Christopher Papagni

Christopher Papagni

The Green Spot in Oakland is a Camp Favorite

Scheduling an interview with Brenda Athanus, owner of the epicurean grocery store The Green Spot in Oakland, Maine, was no easy task. The Green Spot operates six days a week and she’s there from dawn to dusk. I was able to pin her down for a Tuesday meeting — her only day off. Brenda suggested we meet at the A-1 Diner in Gardiner; she adores diners and loves fried oysters.  

I have a copy of her memoir — Life, One Tablespoon at a Time — on the table for quick reference. Brenda is a storyteller and many of her fondest memories are in her book — a book that reads more like a journal than anything else. She has also written a cookbook and she has had articles published with Huffington Post and the Chicago Tribune.

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Before the food comes to the table, I ask Brenda a few questions about her life, the things she fancies most, and The Green Spot:

When did you decide to open The Green Spot?

While at the Modern Gourmet, a cooking school in Newton Center, Massachusetts, we would receive deliveries several times a day from Blacker Brothers’ green grocer, just across the street. Madeleine Kamman was my brilliant teacher. Blacker’s was a beehive of activity with farmers and Chelsea market trucks going in and out carrying the most beautiful produce. It was the beauty and smells of Blacker’s that made me want to have my own market.

The Green Spot is a family business. What’s that like?

I was 18 years old when I said to my older sister Tanya, ‘We should do this.’ And in the same breath I said [to myself], ‘You don’t know enough about food, yet.’ As it happened, a month and a half later we rented the space for what became The Green Spot. As my sister and I were driving by I saw the then-empty space in Oakland and thought it was perfect for a store. My mother named it for us. At that time people didn’t use the word ‘green’ for a food market. My mother was always way ahead of her time. People would come into the market and ask, ‘What does The Green Spot mean, and I would tell them, ‘You know, things that grow.’ My sister and I have been in business for 41 years. Tanya has a passion for working with the public and I’m the back of the house.

Why did you write your memoirs and what is your favorite story?

Wherever I am, a good story finds me. I knew the stories were interesting and I started writing them down. After getting a few stories published, I decided to put them all into a book. My favorite is, ‘Chloe’s Apricot Jam’: ‘ . . . The following week, she arrived with a piece of paper and announced that she had a special present for us. There, on a lined piece of notebook paper, was her apricot jam recipe. She wanted us to carry it on . . . It was her grandmother’s from Marseilles in the late 1800s . . .’

Who are your mentors/role models?

My first mentor was my mother. She taught me to reach for the stars and never take no for an answer. She had poetry in her heart and always smelled like Shalimar. Madeleine Kamman, my cooking school teacher, changed my life. I learned from Madeleine to always do it right the first time and to pay attention to what was happening in the bowl.

Who are your customers?

There are epicureans everywhere! Although at first customers were apprehensive of two sisters in business, but over time we won them over. Our customers know we make, buy and sell the best products on the market. We know what our customers like because we wait on each and everyone of them and we listen well. Our customers come from the Belgrade Lakes area, Waterville/Augusta area and Colby students.

What do you bring to Oakland and this part of Maine that is different from others?

When I was growing up, we took a trip to Paris every year. I realized at an early age that these were my people. I wanted The Green Spot to be a lot like Paris where you can find beautifully baked breads, fresh pastries, local vegetables and delicious wines. My customers are like family; Tanya and I know 95 percent of the people who walk in the door. The children’s children of my original customers come into the market. Often we recognize family members in their features and smiles and ask them if they are related to so and so. We operated seven days a week for 25 years and then our mother got sick and we cut back to six days a week. Mom left us before we could begin our new schedule, but because of her we have a day of rest.

Take a trip to The Green Spot and say hello. You may just find Brenda in the kitchen making pickles or jam in a heavy copper pot, and Tanya by the register talkin’ up what’s new today. This is no ordinary grocery store and these two sisters are no ordinary grocers.

The Green Spot | 818 Kennedy Memorial Dr, Oakland | Wed-Mon 9 am-7 pm | 207-465-7242


  • Published in Food

Albanian Pastries and Smiles: The Coffee ME Up Experience

Coffee is the only beverage, that I have tried and failed, to give up. When sleep has been elusive, I have always attributed it to caffeine, and I don’t see the point in drinking coffee without caffeine. I have since decided any attempt will be futile, so I drink coffee every day and I do it in moderation – never after 2 p.m. The other gripe I have with coffee is that when I drink it, I want something sweet or breakfast savory to go with it. That usually means a croissant, coffee cake, a biscuit with butter and jam, a donut, an english muffin; you get the picture. I recently caught wind of quite a lot of buzz about a coffee shop that opened in late January, on Cumberland Ave. (unfortunately very close to my gym). I gave in to my urge to stay away and made a stop – Coffee ME Up is not like any other coffee shop in Maine.

