PORTLAND — New York City chef Carmen Gonzalez is a Puerto Rico native who owned her own restaurant in Miami, competed on season two of “Top Chef Masters,” and now hosts a new Spanish-language cooking show that reaches food lovers in 18 million Latin American households.
After doing all of that, her next gig is a little unexpected: Gonzalez is moving to Portland to open a new restaurant at The Danforth Inn, a luxury inn owned by her good friend, Kimberly Swan.
“Carmen at The Danforth,” scheduled to open in mid- to late May, will be something really different for Portland – a small, 40-seat boutique restaurant inside an historic inn that has a celebrity chef in command of the kitchen full-time.
The summer menu has just been completed, and is heavy on Maine seafood served with a Latin twist.
Appetizers, ordered for the table, include lobster fritters with Key lime mayo, empanadas de pescado, and crispy pork shoulder bites with chunky chimichurri.
First plates include black sea bass ceviche and crispy fried oysters, followed by second plates of roast monkfish casserole with yuca mash a la Criolla, or arroz con mariscos with a side of crispy plantains.
One menu item, roasted Lola duck with corn flan and late vintage port sauce, is one of Gonzalez’s favorites. It features a heritage breed of duck that is a cross between a Pekin and a male heirloom mallard, and has been described as a leaner bird with more robust flavor.
“To be honest with you, I wasn’t thinking about opening another restaurant,” Gonzalez said. “I had just taken that out of my mind. I had said, ‘I don’t think I want to do this again.’ “
“I’ll tell you what it is,” she said. “I’m kind of old-fashioned in everything I do. I like to do everything as close to perfection as I can. I always try to be very sure before I agree to do anything, because I become so neurotic about what it is that I’m doing.”
But then she met Kim Swan, a perfectionist after her own heart.
‘YOU NEED TO OPEN A RESTAURANT’
The two women met through a mutual friend. They tell the same story about walking into the 19th-century Federal-style mansion a day or two after Swan bought it in April 2009. The first words out of Gonzalez’s mouth when she walked through the door were, “You need to open a restaurant here.”
“When I went to The Danforth and I just saw the charm and the elegance, I just fell in love with it,” Gonzalez said. “Kim has such taste. That place is beautiful.”
Swan’s first reaction was thanks, but no thanks: “I said, ‘Oh, I don’t do restaurants.’ “
But when Gonzalez returned that fall to participate in Harvest on the Harbor, the subject came up again. And it kept coming up.
Finally, last fall, Swan started to entertain the idea seriously, and by January, she and Gonzalez were furiously planning their joint endeavor and negotiating details.
“Mostly, my concern was that I didn’t want to affect the overnight guest experience,” Swan said. “I was concerned about noise. But we’ve taken care of all of that. It’s not going to be a late-night thing at all.”
Gonzalez also convinced her there would not be a lot of clanging of pots and loud music coming from the kitchen.
“She runs a tight ship,” Swan said, “and that’s why I’m cool with it, because I know she’ll make sure it’s done right.”
Dinner hours at Carmen at The Danforth will be 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Gonzalez also plans to serve Sunday brunch.
Daily breakfasts for the inn’s guests will continue, with Gonzalez putting her stamp on the menus.
Guests will begin their evening in the inn’s salon area, listening to piano music and enjoying cocktails from a new bar and pasabocas, or passed hors d’oeuvres. Seating will be in three small dining rooms, including a “chef’s table” area in what is now the inn’s sun porch.
Gonzalez just hired a sous chef and a front of house manager, both from Maine, as well as a sommelier consultant to help create the wine list and train the staff. “We’re going to have a big wine-by-the glass program,” she said.
There will also be a cheese cart that will move from table to table.
SMALL SPACE, SMALL CHANGES
The inn’s kitchen is undergoing limited renovations April 30 to May 3, but it will remain small. A three-bay sink will have to be added to satisfy the city code, but other improvements will be small things like installing under-counter refrigerators and adding granite countertops.
Gonzalez desperately wanted to keep the inn’s old stove because it has so much character, but she said it will likely be replaced because it’s too big – and she needs a grill.
“I still cook the old way. As long as I have a stove, a grill, a fryer, I’m just so good,” she said, laughing. “Listen, I had the privilege and the honor of working at The Quilted Giraffe (in New York City) in the ’80s. We used to work in a kitchen that was a closet. I mean, it was a closet, and we were so happy. We were putting out some of the best food in New York and probably the United States.
“When I hear a kitchen’s a million dollars, it would be nice, you know what I mean? But there’s no need for me to have that. My food is very simple.”
RAISED IN A FAMILY OF GOOD COOKS
Gonzalez’s love of good food began when she was growing up in Aguadilla, a small fishing town in Puerto Rico. Her mother and grandmother, she says, were both “absolutely magnificent cooks.”
“When I was in high school, everybody was always thinking about something when you got out of school,” Gonzalez said, “and the only thing I was thinking when I got out of school was going home and seeing what my mom was cooking for dinner.”
Gonzalez, now 53, was raised by a mother who kept a garden filled with herbs, tomatoes, lettuce and watermelon. The family’s backyard was covered in mangoes, avocados, plantains, papayas and Key limes.
