Christopher Papagni

Christopher Papagni

It might be time to invite your favorite chef for dinner


Being a chef is not easy; long hours, standing on your feet all day, hot kitchen, little or no time for significant others, coming up with new menu items; I could go on, but I’d hate to discourage anyone who might be thinking about the profession, we already have a huge shortage of chefs.

I am not now and have never been a chef; however, because of my position at The French Culinary Institute, the perception that I am a chef has been floating in the ether for quite some time. I have often had people tell me that they are too intimidated to have me over for dinner. I have some thoughts about this, but I thought it would be more interesting to hear from some real chefs.

I interviewed six successful chefs and thought you might enjoy their responses to my questions:


Interviewed: MJ Adams, former owner of The Corn Exchange in Rapid City, S.D., now television host on Public Television; Damian Sansonetti, Chef/Owner of Piccolo and Caiola’s in Portland, Maine; Kir Rodriguez, Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Center, New York City; David Turin, Chef/Owner of restaurants in Portland, South Portland and Kennebunkport, Maine; David Levi, Chef/Owner of Vinland and Rosso Bianco, Portland, Maine; and Nicholas Krunkkala, Chef of Liquid Riot, Portland, Maine.

 

How often are you invited to the homes of non-family members for a meal?

 

MJ Adams (MJA):  Sad to say, but few and far between.

 

Damian Sansonetti (DS):  A few times a year.

 

Kir Rodriguez (KR):  About once every two months.

 

David Turin (DT):  Not very often. Honestly, I can think of only three people who have invited me to dinner at their home in the last 10 years or so and one of them is a chef.

 

David Levi (DL):  Rarely at this point, since everyone knows I'm working all the time. Maybe a few times a year.  I usually have to decline or cancel unless I'm on vacation, which I take once a year.

 

Nicholas Krunkkala (NK):  Since I am a chef and work abnormal hours, I don't really get invited to people's houses for dinner anymore. I used to a lot, especially early on in my career, but now I think people just expect that I am so busy that I’m going to decline. So I’d say a couple times a year.

Have people told you they are too intimidated to cook for you? What do you say when people share that with you?

 

MJA:  That is pretty much the answer 95 percent of the time. I have one friend that is a private chef and whenever he is in town I get an invitation from him. I always tell people it is different as a chef to cook because you are doing it for a living. Having someone cook for me is only just part of the dining experience. I want social interaction, ambience and of course an alcoholic beverage. I am happy to have a hot dog as long as I can have a cocktail or a glass of wine. If people are intimidated, I hope it is because I have a good reputation as a chef.

 

DS: It happens quite often. Most times after we have begun eating the meal, and after you compliment the host for the meal, how good it is and so, and I would say it almost always good/really good too and cooked and seasoned very well. Sometimes I'm even surprised at a "civilian's" cooking prowess in a non-professional kitchen. I always feel kind of on the spot when they tell us they are intimidated by our cooking (me and my wife, Ilma Lopez).

 

KR:  All the time. I tell them that cooking for me is a lot easier than they think. I like simple things as long as they are homemade. A big green salad with cheeses, bread and wine could constitute a dinner for me. I always offer to help in the kitchen because I can help put a couple of items together and keep it simple, when people usually think that more is better. I understand that just the gesture of inviting me is so gracious and generous, so I want to get them over their preoccupation by just simplifying things.

 

DT:  That is very often the case.  A typical exchange would be like this:  the husband says, "You should come over for dinner . . . when I told my wife I invited you for dinner she asked if I was crazy, he’s a chef . . . I can’t cook for him . . .”  Then the conversation changes to talking about where do you like to go out for dinner.  I tell them I really am easy to please and not to worry, but I rarely end up getting the invitation. It feels awesome to be invited for dinner.  I joke with people that it’s so nice to have someone else cook and that if they were heating up spaghetti O’s, I would be just fine.

 

DL:  I do hear that, and I laugh it off and tell them how much I appreciate anyone cooking me anything. I'm a harsh judge in restaurants, but not at all in other contexts. I am, though, always more than willing to help and give guidance, both because people tend to appreciate it and because I want to eat foods that are properly cooked and seasoned.

 

NK:  People are always telling me that they are intimidated to cook for me, and it's understandable in a way. But I like to put them at ease by telling them that I like just about everything and eating a home cooked meal outside of a restaurant is like the perfect thing in the world. To go to someone’s house and eat a pot roast or a lasagna that they made and put care into is a very enjoyable experience.

Have people asked you to come over and cook in their kitchens? What is it like for you?

 

MJA:  I have done a few private parties in clients homes and it’s amazing the various degrees you find a kitchen outfitted. Some people have a professional kitchen in their homes and never use it while others who are in high level jobs don’t even have a sheet pan in the cupboard. It’s definitely a challenge since you don’t even know how well their oven works. That’s what makes a great chef, being able to adapt to anything and turn out a wonderful meal.


DS: Yes, it's usually fun, because sometimes it is a food purveyor and they have a lot of great or cool ingredients and want to see what you would do with them in their kitchens. Honestly, doing the Kennebunkport Festival where you cook in a stranger's house is very similar to this as well; cooking in an unfamiliar environment, but it's always fun!

 

KR: Yes, in that case I offer to bring the groceries. That way I can buy quality ingredients and use the opportunity to illustrate how to cook delicious food with very few ingredients. We visit friends on the Eastern Shore of Virginia for a week every year, and we always bring a dinner to cook there and treat our hosts.

 

DT:  So that has happened a couple of times and it’s been fun. I have a friend who cooked his way through law school; he’s very knowledgeable about food and just loves cooking. We did a dinner in his home a while back and we cooked together and it was like a play date for grown ups ... with wine! He’s got an amazing kitchen, too.

