When chef Rebecca Charles opened Pearl Oyster Bar in New York 20 years ago, her dream was to one day return to Maine and open a sister restaurant here.

In February, that longstanding dream became a nightmare. A “Biblical nightmare,” Charles says. One that has her joking about finding a priest to perform an exorcism on her new restaurant, Pearl Kennebunk Beach, which finally opened Aug. 5 after a long string of bad luck. One that prompted her to gratefully accept the offer of a former employee to come in with burning sage and smudge the place.

Hey, it couldn’t hurt.

“I swear, it almost seemed at points that this building was just going to get swallowed up and sink into the ground and that would be the end of it,” Charles said.

“Kitchen Nightmares” is more than a dumb reality TV show. Chefs have their own real-life kitchen nightmares that stick in their memories from job to job, following them like a scar from the slip of a knife.

For Melissa Bouchard, chef at DiMillo’s on the Water in Portland, it is the Memorial Day weekend when a dishwasher motor broke. For Daron Goldstein, now a private chef in Northeast Harbor, it’s the time the fire suppression system went off – twice – in the kitchen of the southern Maine restaurant he was working in the day before Thanksgiving, when he was expected to feed 500 people. Sean Doherty, who has worked as a chef for more than three decades, can’t shake the embarrassment of having served undercooked chicken to both Norman Mailer and Oliver Stone.

YE GODS!

Charles, perhaps, wins the award for the longest-running restaurant disaster. The chef worked in several Maine restaurants when she was younger, including the White Barn Inn, and her family has summered in Kennebunk since 1917. For years, she had her eye on the building that once housed the Grissini Italian Bistro. She tried to buy it three times before she finally succeeded.

It’s almost as if the universe were trying to warn her.

The building had its own parking lot – a big plus for a business that’s just a stone’s throw from busy Dock Square – but Charles also knew the old place was a potential Pandora’s Box of problems. The plumbing and wiring were out of date, and the kitchen was 40 years old. The main dining room was in solid condition but needed renovations to replace the what-were-they-thinking black paint on the walls and the dark stain that covered the original pine flooring.

She decided to tackle repairs and renovations in stages. Last spring, Charles focused on getting a smaller café-style restaurant, Spat Oyster Cellar, open downstairs.

Spat Oyster Cellar didn’t open until late September, and it didn’t make as much money as Charles hoped. In late December, business dropped off and she made the decision to close for the winter.

“I was planning on coming back at the beginning of March, and we were going to open in April,” Charles said. “I went back to deal with my other life (in New York), and the next thing you know, it’s mid-February, and I get a call from the real estate company next door: ‘There’s water coming out from underneath your kitchen door, and water’s coming out of the ceiling.’ ”

Charles, a New York chef with deep roots in Maine, poured her life savings into Pearl and the smaller café-style restaurant, Spat Oyster Cellar, downstairs. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Charles called the water company and they sent out someone to check on the place. A pipe must have burst, the water company informed her on the phone, so they would turn the water off.

“I figured OK, I’ll put in a claim and it will be, like, maybe $10,000 worth of damage,” Charles said.

But the next day, Charles’ neighbor called her again. Water was still coming out from the kitchen door. Charles and her neighbor decided the best thing to do was call the fire department, which was how Charles learned that the sprinkler system had malfunctioned – and the valve to turn it off was in the real estate company’s basement, locked with a padlock for which she did not have a key. (The restaurant and real estate buildings are separate, but part of the same condo association. For the first time, Charles learned that to reach the restaurant’s sprinkler system, hot water heater and oil tanks, she has to go through the real estate building.)

Everything but the main dining room was a total loss: Spat, the kitchen, the upstairs office. Contractors ripped out each ruined room on each floor, down to the studs, and removed all wiring and plumbing. The damage came to about $400,000. Luckily, Charles was “insured to the gills,” and she was also covered under the condo association’s insurance.

From April until mid-July, with tourist season well underway, the kitchen was rebuilt, along with the entire downstairs and the upstairs office. In the 80-seat main dining room, which includes a beautiful stone fireplace, the pine floors were returned to their original state, and the walls were painted in a color called Weimaraner (yes, the color of the dog’s coat).

NORMAN MAILER’S CHICKEN BREAST

Other chefs can relate.

Melissa Bouchard, chef at DiMillo’s, remembers the Friday night about four years ago when the motor running the conveyor belt on the restaurant’s dishwashing machine burned out. She was facing a Memorial Day weekend – one of the busiest weekends of the year – with no dishwasher and the likelihood of thousands of dirty dishes.

Rebecca Charles slices a lobster that will be used for a bouillabaisse in the (now dry) kitchen at Pearl Kennebunk Beach. The kitchen, office and downstairs café all needed to be gutted because of water damage, then rebuilt. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

She set up the the three-bay sink so some of the dishes could be washed by hand. They washed glassware at the bar, “which was difficult. You don’t really want to be bringing dirty dishes to the bar, in customer view, but we had to do that.”

Since the dishwashing machine itself still worked, they decided to try pulling the belt manually.

Everyone on the kitchen and dish crew lent a hand, “which was extremely laborious and tiring,” Bouchard said.

