Christopher Papagni

Christopher Papagni

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

Three guys with a penchant for mushrooms

Lately we write about, feature and talk about entrepreneurs as if they’re growing on trees or falling from the sky. The numbers are skewed in Portland; in reality, this country is populated with a lot more people working for others. Starting a business is scary and risky, and few among us are predisposed to have a go at it. Eliah Thanhauser, Matt McInnis and Jon Carver are the exception. The three met in 2005 at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, freshmen and matriculating. McInnis shared, “We knew we wanted to start a business, but the reality of obstacles and the fear of losing what little money we had, made us think twice." The three, however, did not let fear get in their way; they started North Spore with very little capital and have allowed the business to grow slowly and thoughtfully.

These three young business partners fondly reflect on their college years. Their shared interest in foraging sent them into the woods; a respite from studying and a chance to do what they enjoyed most. The three graduated in 2009 and went their separate ways, never losing touch. Carver’s intense interest in mycology, a branch of biology dealing with fungi, led him to pursue and acquire a master’s in mycology at University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse. Soon after graduation, Carver accepted a position as a mycologist at Field and Forest Products, a company in Wisconsin — one of the nation’s leading mushroom spawn producers. Thanhauser and McInnis lived and worked in Berkeley, Calif., and returned to Maine in the spring of 2013. The three reunited in Maine and, in the summer of 2014, decided to start a mushroom cultivation, education and specialty business. McInnis was originally from Portland, Thanhauser from Belfast and Carver from Bennington, Vt.

If they’d had their druthers they would have preferred the business to be in Portland. They looked at commercial property in East Bayside and learned that they’d get twice as much space for a whole lot less in Westbrook. They occupied the space they are currently in nearly three months ago. Their operation looks out onto the Presumpscot River. Thanhauser is mesmerized by water and the changing levels of the river, an added bonus none of the three expected. How do the three of them spend their days at North Spore?

Thanhauser tells me with childlike enthusiasm, “I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong interest in organic farming. Even as a child I'd scheme up business ideas.”

North Spore is currently producing four species of mushrooms:  Oyster, Shiitake, Lion’s Mane and Chestnut. They plan on cultivating other varieties as their business expands. Ebb & Flow in Portland asked the three if they would grow micro greens for their restaurant. They are growing arugula, tatsoi, amaranth and mild micro greens, solely for Ebb & Flow; a part of their business they may or not grow in the future. In addition, the three are making birch tree bitters. The bitters are made with birch syrup, birch cambium and Chaga mushrooms. I was also surprised to learn that they are producing Chaga tea; Chaga is said to reduce the risk of cancer and strengthen the immune system. No doubt these products will soon fly off their shelves.

The majority of North Spore's production is done in reusable food-grade containers instead of single-use plastic bags. More labor intensive than typical methods, but allows for much less waste. North Spore was recently awarded a Maine Technology Institute grant to continue developing low waste mushroom cultivation methods. These thoughtful business practices set them apart from their competition.

There is one other year-round mushroom producer in Maine and one in New Hampshire; both have been in business longer than North Spore and had much more startup capital. The three partners’ goal in starting North Spore was not only to be a mushroom producer, but to also be a community resource, hosting lectures and classes on mushroom foraging and cultivation and encouraging others to delve into the mycological world.

The group reported, “We are committed to producing mushrooms in a beyond organic, truly sustainable way. We produce as little plastic waste as possible and are constantly innovating and raising the bar on industry standards in order to do so. Other mushroom companies seek to grow without limits and supply mushrooms to national markets. Our vision is to supply high quality sustainably grown mushrooms to local markets.”

The more I have discovered about mushrooms, the more I realized how much there is to learn. I suspect I am like most people who have never ventured further than the portobellos and shiitakes sold at my local supermarket. The guys sell to Rosemont, my corner market. I recently felt empowered to try a variety I had never tasted; the beauty of Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus) mushrooms caught my attention. I did a simple sauté with butter, cognac, sea salt and herbs de Provence. The taste and texture of these beautiful white mushrooms had me wondering why it has taken me so long to try them. They have a seafood like quality and nearly melt in your mouth. The Chinese have used Lion’s Mane mushrooms for medicinal purposes for centuries; its antioxidant effects, cancer-fighting agents and the reduction of blood glucose levels are just a few benefits.

Cultivated mushrooms can be purchased and enjoyed year round. North Spore’s busiest times are around the holidays and at the Common Ground Fair in Unity. Their Oyster Mushroom bucket kits are a huge seller — you can find these kits on the North Spore website,www.northspore.com, along with the chaga tea and other items. Thanhauser, McInnis and Carver share a story you have heard many times before. Running water and electricity in their first production space seemed like a gift. Their struggles have paid off. The three enjoy healthy banter, a slightly messy workspace, and make every attempt to keep their workweek to 40 hours. Their longstanding friendship has remained intact and their love of mushrooms has only gotten richer.

  • Published in Feast

Vinland’s firsts: A bounty of Maine winter foods

David Levi, executive chef and owner, Vinland Restaurant in Portland, does nothing in a small way. When Levi decided to open a restaurant in Portland, he did not just decide to source local product as much as possible, Levi had to go all local, as in 100 percent local ingredients in every dish, becoming the only restaurant in the world to do so. The beverages are as local as possible while still featuring natural wine, coffee and tea, but the unique cocktail program is based only on spirits distilled in the Northeast combined with ingredients that follow the kitchen rules, 100 percent local. So there’s no cane sugar or citrus. More like honey, maple sugar, sumac, cranberry and yogurt whey, along with dozens of local, mostly wild, botanicals. Might I add, it’s all good.

Naysayers have poo-pooed his concept. Some said it could not be done. Levi has proven these folks wrong time and again. He is now in his second successful year of business and it is only getting better and better. His innovative and creative menu and his outspoken character have been praised by many in the know.

Sarah Karnasiewicz of The Wall Street Journal said this about Levi, “ . . . though the parameters he's set for himself at Vinland are stringent — the menu is larded with wild foods like goose tongue (a wild plant) and Japanese knotweed but contains no citrus, olive oil or other ingredients Maine producers can't provide — he manages to avoid being overly cerebral.”

Many say that it would be impossible to use exclusively locally sourced foods this time of the year. I sat down with David to learn more about what he is purchasing from his purveyors these days and how he is incorporating these local foods into his menu.

When in season here in Maine, Levi purchases or forages wild mushrooms and then dries or preserves them in salt for off-season use; black trumpet and matsutake mushrooms can often be tasted in his dishes. He buys cultivated mushrooms from North Spore, right here in Westbrook, a company that has gained notice from chefs all over the States. Levi shares that wild food does not necessarily have to be considered challenging or inaccessible. His staple sugar is maple syrup, a wild food that is familiar and commonplace for Mainers.

Levi prepares many winter dishes using wild Maine seafood. He purchases Gulf of Maine dayboat scallops directly from fishermen for $15 per pound. A local purveyor would charge him $25 per pound, prohibitive for his price point. Levi’s $39 casual “Winter Monday” tasting menu is affordable and accessible. On Wednesdays, a diner can enjoy a jazz trio and 20 percent off of all menu items — putting to rest the perception that Vinland is strictly for special occasions.

Hake, skate, mussels, monkfish, lobster and oysters are found in the wild in Maine year-round. Many of Levi’s dishes are made with seaweed; nori, kombu, sugar kelp, Irish moss and dulse all have natural sea salt and are all sun-dried as a method of preservation. These seaweeds are harvested when the tides are at their lowest and then preserved for use throughout the year. These seaweeds offer a wide range of flavors. The Japanese are buying Maine seaweed because of its intense flavor, and as Levi would tell us, “Maine seaweed doesn’t glow in the dark.” Atlantic Holdfast Seaweed in Stonington is the primary company Levi purchases from.

As in the rest of the country, Mainers cannot purchase terrestrial wild meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not allow the sale of these meats because there is no way they can inspect the meat while the animal is alive. On the other hand, Mainers can purchase marine meat which has not been inspected — this double standard hurts many rural Mainers, who would sell a good deal of wild venison, game birds and some moose if they were permitted to do so. Levi has no desire to serve industrial chicken. He purchases chicken year-round from Serendipity Acres Farm in North Yarmouth. These chickens are certified organic and raised on a pasture. This is also where Levi’s sources the eggs he uses at the restaurant.

Blueberries and cranberries are used often in Levi’s dishes. These berries are all certified organic, like most of his ingredients; anything not certified is still grown organically. These matters are of great importance to Levi when he sources his food. He loves using Maine grown parsnip. I have personally tasted and fallen in love with his parsnip turmeric custard. The custard is a beautiful orange color due to the bright orange egg yolk and the local turmeric. The ginger powder in this dish adds a powerful flavoring and shows off Levi’s creativity.

Levi’s training at Noma in Copenhagen, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world, is one reason to take notice of his cuisine. Another is his love of Maine and his desire to educate us about the abundance of foods available to us year-round.

Chef Levi left me with this, “Maine’s bounty never runs out … 365 days a year, no lean time. Maine cuisine, as it continues to grow and evolve has no Achilles’ heel. It is potentially as great as any other world cuisine; Italian, French, Japanese — any great food place has its own inherent genius. When you go to Tuscany to eat Tuscan food, you know exactly what you’re eating. Showcasing Maine’s inspiring and delightful foods, and testing just how far we can push the boundaries, is what makes cooking in Maine so worthwhile. Maine cuisine is in its infancy, and there is no telling how far it can go.”

  • Published in Feast
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