 

DL: I don't remember ever being asked to cook as a favor. I have been hired to do private dinners. I would not appreciate being expected to cook for free on my extremely limited off time, just as I don't much like being expected to do anything other than be a decent person. I'm almost always quick to volunteer, though. Every now and then I make the conscious decision not to, which takes more effort up front.

 

NK:  I get asked to cook meals for people at their homes for holiday parties, get-togethers, super bowls you name it. It’s a good feeling because going into someone’s home is a lot different than cooking for them at a restaurant — it’s more intimate and it means they really trust you and put you on a different level of respect. To be asked to come to someone’s home and cook a meal is a pretty big honor as a chef.


Have you been to someone's house where you walked in and they just expected you to cook? Can you describe what that was like?

 

MJA:  Yes, I remember one time I was invited to someone's home with my husband along with two other couples. When I arrived they were all standing around with a chef's apron on and the ingredients laid out, waiting for instructions. I was under the assumption that I was going to be dining in their home, not providing a cooking lesson. I think that people feel if you cook for a living you must love it and are on 24/7. I do love to cook, but it is nice treat to have someone else head up the kitchen once in awhile.


DS:  Very funny, yes, but it was business. Years ago when I worked For Daniel Boulud, he has a Catering company called Feast & Fete. During the winter holidays they are extremely busy and have a lot of parties that the "core" catering team cannot cook on site for. Well one year for Christmas Eve dinner I headed up a party on the Upper West Side in a huge loft apartment, but it was just myself and it was explained that the host had all the food and their family (Italian), was bringing some fish dishes; feast of seven fishes. It was a 25-person party, but all I had to do was plate up food.


Once, I arrived at a house and was waiting for the host and she came in with bags upon bags of groceries and then a prep list!  I had three hours to prep out five courses of food. I got it all done, when the guest count rose to almost 40 people  the host sent me a neighbor who was attending to "help" me plate the food. We did it all, kind of ribbing each other during plating of the food and all in good fun. It was a little hectic, but it all looked good and guests were super happy. Afterwards I found out his name was Desmond, as in Desmond Child the songwriter/producer. So it was a kinda cool Christmas Eve.

 

KR:  Luckily, that has never happened to me. Only when I was hired to cook or teach a class.

 

DT:  Never exactly that, but more often something like, “Can you fix this sauce, I was trying to make hollandaise” or “I don’t know how to cut up this turkey or carve this roast.”  

 

DL:  No, I've never experienced that. I would probably excuse myself in pretty short order.

 

NK:  Now here is where things get tricky. There are times I go places and I know I’m going to end up cooking. Now if it’s a summer day and they have a really good grill, I have no issue with it. I normally don’t have an issue anyway because I love cooking for people and seeing their reaction. But the problem with me is that I cannot cook a simple meal, especially if it’s for other people.

Is there anything else you’d care to share?

MJA: I would think you should feel flattered if a chef wants to come to your home. It means they enjoy your company, and isn’t food all about sitting down at a table together laughing and enjoying the moment? Make something that is simple and that you have prepared before. Go ahead, send that invitation to your favorite chef and don’t be surprised when you get a quick “yes” response.


DT: I have joked that me going to dinner is like that scene in the film “Coming To America”  when Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall get invited to the boss's house for a party. When they get there they figure out the invitation is to valet the guests cars. For chefs, it more like you get invited to someone's house for dinner and then you realize that what they really meant was that they are asking to hire you to cook dinner for 12 for their spouse's birthday (which I am totally into). It’s also pretty fun because the people who invite you to cook in their homes are generally pretty well healed and have some scrappy little three or four million dollar waterfront mansion.  It’s pretty fun to play house in their incredible kitchens.   

 

NK:  So here's my public service to people if you are cooking for a group of people and there happens to be a chef in the crowd: do not be intimidated by it, embrace it. We as chefs want people to cook for us every once in awhile and we will probably be the ones who enjoy it the most out of anyone in the crowd.

I’ve already started a list of chefs I’d like to invite for dinner; perhaps you might consider doing the same.

Making a Canadian connection: A fruitfull journey to meet with neighbors to our north proves fruitful and rewarding

I have had the good fortune to visit Canada many, many times. It’s a country with contradictions and contrasts that would be far too numerous to lay out for this piece. Most of these contrasts have to do with our cultural differences — differences to be celebrated. I love that you can cross the border in just a few hours and discover a whole new land; a land vastly different from our own. Road signs, gas stations, culinary delights, and the people.

 

Quebec is French. The geography resembles France, the natives speak French and the food is French. Fortunately, a wonderful friendship exists between our two countries. The border reminds you that you are leaving home and entering a place where the culture is richly unique. I realize as I write this, that not all individuals share my enthusiasm about differences. Some prefer the familiar, finding comfort in a world of sameness. I crossed the Canadian border north of Jackman, Maine this week with a group of seven other individuals; we were seeking something different and new.. The group was from Somerset County; the purpose of the trip was to create opportunities to celebrate both the beauty and bounty of Maine and the wonder of Quebec. The group traveled to Canada by way of the Old Canada Road.

 

The Old Canada Road Scenic Byway takes you to the Canadian border. The road begins in Solon, Maine, Somerset County, and extends nearly 78 miles to the border. Along the way we saw some small towns, restaurants, and beautiful stretches of nature. There are moose crossing warning signs almost the entire distance from Maine to Quebec. Although we were hoping to see one or more of these beautiful animals, we were also aware of the danger they represent. As we traveled north I wondered how many Mainers have never been north of Bar Harbor. Several of those in my carpool have traveled the Old Canada Road and they were giddy with excitement about the possibilities that lie ahead.

