PORTLAND – Harding Lee Smith was on the phone in his black Chevy SUV, chatting with a chef he wanted to hire for one of his restaurants while he drove toward a copy shop on Fore Street.

The 44-year-old chef was talking to Dylan Boepple, “a kid from Vermont” who would be taking over for Brandon Tenney, chef de cuisine at The Grill Room & Bar. Tenney was being promoted to a new position — executive sous-chef for all of Smith’s popular “Room” restaurants.

In his baritone voice, Smith told Boepple that he wants a year’s commitment: “That’s what I expect from someone like you — that you’re not going to walk down the street for 50 cents more an hour, or something like that.”

Smith, whose phone is constantly glued to his ear, drove around a while until he had finished the call and realized, a little sheepishly, that he was still blocks away from the copy shop.

This has been Smith’s life the past few months, as he juggles managing his three Portland restaurants while trying to open a fourth: Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room, a new seafood place on Custom House Wharf.

In a year with an unusually large number of restaurant openings in the works in Portland, Boone’s is one of the most anticipated. It’s a project that will give Smith an unprecedented fourth restaurant within the city limits, and revitalize the late-19th-century waterfront building where it’s said Alexander Boone first served baked stuffed lobster.

While other Portland chefs are developing third and fourth restaurants of their own, some of them may be in other locations or financed by outside investors. Smith’s restaurants are all in Portland, and they have been successful enough that he says he did not need an infusion of outside cash for Boone’s.

The new Boone’s, whose target opening date is June 15, will provide jobs for 55 to 60 people, bringing the total number of employees working for Smith, at the height of summer, to between 160 and 170. In a first for Smith, he’s just hired Bryan Dame, formerly of the Tides Beach Club in Kennebunkport and The Edge in Lincolnville, to be executive chef at the new establishment.

“It’s the first time I’ve hired an executive chef, so this is a big step for me,” Smith said. “I’m not turning it over to him. Obviously, we’ll be working very closely together, but I’ll be the expediter overseeing it, and he’ll be nose-to-the-grindstone. He’s a tremendous, dynamic personality, an absolute workaholic, and very talented foodwise, too.”

With four restaurants to run, Smith will need the help. He opened The Front Room Restaurant & Bar on Congress Street in 2005. The Grill Room & Bar and The Corner Room Italian Kitchen & Bar, both on Exchange Street, followed in 2008 and 2009.

Kate Krader, restaurant editor at Food & Wine magazine, said there’s a national trend of chefs creating “their own little mini empires.”

“It’s probably sort of a backlash against some of the chaining of talented chefs,” she said, “and they have different interests and different itches they want to scratch.”

In Smith’s case, he is as much restaurateur as chef. It is a path that he has consciously chosen. He still enjoys being in the kitchen and cares about the food he serves, but he is focused just as much on the decor, the ambience and the bottom line as what goes on the plate.

“I’m not just a cook,” he says. “I love to cook, and I’m a good chef, I think, but I hire good people and I let them sort of do what they do. I put them in place and let them run with it. What I’m really good at is doing the food demonstrations and talking with people at the dining bar and explaining what the food’s about.

“I don’t ever try to say I’m the best chef around. There are tremendous chefs doing all kinds of crazy, intense stuff that we don’t necessarily do. We’re good at the service part, and putting on the show and making the room look nice.”

To Smith, his establishments aren’t just restaurants. They’re theaters.

And when customers start to arrive, it’s showtime.

The concept of restaurant-as-theater is so ingrained that even his employees and customers pick up on it.

Morgan Fineberg, who has worked for about a year as a server and bartender at The Corner Room, where Smith holds court behind the antipasti bar on Friday and Saturday nights, says he likes it when Smith is in the house because it makes him step up his own game.

“It’s almost like a play, a show,” Fineberg said. “You prepare throughout the week and then … he’s finally there, it’s Friday or Saturday night and you’re booked for the whole night, and it all culminates into that one night of ‘Ready? Go.’ “

At the copy shop, Smith picked up blueprints for the hood system at Boone’s, then drove to City Hall, a place he knows well by now.

He was wearing his signature black chef’s garb and a navy jacket, sunglasses secured around his neck. While tattoos are de rigueur among younger restaurant workers, Smith has never succumbed to the temptation. Instead, he wears tiny loop earrings in each ear, gifts from his father and uncle.

He punched the elevator button for the third floor and vented a little bit about how frustrating the city’s red tape can be — making sure to note, diplomatically, that it’s the process he has a problem with, not the people. He calls it “a practice of patience.”

Venting about City Hall is a frequent pastime.

When Smith reached the window at the Building Inspections Office, he discovered that the paper blueprints he just paid for at the copy shop were unnecessary. The clerk informed him that all plans must now be submitted electronically, a change implemented just three days before.