What sets this gem apart are three things: First, the owners, Alba Zakja and Mateo Hodo are two of the most beautiful humans I have encountered. Their smiles are warm, welcoming and real. Second, their pastry offerings are homemade and Albanian; Albania is their birthplace, although they have both become American citizens. Two of their pastries are especially delicious: Byrek is a traditional phyllo savory pastry. It’s light, unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else in Portland, and if you're lucky, there will still be some left during your visit. The other is Alba’s mother Simina’s Baklava. Alba can make all of these Albanian pastries as well, but seeing Simina in the kitchen and knowing she taught Alba how to bake these delicious pastries is extremely satisfying to this customer. What makes Simina’s Baklava different from any other I have tasted is how not-so-sweet it is. It’s syrupy and nutty and melts in your mouth. Lastly, these two beautiful individuals have a mission and that mission is to spread love and kindness throughout Portland, as well as their commitment to quality and an excellent customer experience.

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The owners of Coffee Me Up Alba Zakja and Mateo Hodo.

They get to know their guests in ways that are immediately embracing. You’ll feel like family by the second visit and if you don’t feel this way, trust me– it’s you not them. Alba and Mateo have many stories to tell, but I will share one, that in these divisive times, warmed my heart.
Mateo is a hugger. He doesn’t hug everyone mind you, but if he thinks you need a hug or want a hug, it’s part of his spreading love around philosophy. So recently a customer comes in and Mateo hugs him. This fella's companion is pleasantly shocked and Mateo asked why. The fella says that he hasn’t had a hug in 10 years. The guy comes into the shop soon after and gets another hug; only this time he hugs Mateo back. This seems to make Mateo very happy. I ask him about this so called “love.” I naively wonder what he means by “a ripple effect of joy and happiness.” He very innocently replies, “If someone leaves here a little happier than when he or she came in, they’ll go out and spread that love around.” I’m touched by how deeply he believes he and Alba can inspire change in their own small way.

I was happy to hear that neither of them has experienced discrimination since they opened the shop. People are curious about their birthplace. Some even come in and happily share that they have been to Albania; others have no idea where it is. Alba and Mateo are open about where they are from, where they have been, and where they are going. They’re way too consumed with their new venture to contemplate another shop, but I did hear a slight pause when I asked. Their playful and loving banter leads me to believe that these two truly enjoy working together. When I asked her about Mateo and their future, she said, “Mateo doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.” To which Mateo replied, “Who says I want to grow up?” Then he tells me that he enjoys working with Alba because it enables him to shower her with affection all day. The couple designed the warm, contemporary interior together, and Mateo did most of the construction. Alba designed the logo, and Alba’s brother Ksenis, came up with the name; clearly a family with loads of talent.

While I was getting a latte and pastry on my last visit to Coffee ME Up, and by the way Alba hopes all will understand that “ME” has two meanings and the second stands for Maine; I noticed a sign announcing soft serve ice cream. No way was I leaving without a taste. For now, vanilla is the only flavor they serve; however, that is soon going to change. This ice cream is smooth, creamy and fulfilling, unlike other air-filled and too-sweet soft serve you’ll find in other places throughout the area. Soon to appear on the menu will be their version of an afagado – ice cream drowned by espresso. Coffee ME Up is open Monday to Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and weekends from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Alba and Mateo mentioned they might close for July 4th. I encouraged them to take some time off; I want them to be with us for years to come and running a business like this takes its toll.

  • Published in Food

Mezcal ... the Finer Tequila?

Mezcal has been in the news a lot lately. Perhaps it’s becoming the kale of the spirits world.


I recently had the good fortune to attend a "mezcal dinner" at Sonny’s in Portland. Misty Kalkofen, who represents Del Maguey, introduced us to the rich history and variety of tastes of mezcal.


I asked Misty when she realized that she wanted to be involved in the mezcal business.


“To a certain degree, as soon as I tasted it!” she said. “When Ron Cooper, founder of Del Maguey, world class artist and James Beard Award winner, introduced me to mezcal, he shared all of the ways in which it is involved with the culture of the people who make it and the ritual ways in which it is used in Mexico. As someone who studied spirits, the quality and the complexity grabbed me. As someone who has a Masters of Theology, the culture and history of it intrigued me as well. I knew I would be an advocate for the spirit, but I didn't know how deep my involvement would become.”


Misty currently works with four different families (Del Maguey actually represents 12 different families; 11 in Oaxaca and the other in Puebla) — mezcal production appears to be a family business. How mezcal is distilled very much depends on where it is distilled and the family doing the distilling.


We cannot begin without a simple explanation of the agave nectar: agave nectar, also called agave syrup, is most often produced from the Blue Agave plants that thrive in the volcanic soils of Southern Mexico. Agaves are large and spiky. They resemble cactus and yucca in both physical likeness and geographic surroundings. What many do not realize is that the agave plant is a succulent, closely related to aloe vera and similar in taste to honey.

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The moqueca custard with coconut, chile, and octopus, pairs perfectly with mezcal. 

