Is the best chef in the Northeast stationed on the midcoast?

In a testament to Maine’s expanding foodscape, this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards semifinalists include the man behind Camden’s most creative country French fare and a Rockland sushi chef known for fresh fish and good cheer.

Brian Hill of Francine and Keiko Suzuki Steinberger of Suzuki’s Sushi Bar join a handful of food and beverage pros from Portland to Freedom to Brunswick that cleared the first hurdle in the Academy Awards of culinary arts. The 26th annual restaurant and chef list was released Wednesday. In the dead of winter, the news was welcome for year-round chefs far from Maine’s foodiest city.

“This is such a dreadful time of year to run a restaurant in Maine,” said Hill, owner of 13-year-old Francine in downtown Camden. “This week we are the most broke. It’s so great, so uplifting. I looked at the list and am blown away. It’s an undying honor.”

Hill vies for the prestigious award for his seventh time.

“It’s such a cool thing to be in the middle of nowhere, it’s freezing cold, you are cooking one vegetable, and you make the list. It’s a miracle,” he said.

Reached by phone at her home in Rockland, Steinberger was still processing the news and was not ready to speak. Joe Steinberger, her husband and co-owner of Suzuki’s Sushi Bar, said he knew this day would come.

“She tries to serve the best, freshest local fish and vegetables. She very much embodies the Japanese spirit: It’s never good enough. She is always trying to improve,” he said.

The 32-seat sushi hideaway has been a Main Street go-to for a decade. It sends out a welcoming signal created by a harmonious staff.

“I am extremely proud of the fact that she has one of the happiest restaurants around,” he said.

Keiko Suzuki Steinberger has little formal culinary training, save for a short stint in a sushi academy in Tokyo.

“She has no pretension about being a great chef,” Steinberger’s husband said. “She is modest about her abilities.”

Joining them in the best chef Northeast category from Maine are Erin French of The Lost Kitchen in Freedom and Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor of Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland.

French, who cooks modern farmhouse fare in a former grist mill, was surprised to get the nod, a first for this town of 719.

“I don’t have a culinary degree or a big trust fund,” said French, who grew up in Freedom working at her father’s diner. “It’s a very demanding job. To get some sort of recognition means the world. I am thrilled for everyone nominated from Maine.”

Other semifinalists include Portland’s The Honey Paw for best new restaurant; Fore Street in Portland for outstanding restaurant; Rob Tod of Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland is up for outstanding wine, spirits, or beer professional; and the rising star chef of the year hopeful is Cara Stadler of Tao Yuan, Brunswick.

This is the first step in the process. Nominees will be announced March 15 and winners in a gala ceremony May 2 in Chicago.

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.