KENNEBUNKPORT — Kevin Walsh and Meghann Ward are hoping their contribution to the Kennebunkport Festival this year will be even more fun than the soiree they hosted last year, when the festival coincided with the opening of Earth at Hidden Pond.

Last year, the young chefs served hors d’oeurves, and later in the evening guests migrated into the kitchen to help make pizzas in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven.

This year, in addition to the appetizers, Earth will host a four-course meal featuring tuna sashimi, handmade pasta and veal short ribs.

Yes, it will be a sit-down meal, but in a laid-back atmosphere with dancing, a DJ and lights around the pool that’s just outside the restaurant’s door.

“We’ll know we’ve accomplished our goal at the end of it if there’s people swimming in the pool,” joked Walsh, who is executive chef at Earth and right hand to Ken Oringer, the renowned Boston chef behind Clio, Uni, Toro and three other restaurants.

When Oringer opened Earth, his seventh culinary project, last year, he handpicked Walsh and Ward to run the kitchen for him. “An Evening at Earth” on June 9 during the Kennebunkport Festival will help launch their second season in Maine.

The Kennebunkport Festival drew 2,000 people last year and raised $20,000 for Share Our Strength, an organization that fights childhood hunger. Produced by Maine magazine, the festival showcases Maine food, art, music and wine through a series of events ranging from a Grand Tasting at the Colony Hotel to a series of intimate dinners in private homes prepared by some of the state’s best-known chefs.

Guests pay $10 to get into “Brews & Tunes,” a beer-and-music party at the Captain Lord Mansion, all the way up to $225 for “An Intimate Evening” at the White Barn Inn with executive chef Jonathan Cartwright.

Share Our Strength will once again be the beneficiary of the event.

OPEN FOR THE SEASON

Last year, about 100 people attended the Kennebunport Festival party at Earth, eager for a first glimpse of Oringer’s initial culinary venture in Maine. In the months that have followed, the chefs have tweaked the menu, strengthened the restaurant’s connections to local farms, and eaten their way through Vietnam and Thailand looking for inspiration.

On a recent visit to Earth, the restaurant was buzzing with staff preparing for a soft opening the following night. The doors officially opened for the season last weekend.

Earth is known for its unusual decor. Its walls are made of crosscut logs, rustic wood shelves hold a bar-to-ceiling display of liquor bottles, and in the center of the main dining room, there’s an upside-down apple tree filled with tiny lights that’s suspended from the ceiling and serves as a chandelier.

But it’s the food, and Oringer’s reputation, that are the real draw.

Walsh and Ward said guests can expect a new selection of small snacks on the menu this season that will change daily and include options such as fiddleheads with chili lime sauce, pickled ramps, or wood oven-roasted meatballs with castelvetrano olives and sweet onions.

“We don’t want this to be a special-occasion restaurant at all,” Walsh said. “These are lower price points, so someone that doesn’t want a big meal can come to the bar and get four or five snacks and have a decent amount of food, sit at the bar, have some drinks, and it wouldn’t break the bank.”

Some customer favorites are returning, albeit with some small changes. Last year, guests fell in love with Earth’s Southern-fried chicken served with bacon-braised Swiss chard, sweet potato corn bread and pickled watermelon rind. This year, the chicken will be accompanied by a pork-and-bean-style dish made with Jacob’s cattle beans, bok choy and a selection of herbs.

The salted peanut butter ice cream sundae, apparently a favorite of Oringer’s, is also returning.

Walsh says that 65 to 70 percent of the restaurant’s ingredients are now coming from local farms, and he’s hoping that percentage will increase in 2013.

He and Ward relish the relationships they’ve already developed with Maine farms – Blackrock Farm just down the road, Sparrow Arc Farm in Unity, Breezy Hill Farm in South Berwick, and others.

Both chefs have worked with farms before, of course, but here in Maine, they get to hang out with the farmers and share their passion for what they do. “It’s not just some delivery guy dropping boxes off,” Walsh said.

Walsh, 31, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2003 and has worked at such well-regarded establishments as Radius in Boston and flour + water in San Francisco, where he perfected his butchering and pasta-making skills.

He and Ward, 32, met while they were both working at Radius, and they have been a pair inside and outside the kitchen ever since.

After their stint in San Francisco, the couple moved back to Boston, where Walsh became chef de cuisine at Deuxave in Back Bay. One day, Oringer’s business partner, chef Jamie Bisonnette, contacted Walsh to see if they were interested in doing something with Oringer.

THE BIG PAPI OF CHEFS

Ken Oringer, in Walsh’s eyes, “is like the David Ortiz of chefs in Boston that you grow up and idolize. So given the opportunity to work with him, we jumped at it.”

Walsh says Oringer phones him daily and comes to Earth as often as he can. Earlier this spring, Walsh and Ward spent three weeks with their mentor testing new recipes at Clio in Boston.

Ward says Oringer’s palate is “untouchable.” When the couple came back from southeast Asia with a million ideas, Oringer helped them focus and tweak their concepts to make them better.

Walsh and Ward describe Oringer as “super down-to-earth” but not in a lackadaisical way. They said the chef is incredibly focused on details, just as much at Earth as at his other restaurants.

“Last year, we were supposed to have this chocolate mint in something, and he’d call us up and say, ‘You get that chocolate mint yet? You going to get that chocolate mint?’ ” Walsh recalled, chuckling.

“The nice thing about Ken is it’s not just another restaurant,” Ward said. “He really cares. He cares about every plate. He cares about all the feedback that we get. He cares about the food, and remembers so many things that you might overlook.”

Even Oringer’s “kitchen presence” has impressed the couple. “If he needs to come down (on someone), he’ll come down, but for the most part he’s really easy and not a yeller, not a screamer,” Walsh said.

“He’s somebody that you really want to try hard for, which is the best part of a good chef. Any chef can make you try hard (through fear). He’s somebody that I’m dying to impress. I hope that I can be like that one day.”

Walsh and Ward have settled in a loft in Biddeford. They bought their first car to move to Maine, and now have a 15-minute ride to get to work, rather than a short walk or bike ride in the city. (Apparently, Biddeford traffic can be daunting when you’re not used to dealing with traffic at all.)

When they get the chance to go out for a bite, the chefs like frequenting 50 Local in Kennebunk or driving up to Portland to visit Miyake or Grace, where they are friends with executive chef Peter Sueltenfuss.

“We had a great meal at Bresca,” Ward said. “We want to take a pilgrimage up to Primo” in Rockland.

Walsh and Ward say they are happy with the way locals have embraced Earth, although most of them come to the restaurant during the shoulder seasons. The restaurant’s last night to be open in 2011 fell on the same date as the big late-October snowstorm, but they still served 100 people that night.

“There wasn’t really anyone from out of town because it was late October, but we had 100 people hanging out, partying by the fireplace, supporting us,” Ward said. “It really felt good. It was the best last night imaginable, even though it was a blizzard.”

The chefs will be returning the favor in June at the Kennebunkport Festival, putting on a party to open the summer season that the locals won’t soon forget.

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad