UNITY — Up a dirt road winding through a small community of Amish families, in a modest pine building hung with lanterns and a simple sign that says Charcuterie, Matthew Secich cures and smokes local meats and cheeses, and remembers the life he led before he found religion.
“I was horrible,” he said. His bushy beard falls to his heart and he speaks with solemn sincerity, but there were decades when he worked at famous restaurants, stoking his ego more furiously than the wood stove heating his off-the-grid shop on a January afternoon.
“I was at the pinnacle,” he said. “I commanded 40 people in the kitchen. I walked into the kitchen and they jumped.”
His perfectionist streak ruled his actions. “I burned people,” he said. As in, held a line cook’s hand to a hot fire for making a mistake at Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago, where Secich was a sous chef from 2006 to 2008. “Four stars, that’s all that matters.”
Then he grew disgusted.
“I went home one night and got on my knees and asked for forgiveness,” he said. For his lack of compassion for others, his nights with restaurant friends and a fifth of Jim Beam with a side of Pabst Blue Ribbon, for that overactive ego. “I gave my life to the Lord, which I never would have imagined in the heyday of my chaos.”
After the chaos came the Mennonites (more on that later) and now the Amish, a stricter, more conservative version of the same essential faith. Once he worked in $700-a-night inns and lavish restaurants where dinner bills for two could easily top $600. Now he works without any modern conveniences. But it is completely functional; Secich shows off a just-finished curing room and an ice chest that will soon hold 79 tons of ice chipped from the waters around Unity, built with his new brothers.
“The whole community helped out,” Secich said. “We’ve been in cahoots of some sort from the beginning.”
He serves customers who can hardly believe their good fortune to be buying reasonably priced world-class but local meats – including 12 kinds of smoked sausage, like the alluring sounding “bacon sausage” – in a town with a population that just tops 2,000.
Secich’s meats and cheeses – and eventually breads, as soon as he gets the wood oven built – are a gift to the community, said Ted Quaday, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, which also makes its home in Unity. Quaday has been shopping at Secich’s Charcuterie since it opened in mid-December.
“To me it is right on par with The Lost Kitchen down in Freedom,” Quaday said. “It’s just unreal that it is even here.”
PATH TO MAINE
But the path to parting ways with a chef’s ego is not without roadblocks. Secich drops samples on a plate – heavenly chorizo, andouille, a sweet bologna – and at the same time, famous names.
He didn’t just work with Trotter, but also Craig Shelton of the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, New Jersey (now closed, like Trotter’s place), Patrick O’Connell at the Inn at Little Washington, where Secich learned how to butcher and once had an omelette lesson from Julia Child. He was the chef at the Oval Room in Washington, D.C., and the Alpenhof Lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He has done so many things that you might think him a very well-preserved senior citizen, but he is only 45.
So what’s his secret? Short stints for one thing. The kind that tend to leave broken-hearted food lovers in one’s wake. A food writer at the Times Union in upstate New York, who dined at the Inn at Erlowest on Lake George during Secich’s year-long employment there in 2004-2005, referred to Secich’s “peripatetic ways” in a blog post titled, mournfully, “Comet streaks on.” Secich had just left the Oval Room after three very well-reviewed months at the DC restaurant as executive chef in 2006.
“I have a big problem,” Secich said. “I’m either all or none.”
After renouncing chaos, and Chicago, he returned to his wife, Crystal, and family in Vermont – they had stayed behind while he tested the Midwestern waters – and joined a Mennonite church. His thinking was, “if you surround yourself by godly people you’ll grow godly.”
In Vermont he also started a small dairy, farmed, got a state license to process meat and spent two years at Rabbit Hill Inn in Lower Waterford.
At Rabbit Hill, owner Brian Mulcahy said, Secich served highly sophisticated food. Guests at the inn tend to come from the likes of New York and Boston, so typically Rabbit Hill pushes the envelope “a little bit, but Matthew pushed the envelope a lot.”
“My wife, Leslie, used to call it ‘Shock and Awe’ cuisine,” Mulcahy added. “He had a penchant for working with offal. Calf’s brains. We had a particular dish that was five different types of internal animal parts.”
Some guests loved this. Others not so much and Rabbit Hill and Secich parted ways after two years. Mulcahy said that Secich now is doing what he believes he wanted to do.
“He is indeed talented, but his frustration with doing what he was doing – a lot of that was tied into his ego. He could not understand why the people in the Northeast Kingdom could not understand his food.”
DEXTERITY IN DEXTER
They were done with Vermont. “I think Vermont is moving too fast,” Secich said. They moved to Maine and joined the Mennonite community in Dexter, where they farmed and added daughters Lydia, 6, and Hannah, 5, to their brood (their son, Emerson is 10). Then they thrilled locals by opening the Riverside Meat Market in early 2015. Among the delicacies Secich smoked up for his happy neighbors were nine kinds of smoked salmon.
“It was an exceptional thing that you don’t see in big cities, let alone Dexter,” said Dexter optometrist Gerry Rudmin. He is such a fan he already made the hour-plus drive to Unity once and plans to do so again.
Problematically, Riverside was tucked into a back alley behind Tilson’s Hardware store. “Great guy doing great things, but he opened up in the middle of the winter in a terrible location,” Tom Tilson said. “Just kind of a raw deal. I’m surprised he did as good as he did.”
The Mennonite community wasn’t the right fit for the family, Secich said, and he asked the Amish in Unity if there was a place for them there. Though being accepted at Maine’s smallest Amish community involved more than just making a simple request, the Amish are open to newcomers willing to live within their traditions. Among the Amish in Unity, who have been there since 2008, this includes not driving.
His main experience with the Amish had been as a child in Ohio. His parents had divorced and at 10, Secich began riding a Greyhound bus between them in Youngstown and Columbus. He’d sit with Amish people riding the bus, and felt they projected a sense of safety. When the Amish of Unity said yes, that meant the end of the Riverside Meat Market.
“We miss him,” Rudmin said. “I understand, but everybody is disappointed. I think even people in Shop N Save are disappointed.”
To make the transition to the lifestyle of the Unity Amish, Secich and his wife had to give up their cars and embrace driving a horse and buggy.
“It wasn’t easy to walk away from a car,” Secich said. “And I was scared of horses.”
As the afternoon light peaks and turns, his children, just home from school, go bouncing across the fields in the horse and buggy, the 10-year-old driving. It is wildly romantic. These three know nothing of screens. Their father doubts they know what Annie’s Mac and Cheese is. Life is good. He feels at home.
“It took time,” he said. “We didn’t all of a sudden jump into being Amish. It took six years to find this.”
“Lord willing, I stay here awhile,” he added.
But the memories of that old life are still fresh in his mind. The velvety quality of the omelette Julia Child showed him how to make. The names. The food. And maybe some sophistication: Landscapes adorn the walls of Charcuterie, painted by Secich himself, and one is priced at $1,100. And there is enough hustle left in him to call a newspaper to invite coverage. What if that call means he is flooded with customers, in this little shop?
“If that would take its course we’ll do our best,” he said. “I don’t want to be so busy that I neglect my family. If that happens, I’ll just close it down.”