Damian Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez at their restaurant, Chaval, in 2017. Both have been nominated for James Beard Awards in the past. Derek Davis/Staff photographer

Between them, Portland husband and wife restaurateurs Ilma Lopez and Damian Sansonetti, who own Chaval and Ugly Duckling, have three semifinalist nominations from the prestigious James Beard Foundation. She’s been nominated twice as Outstanding Pastry Chef, he once as Best Chef: Northeast. It’s always a nice honor, said Lopez.

Still, she has what she describes as a “love and hate relationship” with the annual awards, which many call the Oscars of the food world.

“Yeah, it is nice,” Lopez said last week about how a nomination feels. “But I have also been on the other side when my name is not there – and the low point I feel, it’s really low, so I try to keep in mind being there doesn’t mean I’m better than everyone else and not being there doesn’t mean I’m not good enough. I’ve been on both ends.”

The 2024 James Beard Award semifinalists were announced Wednesday, and 10 of them are from Maine. The foundation, which is a nonprofit, launched the awards in 1990, but Maine didn’t bring one home until a decade later. In 2001, now-closed Waterman’s Beach Lobster in South Thomaston was named in a special category: America’s Classics. Three years later, Sam Hayward, Fore Street’s founder and its chef at the time, became the first Mainer to win an award for Best Chef: Northeast. The most recent Maine spot to win was The Quarry in Monson, which was awarded for Outstanding Hospitality in 2023.

In between, seven Mainers, including Rob Evans (Hugo’s), Melissa Kelly (Primo) and Rob Tod (Allagash Brewing), have taken home awards (in two cases sharing them). And many other Maine chefs and restaurants have gotten close, earning recognition, sometimes repeatedly, as semifinalists or finalists. Mainers have been recognized in both national and regional categories – for skills in the sweet and savory, baking and beer, wine and spirits. In 2023 alone, Maine had 11 semifinalists.

Quarry chef and owner Marilou Ranta shows a customer last summer the James Beard Foundation award (a medallion of James Beard) her restaurant won in June. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The awards process is long and complicated. It involves the public, committees, subcommittees, judges, boards of trustees and an international accounting firm, each with a set of interlaced responsibilities. This year’s awards got underway in October 2023 with an open call for nominations, and will end on June 10, when winners are announced in a glitzy, black-tie ceremony in Chicago.


The foundation also hands out other awards, including to industry leaders and food media, but the chef and restaurant awards typically generate the most interest.

This quick outline of the process, focused on those key awards, can help you follow along as the culinary awards season heats up.

In October and November, once the open call for nominations goes out, any member of the public may nominate a chef or a restaurant in any category by sending in a name and – new this year – saying why they are making the nomination. Beard award committee and subcommittee members and judges also make nominations, and restaurants and chefs may – and do – nominate themselves. It isn’t a popularity contest. In its written policies, the foundation makes it crystal clear that whether a chef receives 50 nominations or just one has no bearing on becoming a finalist.


The nominations cost nothing, but since 2022, nominators have been asked to do a little homework. The foundation now asks for an impact statement that should describe how the nominee aligns with the foundation’s values. In addition to serving “exceptional food,” a chef or restaurant must demonstrate “a commitment to racial and gender equity, community, sustainability and a culture where all can thrive,” the foundation’s website explains.

Since that requirement was added, the number of nominations across all categories has gone up, by as much as 40% this year, Dawn Padmore, the foundation’s vice president of awards, wrote in an email. The change in emphasis expanded nominations far beyond the usual suspects and has elicited praise as well as some quiet grumbling.


Put Evan Mallett, of Black Trumpet restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, solidly in the praise group. “The story of American food cannot be told without the story of immigration cuisine. They’ve made that a mission. And I respect it,” the six-time nominee said in a telephone interview last summer. “The direction they’ve gone in, I support it 100%, 110%.”

Some categories get hundreds of entries, Padmore said.

Once all nominations are in, subcommittee members cull the recommendations to a list of semifinalists. Typically, some 20 semifinalists are named for a regional category – for Maine, that would be Best Chef: Northeast, an area that also includes Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

The proposed restaurants and chefs are reviewed to ensure they meet the foundation’s code of ethics, which bans nominees, for example, who harass or bully staff or tell racist or sexist jokes.

James Beard judges and subcommittee members, who are volunteers, are experts in the field and include food writers, cooking school teachers, former chefs, restaurateurs and experienced diners. They are expected to be very familiar with the restaurants in their region. Judges remain anonymous until winners are announced.

Once the semifinalists are named, subcommittee members and judges are assigned restaurants to visit and to score on a set list of criteria, Padmore said, declining to be more specific than “food, hospitality and the like.” The subcommittee then meets to discuss these dining experiences and present the scores, and the five highest scoring in each category (10 for Best New Restaurant) move on. This year’s finalists, called nominees by the foundation, will be announced April 3.



Subcommittee members and regional judges then meet once again, revisit the restaurants if need be, and vote on winners. Their votes are tallied by an independent accounting firm. Awards night in June is always on a Monday, when many restaurants are closed.

Executive Chef Courtney Loreg puts toppings on burgers at Woodford Food & Beverage in Portland in 2020, when the restaurant was delivering them to frontline workers during the pandemic. Gregory Rec, file/Staff Photographer

Woodford Food & Beverage chef Courtney Loreg was a semifinalist for Best Chef: Northeast in 2023, and a finalist in the same category in 2022. Chefs, she said, are “a competitive lot.” And while winning a splashy award “wasn’t really the intention for this restaurant, OK, I’ll take it.”

A few decades ago, many celebrated Parisian chefs abandoned ambitious, expensive, highly pressured restaurants and dreams of Michelin stars for lower-key, adventurous bistros, Loreg said. That was the idea behind Woodford Food & Beverage, “to be a neighborhood restaurant where you can come and have a very nice glass of wine and a very nice meal and bring your kids and still feel good about it.”

So she wasn’t planning to sit by the phone awaiting Wednesday’s announcements, she said.

“Do I feel like we did a better or worse job than the year before?” she said. “No.”


She said she’d be focused on getting adjusted to a new seasonal menu, and getting through the dark days of winter and the craziness of Valentine’s.

“The focus is still the focus. It’s about the restaurant,” Loreg said. “But would it be lovely to get another nomination? Sure.”

On Wednesday, the restaurant was named a semifinalist for Outstanding Hospitality.

Disclosure: Peggy Grodinsky worked at the James Beard Foundation for seven years in the early 2000s and has been a judge for its cookbook and journalism awards.

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