 

They included Amber Lambke, president of the Somerset Grist Mill, LLC; Mary Burr, owner of Blue Ribbon Farm; Jon Kimball, chair of Somerset Cultural Planning Committee and resident producer for SenovvA, Inc.; Pam and Jeff Powers, owners of Bigelow Brewery in Skowhegan; and David James, a retired marketing director and fundraiser for nonprofit groups. Each of these individuals has a personal stake in identifying touring opportunities between Quebec and Maine that celebrate the North American francophone heritage and its influence in Maine, especially as it is reflected in food, music, industry and the history of our two communities. I was there to document this important exchange.

 

Three days offered little time for discovery; however, we were pleased to begin the process. Significant players on the Canadian side were thrilled to meet with us and welcomed us with warmth and sincerity. Our agenda was forwarded several weeks before our arrival. It was clear to us that our Canadian friends were prepared and open to a discussion of what the future might hold. The first stop was on Monday, Sept. 12, at St. Méthode, a large production bread boulangerie in Adstock. They provided a detailed presentation and gave us an extensive tour of their facilities. Our second stop on Tuesday was to be a quick breakfast with Yves Simard, owner of Paillard, a café and boulangerie in Quebec City. Four hours later we had learned a great deal about their business and toured their baking facility outside of town. The owners were so pleased to have us visit, they even made us dinner reservations. This was pretty much the kind of hospitality we enjoyed for the entire trip. We visited several breweries in the Quebec province; La Barberie and Frampton Brasse were two of the standout stops — both excited about the idea of a joint brewfest or an event like it.  Our last bakery was La Boîte à Pain, an impressive artisanal boulangerie with four shops in Quebec. We were once again wowed by the high level of interest in collaborating. There were several other visits; however, it is my intention to highlight a few.

 

The takeaway is simple and clear:  Canadian businesses are anxious to work with U.S. businesses to create tourism opportunities. Showing off the best of both countries would not only benefit Mainers, out-of-state tourists, and Canadians, but it can also be the start of multicultural events that would keep dollars local on both sides of the border.

How it feels to have eaten in the Number One restaurant in the world

In retrospect, I wish I had known Osteria Francescana was to become the number one restaurant in the world; I would have savored every bite.

A few years ago I had one of those jobs where wining and dining clients and being wined and dined was the norm. It seemed as if eating at the so called “50 best” restaurants in the world was a standard by which you were judged, www.theworlds50best.com. And eating at these restaurants wasn’t enough, you had to have spent time with the chef to have true bragging rights. Looking back on this time in my life does not conjure up fanciful memories, in fact, quite the contrary — it all seemed pretentious and over the top. Dining at that level is unlike any other experience.

You may not know this, but high end restaurants do research on their diners. In some cases, there is actually a person whose job it is to review the reservation list and check to see if there are individuals on that list who need special attention. It’s not just about wealth; it has more to do with influence, hence the proverb: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” A guest with influence can help make a restaurant successful; help get them that additional Michelin star. This is an oversimplification; however, I’m hoping it gives you a glimpse into this elite dining world. Not too long ago, I was considered an individual with influence.

Up until two years ago I was an executive at a well known cooking school in New York City. We had an affiliation with an excellent cooking school in Parma, and the head of the school had major culinary connections throughout Italy. This man’s name is Riccardo. He played a major role in the success of Barilla pasta and now runs a successful cooking school in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. We were collaborating on a project which meant visiting Riccardo several times a year. I can’t complain, going to Parma meant eating well and spending time in one of the most beautiful places in the world. I never questioned Riccardo’s dining choices. In addition to knowing a lot about food, he was intelligent; always well dressed, always up on American politics, and never at a loss for impossible-to-get reservations. When Riccardo informed me that we were going out for a meal, I knew it would be on one of those famous “best” lists.

We filed into Riccardo’s Mercedes and headed to Modena. Without a word about our plans for the afternoon, we sat down in the dining room of Osteria Francescana for a pre-service meeting with the chef. I can’t tell you how high up Osteria Francescana was ranked then, but I can tell you that it is currently ranked #1 in the world. Chef Bottura was very gracious and extremely serious. His English was perfect and he jumped right into a conversation about the status of student interns in his kitchen. He compared American students to students from other countries including Korea, Canada and Australia; I sadly recall my students were not portrayed favorably. I believe he used the words unfocused and entitled. Yet still, he was hopeful about the future. Unlike some of the other Italian chefs I worked with, Chef Bottura was willing to spend time with American interns from our school. I appreciated his professionalism, his insight and his patience. He sympathized with other chefs in Italy, but made it clear that it was a chef’s duty to mentor students. And then  Chef Buttora’s invited us to eat.

We sat down in an elegantly appointed dining room. I recall minimal distractions; it was all about the food. Service was impeccable — not invasive or fussy. It was a few years ago and I would not be telling the truth if I named the menu items I was served. I do remember feeling that I was being treated to something very special. The food was simple and the ingredients fresh. There were some deconstructed dishes; however, they were easily identifiable and they made sense. My palate has always been somewhat unsophisticated, but I know what I like.

For the record, I no longer work for a company with an expense account. I prefer to eat out when I feel like eating out and I don’t mind paying my own way. As for Osteria Francescana, I’m not sure which is a more vivid memory, Chef Buttora’s exceptional dishes or Riccardo going the wrong way down a one way street in downtown Modena. One thing is for certain, both experiences were thrilling.

