PORTLAND — Sam Hayward is a James Beard Award-winning chef who is known for his commitment to local foods that express the terroir of Maine.

His restaurant, Fore Street, has gotten lots of national attention.

Some chefs might try to capitalize on that kind of notoriety, but Hayward has always just focused on his food. He hasn’t been interested in using his reputation to manufacture new food products. He hasn’t even written a cookbook.

So why is his photo on the back of the box of a new line of seafood pies in the freezer case at Hannaford?

For almost three years, Hayward has been the creative force behind the pies, which just hit the market in mid-November. Sold under the label Maine Fresh, the pies feature sustainably-caught Maine seafood and are now in 140 Hannaford stores in the Northeast.

“It took months of trials – mostly down here at Fore Street in my spare time, and also in my home – to come up with a format that worked for different seafoods, and we settled on four species that are harvested locally,” Hayward said. “So there are Maine shrimp, Maine scallops, Maine lobster and rock crab.”

Why the sudden interest in culinary capitalism? The Maine Fresh project is an unusual partnership between a for-profit business – the Cobscook Bay Company – and the non-profit Cobscook Community Learning Center in Trescott, which is working to improve the lives of residents of Washington County in eastern Maine.

“Washington County, being the third poorest county in the country, faces struggles that we don’t see down here,” said Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Cobscook Bay Company and former owner of Pemberton’s Gourmet Foods in Gray. “The high school drop-out rate, teenage pregnancies – there are a lot of social issues people face up there, some of which the Cobscook Community Learning Center addresses very well. They’re kind of a safety net for kids and adults.”

The learning center, which will receive 25 percent of the net proceeds from the seafood pies, helps teen parents get their diplomas; furnishes access to the arts through painting classes, pottery studios and music programs; provides educational programs for students who have not flourished in the local school system; and is working to bring doctors and nurses in training to the area.

The learning center runs mostly on grants and donations, but building a business to make it self-sustaining over the long term has been part of the plan since it was created in 1999. “We wanted to be part of a movement to create new jobs in this region,” said Alan Furth, executive director.

Hayward, who volunteered his time for the project, says he couldn’t resist the idea of combining good food with the social mission behind the Maine Fresh brand, especially after visiting the community center for himself. During his first day there, he watched as 50 people participated in a sing-a-long in honor of a local musician who had just passed away, “and I fell in love with the project.”

“It matched my values,” he said. “My food values matched with the community values.”

TESTING, TESTING, TESTING

Seafood chowders were the first thought, but then a consultant suggested there’s a wide-open niche in the market for seafood-based pies.

Hayward got to work developing recipes for the pies, and over the past couple of years has tested hundreds of versions with the help of friends, restaurant staff and family. “It was a huge learning curve for me, incredibly steep,” he said.

There are no preservatives, antibiotics, or artificial or genetically-modifed ingredients in any of the pies. They contain a veloute sauce, vegetables, seafood and seasoning, and are topped with a whole wheat crust. Each 9.9-ounce pie includes 2 ounces of seafood. (In the scallop pie I tried, that translated into nine scallops.)

Hayward tried to use as many local ingredients as possible, “even to the point of trying to find farmers in Aroostook County who would grow soft wheat varieties to mill into pastry flour to use in the dough for the pastry.”

Maine ingredients in the pies include the seafood, the cream in the veloute sauce, butter, Maine sea salt and the mirepoix vegetables that flavor the stock. Eventually, the herbs, diced vegetables, the flour that goes into the pastry, and possibly the shiitake mushrooms in the lobster pie will also be local.

“We would eventually like to find a farmer in Washington County who could grow all our carrots for us, who could grow all our leeks for us, and possibly even get them into a value-added condition that’s ready to go into our pie,” Hayward said. “I’m thinking diced, blanched, frozen carrots so we can be in production all winter long.”

There have been a lot of challenges along the way. In developing the pastry recipe, Hayward tried all kinds of shortenings and flours. He hated the taste of palm oil, and many of the white pastry flours that worked were too bland. In the end, he went with whole wheat pastry flour, unsalted butter, sea salt and water, “not because of any philosophical decision but because it tasted best.”

Hayward also had to learn how to adjust his recipes for large-scale production. Instead of making a gallon of veloute sauce for a couple of dozen pies that he might serve his customers at Fore Street, he had to make 50 gallons of sauce for 1,100 pies at a time.

“In gearing up and making a pie that can be frozen, shipped and baked in a home oven,” Hayward said, “there were technical problems we had to overcome that I had no experience with. The veloute that you’d make a chicken pot pie with would be a roux, a chicken broth and maybe some dairy ingredients and some other stuff. But if you’re using straight, all-purpose flour in a roux, it doesn’t necessarily remain consistent when it goes through a freeze, thaw and bake cycle.”

Hayward consulted food chemists in other states to try to solve the problem, “but in the end, what they all wanted us to do was use artificial ingredients, stabilizers and thickeners, or products of laboratories instead of products from farms.

“I had come into this project saying all of the ingredients are going to be real food; there’s going to be nothing on the ingredient list that my grandmother wouldn’t know what it is; and as many of the ingredients will be organically produced as possible. And I think we achieved that.”

JOBS WITH BENEFITS

The Maine Fresh production plant is in the same facility as Phinney Fisheries, which is owned by third-generation seafood distributor John Phinney. The facility has enough equipment to produce 1,000 to 2,000 pies a day, and employs a crew of eight – with benefits.

“They got insurance cards while we were up there a few weeks ago,” Hayward said, “and some of these people have never had one before.”

The facility is making pies every couple of weeks, and there are plans to add other seafood-based products down the line. For now, Johnson said the company is focusing on taking the pies national and even international.

“One of the things we like about the distinction of the product is that it really is a category that’s new,” Johnson said. “Seafood pies really don’t exist in the grocery store. There are frozen seafood entrees and seafood casseroles and frozen portions of fish that are carrying rubs and marinades, but a traditional seafood pie doesn’t exist.

“So that’s the opportunity that we see: We have a gold-standard recipe, we have the Maine brand and we have a category that’s emerging. If we can find the right price points for consumers, then I think we’ve got a winning combination.”

The shrimp and scallop pies currently sell for $5.99; the crab pie is $6.99; and the lobster pie is $7.99.

The real bottom line, however, is the social mission the people behind the products hope to feed at the Cobscook Community Learning Center.

“This has been almost three years of me volunteering my time, so I feel pretty strongly about it,” Hayward said. “It’s an amazing place.”

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: mgoad@pressherald.com

Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MeredithGoad