It’s sometimes hard to know whether Kerry Altiero is a chef or a comedian.
In casual conversation, he’ll throw out obviously rehearsed lines that are sure to get a laugh. He’s self-deprecating and humble when he talks about his roots, yet he’s also a great self-promoter who is a genuine cheerleader for Maine’s food scene and quick to give credit where it’s due, including to his hard-working staff.
People who have visited his 22-year-old Rockland restaurant, Café Miranda, are familiar with the funky decor (including an Elvis bathroom), generous portions and long menu filled with food combinations you would never think would work, but somehow they do. Asian, Italian, Mexican, Thai – it’s all there.
In recent years, Altiero has greatly expanded his profile, winning two titles at Portland’s Harvest on the Harbor food and wine festival – Maine Lobster Chef of the Year in 2012 and Best Farm to Table Restaurant in 2013. Now he has published his first cookbook (with co-writer Katherine Gaudet), “Adventures in Comfort Food,” with a forward by good friend and James Beard Award-winning chef Melissa Kelly. (Kelly’s restaurant, Primo, is just down the road from Café Miranda, and she pops in to eat at Altiero’s place whenever she can.)
We caught up with Altiero during Harvest on the Harbor, where he served as emcee for this year’s lobster chef competition:
Q: You’ve really been putting yourself out there the past few years. Has that been deliberate, or have you just had more attention naturally coming your way?
A: It’s all ego, of course. No, I tell my staff, ‘You can keep the fame and I’ll take the money.’ We had the first open kitchen and the oldest wood-fired oven in the state, a multi-ethnic menu, not classically based. We bought a farm 15 years ago ahead of the whole farm-to-table movement … well, before it was a marketing opportunity. All that is stuff that I wanted to get out there.
Q: How did the book deal come about?
A: People have been pestering me for years, and then about five years ago we figured yeah, we want to get in the mainstream. I used to be just this young rock and roller with an attitude. To take this restaurant and this concept, how do I make it survive even beyond my ability to do it over a lifetime? We need to get the book out there.
Q: How did you get the governor to give you a jacket blurb? Has he been to the restaurant?
A: When I was lobster chef in 2012-13, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. LePage at the Maine Lobster Festival. You know, Rockland is the lobster capital of the world, and they’ve been doing this lobster fest for many years, and several of our local representatives and the governor were there, and I understand the working class. I come from a working-class background. So we had a conversation, and he agreed to do this. So here we are. And don’t forget I have Chellie Pingree on there, too, for balance, OK?
Q: Whenever I see your menu, I think how lucky you are that (British chef and TV star) Gordon Ramsay doesn’t stop by and scream at you because it is so incredibly long. But apparently it works. How do you balance having so many choices with using fresh ingredients?
A: That’s the question everybody asks me. First of all, there’s a conception that is misleading that you can’t possibly do it. Well, I got this far. Our operational words are honesty, integrity and performance. There’s no way I’m going to cheat on these things. And the thing is, I have a great crew. The organizational model is tight. And we only use a little bit of a lot of different things, so it’s really not that hard. It’s actually easier in my experience – of course, I’m crazy – to carry this menu. We rarely run out of something because we get supplies every day.
Q: How often do you rotate dishes? Are you always adding new things?
A: There are what we call the sacred cows that we definitely try to kill. The word “signature dish” has always felt like “Oh man, trapped in the same old dish.” I often say, how many times can you play “Free Bird” and mean it, if you’re a musician? We rotate dishes in and out from the repertoire, which is literally thousands of things.
I also find it easier to remember something new than to remember something I did 10 years ago. And the bubbling creative head that I have won’t let me alone.
Q: Can you give me an example of a dish that you can’t remove or your customers would kill you?
A: The Old Bleu. It’s this bleu cheese pasta with homemade noodles and roasted roma tomatoes and wilted spinach and black pepper. I’ve tried to take it off a couple of times.
Q: Where does your eclectic style come from?
A: I was vegetarian in the ’70s. What do I eat? I’m on the road, racing motorcycles. Thank God for Mexican food. That started me looking at the various cuisines that respected vegetarian food as an equal to (food for) people who ate meat. So that showed me Asian food, Indian stuff. I started going out to Indian restaurants and reading. There are some Miranda-style dishes where you go, “Really?” But they work.
I try to keep the soul of the grandmother somewhere in the cuisine. I’m not classically trained, and to borrow a phrase from Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers, I’m unencumbered by actual knowledge and experience other than my own. There’s no box. I don’t understand that the box even exists, so I don’t have to think out of it.
Q: A lot of your dishes have stories behind them. Do you have a favorite?
A: When I was doing this book, it was like doing my autobiography through food. Friends that have been here who are no longer here. Memories – my grandmother, my family, friends. Times of my life that I can remember – the ’60s, the ’70s and into the ’80s somewhat. That kind of brought me back. The Fabulous Bowl of Meat came to me in New Jersey in ’85 in the middle of catering something.
Q: If I remember correctly, the restaurant is named after your dog, right?
A: Yes, Miranda the excellent dog. And her ashes and her water bowl and her collar are on a little shelf above table 11 at the restaurant. Nobody can see it unless you really look for it. But she’s there in her urn.
Q: Every time I see you, you try to give me a pink flamingo. What’s up with that?
A: I’m not telling you. Enigma.
Q: Is it a story that you can’t tell in a family newspaper, or is it just that you want to keep it mysterious?
A: I’m not telling you. It’s working as a conversation piece, don’t you think? There you go.
Q: I know you’ve named dishes after Jerry Garcia …
A: No! That’s Jerry Brooks from Union, Maine. Everybody thinks it’s Jerry Garcia. I’ve been to plenty of Dead shows, and I mean plenty. But in the book there’s a piece about Jerry sitting at the counter with a bowl of bleu cheese, a bottle of Sriracha and some of the focaccia with this blank look in his eye, just in bliss heaven. The Jerry dishes are hot things with bleu cheese.
Q: “I Dreamt of Jerry.” That’s what I was trying to remember.
A: It was Jerry Brooks. I keep a notepad by my bed, and I dreamed he was having this thing with roasted peppers and hot banana peppers and vinegar and garlic and basil and bleu cheese, and it was a creamy thing. It was an inside-out burger. I woke up and said “I dreamt of Jerry,” and I wrote it down. And there it is.
Q: Do you ever have any desire to open another place?
A: Is another place in the cards? Yeah. If the right deal in the right space in the right town came along, yes, we would seriously look at it because we’ve got something for everybody, from punks to billionaires. We’re like the Swiss army knife of restaurants.