Midsummer Guide: Where to eat when the tourists are here and why you cannot always make a reservation

I am not ashamed to fess-up to eating out a lot. When I think about the work that goes into making a good meal, I am grateful to all of the chefs in our area who are using fresh ingredients and cooking affordable food. Many of my favorite places are in areas tourists visit this time of year. When I think about where to dine, I find myself considering alternatives to places I know tourists love to visit; however, lately I’ve been wondering if that might be the wrong mindset.

 

Portland is fairly well known for having excellent restaurants. Several of them have earned high praise and well deserved nominations and awards. Then there are countless others that deserve more attention, but for whatever reason they remain obscure and rarely mentioned. As a diner, I believe it’s in my responsibility to support the excellent restaurants in my city. The more successful these restaurants are, the better off the rest of us will be. Think about it; when people come from outside of our area to eat, they are contributing to our local economy and providing employment opportunities to our residents.

 

Chelsea Cook, Portland contributing editor to Eat Drink Lucky, a daily that offers food drink and lifestyle news in three short tips, had this to say about those who work so hard to feed us in Portland: “Restaurant work is high-stress year round, period. My thoughts are clouded by the way my heart goes out to the people that have put this city on the map as a foodie mecca and craft beer paradise. During peak tourist season, food trucks are my favorites. They're local, they're tasty and their locations are unpredictable. I check online to see where they're parking next and head in that direction.”

 

Richard Rothlisberger, a retired school teacher living in Falmouth, had this to say about dining out this time of year: “We find that we avoid the restaurants that have big name recognition during the summer months, due to difficulty getting a reservation and the overall quality of the experience. Instead, we find ourselves exploring neighborhood 'gems,' smaller restaurants on the outer extremes of the peninsula that seem to maintain a local clientele. We value the influx of tourists, and what they bring to our economy ... but don't necessarily choose to dine with them!”

 

And then, of course, there is the issue of reservations; in the not-so-distant past, I was frustrated with restaurants who did not take reservations. Today, I believe I have a better understanding of the reasoning behind it. First and foremost, I think that many people today do not think twice about not showing up when they do have a reservation. It’s inconsiderate and creates a problem for the restaurant. How long can or should you hold a table? How much revenue is lost when a table sits empty? Is it fair to walk-ins waiting for a table? Is it appropriate to take a credit card number to hold a table? It’s no wonder many restaurants who do take reservations keep a number of tables open for walk-ins. By not taking reservations and operating at a first come, first serve basis, you are being more fair to everyone. If the food is that good, it’s worth waiting for. I like the restaurants who are willing to text you when your table is ready and hold it for ten minutes while you make your way back there. Restaurants cannot possibly please everyone, but why not try to please as many customers as you can. Accepting reservations for large parties makes sense as well; however, there should be and sometimes is, a deposit for holding the table.

 

If you truly love a restaurant, why not make your way there year round. If you assume tourists have taken over your favorite dining spot, you may be wrong in that assumption. When I managed a restaurant in New York, I was often miffed by the unpredictability of business — there were days when we expected to be slammed and yet we were quiet and then days when we thought no one would walk through the door and we’d have a line out the door. If there was a formula, more restaurants would be filled from opening to closing. Why deny yourself the pleasure of good food whatever time of year it happens to be. Food trucks, seaside bistros, corner cafés with outdoor seating; whatever you fancy, they are all right here for our dining pleasure.

The Well at Jordan’s Farm: You cannot experience this at home

When I talk to Portland friends about dining out, they sometimes tell me that they do not feel the need to spend money at restaurants, when they can just as well dine at home. My argument is that there are dining experiences which could never be replicated in your home. For example, this week a friend and I ate at the chef’s counter at The Well at Jordan’s Farm.

What I am about to share with you about that night is true, only the last names have been withheld to protect the unique and wonderful people in my story. It started when my friend MaryBeth and I got out of the car at the farm; we were both giddy and ravenous with anticipation.  Armed with a red and a white — you can bring your own; we skipped toward the vegetable garden and gazebos. Halfway there I hear, “Oh @&%#!” I turned to discover why MaryBeth was in despair and learned that she had forgotten her cash and wallet at home — The Well is a cash-only restaurant. I told her not to worry and that I had brought plenty of cash. When I counted the bills in my pocket, a feeling of panic came over me. I thought I would only have enough to cover two partial dinners. MaryBeth offered to drive back to her house in Falmouth and I told her that I thought that was crazy and that we’d make do with the cash we had on hand. She actually offered up a dollar at this point; a gesture, that had I’d been in a different mood, might have ended the evening.

When we arrived at the host stand, Emily sensed something was wrong and asked us if everything was okay. When we told her about the bind we were in, she quickly pulled out a menu and her calculator. She said, “Review the menu and tell me what you’ll be ordering.”

It was obvious that we were going to fall short of the cash we needed. Emily told us that if it were not for her broken toe (I think I have this right), she’d be waiting tables that night; I guess Emily’s bad luck was our good fortune. She shared that she had a stash of some cash and that she’d be happy to loan us what we needed. MaryBeth and I blushed and praised Emily as she ushered us to the Chef’s counter. The chef and owner of the Well, Jason Williams and his staff greeted us with no knowledge of what had just transpired.

The night was cool, an outdoor fire was roaring, and vegetables quietly grew all around us. Our waitperson came over and asked us if we needed a corkscrew. This is a change from last year when you ordered and paid at the counter when you arrived. We did not need a corkscrew; however, we did ask for wine glasses. She left us and returned with two beautifully boxed and “The Well” etched wine glasses. Again, we expressed our thanks and quickly decided we couldn’t afford $6 glasses on our meager budget. At exactly this moment of our sad realization, Emily appeared with a substantial loan. I’ve been eating out for many years and I have never had this happen. MaryBeth and I thanked her 43 times and kept the wine glasses.

