From left, Chef Damian Sansonetti of Chaval, Chef Vien Dobui at Cong Tu Bot and Executive Chef Courtney Loreg at Woodford Food & Beverage. Press Herald file photos

After whittling down last month’s semifinalist list, judges for the 2022 James Beard Foundation chef and restaurant awards named five finalists from Maine on Wednesday, including Portland chefs who earned three of the five nominations for Best Chef: Northeast.

Leeward proprietors Raquel and Jake Stevens stand outside their restaurant. It was announced Wednesday that Leeward is a finalist for a James Beard Foundation award as the country’s Best New Restaurant. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Best Chef: Northeast category, which covers chefs in the six New England states, is weighed to the tipping point this year with Portland talent, including finalists Vien Dobui of Cong Tu Bot, Courtney Loreg of Woodford Food & Beverage and Damian Sansonetti of Chaval. Dobui advanced as a finalist in the same category in 2020, though that year’s awards were canceled because of the pandemic.

The news marks yet another strong showing for Maine chefs and restaurants at the prestigious annual awards, and bumps up bragging rights for Portland foodies living in the tasty town that Bon Appetit magazine named Restaurant City of the Year in 2018.

Sansonetti of Chaval said it’s hard not to want to win a Beard award. “You want to be nominated, it’s like the Oscars of the cooking world.”

In Beard’s coveted national categories this year, Portland restaurant Leeward advanced as a finalist for Best New Restaurant, while baker Atsuko Fujimoto of Portland’s Norimoto bakery was named a finalist in the Outstanding Baker category. Leeward’s pastry chef, Kate Fisher Hamm, had been among semifinalists last month in the Outstanding Pastry Chef category, but did not advance.

“We’re still very surprised, and very proud of our team,” said Leeward co-owner Raquel Stevens, adding that she had received a “slew” of congratulatory texts and emails from customers, friends and family when the news was announced.

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“We didn’t open a restaurant to win awards. It’s just a passion,” Stevens said. “But this is a very nice byproduct.”

Fujimoto was similarly stunned. “It really is an honor, but I’m still in shock,” she said, when reached by phone Wednesday. She hadn’t yet checked to see who her competition is in the category, and wouldn’t dare guess what the Beard judges found “outstanding” about her work. “I know dozens of other great bakers in town,” she said.

Fujimoto previously had a career as a journalist and magazine editor in Tokyo, but after moving to Maine, she wanted to try working in the food industry. So in 2002, she sought work at Fore Street Restaurant.

“(Fore Street founder) Sam Hayward took me in and put me in the pastry department,” Fujimoto said. “I got very into it.”

Winners will be announced June 13 at a ceremony in Chicago, the first time since 2019 that the awards event will be held.

(Disclosure: Reporter Tim Cebula was previously a Beard Awards judge in both the chef and restaurant and journalism categories.)


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