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Updated: April 5, 2024

4 foodie finalists from Maine among those vying for prestigious James Beard Awards

person sitting at table FILE PHOTO / TIM GREENWAY Jake Stevens is shown at Leeward, his upscale Italian eatery that’s a finalist in the James Beard 2024 Restaurant and Chef Awards.

Maine is home to four of the finalists in this year's prestigious James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards.

In January, 10 Maine restaurants, bakeries and chefs were named semifinalists in the national competition, an annual program of the James Beard Foundation, headquartered in New York.

Now four have advanced to become finalists. The finalists include two Portland bakeries.

ZU Bakery, owned by Barak Olins, is a finalist in the “outstanding bakery” category as a baker of “breads, pastries or desserts that demonstrates consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, hospitality and operations while contributing positively to its broader community.”

Olins opened ZU in 2000 to make bread that’s naturally leavened and baked in a wood-fired oven, using a mixture of freshly milled whole grains, sifted flours, water and grey sea salt, according to its website. With the help of a skilled mason, he built a modified wood-fired masonry oven.  

“One of the unexpected pleasures of baking in a wood-fired oven is the utter silence of the machine,” he wrote.

Atsuko Fujimoto of Norimoto Bakery was nominated as “outstanding pastry chef or baker” as a candidate who “demonstrates exceptional skills and can be affiliated with any food business and does not need a brick-and-mortar presence” and  “contributes positively to their broader community.” On its website, Norimoto says it's all about "'European baking, Japanese sensibility, Maine ingredients."

Woodford Food & Beverage in Portland moved ahead in the “outstanding hospitality” category for fostering “a sense of hospitality among its customers and staff that serves as a beacon for the community and demonstrates consistent excellence in food, atmosphere, hospitality, and operations, while contributing positively to its broader community.”

Woodford markets itself as a neighborhood bar and dining room. It opened in January 2016 as the culmination of a long-running conversation between owners Fayth Preyer and Birch Shambaugh and friend Courtney Loreg, according to its website. The business is “steeped in New England and classic regional cooking” and housed in a storied mid-century building. Offerings include fresh seafood such as local oysters mussels, burgers, steaks, chops and seasonal produce. 

“We pickle anything that sits still long enough, and quench thirsts daily with both fresh and classic cocktails, natural wines and local beer,” the website says.

Jake Stevens, chef-owner of Leeward in Portland, moved forward in the category of “best chef in the Northeast," which includes Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island.

Winners will be announced June 10 at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony in Chicago. 

The awards were established in 1990 and first presented in 1991.

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