While all this was happening, two new diners joined us at the Chef’s counter. I was one person removed from them and had not spoken to them. MaryBeth, on the other hand, was already exchanging cell phone numbers. I filled our glasses with wine and sensed some frustration from MaryBeth’s new friends. Apparently George was attempting to open a twist top wine bottle with a corkscrew. If this were the only gaffaw of the evening it would not have been very funny; however, this slapstick moment combined with the others, was a regular comedy of errors and at this point, my stomach was both aching from laughter and growling with hunger pangs.

Although the good natured humor and unexpected kindness added to the evening, it really was about the food. Chef Jason is a brilliant farm-to-fork chef. He takes simple fresh ingredients to new heights of pleasure. His butter poached lobster with English peas literally melted in my mouth. The chicken jus on my wood fire roasted chicken was silky and smoky and made every frustrating thought of an insane week, fade away. It was the powdered donut over fresh strawberries with a dollop of whipped cream, that stole me away to a place I return to whenever the taste in my mouth reminds me that summer in Maine is heaven on earth.

The check came and I was quickly returned to reality. Alas, I had enough cash to cover the check and we returned the generous, albeit, temporary loan to Emily. So many memories we would never have had, had we dined at home.

Hopefully, The Velveteen Habit is how the world thinks of Maine’s culinary scene

For those who make dining out an experience and don’t mind driving a few miles to get there.

The Velveteen Habit in Ogunquit is housed in a farmhouse built in 1765. The restaurant sits on four acres of land, where you’ll find 300 year old heirloom apple trees and a very extensive organic garden a garden any chef would love to have outside their kitchen. It is this kind of New England authenticity and the terroir that attracted Benjamin Goldman and his wife Cristine to the property.

As most people know, owning a restaurant is a huge risk financially and usually means a tremendous time commitment. I asked Ben what motivated him to purchase this property. “We wanted to create something where we could make a real splash something where we could make an impact and a true experience for people. The farmhouse is so New England authentic  when I bought the property in the fall of 2014, I took the structure back to floors and walls and built everything for The Velveteen Habit; new paint, light fixtures, a brand new bar speakeasy-style wall full of copper and mahogany, new banquettes for seats, antique mirror walls, Brooklyn style factory windows, tables, and chairs.”

Ben and Cristine encourage their guests to arrive early so that they can explore the property. They would like for guests to see what the growers are growing, check out the chickens in the coop they’d like for them to see, smell and touch everything. Guests can then meander indoors to select a special wine from an extensive list compiled by Ben himself.

Ben completed the sommelier course at the International Culinary Center in New York City. Truth be known, few restaurant owners study wine as extensively as Ben has. I asked Ben if he expected ownership of a restaurant to follow the taking of his sommelier exams. He assured me that he never expected wine to be more than a hobby; it was his love of restaurants and hospitality that drew him to restaurant ownership. Ben is proud of his comprehensive and eclectic wine list. He’s been very thoughtful about the customer he is serving and the food the wine is paired with. Staff training on wine is Ben’s job and he’s serious about getting it right. I could not help but wonder if one more restaurant with a good wine list is what Maine needs.

Ben feels strongly about the absence of cutting edge restaurants in his area, growing food on site and showing local products - he believes his restaurant accomplishes a high level of sophistication with a metropolitan flair. “We are 35 minutes from Portland and 90 minutes from Boston.  And we sit directly between two hubs of great food from great restaurants; Portland and Portsmouth. We feel we can fill a void for folks who don't want to drive to a city or deal with parking.”

Ben interviewed 16 chefs while in the middle of the buildout. He decided on Chris Wilcox because he felt that Chris understood farm-to-fork cuisine as well as he understood the palate of an educated diner. The menu is completely collaborative; both he and Chris are curious about food in general and they both like to push the envelope as far as they can. Ben provides Chris a great deal of freedom and has been very pleased with the food that ends up on the plate.

The menu is a combination of what is tried and true, seasonal and also includes dishes you may not have tried before. An extensive charcuterie program and cheese selection will not disappoint. And if you’re a local, you’re in luck; Ben and Cristine keep a few tables aside for guests living in the area. They maintain a strong relationship with local inns and B&Bs and Ben and Cristine have made it their business to participate in charity auctions, museum fundraisers, and the Kennebunk Food Festival to name a few.

I attended theirsecond annual Memorial Day Pig Roast. Last year 150 people attended the Roast and this year more than 200. This was a casual event which took place outside the restaurant. It felt like a neighborhood block party lots of good food and beer or wine. Ben and Cristine are pleased to take advantage of Maine’s mild spring and summer weather and they cannot resist throwing a delicious party.

I asked Ben what we can all expect from the Velveteen Habit in the future:

“Everything we do now but edgier, more inventive and more pronounced. As our following grows and our staff gets stronger, it will allow us to focus on being more creative in all ways menu, cocktails, drinks, food, events, etc.” I for one am looking forward to treating myself to a Velveteen experience again and again.

A rare find in the world of chefdom

I have been working with and around chefs for most of my adult life and I can say with confidence that Bo Byrne is not your average chef.

Bo Byrne was born Robert Warren Byrne III in New Jersey in 1984. He learned his name was actually Robert on his first day of  school at the age of 6. Bo had boarded the school bus and when the driver called out the names of the children on the bus, Bo did not respond. The driver told him he was on the wrong bus and that he should get off the bus. Bo’s mother reboarded the bus with Bo and asked the driver to call out “Bo Byrne,” Bo said “Here.” Bo’s mother set the driver straight and that’s how he learned his true name. Bo’s father and grandfather are both Roberts, hence his given name. To everyone he knows, Bo will always be Bo. Bo’s family moved to Falmouth, Maine in his sophomore year of high school.