In the distilling process, the agave is harvested and returned to the palenque (a small, family owned distillery). The agave hearts, or piñas, are roasted in an earthen pit over stones that have been heated by a hardwood fire. This roast is covered with earth and can stay in the ground anywhere from five to 30 days. Once roasted, the piñas are milled either with a horse-drawn stone called a molino or by hand using heavy wooden bats. Once milled, all juices and fibers are put into open-air fermentation tanks with a small amount of the locally occurring water. Fermentation can last anywhere between five to 21 days depending on the location, climate, weather, etc.

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Tradional vessels used for drinking mezcal.

The majority of the mezcals Misty sells are distilled twice. First, distillation occurs with all of the roasted agave fibers; the second takes place without the fibers. Different types of stills and variations in methods produce different flavors and textures.


According to Misty, more and more restaurants and bars are featuring mezcal, especially if they have a progressive bar program. In addition, the use of mezcal in raw or cured seafood dishes such as ceviche, is gaining in popularity. Her passion for mezcal was clear when I asked her what made mezcal different from other spirits.


“First, mezcal is an agriculture product. The raw material matures in seven to 35 years depending on the type of agave. Secondly, after the plant is mature, it can still take two and a half months or more to harvest and ultimately complete the process of making mezcal and getting it into a bottle. Also, each mezcal has a specific flavor representative of the family who produces it. The techniques of how to create the flavor and style of your family are passed down from generation to generation. When you drink mezcal, you are drinking history and culture.”


There were three featured mezcal drinks on the day of the tasting. My personal favorite — and I admittedly had one too many — was the Diablo, which had mezcal (of course), chili-infused tequila, cassis, lemon, ginger beer and cardamom. This cocktail was a great pre-dinner drink; definitely awakened my palate. There are others, too — however, you’ll have to visit Sonny’s to taste them yourself.

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Chef Paul Tuck cooks up excellent Mexican inspired dishes at Sonny's.

Chef Paul Tuck is very excited about featuring Mexican food at Sonny’s. All seven dishes we sampled were paired with a different mezcal. The moqueca custard, coconut, chili, and octopus was very tasty and had a nice spicy kick — though I’m not sure why it was called custard it was creamy, smooth and broth-like. Dinner ended with a beautifully plated mole dessert made with almond, tortilla, smoked chocolate, fruit nixtamal (from the Nahuati word meaning "unformed corn dough"), and paired with a final mezcal called Tobala.


I’m pleased that Sonny’s and Chef Paul are bringing us these Mexican-inspired dishes and offering up some fine mezcal. For a city filled with outstanding food from all over the globe, excellent Mexican food is difficult to find in Portland.  


My Top Five Dishes from Portland Restaurants

With over 300 restaurants in this little city of ours, there is no shortage of mouthwatering, memorable dishes.

But despite our many choices and the respect I have for chefs, I don’t usually rush to restaurant openings. Even if it’s a chef I know and food I love, I wait. Because I prefer to allow a chef to work out the kinks in her or his menu. I think some people rush to new restaurants just to be one of the first a position that will give them bragging rights; and that’s only, of course, if the restaurant is a success. Perhaps I’ve been around the block too many times to care about bragging rights. I just know what I like and I return to my favorites again and again.


People who dine out a lot will tell you that there are a handful of restaurants they consider their go-to places. They know exactly what they like on the menu. The food is consistent, and consistency is what all restaurants strive for. I am fairly certain most chefs have a favorite dish, a dish that they either worked on for years or a dish they created by accident. As long as customers continue to order that dish, either works.


Knowing this means a great deal to me. It feeds my fantasy that my favorite dish at a particular restaurant is also the chef’s favorite. I’m fully aware that this is unrealistic. However, it is after all, my fantasy.


Many lie awake at night with real life worries:  Will I have the money to pay the electric bill this month? How can pay my son’s college tuition this year? Are Trump’s ties to Russia going to be his undoing? My current nightly thoughts are much more superficial. When I am stressed out about life and politics, I turn to food. When I lie awake at night, I think about Lolita specifically their Torchio dish  and I wonder if they’re open. There are dishes in Portland that are so delicious, I want to eat them no matter the hour.


With that in mind, here are the five dishes I lie awake thinking about:


The Mother Clucker from Hot Suppa 

1. The Mother Clucker from Hot Suppa | I’ll start with my favorite breakfast dish. Often, food is all about memories and certain foods have the ability to take you back to a particular time and place. I discovered Southern food during my college years in North Carolina. Some dishes were an acquired taste, to be sure. My first exposure to sausage gravy left me feeling ill and disgusted. Two or three more tries and I loved it. Hot Suppa's Mother Clucker includes fried chicken breast, buttermilk biscuit, cheddar curds, and sausage gravy. Then you get to choose a side, from hash browns, Geechie Boy grits or baby kale. I go for the grits or the hash browns. Kale might be in conflict with the rest of this dish. | Hot Suppa, 703 Congress St., Portland | | Mon 7 am-2 pm; Tues-Sat 7 am-2 pm, 5-9:15 pm; Sun 7:30 am-2 pm | 207.871.5005



