by master chocolatier Jin Caldwell, and Mel the Bakery in Hudson, New York, owned by Nora Allen, a 2023 semifinalist for Outstanding Baker.

“It’s a huge deal. I’m honored, humbled, excited, and I’m grateful to be in the good company of the other finalists,” said Zu Bakery owner and head baker Barak Olins.

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