Bo knew what he wanted early on. He enjoyed being in the kitchen with his mom. She wanted him to further test his culinary aspirations and purchased him a cooking class when he was in the seventh grade. Bo knew he had found his career path and applied for Southern Maine Technical College (SMTC; now SMCC) and Johnson & Wales during his last year in high school. He chose to attend SMTC because he didn’t think he was that great a student and he didn’t want to pay the extra tuition for a four-year college. Most aspiring chefs care little about getting a degree.

After only one month at SMTC, Bo heard about an opening at David’s in Portland. With years of practice and minimal formal training, he applied for the job. Bo spent a couple of days trailing on the line and was offered a position. (Trailing is a term used in the restaurant business; it’s way to interview cooks in the kitchen, during service; a chef will usually be able to determine an applicant’s skills fairly quickly.)

Bo’s first job was at the oven station. There he was responsible for fish, pork, pizza and David’s signature homemade garlic knots. He caught on quickly, enjoyed the work and developed a mentor/mentee relationship with chef/owner David Turin; he learned a great deal from his mentor. This relationship between a chef and a young mentee is uncommon in the restaurant world. Chefs are often too busy to spend extra time with their cooks and more often than not, young cooks are expected to fend for themselves.

Turin gave Chef Bo his big break when he graduated from SMTC. Bo was only 20 years old and was named sous chef at David’s Monument Square. His second break came not long after when he was given the opportunity to become chef de cuisine at David’s 388 in South Portland. In 2012, Turin opened Opus 10 at Monument Square. Turin asked Bo to be his chef de cuisine at Opus Ten — this was Bo’s third big break and he was still with Turin. I asked Bo why he stayed with Turin for over 13 years.

“There was so much to learn; I was never able to see it all, read it all, and I was always hungry for more.”

In 2015 Bo took a vacation to North Carolina for 10 days. When he returned, he was informed that Opus Ten was closing in four days. Determined not to let grass grow under his feet, Bo hit the pavement and dropped his resume off at 19 restaurants. There were all sorts of rumors about why Bo was parting ways with Turin, but Bo chose to be honest with his potential employers — he told those he met with the truth: there was no longer a place for him at Turin’s restaurants. Surprisingly, even though there were very few openings, 15 of the 19 restaurants called Bo back. His offers ranged from part-time line cook to full-time salaried chef positions.

Bo chose to take a position at TIQA. He liked what owner Deen Haleem had to say and the two hit it off. Bo took over as head chef Feb. 1. Deen worked in a corporate environment prior to purchasing the space for TIQA. He calls Bo’s kitchen Bo Inc. Bo gets to call the shots; he created his team and makes most of the decisions.

Bo tells me that if your goal is to make money, you're on the wrong side in the kitchen. Kitchen staff work long hours, it’s often extremely hot, and they have little time to try new restaurants. On Bo’s days off he’s cutting grass, doing laundry and playing football. Bo’s goal is consistency; make the guests happy and leave them with the desire to return.

TIQA’s guests will get to try something new soon enough. TIQA owners Deen Haleem and Carol Mitchell won the bid to open an eatery in the castle in Deering Oaks Park sometime in June. TIQA Cafe will have pastries, salads, sandwiches, beer and wine, Coffee by Design espresso and cappuccino, bocce ball, cornhole and outdoor seating. The plan is to be open from dawn to dusk. Great for the city and yet another opportunity for Chef Bo.

Please seat yourself: Restaurants can alienate diners by lacking the hosting quality

 

What’s happened to courteous service at your neighborhood dining spot?

I’m an old fashioned guy. I like good service when I eat out. I like when a host walks up to you when you walk in the door. I like being asked where I’d like to sit, and I like being walked over to my table. This is what I like and it’s hard to find these days. Too often, I walk into a restaurant and there is a sign that states, “Seat Yourself.” You choose a seat and wait. Sometimes someone comes over to say, “Someone will be right with you,” but that’s the exception, not the rule.

I’ve been eating out for a long time and I’ve noticed in many restaurants, a host is a position of the past. If the waitstaff person is running around serving people, he or she may not have the time to welcome you. There are times when I feel invisible and too often, I’m hoping to be noticed. And it’s not just a problem when I walk in.

I dine out for different reasons: I don't feel like cooking, I want to try a new restaurant, I’m returning for a dish I liked, or I want to be served because I worked hard that day and I feel I’ve earned it. And I should add that I don’t mind paying for the service. I recently went to a new restaurant in the Old Port where I was warned that the service was not up to par. The waitstaff person introduced herself and told us that she would not be the only person serving us. She said that she was tag teaming with another server and that this person would soon be over to introduce themselves. I’ve experienced different servers coming to the table; however, this tag team concept was a first for me. I admittedly liked it. The other server brought over our cocktails and introduced herself. She said that if we needed anything, we should not hesitate to ask her for it. Much better than the more recent response when asking for help, “Um, I’m not your server, but I’ll see if I can find him.”

The other annoyance lately is the absence of attention to detail. I ask for lemon in my tea and the tea comes to the table without lemon. I actually feel quilty when I ask again. When the food comes to the table at different times rather than everyone getting their course at the same time, well this sends me over the edge. I never feel comfortable starting to eat until everyone at the table has been served. Is that not proper etiquette? Restaurants serving the food whenever it happens to be cooked are missing the mark. Good expediting is essential and it is a practice at most successful restaurants. The exception is tapas where dishes are meant to be shared.