The coconut-base Chicken Tom Kha Gai from Veranda Thai 

2. The Chicken Tom Kha Gai at Veranda Thai | With chicken and the potent herb of galanga in a coconut broth with mushroom and onion, this soup is spectacular. It was a very recent discovery for me, having been stuck on another menu item. I had been to Veranda Thai several times, but I had been in the habit of only ordered the orange chicken (which would have made my top ten list, had I named ten). | Veranda Thai, 9 Veranda St., Portland | Mon-Thu 11 am-9:30 pm; Fri-Sat 11 am-10:30 pm; Sun 3-9:30 pm | Veranda Noodle House, 245 Commercial St., Portland | Sun-Thu 10 am-9:30 pm; 10 am-10:30 pm | | 

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Torchio pasta from Lolita [Photo by Megan Swann]

3. The Torchio pasta dish at Lolita | This sublime pasta dish is my favorite dish at one of my favorite Portland restaurants. I understand from the staff that customers have stated that if the torchio comes off the menu, they will no longer return to the restaurant. The dish includes Torchio ‘Nduja (a peppery salami) and peas. This pasta dish is absolute perfection. It is spicy, the pasta is al dente, and the peas add color and compliment the dish. | Lolita, 90 Congress St., Portland | Mon-Fri 3:30-10:30 pm; Sat-Sun 10:30 am-10:30 pm | | 207.775.5652



The Paitan ramen from Pai Men Miyake 

4. The Paitan ramen at Pai Men Miyake | Chef Bryson told me it took him eight months to perfect the broth of this ramen dish, which includes chicken and pork broth, pork belly, soy-marinated egg, scallion, and a strip of nori. When I was a child growing up in Brooklyn, my experience of Asian food consisted of traditional Chinese restaurants and Korean fare, and the latter only because I worked for a Korean couple and home cooked Korean food was part of my daily workday. So I consider this wonderful Japanese-inspired dish a gift given to me as a mature adult. | Pai Men Miyake, 188 State St., Portland |  | Mon-Thu 11:30 am-11 pm; Fri-Sun 11:30 am-midnight | | 207.541.9204

 Kimchi fried rice

The kimchi fried rice from Izakaya Minato. 

5. Kimchi Fried Rice at Izakaya Minato | This dish is the newest on my list, and therefore has recently occupied most of my quasi-dream state. I had kimchi for the first time when I was 17 years old, delivering booze by bicycle for a liquor store in Brooklyn. Now, many years later, I realize the owners wanted me strong for four hours of night bike riding. That’s fine, their plan worked and I have them to thank for my great love of Korean food. Where are the Korean restaurants in Portland by the way? Anyone? Izakaya Minato’s kimchi fried rice provides a wonderful sense memory. | Izakaya Minato, 4 Washington Ave., Portland | Mon-Thu 5-10 pm; Fri-Sat 5-11 pm | | 207.613.9939 


The problem I have with any of these dishes is that once one of them enters my conscious mind, I cannot escape the desire to have it. I have yet to find a solution to this problem and I’m not sure I ever will. In the meantime, I’m thankful to the chefs and restaurants for providing me with yet another thing to daydream about.


  • Published in Food

Stories Through Food: An LB Kitchen Love Story

I’m a sucker for a good love story. I get all weepy when I’m alone with a novel and love wins out over evil. I watch young couples embrace at the cinema and imagine a lifetime love affair that has only just begun. When I see an elderly man tenderly kissing his wife of 60 years, my faith in humankind is restored. And when I stumble upon a love affair unexpectedly, I can’t help but share my good fortune with the world.


Bryna Gootkind and Lee Farrington are the owners of the recently opened LB Kitchen and the two are married to their restaurant and each other. They met when Bryna was introduced to Lee, the then owner of Figa. And so their love story began.


I recently sat down with the two of them in their intimate and softly lit restaurant dining room. They both have an affinity for Parisian-style bistros and the details of this labor of love, should not and cannot be overlooked. You experience a simple, yet warm and inviting space, the two created with their own hands. The irony is that they almost let it slip away.


Lee purchased the building in 2008 prior to opening Figa, and when the restaurant did not work out, she decided to sell. Complicated factors led to this difficult decision. Bryna was torn about the sale; meeting Lee in the space made it more than just real estate. The building was a part of their beginning and therefore, symbolic of their love for one another. The building sat empty for three years. Potential buyers came and went and deals fell through. The process was exhausting for the two of them. Prior to meeting the last potential buyers, they made a pact: if the deal fell through, for whatever reason, they were going to keep the space and open a restaurant together. Well, you can guess that the promise they made to one another that day has led to LB Kitchen. I only just realized what LB stands for — duh. It didn’t take me long to surmise the stubbornness of these two women. They decided to build a restaurant, build it the way they wanted it, and to build it themselves.


Bryna walked into the old restaurant one day to sounds of demolition. She entered what was once the restroom to find the entire space leveled. Bryna smiled and realized that Lee was not joking when she said that they’d do the buildout with their own hands. It took a little over two years and a few obstacles to open their doors.


