PORTLAND, Maine — The James Beard awards are known as the "Oscars of the culinary world," and among this year's nominees are a record number of Maine chefs and other food professionals, including Alison Pray of Portland.
Pray, who co-founded Standard Baking with her husband, Matt James, 20 years ago, has been nominated in the newly established category of "Outstanding Baker."
Ellen Lyford operates the "dough divider" in the kitchen of Standard Baking Co. on Portland's waterfront. The device separates uncooked dough into loaf-sized portions before they go in the oven. She's one of 15 full-time bakers that Alison Pray employs and credits for her nomination in the James Beard awards.
"I feel like I can't take credit for the immense amount of work that happens in the bakery every day by all of our staff in order to keep it running," Pray says.
At busy the front counter, customers choose from a selection of pastries, breads and cookies all baked that morning. Doors open to the public at 7 a.m., but Matt James says the bakery's working day starts much earlier, at 3 a.m., when the first three bakers arrive to fire up the ovens.
James says they first got turned on to baking after a trip to France in the early '90s.
"Going there and being exposed to all sort of different breads and pastry, they were all just wonderful, really eye-opening and anybody who grew up in the times that Alison and I grew up, know that bread was mostly just very soft, white bread, very uninteresting," he says.
Pray says most of the flour used at Standard Baking Co. is winter wheat from the Midwest, but she's excited by the increasing availability of locally produced grains.
"This has been a real revolution in Maine and New England in that we're going back to local grain farming," she says. "I can't give you the exact numbers but I'd say compared to 10 years ago I think we're using probably ten times as much local grains and flours as we were.""
Pray says there are two ideals that have inspired her over the years.
"One was the appeal of continuing an ancient craft of baking," she says, "and hoping to maintain that tradition"
The other, Pray says, is being part of something that plays an integral role in the local community.
"That's the role of a neighborhood baker is you're central in people's lives, you see many of your customers every single day," she says.
But the proof, as they say, is in the tasting of the pudding, or in this case the "pecan financier."
Pray: "It's a French-style pastry, it's kind of a chewy cake, and it's made with ground pecans and browned butter."
Tom Porter: "My mouth's watering just listening to you describe it.
Pray: "What's unique about it I think is the texture, it's chewy."
Porter: "Well I've eaten quite a lot of confectionery in my time, so..."
Pray: "So you're an expert."
Porter: "I'll give it a go."
Porter (after munching): "There's no doubt that you're going to win that prize. Delicious."
Pray: "Glad to hear it."
Pray is one of 25 semifinalists for the prestigious James Beard culinary award in the Outstanding Baker category, and the only one from Maine, which this year is home to a record 10 Beard award nominees in various other specialties. The handful of finalists will be announced Tuesday, March 24, and the category winners will be revealed on May 4.