Smith headed back downstairs, calling and texting his people on the phone, trying to figure out what to do next.

“So after you open three restaurants,” he said, “you’d think it would be easy to open a fourth one, right?”

He barely made it off the elevator when he got a phone message. He said, with a bit of a smirk, “We gotta go back up.”

“This is my day, pretty much every day,” he said. “I run around like this. Then I get a break in the afternoon, and I get to cook.”

As frustrating as Smith finds the paperwork, being a restaurateur is in his blood.

One of his earliest memories is of standing at the stove at age 4, watching his father make crepes. It was the 1970s, and his parents loved giving dinner parties.

“You know when you flip it like that? If it didn’t land back in the pan and hit the stove, I could eat it,” Smith recalled.

His early years were spent on Shoal Cove in West Bath, right on the water. He grew up sailing and lobstering in the area. The family didn’t have a lot of money, but Smith’s father would spend money on good food. Barry Smith read cookbooks by James Beard and Julia Child, and often tried making elaborate dishes like Baked Alaska.

Smith’s father soon became a full-time partner of Barbara Dean’s in Ogunquit, a classic coastal Maine restaurant that was open for breakfast and dinner. At age 7, Smith sat on a stool at Barbara Dean’s waiting for someone to order a lobster, and when they did, it was his job to cook it.

“We did 400 breakfasts at a whack,” Smith said. “Dinners, it was a broiled haddock, scallops, prime rib kind of place. It wasn’t fancy, but I did learn a lot.”

After his parents divorced, Smith moved to Ogunquit to live with his father while he attended Wells Junior High. During the summers, he’d work at Barbara Dean’s, restocking the salad bar and doing prep work.

For high school, he moved back to Portland to live with his mother and stepfather, Ernie Stallworth, who at the time was a Portland Press Herald sportswriter covering the New England Patriots. He worked in local restaurants and cooked at home a lot — eggplant parmigiana was his specialty — to help out.

When it came time to decide on college, Smith told his guidance counselor he wanted to be either a doctor or a journalist. The counselor knew his family had owned a restaurant, so he steered him toward the hospitality industry, explaining that becoming a doctor involved many years of schooling.

“He summed up my academic achievement thus far in my letter of recommendation as ‘the conservation of energy,’ ” Smith said. ” ‘He applies himself when needed, but it takes some time.’ He actually wrote that.”

Smith finally found his calling in Boston, working in restaurants while he studied hotel management at Boston University. He landed his first big-city restaurant job at Joe’s American Bar & Grill.

“I grew up in restaurants,” Smith said. “I thought I knew what I was doing, and (I had) no clue. No clue. Could barely hold a knife, it turned out. So they put me on the pantry, making salads during the day. Then one night the saute cook called in sick, so they said, ‘OK, we’re going to put you on saute tonight.’ No training, nothing. Just threw me on, and I did well.

“The next night, they put me on the grill. And then, like two months later, I was a sous chef. I was good at it. Then I realized, ‘This is what I’m going to do. I want to be a chef.’ “

During these early years, Smith set a goal of opening five or six restaurants by the time he was 30. He vowed that if he failed, he would find something else to do.

After leaving Boston, Smith spent a few years working in restaurants in California, Italy and Hawaii. He took classes at the West Coast campus of the Culinary Institute of America. He married and divorced.

By the time Smith was in his mid-30s, not only did he not have a restaurant of his own, he was fired as the chef of Mims Brasserie in Portland after what he describes as a power struggle with the owner.

He moped around for a couple of days afterward, depressed. But getting fired would turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.

Seven months later, he had a lease for The Front Room.

 

The Front Room space was in Smith’s own Munjoy Hill neighborhood — he’d originally spied it while walking his dogs. He wrote a business plan, got the zoning changed, and found five investors willing to pony up $25,000 each.

Smith was 36, but he was finally on his way. He opened The Front Room with “negative $173 in the bank.”

He remembers being so filled with worry the night before the restaurant opened that he was unable to sleep. What if it’s not busy?

Turned out that would be no problem.

“It was gangbusters, and it’s been gangbusters ever since,” he said. “We got really lucky with that spot.”

Smith and his wife, Darcy, live above The Front Room in a modest apartment that they share with their three cats and two Labrador retrievers. Married for almost four years, they are preparing for the arrival of their first child, a boy expected in September.

Age and approaching fatherhood have mellowed the chef, Darcy Smith said. She admits that even she was initially intimidated by his hothead reputation and was nervous about meeting him for the first time when she went to try to sell him a new computer system.