Bryna and Lee shared with me what they’re aiming for with LB Kitchen. “Let's be honest, we are not those kind of people who eat to live. We live to eat, all day and every day. We wake up thinking about food we dreamed about. We spend our days and our nights swirling around in our kitchens creating, tasting, laughing, loving, and sharing. To us, food is life, love, medicine and community. Our mission at LB Kitchen is to tell you stories through our food; where it came from, why we love it, why we chose it, why it tastes and makes you feel so good. We believe that food is fun and functional.”


At this point in our conversation I was curious about their customer demographics. Did people ask about specific ingredients? Has anyone complained about the combinations of foods? Are people interested in knowing more about the functionality of their dishes? Bryna told me that most people order the food without questioning the ingredients, but it was clear she’d love for them to ask questions.


I asked about their biggest surprise concerning LB Kitchen since they opened, “90 percent of our customers want to eat in. We thought most would grab and go. We’re rethinking the front of the house; where can we squeeze in more seating?”


They’ll open up their patio at the first sign of warm weather — a wish most of us hope is not too far down the road.


Here’s a sample of some of their creative and delicious menu items.

- Sweet & salty oats with coconut oil, nut butter, honey, cacao nibs, and mulberries

- Breakfast salad with greens, turmeric egg, lacto-fermented beets, avocado, and citrus vinaigrette

- The Figa: wild Boar, rendang, and coconut rice

- The New Yorker: Standard Baking Co. five-grain bread, beet-cured gravlax, and heirloom tomato with a caper schmear (my favorite for so many reasons)

There's also coffee, beer, kombucha, and more. I have not tried everything on the menu, but I’m looking forward to doing the research.


Fate obviously intervened and as a result, this venture has brought Bryna and Lee closer together in every way. Their schoolgirl giggles and obvious profound respect for one another made this customer feel honored to have made their acquaintance.

  • Published in Food

Keeping Mainers in Maine at the Fyood Kitchen

Fortunately for us, more and more food entrepreneurs are choosing Maine to start up their companies.


Maddie Purcell is the owner of Fyood Kitchen, an "Iron Chef-meets-Paint Nite for foodies" in Portland, Maine.


Although some would hesitate to involve themselves in this type of competition, one of biggest surprises for Maddie has been the level of competence she is seeing in the kitchen.


“Most people are better cooks than they think they are. Over 90 percent of the participants are cooking something that they have never cooked before and doing it without a recipe.”


Currently based out of Fork Food Lab, Maddie has 15 Fyood Kitchen events under her belt and some local towns are set to be scheduled in the near future — Biddeford, Bangor, and Somerville, Massachusetts, for example.



Fyood allows participants to choose between judging and cooking when purchasing a ticket. While some participants have been asking for constructive feedback, most prefer to hear the plain truth about their dishes. At some events, she says, judges were too easy on competitors during her earlier events. When all's said and done, the future is what Maddie cares most about.


Maddie was born in Harpswell, and lived there for a time before her family relocated to Brunswick. Maddie’s dreams always took her to faraway places. As with many young Mainers of the past, diversity and culture were realities they imagined they could only experience outside of Maine. This, of course, is why Maine has one of the oldest populations in the country.

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Colby College in Waterville offered Maddie a full scholarship for all four years; an opportunity she found impossible to resist. She took advantage of an appealing study abroad program and did her first semester in Dijon, France. There, she got a taste of what it would be like to live outside of Maine, a dream still dominating her thoughts. She continued at Colby with an eye toward New York or somewhere abroad after graduation.


Unanticipated personal matters kept Maddie in Maine and she has never looked back. Like many Maine millennials, she realized that quality of life can be more important than the lure of the big city. After graduation from Colby, Maddie “. . . took the first good thing that came along,” and learned a great deal about the real estate business. She had always known that she wanted to do her own thing, so after three years and little hope for advancement, Maddie pursued her first start-up idea.


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Maddie Purcell. 

Maddie, a retired college athlete, knew many others who went from daily sports activities to depression. “People have no idea how difficult it is to navigate the shift away from college sports,” she explains.


But Fyood Kitchen, Maddie’s current pursuit, is one she enjoys talking about. Fyood's model is Chopped — those involved get to improvise with mystery ingredients. Kickstarter helped Maddie raise $16,485 in 24 days, funds she has earmarked for kitchen equipment, which she says she still needs to buy.


In ten years, Maddie would like to see home cooks competing anywhere in the United States. Her own curiosity around commercial kitchen equipment is what sparked the idea for the Fyood venture. Today’s commercial kitchens make good use of technology and cooking toys not found in the home kitchen. Many find themselves wanting to play with those toys. Staging her events in commercial kitchens is making that reality possible. Maddie is also using Fyood as an opportunity to bring awareness to local food sources; using ingredients from local food businesses.

Ultimately, for Maddie, Fyood Kitchen is all about having fun. Fortunately for participants, Fyood takes care of washing the dishes, so all you have to do is cook and enjoy yourself. Maddie’s idea appears to have taken flight.


Portland is undoubtedly fertile territory for young, passionate minds. There is an openness to creativity and experimentation you do not find everywhere. I for one am pleased that so many millennials have chosen Portland as a place to begin their journey.