If you don’t intend to share your food, you might want to mention that to your server. These customer comments are common; communication is key and worth the effort. A friend of mine in Portland recent noted that it’s rare to find a restaurant where the server knows who ordered what. This practice dates back centuries and makes a difference to diners. Don’t put chicken in front of me when I ordered fish. And if I ordered the fish, I prefer the server didn’t stand there asking, “Who ordered the fish?” Their tone often implies that my choice was a mistake I might live to regret. Note where I am sitting when I place my order; it's not rocket science and it is what most of us have come to expect. What about expectations?

There has been recent news of several restaurateurs outside of Maine automatically adding the gratuity to the check. Danny Meyers is leading the way with this unpopular initiative. This isn’t a new concept; however, it is new for the United States. Unlike Europeans, Americans prefer to reward good service.

"Servers work in the U.S. with the expectation to be tipped -- it's a social contract," says Cornell professor Michael Lynn, a specialist in consumer psychology and the socioeconomic impacts of tipping. "To come here and accept the service of these people, visitors are implicitly accepting those terms. To tip in a manner consistent with our norms (CNN Travel, Jordan Rane, March 6, 2015)."

When I have a server who is friendly and attentive, I reward that person with a minimum of twenty percent gratuity. It seems to me that if they go above and beyond to make my dining experience enjoyable, they deserve to be rewarded for it.

We’ve all been to restaurants where the staff knew the specials, looked us in the eyes, paid attention to our water glass, made sure we had the utensils we needed, and stopped by the table to make sure we had everything we needed. It feels good to be taken care of and it makes us want to return. And when you return again and again, it’s especially nice to have someone say, “Welcome back!” Expecting a “Welcome back Mr. Papagni,”  might be too much to ask, but I can dream can’t I?

 

Tide Mill trend: When buying local means healthier food and encouraging a lifestyle

Carly and Aaron DelSignore Bell are organic farmers and fortunately for us, their children may become farmers as well. The Bell family has been operating Tide Mill Farm on the shores of Cobscook Bay since 1765. Carly and Aaron’s children are the ninth generation of children to grow up on Tide Mill Farm. Today, three generations of the Bell family are living and working on the farm. Not every Maine family can boast an American story that goes back that far. Tide Mill is practicing certified organic and sustainable farming; where much thought is given to the animal’s care and well being. The children help their parents by settling in the baby chicks when they arrive; baby chicks are kept in a brooder for the first two or three weeks of their lives. There they are free from drafts and kept at a warm 80 to 90 degrees -- a fairly nurturing start.

 

Carly met her husband Aaron at the University of Maine at Orono in September of 1996. They were  both studying ecology, sustainable agriculture and philosophy. Their plan was to eventually move to Aaron’s family farm and start a farming business of their own. By 2000 Carly was pregnant with their first child and they were both ready for the move. Carly shared with me what it was like for them when they started out.

 

We were very naïve about how hard it would be and we had to learn to be flexible and creative about moving forward and metamorphosize to make it work. In 2000, we were growing 2 acres of mixed vegetables and attending five farmer’s markets a week; signing up CSA members and . starting our farmstand.  We had to introduce ourselves and share what we had to offer as local, organic farmers. There was also almost no infrastructure to support diversified organic farms in our area.“

 

That wasn’t always the case. Prior to the collapse of the Maine farming industry in the early 80s, hundreds of farmers were making a decent living running small farms. The Bell’s found themselves in a situation where there were no grain mills, no processing facilities, no veterinary services, few farm suppliers and very few markets. In 2005 they applied to The Farms for Maine’s Future and were awarded a grant. Carly and Aaron did not have a business background or education. In order to run the business they researched workshops, classes and experts they could call upon. They enrolled in businesses classes from Washington Hancock Community Agency (WHCA) and spoke to business counselors from the Women’s Business Network, They tapped into other resources such as Farms for Maine’s Future, Fair Food Network and Slow Money Maine. MOFGA and a community of farmers and processors here in Maine, were an invaluable resource that has helped make it possible to raise, process and sell birds.  

 

Livestock farmers have experienced a severe shortage of facilities where animals can be harvested and processed and where meat can be legally sold. The federal government allows farmers to process poultry and rabbit at their farms as long as the farmers meet certain conditions. As long as Carly and Aaron committed to fewer than 20,000 birds, they could manage the investment. Consumers demand fresh meat and poultry was their only option. Today they also sell certified organic pork and beef, and certified organic pasture raised turkey, which is available late October through December. In addition, whole raw milk, and flavored milks including chocolate milk. They make their own chocolate syrup and maple milk.  

 

Poultry plays a critical financial role in their business, making-up 40 percent of their sales. It provides regular cash flow which is difficult to achieve as a small scale farmer. The Bell’s raise, harvest and process the birds as well as market and deliver them.  They are involved every step of the way to ensure accountability, quality and freshness. Teaching their children the value of a hands-on, holistic business operation and what it means to be organic.

 

In order to be certified organic, the birds have to be fed organic grains.   The pastures that the birds are raised on must be certified organic and free from chemicals; including herbicides, fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides.  The birds must have 1.5 square feet of space and the birds must be permitted to spend time outdoors. Tide Mill prides themselves on surpassing all regulations and further, “allow chickens to do what chickens were born to do.

 

”Care includes radiant heat on the floor of the hoophouse and pens that are moved to a fresh patch of grass daily,” says Carly.

 

Tide Mill chickens have no GMOs in their diet; they are not not fed caffeine and steroids; they do not have feeding tubes or have their beaks clipped.  They are not kept in cages or in overcrowded indoor spaces. I was shocked to learn that many non-organic chicken farmers soak their birds in chlorine; a practice I am certain these farmers prefer to keep quiet.

