Chef Jason Williams swiftly shucks ears of corn and then shaves the kernels off the cob. A while later he realizes he needs a bunch of basil, but doesn’t have one in the kitchen. Rather than hop in his car and head to the store, he just strolls across the yard.
Williams is the culinary force behind The Well, the latest farm-to-table restaurant in southern Maine. But don’t look for the eatery in downtown Portland or any of our state’s trendy coastal villages. The Well is situated on Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth, on the same patch of earth where most of the restaurant’s vegetables are grown.
“I do my best to source everything from Maine,” Williams said. “But I try to do most of my shopping at Jordan’s Farm Stand.”
He does his own butchering, and gets his beef from Harris Farm, his pork from Cornerstone Farm, and his lobster from Alewive’s Brook Farm. His fish comes from Browne Trading Co. in Portland, which supplies many of the country’s white-tablecloth restaurants.
The Well, which opened earlier this month, is really a food cart built on a flatbed trailer. However, the eatery is a far cry from the utilitarian aesthetic employed by most mobile food vendors.
From the outside, The Well resembles a miniature coastal cottage with a peaked roof, a series of skylights and an attractive sea-foam green siding.
Inside, there is a tiny area with a chalkboard menu and a wooden counter where people place their orders. Behind the counter, the fully equipped open kitchen is stocked with a wood-burning grill and a propane range.
Williams’ fiancee, Jen Mowers, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth, created the charming interior, which includes hardwood floors, artwork and red-painted woodworking. Mowers and Williams commissioned Maine artist Geoff Herguth to create the restaurant’s sign and a pot rack in the shape of striped sea bass.
“We really wanted to exceed people’s expectations of a food cart,” Williams said.
The trailer measures a compact 8½ feet by 20 feet, but Williams said the kitchen “is just as big as most of the restaurants I’ve worked at in the Old Port.”
His Old Port career includes three years in the kitchen at Back Bay Grill and stints at Grace and Bresca. Before moving to Maine, the New Hampshire native worked at restaurants in Napa Valley, Maui and Lake Tahoe. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.
With Williams’ background in fine dining, it’s no surprise the food he is serving mirrors what you’d find in a high-end restaurant.
The eatery is open six nights a week for dinner. The menu changes daily, but always offers a chicken dish, a fish dish, a vegetarian dish, a pork or beef dish and a number of children’s entrees.
“I try to make everything from scratch,” Williams said. “My own pasta, my own sausage and my own bread.”
Williams said he’s happy to accommodate diners with particular dietary needs.
Since he doesn’t have to pay a waitstaff, a baker or a dishwasher and didn’t have to invest in flatware or dishes, his overhead is low. This allows him to keep his prices under $20.
“I look for quality before closeness and try to get it from Maine,” Williams said. “Rice, obviously, I can’t get from Maine. I’m able to keep it 80 percent from Maine. It seems pretty easy now. I don’t know how it will be in April.”
Pat Bagg of Portland recently dined at The Well with friends, and has been raving about it ever since.
“It’s the best food I’ve had in Portland,” Bagg said. “We came and we sat at the tables surrounded by sunflowers. It’s the best dining experience I’ve had. I thought I was in France.”
Williams said he’s already served a number of local chefs, including Larry Matthews of Back Bay Grill, Steve Corry of Five Fifty-Five, Erik Desjarlais of Evangeline and Krista Kern Desjarlais of Bresca.
It’s this type of exposure that convinced the Jordan family to partner with Williams.
“This is an opportunity to create visibility for our farm and demonstrate how you can cook in season and source your products from the state of Maine,” said Penny Jordan, who is a Cape Elizabeth town councilor and a third-generation member of the family farm.
Jordan hopes customers of the farm stand can learn from Williams how to prepare things such as kale and Swiss chard, and Williams confirmed that he’s been serving up cooking tips along with his meals.
Picnic tables with brightly colored umbrellas offer alfresco seating, but to-go meals have been popular too. On average, Williams is serving about 30 meals per night.
“I’ve got the best view to prep with,” Williams said, as he diced potatoes overlooking the pick-your-own flower garden that borders the picnic table area.
The Well will close for the winter sometime after Thanksgiving, but Williams intends to keep it open as long as the weather is warm enough to prevent his water line from freezing. He plans to travel this winter and return to Maine to reopen the cart in April.
When he was constructing the trailer, Williams explored powering it with solar panels. However, he didn’t know how much power the eatery would use, and therefore didn’t know what size system he would need.
“I’m metering it this year so I can get a setup next year,” he said.
He’s also toying with the idea of offering lunches next season. Since the cart is mobile, he’s heard a number of suggestions about where he could take it and says he may apply to be a vendor at a future Common Ground Country Fair.
“It is capable of doing weddings in the middle of a field,” Williams said. “I’m not opposed to anything, but this is pretty much the dream spot.”
Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]