More sad news for the restaurant industry: The James Beard Foundation said Thursday that it will not announce chef and restaurant winners at this year’s James Beard Awards ceremony on Sept. 25, and will hold no awards at all next year. The food media award winners were announced in late May.

This year, an impressive four of the six finalists in the Best Chef: Northeast category are from Maine. They are Vien Dobui of Cong Tu Bot in Portland; Ben Jackson of the now permanently closed Drifters Wife in Portland; Krista Kern Desjarlais of The Purple House in North Yarmouth; and, considered jointly, Greg Mitchell and Chad Conley of the Palace Diner in Biddeford.

Palace Diner’s Greg Mitchell peers into the dining area, while Chad Conley walks past behind him. The pair were jointly named finalists for a 2020 James Beard Foundation Award, but the foundation announced Thursday that it will not name winners this year because of the pandemic. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

In a lengthy statement explaining its decision – a first in the 30-year history of the awards – the foundation cited the COVID-19 pandemic, which has devastated restaurants nationwide, and noted that “the assignment of Awards will do little to further the industry in its current uphill battle. The Awards’ usual positive impact on restaurants and chefs’ businesses will likely not be fully realized due to the current state of the industry, with many restaurants closed permanently or temporarily or operating at minimal capacity.”

The awards, long considered the Oscars of the food industry, are usually announced in early May, but this year the ceremony was postponed until Sept. 25 because of the pandemic. A virtual ceremony will go on, broadcast live from Chicago on Twitter. Instead of announcing winners in the restaurant and chef categories, attendees will “shine a spotlight on many of the nominees and be a night of storytelling surrounding the historic challenges this community faces,” the foundation said.

In addition, because the awards are based on a chef or restaurant’s work in the previous year, the foundation is canceling them for 2021. Instead, the foundation will host an industry celebration honoring members of the independent restaurant community who have shown leadership during the pandemic and made a significant impact “when it was needed most.”

“We did not come to this decision lightly,” Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation, said in a statement. “The uncertainty of this time for our industry is already a hard reality and considering anyone to have won or lost within the current tumultuous hospitality ecosystem does not in fact feel like the right thing to do.”

Reached by phone, Conley said, “It doesn’t really feel that bad. It makes sense to me that they would make a decision like that. The restaurant industry is hurting a lot right now.” He added that he felt confident The Palace Diner would return in full force after the pandemic; for now the tiny and much celebrated diner is doing takeout.

Krista Kern Desjarlais, a finalist for a 2020 James Beard Foundation Award, will not be named a winner this year. Nor will anyone else. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Upon hearing the news, Desjarlais said she felt “relieved,” combined with “a measure of disappointment.”

“It was really hard to feel good about something right now,” she said, “and it was really hard to be a part of something that was going to just put a small collective group of people in front of everybody and say ‘Here’s to your accomplishments.”

Desjarlais said the foundation had already asked the finalists to film an acceptance speech, which was to be shown at the virtual event if they won, a task she said “felt incredibly surreal” given the number of restaurants struggling or even closing for good because of the pandemic. In her speech, she said she talked about how she just wants her staff to be OK and feel that there’s hope.

The Beard foundation also announced it will spend this time working with an outside social justice agency to revamp the awards to address any inherent systemic bias and increase the diversity of the pool of candidates.

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