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June 11, 2024

Maine bakers bask in national spotlight, winning 2 top prizes at James Beard Awards

Screenshot / Courtesy, James Beard Foundation Atsuko Fujimoto, of Norimoto Bakery in Portland, accepts the outstanding baker award from the James Beard Foundation on Monday night.

At Monday night's red-carpet finale of the 2024 James Beard Awards — the culinary equivalent of the Oscars — Portland bakeries took the cake.

Atsuko Fujimoto, of Norimoto Bakery, won the award for the country's "outstanding pastry chef or baker." ZU Bakery, owned by Barak Olins, captured the national title of "outstanding bakery."

"It looks like Portland, Maine, might be vying for pastry capital of America. I need to go up there ASAP,” said Nilou Motamed, former editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, who served as commentator for the ceremony at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago.

Fujimoto and ZU Bakery were two of four Maine finalists vying this year for the prestigious awards, which have been presented annually since 1991 by the New York-based James Beard Foundation.

In January, 10 Maine restaurants, bakeries and chefs were named semifinalists in the 2024 competition.

Fujimoto, who emigrated from Japan to Portland 23 years ago with no prior food service experience, shared gratitude to her family, her employees and to the Portland food community. "Thank you for making me a baker," she said as she accepted her award. Her bakery is at 469 Stevens Ave., in the Deering neighborhood.

Olins opened ZU, at 81 Clark St. in Portland's West End, in 2000. The bakery's bread is naturally leavened and made in a wood-fired oven, using a mixture of freshly milled whole grains, sifted flours, water and grey sea salt.

“Thank you to the nearby businesses for being part of a beautiful neighborhood cluster," Olins said.

Restaurant records

Maine eateries, chefs and food-industry professionals have regularly made the James Beard Award semis and final rounds, and 13 contenders from the state have even won the top prizes.

But only in one previous year have Mainers claimed two. And this is the first year Maine has claimed a pair of national, one-and-only prizes.

In 2023, the outstanding hospitality award went to the Quarry, a restaurant in Monson, and Nezinscot Farm Store in Turner won an "America's Classics" award from the Beard Foundation.

Other Maine winners include Rob Tod, founder of Allagash Brewing Co., who won the 2019 Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Producer Award.

Seven Mainers have been honored as "best chefs in the Northeast": Sam Hayward, in 2004, from Fore Street in Portland; Rob Evans, in 2009, who was then the chef/owner of Hugo's, in Portland; Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, in 2010; from now-shuttered Arrows, in Ogunquit; Melissa Kelly, in 2013, from Primo, in Rockland; and in 2017, Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley from Eventide, in Portland.

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