  • Published in Food

It's Tough Being a Food Judge During Restaurant Week

In this city, everybody’s got an opinion. When I’m sitting at a dinner party or a table with friends, I will throw the name a restaurant out there and ask, “What do you all think of Paula’s Place?” (That's a fake name, there is no Paula's Place.)
I’ll get six answers. One person will say that Paula’s Place is the best restaurant in Portland. Another will disagree and complain about the service. Another will say that it was once really good, but not anymore. And so on. Give this a try the next time you’re out with friends and you’ll see what I mean.
So, when I was recently asked to judge cocktails and food pairings for Maine Restaurant Week’s Spirit Quest, I couldn’t help wondering if my opinion about a particular cocktail and/or dish would be similar to the other three judges.
Now, I’m generally a fairly easygoing person. However, when it comes to competition, I’m a white knuckle, stick-to-your-guns, kind of guy. If I feel strongly about something and I believe I have a good argument, I’m not likely to budge. Not long ago, I judged a competition in Portland and one of the other judges, a local food writer who shall remain nameless, told mutual acquaintances that I had decided the winner before the competition began. Some of Portland’s food writers can be disturbingly petty.
But despite strong reservations, I agreed to judge Spirit Quest this year.
gBritt PR, a Maine-based PR firm, founded Maine Restaurant Week nine years ago, and this is the second year of Spirit Quest. Founder Gillian Britt provides some history.
“The Spirit Quest grew out of an event that has been an annual part of Maine Restaurant Week, the Signature Event. That event featured competing bartenders and paired bites in a grazing format. We took that concept and revised it to create this self-guided tour, which invites Spirit Quest participants into the individual restaurants and bars along the route. It was a huge hit last year, people really enjoyed the walk, sip, eat, repeat outing.”
Aside from the obvious excitement that comes from a healthy competition, Spirit Quest is a great way for curious foodies in our area to experience our restaurant community. Chefs and bartenders work together to showcase a cocktail and a bite — an excellent opportunity to get creative and show off.
And show off they did. There were 19 restaurants that did cocktail and food pairings. The other three judges and I had a difficult time determining the winner. After much deliberation, Timber was the overall winner — judges' choice and people’s choice.
Timber’s executive chef is Christian Barrett and their bar manager is Henry Jost. TIQA came in a close second for Judges' Choice and David’s Restaurant came in second place for the People's Choice Award. Timber’s dish was a gravlax and sweet corn blini, with cucumber caviar, meyer lemon, mascarpone, arugula and Maine Sea Salt — very sophisticated and oh so tasty. Their cocktail was a cucumber martini with fresh basil, lemon juice and simple syrup. The pairing was sublime and worthy of praise. You don’t often see the judges choosing the same winner as the participants. That validated the judge’s choice. One of my favorites was the pairing at Solo Italiano. Their focaccino con prosciutto et mielle was light and flavorful. All of the cocktails were truly terrific.
I haven’t been in Portland for long, so I was curious to hear what the Britts had to say about the cocktail culture.
“Portland has more bars dedicated to cocktails then it did when Maine Restaurant Week started," says Gillian Britt. "During this time we've seen cocktails expand to include more local ingredients, more locally distilled products and combine more savory and unusual flavors. Right now we're seeing a huge increase in interest in beer and beer cocktails and a return to classic cocktails.”
Although March 12 marks the final day of Maine Restaurant Week, all participating restaurants continue to be a part of Maine’s unique and exciting food scene. March 2018 is fortunately not very far away.
Christopher Papagni is a Maine-based restaurant industry consultant.

Tiqa Takes a Trip to Taste the Origin of Its Cuisine

When was the last time the owner of your business or your supervisor, asked if you’d like to take a trip abroad to discover the food and culture of a region?

Many of my friends belly ache about business trips. They complain that they don’t get to venture outside of their hotel or they’re forced to eat conference food — legitimate reasons to piss and moan. I don’t think you’ll hear any complaints coming from the Tiqa staff who took a trip overseas in January. Together Deen Haleem and Carol Mitchell, founders of Tiqa, Executive Chef Bo Byrne and General Manager Patrick Morang, explored Bethlehem, Jericho, and Jerusalem. They had also intended to visit Amman, Jordan, where Haleem has family; however, they were turned away at the border; the necessary visas they were told they could acquire were not attainable. Perhaps a sign of the times?

Despite a hiccup or two, the trip was a tremendous success and Tiqa diners will continue to reap the rewards and I will tell you why.

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Deen explained why he and his wife Carol thought the trip was a good idea.  Haleem and his family are Palestinian. In 1972, his father thought it would be prudent to join family that had already emigrated to the United States; Haleem and his immediate family moved to Chicago. Carol has a  Lebanese background. “We wanted to taste the old and the new, street and elevated, traditional and inspired. In addition, we wanted to learn about the culture and get ideas on how to evolve our menu.” Taking their chef and general manager to experience the Middle East was generous and enlightening.

Chef Bo spoke about what he saw with great enthusiasm. “I still can’t believe that I got to stand in front of the Wailing Wall (Western Wall) in Israel, and to actually be in the place where the last supper was served.”
Bo was of course referring to The Room of the Last Supper on Mount Zion, just outside of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. My guess is that Bo is happy to talk about something other than food occasionally; after all, he is immersed in the culinary world day and night. Although I enjoyed hearing about the sights and sounds of the Middle East, I was especially interested in Chef Bo’s thoughts on the food he tasted on the trip.

“It was 2017 there; the food today is an interpretation of the food of the past, but it’s updated as well. It was difficult to find dishes prepared the old way. I expected to see more of the old world and less of the new. I wonder if tourists wouldn’t rather see more of the old world — that’s what I think a traveller has in mind when they go there.”

Chef Bo told me that he thought the food was better in Tel Aviv. A Middle Eastern friend of Bo’s shared that, “Jerusalem is for praying, and Tel Aviv is for playing.” Meaning that Tel Aviv was more alive with robust flavors and a rich culture. Bo became extremely animated when sharing his Tel Aviv food experiences.

“I was hoping I’d come back a better chef; more authentic and better educated,” Chief Bo said.

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Tiqa is marketed as a  tribute to Pan Mediterranean dining.  Purveyors supply the restaurant with hand-selected and sustainably-raised and sourced meats, seafood, cheeses and produce. Bo has already started making small changes to the menu, however, the big changes won’t come until spring. He shared that he and his fellow travellers had hummus many different ways. It made Bo feel good and confident about his own interpretation of hummus; having it be similar to those he tasted, but with its own unique flavors. Deen told me that the bread will stay the same. However, they’ll be serving it whole rather than slicing it — noting that breaking bread was part of every meal where they travelled.

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Improving on dishes that are already celebrated and delicious will be quite a feat. Still, I’m looking forward to spring and not just because of the change of weather. Few owners expose their staff to the origin of the cuisine served in their restaurants. Authenticity comes from going right to the source and tasting it for yourself. Chef Bo’s enthusiasm for and his experience in the Middle East will not be wasted. He will long remember the tastes and culture of the places he visited. I salute Deen Haleem and Carol Mitchell for their commitment to authenticity, and I know those eating at Tiqa, now and when the new menu is revealed, will join me in celebrating one of Portland’s finest.

While Pho explodes in popularity, take time to learn its history

I have been dining out longer than I care to say and I admittedly had my first bowl of Pho (pronounced “fuh”), when I relocated to Portland from Brooklyn three years ago. I’m sure I’d heard of this famous noodle soup, but I’m not certain why I had not been introduced to it. I have regrets about this omission; however, the not knowing has peaked my interest even further.


French missionaries traveled and lived in Vietnam from the mid-1700s to the mid-1900s. French Colonization left its mark on Vietnam in many ways, but none more than the flavors in cooking. Pho soup is said to be a blend of Vietnamese rice noodles and French meat broths. One theory suggests that pho is the phonetic copy of the French word “feu” which means fire. Oral history tells us that French Colonists slaughtered cattle because of their love of meat and that the Vietnamese used the bones and scraps to make Pho.


Often, the popularity of cuisine is tied to political climate. I imagine little was known about Vietnam prior to the Vietnamese War, which ended with the fall of Saigon in April 1975. The Vietnam War, known in Vietnam as the Resistance War Against America, was hard fought with many of our anti-communist allies.  The first Vietnamese restaurant in the United States was named Viet Nam and it was located in Manhattan; it was the only Vietnamese restaurant for at least a decade. The first customers were said to be expatriated nationals. Early Vietnamese immigrants had to prove their commitment to democracy and their allegiance to the United States. My guess is that even lovers of food from other parts of the world, may not have been as curious about Vietnamese cuisine as they were about European and other Asian cuisines. Later, the wide acceptance of Chinese and Thai cuisine, paved the way for Vietnamese restaurant openings.


Mai Vuong and her husband Dong Nguyen opened Saigon Restaurant in December 2009. Dong is head chef at Saigon; he immigrated to Portland when he was a young man, and Mai moved here twelve years ago. Although it took them quite some time to find a location, they ultimately settled on Forest Avenue because it was close to a high school and a couple of universities — they thought being close to young people would be good for business. Selecting an easy to find location was essential for the success of the restaurant. Although Vietnamese cuisine is the focus of this highly regarded restaurant, Chinese and Thai items are also featured in Saigon's authentic menu choices.


Most of the ingredients are sourced from Haknuman Asian Market, conveniently close to the restaurant. Ingredients not found at Haknuman, are ordered from two different suppliers in New Hampshire. Mai shared that although Saigon’s menu is authentically Vietnamese, some dishes that you might find in Vietnam are not on the menu because ingredients for these dishes cannot be found here in the States. In Vietnam, you might see crispy pancakes, fried spring rolls and a variety of sweet cakes on the menu.


I asked Mai why she thinks Vietnamese food has become so popular. “I think Vietnamese has become so popular because of pho soup. It has so many ingredients and is time consuming to cook; it’s rich and tasty and good for your health . . . so people love it. People also love Vietnamese food because it’s fresh. We’re proud of our pho soup, and we believe it’s one of the best pho soups in the area.”


