When Bar Lola’s chef, Guy Hernandez, has a taste for cheese, he turns to his favorite: Autumn Oak, a raw sheep’s milk cheese from Willow Hill Farm in Vermont.
Chef Abby Harmon is from Cutler, where her mom packed sardines and Harmon grew up eating them. That’s the back story to the Sicilian Sardine Pasta she serves at Caiola’s.
Chef Rob Evans’ favorite midnight snack, when he’s not cooking at Hugo’s, is Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Ice Cream.
These are just some of the morsels of information you’ll learn about your favorite Maine chefs in the new book “Fresh From Maine: Recipes and Stories from the State’s Best Chefs” (Table Arts Media, $25).
In this homegrown look at Maine chefs and restaurants by Brunswick-based food writer Michael Sanders, chefs talk about their philosophy of food and share tidbits about their private lives. The book is illustrated with sumptuous photographs by Portland food photographer Russell French.
Twenty chefs from Kittery to Mount Desert Island participated in the project. The thread tying them all together is a respect for ingredients and their commitment to serving local, sustainable foods.
“In so many of these restaurants you can go in October and sit down and have a meal, and you’ll see one of the farmers who’s grown something for that restaurant at the next table,” Sanders said. “I don’t think that happens too much in Boston, I really don’t. This is something about Maine.”
It’s the same kind of community connection to fresh, local ingredients that allows Sanders’ hometown of Brunswick to support a farmer’s market three days a week with a population that only approaches 25,000.
And it’s the kind of passion for good food that allows Mount Desert Island to support restaurants that remain open at least nine months of the year.
Sanders, who has spent a significant amount of time in southwest France writing about the farmers, winemakers and chefs who live there, says that today it’s hard to find “anything that’s not a pizza or a kebab” for dinner in his old stomping grounds.
“Those little restaurants where you could go and you could get a great meal for 12 or 15 euros, that’s done,” he said. “That is gone. And here, it’s paradoxical. We have lots of French friends who come here, and they’re always shocked. They say, ‘God, this reminds me of France 30 years ago, where every little corner had its restaurant.’ “
“Fresh From Maine” features about 50 recipes, including Cod with Maple Sweet Potatoes & Roasted Brussels Sprouts from Chef Chad Souders at the Old Port Sea Grill in Portland. From Chef Sam Hayward, just a block over at Fore Street, there’s Goat Cheesecake with Fresh Cranberry Sauce.
Anyone who buys the book gets access to 18 more recipes on the book’s Web site, www.tableartsmedia.com, by using a special code. Every month, one or two more will be added.
French photographed every dish and chef in the book, spending two to three hours on each visit to a kitchen to get just the right shots using only available light.
“There was probably about a third of (the chefs) that were new to me,” French said. “It makes you realize that we’ve got some really talented and creative people in the entire state — not just Portland, but all over.”
One of his personal discoveries, he said, was Seagrass Bistro, where Chef Stephanie Brown serves bistro-style cuisine with Asian, French and Italian influences. “It felt like to me it was like a little Hugo’s up in Yarmouth,” French said.
Sanders and French plan to replicate “Fresh From Maine” in the other New England states. They’ve already begun working on a Massachusetts edition. They are also busy researching and photographing more restaurants for a second edition of the Maine book.
Sanders hopes the “Fresh From Maine” project helps Maine chefs realize their collective power to change things in their communities.
“If five Portland chefs go to the Portland school board and start talking about how the food in Portland public schools can be reworked, parents and school board members are going to listen to them, because they eat in their restaurants, because they respect them,” he said.
Long term, Sanders would like to see these local chefs form an alliance similar to the chefs’ associations found in every region of France, “where chefs get together and talk about what are the things in this world that we live in that we want to pay attention to? How can we be effective? And in France, they do fabulous things.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]