“I was like, ‘OK, I’ve heard about this guy,’ ” she said. “I’ve heard he’s kind of mean. So I went and met him, and he was totally not what I expected at all.”

Darcy helps manage the restaurants, although she is doing less of that now that she’s nesting. At home, the couple’s lives revolve around work, food, the Red Sox and sailing the boat he moors on the Portland waterfront.

The most outward sign that a chef lives in the apartment is in the living room, where an entire wall has been transformed into a bookcase for an extensive collection of cookbooks — everything from Escoffier to Alice Waters.

Yet the Smiths do not cook much here, except for maybe his roast chicken or her chili on a night the New England Patriots are playing. They prefer eating out. Smith is partial to Miyake’s sushi and anything from Veranda Noodle Bar. For brunch, it’s Petite Jacqueline or Caiola’s. When in Boston, they never miss a visit to the Neptune oyster bar in the North End.

“Really, most of our life revolves around eating,” Darcy said, laughing.

From the Smiths’ apartment, you can hear chairs lightly scraping the floor in The Front Room below. Smith occasionally starts his day with breakfast downstairs, but has found he has trouble relaxing because he’s always on the lookout for problems to fix. And he never goes in for brunch on Saturdays or Sundays. “I feel guilty taking up a chair,” he said.

 

Smith believes his menus earn people’s trust. Make a good meatloaf or simple chicken dish, and maybe your customers will be willing to try some quail or skate wing on another day. If duck confit is on the menu, he calls it something else so guests won’t be intimidated.

The topic of trust comes up a lot in conversations with, and about, Harding Lee Smith. His desire to have things just so has made it easier to butt heads with employees. There have always been rumors around town that he has a volcanic temper, but it’s hard to find anyone who will talk about it publicly.

In 2010, a half-dozen workers from The Front Room who had alleged wage and hour violations — and claimed they had been subjected to abusive treatment by Smith — filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland that was eventually settled.

Smith saw the lawsuit as a publicity stunt and/or “cash grab” by a restaurant workers’ union, and says he settled the case on the advice of his attorney — not because he thought he would lose, but because it would cost too much to fight it.

Smith admits there have been times when he has “definitely lost it, without a doubt. But I think every chef who’s worth his salt probably has.”

In 2011, someone with a grudge set up fake Facebook and Twitter accounts in Smith’s name. They insulted other local chefs and restaurants, made fun of celebrity chefs, and posted nasty comments about Smith’s personal life.

“I’m sure certain people have certain thoughts about me, and I have a reputation with some people of being a jerk and being an (expletive) or whatever,” he said. “If you do your job, you never hear a word from me, you know? If you don’t do your job, you’re probably not going to work here much longer.”

Darcy Smith says her husband is “not mean to people,” but he has “thrown many a pan” to get his employees’ attention. One new employee was so intimidated by Smith’s reputation that he asked for every Thursday off — because that was the day Smith came in to that restaurant.

Jesse Poirier, the new chef at The Porthole, worked for Smith at The Front Room, and describes him as extremely demanding but fiercely loyal to employees who work hard and show loyalty to him.

“He probably expects more out of his employees than any other chef I’ve ever worked for,” Poirier said. “It’s a good thing, because it teaches you to go on and do things on your own.”

Smith said it can be a challenge to find people who are a good fit for his businesses. He sings the praises of Greg Wilson, the chef de cuisine at The Front Room and now The Corner Room, who worked at the tony White Barn Inn in Kennebunk before coming to Portland to cook homestyle comfort food.

But it took a long time for Wilson to gain Smith’s trust. Smith still remembers the day his new chef kicked him out of his own kitchen, sending his boss upstairs to his apartment to watch TV.

“Those first couple of nights,” Smith said, “it was, ‘What’s going on down there?’ I’ve let that go now.”

Smith’s attention to detail, and the trust he puts in his employees, pays off with customers.

Dan Crewe of Cumberland has a standing breakfast date with two friends every Sunday at The Front Room, and he stops by often for lunch or dinner. He likes that he can recommend a dish to friends and know that when they order it, it will be as good as the day he tried it.

“You know, so often when you go to a restaurant and you’re impressed with something, it’s very seldom that it’s always consistent,” Crewe said. “It’s a very small facility, and they just seem to do a marvelous job of keeping it reasonably high quality, and I’m very impressed with that.”

It’s a sign of the popularity of the “Room” restaurants that when Smith offered Living Social coupons for The Corner Room a couple of years ago, he sold 2,700 of them, which at the time was a record for New England. When he offered coupons for The Front Room in January, he sold 4,400 — the most ever sold by a U.S. restaurant.

 

After leaving City Hall, Smith drove down to Boone’s, which was almost completely gutted and crawling with workers, for meetings with equipment dealers and vendors.