 

Carly and Aaron’s customers value quality and good health. They care about how animals are raised and how the farm is supporting other local farmers and the local food supply system. Up until now they have focused their business on local health food stores and specialty food stores; however, they are looking to sell to Maine restaurants who are invested in buying certified organic poultry to serve their customers. The restaurant account they are currently working with are longstanding loyal buyers.

 

Maine attracts entrepreneurs who are fighting to make a living in a difficult economy. Mainers care about the people who choose to call this state home. We tell each other that buying local helps to keep people employed and fed and we practice what we preach. Those of us living in Portland are removed from the farming community. We see Maine farmers selling their products at the farmer’s market; many of us invested in a food co-op so that we can support farmers and Maine food producers; and we sort through the aisles for local versus non-local food at Whole Foods. Restaurant staff sourcing food will always struggle over the question of cost versus quality. They wonder if diners will pay for food sourced from organic farmers. A bigger question is can we afford not to pay a little more for quality? Can we continue to support the mass producers who are mistreating animals and feeding them antibiotics and toxins? How much will we save down the road when we find ourselves with fewer medical expenses? And are these questions of ideology or is it all just common sense?

Rosemont Market and community: Special dinners nourish the soul

When we think about food, so many things come to mind; where our food comes from, when we should eat it, where we should eat it, and with whom we should eat it. Leave it to Rosemont Market to answer all of these questions for us.
John  Naylor, one of the two co-owners of Rosemont, makes it his business to think about the Maine community and how we eat. His commitment to the local farmer is unparalleled in our area. John has a personal relationship with each and every one of his purveyors. He spends a lot of time making sure that the food Rosemont sources is fresh, local and affordable. I once made the mistake of calling Rosemont a gourmet grocery store and John was within earshot. He shared that Rosemont is not so much about specialty foods as it is about food that is nourishing and can feed our community. He cares a great deal about a sense of place; the place where his family lives and the place where he and his partner does business. John’s business partner is Scott Anderson; they opened the first Rosemont together in 2005. Today there are five Rosemonts; four in Portland and one in Yarmouth.

The very first Rosemont, Rosemont Bakery, quietly sits on Brighton Avenue in the section of Portland called Rosemont. The neighborhood quickly embraced the concept of fresh bread baked daily and food you could buy close to home without breaking the bank. They outgrew their space and opened a Rosemont just a feet away from their first store. Their original space, now home to the Rosemont bakery and production kitchen, is warm, unpretentious and home to a series of weekly dinners. Chef Bryan Dame is fairly new to Rosemont. His style of cooking is straightforward and farm fresh, right in line with Rosemont’s concept. He uses local ingredients to cook dishes that comfort, please the palate and remind us of a time not so long ago: a time when we knew where our food came from and how it was prepared; a time when it was not so much about creating something complex, but more about creating something that was simply delicious. Chef Bryan’s food is full of flavors that remind us of eating at Grandma’s house or that tiny restaurant in the neighborhood you went to when you wanted something familiar, unpretentious and tasty.

Chef Bryan learned how to cook in several impressive kitchens:  Opus 251 in the Rittenhouse Square section of Philadelphia, The Edge in Lincolnville, Maine, and just prior to joining the team at Rosemont, The Well at Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth.

Chef Bryan is a Mainer. He attended St. Joseph’s College and dropped out to pursue his real passion in a restaurant kitchen. He thrives in the world of food and he is energized by the ever changing restaurant scene. It is this desire for change that led him to propose weekly dinners in the Rosemont Kitchen. The series is evolving, growing and was launched this January. The first Sunday of the month is a Bean Suppah, a family affair with communal tables, casseroles and music; the second Saturday of each month features a pizza night with six different kinds of hand-made pizza;  the third Saturday is Meet Your Maker night, where Rosemont invites a different farmer, brewer, cheesemaker, winemaker or other artisan; and finally the fourth Saturday is Cabin Fever, communal dining accompanied by live music — this fourth theme will change seasonally.  All four dinners take place at Rosemont Kitchen, used during the day by a full staff of bakers and cooks for the production of Rosemont’s prepared foods.

I had the pleasure of attending the Cabin Fever dinner Sunday, Feb. 28; Academy Awards night. I sat at a large square table with about 15 other diners. I had not met many of the people I ate with, but certainly got to know most of them before the night ended; and I got home in time for Chris Rock’s opening monologue for the Oscars.

The first course of the evening was a simple bowl of Paul Lorraine’s greens topped with a vinaigrette dressing. This Lyman producer also owns Funky Bow Brewery. The second course was a delicious bowl of broccoli and mushroom soup. I walked over to Chef Bryan and asked him what he called this soup, he replied, “broccoli and mushroom soup,” go figure. Next we were served a platter of meatballs in a red sauce, roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and broccolini with carrots. The evening ended with rosemary bread pudding with burnt honey topped with fresh whip cream — far more food than anticipated and each dish a welcome delight.

The theme of the evening was definitely all about community. Your relationship with the food, the farmers and producers, the chef, and one another. I felt the warmth when I entered to the sounds of Harper & Friends, a wonderful trio of bluegrass musicians. They actually do not call themselves Harper & Friends; they haven’t decided what to call themselves yet. This didn’t surprise me, either. I smelled the food on the stove, I saw people laughing and drinking wine and I was welcomed to my seat at the communal baker’s table — a table that could have been my neighbor's table or my family table. The takeaway with Rosemont Kitchen meals: Be prepared to feed your belly and nourish your soul.

 

  • Published in Food
Subscribe to this RSS feed