OGUNQUIT – Three days after winning the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef in the Northeast, Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier sat down in their dining room at Arrows to talk about what it felt like to win, at last.
Outside, their famed gardens were greening up nicely for the growing season. Tulip beds provided a splash of color, and the wisteria over the doorway to the 18th-century post-and-beam farmhouse-turned-restaurant was in luscious bloom.
At a table covered in white linen, “the boys” (as many of their fans call them) cradled their medals attached to kelly green ribbons, and pondered where the prizes would be displayed. Most likely, the medals will end up in frames, they said, with one displayed here and one at MC Perkins Cove, their other Ogunquit restaurant.
When it was suggested that their diners would probably be very interested to see what a James Beard medal looks like, Gaier couldn’t help himself.
“I wanted to know what they look like,” he blurted out, and both men dissolved into laughter.
The James Beard awards are often referred to as the culinary equivalent of the Oscars. After going home without the coveted medal six years in a row, Gaier and Frasier have learned to have a sense of humor about the situation. There’s no doubt that they’ve always been considered deserving. Indeed, Maine’s food community seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief when it heard the news that the award was finally theirs.
“I’m definitely really happy that they won,” said Melissa Kelly, chef/owner of Primo in Rockland and the 1999 winner of Best Chef in the Northeast. “I always nominate them. I think they deserve it. They really are icons in the business.”
Kelly said Frasier and Gaier have been “ahead of the curve” ever since they opened Arrows just over 20 years ago. Yes, they planted a restaurant garden in 1992 when the concept was practically unheard of, but even the idea of Arrows was a gamble in the late 1980s — the act of “opening a great restaurant that’s not in a major city,” Kelly said.
“I’d say they were trendsetters there, because I think that took a lot of guts to do back then,” she said.
But with each loss at the James Beard awards ceremony at Lincoln Center, the Arrows chefs faced the prospect of becoming the culinary equivalent of Richard Burton, the iconic actor who was nominated for an Academy Award seven times but never won.
Last year, when it came time to make travel plans for New York, the chefs sort of threw up their hands and stayed home.
“Last year, we were kind of — not sour grapes, but I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m not going to go anymore,’ ” Gaier said. “Marc Vetri (a well-known Philadelphia chef), who had been nominated quite a few times, said, ‘You know, I stopped going and then I won.’ “
“So we didn’t go last year ” Frasier said.
“And we still didn’t win,” Gaier finished. “So this year, I thought, ‘You know what? I don’t really want to go.’ And Clark said, ‘I think we should.’ And then I kept hearing from different people, people in the business: ‘I think you should really go this year. I think you should go. I think it’s your year.’ “
So they decided to go, even if Gaier was feeling “a little uptight about it, because what if we don’t win again? I’m going to jump out the window of Lincoln Center.”
They were given two seats down front, at the end of an aisle, which was their first clue their luck was about to change. As they watched the nominees’ names flash on a giant screen in front of the 3,000 guests, their palms began to sweat and they thought their hearts would pound out of their chests. Then the winner was announced.
Or, this time, the winners.
The host said Frasier’s name first.
“I can’t even describe the moment,” Gaier said. “I was just so ecstatic and so happy, and wanted to just leap out of my seat.”
Just what is it about a James Beard award that excites chefs so?
For Frasier and Gaier, it’s validation from their peers of everything they have done at Arrows.
It’s recognition that, with no financing but their own credit cards, they were able to transform a rambling house in the Maine countryside into a destination restaurant that Gourmet magazine once named No. 14 on its list of the top 50 restaurants in the country. (The name Arrows comes from the old Indian shutters on the house that were used to deflect attacks.)
The award is also an acknowledgment that Maine has been quietly leading the farm-to-table movement for years.
“For Mark and myself, I always feel like nobody handed us anything,” Frasier said. ” ‘Oh, boys, here’s five million dollars, open a restaurant on Madison Avenue.’ It was definitely the hard way, every step of the road.”
They lived at Arrows for the first seven years, something they could never do now. The gardens (and now mini-farm) have quadrupled in size, there’s a greenhouse to care for, and there is staff on the premises seven days a week.
Arrows eventually begat two more restaurants. MC Perkins Cove, a more casual place with a stunning view of the Atlantic, opened in 2005. Summer Winter, located at the Marriott in Burlington, Mass., opened in 2007. The structure of Summer Winter allows a more hands-off approach, so the chefs visit it together about once a week.
The chefs are known to treat their staff like family, and many of their employees have been with them for years. Justin Walker, their executive chef, has been at Arrows for 11 years, and Frasier and Gaier are quick to give him a lot of credit for their success.
To keep things fresh, Gaier and Frasier travel every winter to pick up flavors, textures and techniques from other parts of the world that they can bring back to Ogunquit. Their many trips to Southeast Asia led them to plant lemongrass, Vietnamese coriander and shiso in their garden.
This year, they headed for the restaurants and markets of the Middle East. They spent six days in Turkey, then flew to Damascus (where they claim to have tasted the best ice cream they’ve ever had) and traveled all over Syria. Next came four days in Jordan, where they took cooking classes “just for fun.” Then it was off to Israel, where they spent a few days in Jerusalem.
After that came Italy, where they dined at the country’s best restaurant, San Domenico, a place they describe as happily frozen in time. “You know, Craig Claiborne went there in the 1970s and called it the best restaurant in the world, and it’s perfect. It’s really perfect,” Frasier said.
The chefs want to keep traveling, and have India, eastern Europe and Bhutan on their radar. They have a new cookbook coming out next spring, called simply “Maine Classics.”
And they are leaving themselves open to the idea of opening another restaurant, as long as they don’t stretch themselves too thin.
Gaier and Frasier were barely out of their seats at Lincoln Center when their cell phones started buzzing with congratulatory calls. The day after their win, Arrows received more than 200 phone calls for reservations, compared with the usual 20 to 30 per day the restaurant gets this time of year. Mother’s Day reservations doubled overnight.
Frasier found more than 100 e-mails from well-wishers in his mailbox, and Gaier found almost 200 between two e-mail accounts.
Ogunquit innkeepers, wine representatives and friends sent lots of flowers.
“People are so happy for us and are being so nice,” Gaier said. “It’s just amazing. I just got an e-mail from a friend in Thailand who used to work for us years ago. He lives there now and is in the hotel business. It’s incredible how things went around the world so quickly.”
The chefs have come to appreciate the timing of their win. The theme at this year’s James Beard awards ceremony was mentoring, and it just so happens that two of their own mentors were there.
Jeremiah Tower, for whom the Arrows chefs worked at Stars Restaurant in San Francisco, had not attended the awards in several years, but was there to watch his proteges pick up their medals. Also in attendance was chef Mark Franz of Farallon in San Francisco, another mentor from their time at Stars.
Gaier thanked both men in his acceptance speech.
“It felt really appropriate that we won this year because they were both there,” Gaier said, “and they were two of our most influential, inspirational chefs that we know. And so I can’t think of a better year to win. I felt so proud, and I felt like we made them proud.
“That was worth waiting seven years.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]