He had to make significant improvements to meet code, installing steel beams to reinforce the second floor and adding a new sprinkler system.

“This was all spray-painted with baby-blue paint,” Smith said, describing how he found the first floor when he leased the space. “The floor was just nasty carpet and so forth. Over the last three months, we’ve taken everything out, put down a brand-new floor, stripped all these beams down individually one by one — an hour and a half per beam — and then sanded them and varnished them.”

A mezzanine area in the back gives the space that theatrical feel. Smith calls the main seating area “the pit.” Altogether, the downstairs will seat 150.

In the front of the room will be “the stage,” a display kitchen flanked by a lobster tank, a bar and a fireplace. A prep kitchen with refrigeration, storage and a larger lobster tank will be behind the display kitchen, out of sight.

The upstairs, which will have a wood-fired oven, will be used mostly as a private dining and function space that can serve about 85 people. This is also where the “Oyster Room” will be.

“We’re not building it to be here for two weeks, or two years or even five years. It’s here to be here for 20 years. I hope it will live beyond me, you know what I mean? Now that I have a child coming, maybe the child will be running it.”

He crossed his fingers and looked skyward.

“Please?”

 

Smith joked that it was now time to head back to his “real job” at The Corner Room.

He met with state and local health inspectors, then walked down Exchange Street to spend some time at The Grill Room, where alcohol sales reps were lying in wait for his arrival.

By 4 p.m. the dining room at The Corner Room was starting to buzz. Candles were lit, giving the room a soft glow. The ceiling fans, classic crown molding and Tuscan red walls added to the warm atmosphere. A bartender raced by, balancing several clinking wine glasses in both hands.

The staff knew the night would be busy because there was a ballet performance at nearby Merrill Auditorium. Smith describes the Merrill crowd as being like a wave of locusts, swooping in to dine between 5:45 and 7:15 p.m. before flying off to catch the performance.

“It will get pretty nutty in here,” he said.

Smith took his place behind the antipasti bar. He likes the fact that, from here, he can see both the dining room and the kitchen, and talk to customers who sit at the curved bar.

On the bar was a stack of white plates, a basket of tomatoes, a bowl of eggs, a block of cheese on a cheeseboard, a Berkel meat slicer and bottles of extra virgin olive oil, orange olive oil, white truffle oil and vincotto negroamaro. Old cutting boards and butcher knives hung from a wrought-iron rack overhead.

Smith grabbed a large cup of ice and soda to sip on during service, and started mixing salads and writing the specials.

The specials included a hake dish, a Smith favorite. (“It’s really meaty but still flaky inside.”) The hake would be served with a cauliflower puree and a watercress and cara cara orange salad. (“Cara cara oranges right now are really beautiful. They’re honey-like.”)

Sometimes, Smith said, a special won’t sell because the description isn’t worded correctly. When the chef added octopus sopressata to the menu, the dish initially didn’t go over well with customers. “They think, ‘Octopus salami. Oooh, gross,’ ” Smith said. “I changed it to octopus carpaccio?” He made a whistling noise. “Flying out the door.”

At 4:45 p.m., it was time for the staff meeting. The servers crowded in front of Smith at the antipasti bar.

“OK, the first page of your menu,” Smith began. “The salumi list, that’s where you start. We’ve talked about it many times. When you talk about the salumis and the cheeses, we sell them, and if you don’t, we don’t.”

Smith told them about the pork loin cured with blood orange and fennel and about the arctic char tartare, coarsely chopped and tossed simply with lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, a little red onion and caper, served with a grapefruit and arugula salad. The servers took notes with the intensity of White House reporters at a presidential news conference.

Eventually, he came to the octopus.

“It’s a carpaccio in name only, it’s not a true carpaccio,” Smith said. “It’s cooked. The octopus is braised for six hours and then pressed through a terrine so it has a marbleized look to it.”

Soon, customers started arriving, and so did Smith’s first order.

“When you talk about the salumi and cheese, you sell the salumi and cheese,” Smith happily pronounced. “Boom, first ticket.”

A few minutes later, he put up another plate of salumi. “See? Talk about the salumi, sell the salumi.”

Smith loves salumi, and he may soon be ramping up his own production of the Italian meats. His brother-in-law and his wife live on a small farm in Windham where they’ll be raising heritage breed pigs this year for Smith’s restaurants.

Smith plans to renovate the barn into a commercial space with a dry aging room for beef for The Grill Room and a salumeria where he can cure his own salamis and meats, age them properly, and sell them.

He’s already dreaming of his next big thing — a retail storefront that includes an Italian deli.

“I always have a project on the horizon,” he said. “I get bored very easily.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@mainetoday.com