Some of the ingredients Vietnamese recipes call for are: lemongrass, mint, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, chili, lime and basil. Traditional recipes include very little dairy and oil; relying on fresh herbs and vegetables as well. The balance of these flavors and ingredients and their freshness, make for what many consider to be one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.


It seems to me that people in Portland are often curious about what might be coming next on the restaurant scene. My final question for Mai had to do with the menu and what we might see on it in the future.


Mai candidly shared, “I’m not sure we are going to add anything to the menu; it’s overwhelming for us right now. We may just add more desserts this coming summer.”


Whatever they do at Saigon is okay by me. I often have to remind myself that pho is not the only dish on the menu. I promised I would relay Mai and Doug’s gratitude to the people of Portland:  “Without the support of you guys, we wouldn’t be successful today.”


I expect our readers would agree with me when I say, “Thank you Mai and Dong for choosing Portland and for the love and beautiful ingredients you put in your food.”

Saigon Restaurant | 795 Forest Ave., Portland | 9:30 am to 9:00 pm | 207.874.6666

Vermont Loves Maine at O’Maine Studios

At first glance Localvore Today resembles Groupon; however, they're decidedly more different than they are similar and the same can be said for Localvore and LivingSocial. It's taken me a year to wrap my head around exactly what Localvore Today does. Monday night I attended a Localvore event, actually their first event, and it finally made sense to me. Localvore’s social mission is to “support local food systems and local economies.” Helping to keep local economies sustainable and using social media to fulfill this mission is a hard sell.

Dan White, the founder and CEO, spoke to the social, product and business mission of Localvore without using the word mission. His enthusiasm about Monday night’s event came through both at the door of the event while greeting guests and when we spoke on the telephone the following day. Maine was this start-up's second market, after a robust beginning in Vermont. This event was designed to show Maine that Localvore’s approach is different from the ones practiced by other social media companies.

“Vermont Loves Maine, was an opportunity to re-engage Localvore’s Vermont clients and introduce these businesses to Maine,” said White.

Both participating Vermont businesses, and those of us attending from Maine, appreciated the effort. Building good will for Localvore was the stated goal, along with leveraging their relationships with Vermont businesses. As an early-stage tech company, the leadership of Localvore was not certain that an event like this made sense. Most small businesses can benefit from the social media marketing technology offered today. Budgets are tight and funding a marketing campaign is seldom a top priority. The payoff, which is not always easy to quantify, can be substantial. But how do you engage a company like Localvore Today without appearing desperate? Unlike using Groupon as a way to sell more product, advertising on Localvore Today is a way to tell your story and educate potential customers about what it means to buy local. Education is a big part of Localvore’s objectives and a socially conscious audience makes meeting these objectives viable.

White offered up this explanation: “People are tired of the rants and one-off comments that can be found on Yelp. Taking advantage of a Localvore campaign is an opportunity to experience a product in a physical way without breaking the bank.” Once introduced to a client/business, the customer can determine the product's level of excellence and whether or not they will choose to purchase that product again in the future. O’Maine studios which had its start at 54 Danforth Street a couple of years ago, has been an excellent venue for showcasing Maine’s local products.

O’Maine’s high ceilings, open spaces, industrial feel, and state-of-the-art kitchen, is the perfect place to eat, drink and become familiar with the best New England has to offer. You can almost count on any event you attend at O’Maine to be fun and affordable. The lack of pretense and self-importance, along with a collaborative environment, make O’Maine a Portland gem.

The following vendors from Vermont participated in the “Vermont Loves Maine” event:  Alice and the Magician, VT99 Meats, Cabot Cheese, Jasper Hill, Shaksbury Cider, Caledonia Spirits, Pizzeria Verita and Trapp Brewing. Many other Vermont companies donated products for the event.

Although I found the entire evening to be equally informative and enjoyable, I especially appreciated the effort that went into providing freshly made pizza throughout the evening.  Pizzeria Verita made pizza in a mobile pizza oven behind O’Maine Studios. I tasted four or five different varieties of pizza made on crusty dough with fresh ingredients. Beverages provided by Localvore’s clients did not disappoint.

Bartenders mixing cocktails for Alice & the Magician provided beautifully creative cocktails using Barr Hill gin and Fever Tree tonic. Alice & the Magician are known for their elixirs and aromatics. The showmanship of the two mixologists added a sexy atmosphere and spice to an already dazzling event. I was especially wowed by the misting of aromatics atop a perfect cocktail. What’s next for Localvore?

Many were so excited by the success of the “Vermont Loves Maine” event, it's been suggested that a similar type of event take place in Vermont. I met several Maine food vendors at the event who were ready to sign on for such an evening. White and his team seemed fired-up and poised to start planning for 2017. I’m going to wait for an announcement about where and when as I look forward to future Localvore events right here in Portland. I’m not sure if Groupon and LivingSocial will survive our new economy, however, I am fairly certain Localvore is a company to learn more about and to watch closely.

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