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Maine Restaurant Association awards announced!

2009 was an incredible year for Maine restaurants. Saveur, Bon Appetit, and Gourmet all raved about our food, how wonderful it is, how talented the chefs are, etc. Restaurant Week began. All kinds of foodie-centered spots opened, and even the farmers' market stayed open later into the year.

So when the Maine Restaurant Association announced its annual awards, we figured we'd see something reflecting that.

Not quite. And the justification the MRA gives for some of the awards is a bit curious, suggesting something between total detachment from reality and simple unawareness of Maine's recent culinary laurels.

There are four awards. First is the "Allied Member of the Year," for non-restaurant businesses that do a good job helping the restaurant industry. This year's winner? Front Burner PR of Portland. They have indeed gotten a ton of press for food-related businesses in Maine, but they are also the Maine Restaurant Association's own PR firm also have occasionally helped the MRA out informally without recompense. And then there's the reason they won: "They champion the Restaurant Association to their clients as a worthy investment." UPDATE: Jen Beltz clarified that there's no benefit of any kind to her company when they do make that recommendation.

Second is "Chef of the Year," won by Rick Hirsh of the Damariscotta River Grill and the Anchor Inn Restaurant. It's good food, we hear, but again the MRA's reasoning is limp: "He is a professionally trained, innovative chef who owns and operates his own restaurants and is frequently involved in community-based, charitable endeavors." (Could that sentence be written about any other chefs in Maine...? I think so.) And as evidence of how great Hirsch was in 2009, there was this: "Hirsch's Damariscotta River Grill was a 2008 finalist for the National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Neighbor Award." So he was great in 2009 because he was great in 2008?

Now we come to the really fascinating parts - the last two awards.

The "Restaurateur of the Year" award went to the Henry Family, owners of the Maine Diner in Wells. The family has operated the diner since 1983, and in December 2008 served the restaurant's five-millionth customer. Sure, longevity and moving the crowds in and out are important, but then Dick Grotton, the MRA's president, goes on to say: "They serve the type of food that defines Maine." A look at their menu, though, suggests it's a pretty different selection than the stuff that's getting Maine national recognition (see links in the first paragraph).

And now we get to the real puzzler. The "Bill Zoidis Lifetime Achievement Award," given to Ed "Hunk" Degenhardt. He sounds like a really nice guy - "one of Maine's original McDonald's franchisees," who between 1974 and the present (I guess) came to own five McDonald's restaurants. But most of the reasons the MRA announcement offers for giving Degenhardt this award have nothing to do with food: "Ed and his wife Dawn adopted, raised and educated nine children from around the world and have been blessed with seventeen grandchildren."

Look, a guy with such a big heart is certainly worthy of an award - parent/grandparent of the year/decade/millennium - but to give him a "lifetime achievement" award from a restaurant trade group based on how many kids and grandkids he has seems a bit strange, to say the least.

I'm sure the MRA would love to hear the opinions of foodies around Maine - reach the president, Dick Grotton, in Augusta at info@mainerestaurant.com. The chairman of the board is Mary Dysart Hartt at Dysart's Truck Stop and Restaurant in Bangor. And the vice-chair is Steve DiMillo of DiMillo's Floating Restaurant in Portland. Hey wait...maybe...nah. Never mind.

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