Gonzalez’s mother read all the women’s magazines of the 1950s and ’60s – Family Circle, Women’s Day, Good Housekeeping – and when Carmen was about 8, she started cutting out recipes. Her mother made her a stool to stand on so she could help in the kitchen.
After school, Gonzalez and her siblings would change clothes, do their homework quickly, and go to the beach for three hours. On the weekends, they’d rise at 7 a.m. so they could get to the beach early.
“In Puerto Rico at that time, in that little town, it didn’t matter if you didn’t have a car, but you needed to have a boat because everybody was always in the ocean,” Gonzalez said. “So every Saturday and Sunday we would go very, very early. I can tell you we were on the beach at 7:30, 8 o’clock in the morning – all my cousins and my uncles and the boats – and it was just a big party.”
The family would wait for the fishermen to come back around 11 a.m. in their yolas, brightly colored wooden rowboats that they had filled with fish and lobsters.
“Right there in the boat, with a machete, they would clean the fish, take the head off,” Gonzalez said, “and they would save the heads for my mom, because when we went home at 8 o’clock at night, everybody came to my house, where my mom would make her very famous fish soup with the fish heads.”
The wife of one of the fishermen would dig a hole in the beach sand and fill it with wood, then place a cast-iron pot filled with lard inside the hole. Fishermen would bring her fish, and she’d throw them in the pot to fry, then serve them on paper plates with a few tostones (fried plantains), a couple of wedges of avocado and a lemon.
Everyone sat in the sand and ate that for lunch. It’s a memory Gonzalez treasures.
“I’ve been asked many, many times if there’s anywhere in the world that you would go back and eat something right now – and I have eaten at some pretty decent places – I always say I would love to go back to being 10 and eating on the sand my fish with my tostones, my avocado and my lemon,” Gonzalez said.
“And I also saw the happiness of everybody when everybody was eating. I always like to make sure people around me are happy, so that was it. At 10, I started my crusade that I was going to be a chef.”
Gonzalez announced to her father that not only did she want to be a chef when she grew up, she wanted to own her own restaurant. She started regularly perusing the classifieds, looking for the perfect location. (Her father always asked, “How are you going to buy it?”)
Gonzalez and her family eventually moved to San Juan. At 19, her persistence reading the classifieds paid off. She saw that a place called the Cafe de San Juan was for sale.
The asking price was $17,000. Gonzalez convinced a neighbor to go into business with her and buy it, a memory that elicits laughter.
“In three months,” Gonzalez recalled, “we were the hottest place in Old San Juan.”
ON TO NEW YORK
In 1983, Gonzalez moved to New York and went to culinary school at the New York Restaurant School. She graduated on a Sunday, and on Monday started working at The Quilted Giraffe, a renowned restaurant in 1980s New York.
She also spent time at another well-known spot, John Clancy’s, where the owner called her “Cha Cha” because she was “always dancing the cha-cha-cha in the kitchen” trying to put out 200 to 300 covers a night.
She thrived on the adrenaline rush.
“I loved when I walked in the restaurant, they would tell me, ‘We have 300 reservations tonight,’ ” she recalled. “I’m so hyper that, to me, that meant I was going to have fun for four hours. And everybody was looking at me like, are you freaking insane? To me, that was music to my ears.”
In 2003, Gonzalez moved to Miami and opened Carmen the Restaurant. Esquire soon named it one of the Best New Restaurants in America.
The restaurant, which was located in a hotel, suffered a lot of water damage from a hotel fire and Gonzalez was forced to close. She soon moved back to New York, “because this is where my heart always is.” She’s been working as a chef consultant in New York ever since.
In 2010, Gonzalez landed a spot on season two of the Bravo show “Top Chef Masters” and made it far enough to raise $10,000 for her charity, the ASPCA.
More recently, Gonzalez was asked to join the new Nutrisystem Culinary Council. She and other noted chefs on the council have been asked to create new recipes for the brand and broaden its menu selections.
Gonzalez also recently signed with MGM Latin America to host her own Spanish-language cooking show where she will interview celebrities and have a live studio audience. Two networks, Canal Ella and Casa Club TV, are carrying the show, which will be broadcast in more than 20 countries.
Gonzalez is as busy as ever, but it is the memory of her simple life in Puerto Rico that made her fall in love with Maine and want to open a new restaurant here. She’ll be working at The Danforth full-time until October or November, when she’ll return to her home base of New York. After that, she plans frequent flights between New York and Maine.
Before becoming friends with Swan, Gonzalez’ only ties to Maine were the seafood she ordered from Browne Trading Company on Commercial Street and her longtime friendship with chef Melissa Kelly, owner of the restaurant Primo in Rockland.
Gonzalez says she loves the beauty of Maine, the kindness of its people, and the fact that she can walk her poodle, Jeeter, at 2 or 3 a.m. and there’s no one else on the street.
She is looking forward to working with new ingredients from local farms that make her feel like “a child with all new toys.”
Most of all, Gonzalez says, she just wants to be able to enjoy preparing each dish that goes out of the kitchen.
“I want to play in the kitchen again,” she said. “I’m going to be able to create all these dishes, and enjoy every dish.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]