“I gave it a try,” she said. “I think I lasted a half an hour. We had some dishwashers who were doing it hour after hour.”

Daron Goldstein’s most memorable fiasco happened about four years ago when he was the chef at Clay Hill Farm in Cape Neddick.

It was the day before Thanksgiving. The restaurant had 500 reservations, and he and the staff were doing “heavy prep” with all 12 burners in the kitchen going. “We had about 200 pounds of mashed potatoes on the stovetop and numerous other things, along with at least 15 or 20 gallons of gravy,” he said.

Suddenly, at 11 a.m., the fire suppression system went off, spraying chemicals all over the food. There were no grease fires – it was a technical glitch. The restaurant called a company technician to come out and reset it, while the staff scurried to toss out the contaminated food, clean up the mess and call purveyors to try to buy more of everything. (Thankfully, the turkeys were in another part of the kitchen and survived unscathed.)

Goldstein and the staff made Thanksgiving dinner a second time. Then, at 4:30 p.m., the fire suppression system went off again. This time, recovery was more difficult.

“Now it’s getting late,” Goldstein said. “It’s 5 o’clock and it’s like, no way. There’s no way we could do it again. We were asking people if they had any gravy at home in their freezer.”

They gathered as much new product as they could and started cooking a third Thanksgiving dinner.

“We pulled it off,” Goldstein said, “but we ended up making just enough.”

Not every disaster can be blamed on faulty equipment. Sometimes, chefs have only themselves to blame. Take Sean Doherty, who has worked as a line cook and chef for more than three decades, in restaurants in Maine, Massachusetts, New York and California. Now he bakes at The Corner Room in Portland.

Doherty still thinks about an incident from one of his first jobs, lead line cook at the Waterville Country Club. The chef took a break one afternoon to play a round of golf and left Doherty in charge of cooking prime rib for 600 people attending a special event that night. Doherty made the mistake of pulling the wrong meat from the walk-in cooler, and instead being served prime rib, the diners got New York strips. “(The chef) took one look at it,” Doherty said, “and if looks could kill…” Doherty has also had troubles with chicken. About a year after the prime rib problem, he was working at the Harvard Bookstore Café on Newbury Street in Boston, a hot spot for hungry VIPs. Doherty sent out a chicken breast, and the customer sent it back because it was undercooked.

Someone on staff came into the kitchen and yelled at him: “That was Norman Mailer’s effin chicken breast. Refire!” Doherty recalled. “And I sent it out again undercooked.”

Doherty, who was about 19 at the time, admits he had no idea who Norman Mailer was. (He looked it up later and was properly mortified.)

He didn’t use lose his job over the incident, but he did get written up. And that wasn’t the end of his poultry predicaments.

Two years later, at a restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side, Doherty sent out a plate of undercooked chicken to Oliver Stone, who was a friend of the owner.

“I had to go out and apologize to Oliver Stone himself,” Doherty said. “He kind of got a kick out of it.”

Doherty hasn’t undercooked a chicken since.

The dining room of Pearl restaurant in Kennebunk. Charles’ problems didn’t end with water damage at the restaurant – she also dealt with interview no-shows, problems sourcing ingredients, and mounting costs. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

UPHILL BATTLE

Charles’ nightmare couldn’t be quashed by the end of a shift or a heartfelt apology. Even after rebuilding, the problems kept coming.

She set a target opening date of July 4 for Pearl Kennebunk Beach, which turned out to be wishful thinking. Potential employees didn’t show up for interviews, and Charles had to fire a chef the day before the restaurant opened. She flew Andrew Sutin, her trusted sous chef at Pearl Oyster Bar in Greenwich Village, up to Maine that same day so he could help organize the kitchen.

She also had trouble sourcing affordable ingredients.

“Food, wine and beer are exorbitantly priced here, way more than New York, and I never expected that,” Charles said. “I didn’t research it, which was stupid on my part, but I never would have expected it. Everything is at least 10 percent more here.”

Now that Pearl Kennebunk Beach is finally open, Charles is worried about getting the restaurant, and Spat Oyster Cellar (which has not yet re-opened), through the lean winter months. Last week, she sold her apartment in New York and will use the money to bolster their winter bottom lines. She’s still flying to New York about once a month, but will now stay in a hotel a couple of blocks down from Pearl Oyster Bar.

Charles, who is 63, said she underestimated the energy it would take at her age to open another restaurant, let alone one with enormous problems, and she probably won’t do it again.

“I really have come close to losing it,” she said. “Opening Pearl 20 years ago, I was 42 years old, which is the right age to open a business. Even in New York, with $120,000 I was able to open a 21-seat restaurant. If I had lost everything, it wouldn’t have been that much. (The new restaurant) is an enormous investment. I put my life savings into it.”

Charles, who is sole owner of the restaurant, paid $1 million for the property alone. She estimates her total investment is $1.8 million.

Charles has taken to comparing herself with Sisyphus, the character in Greek mythology who is condemned to pushing a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, for all eternity.

“It’s just so much work,” she said. “It’s so overwhelming.”

But she has kept her sense of humor. She asked her bartender to create a cocktail called the Sisyphus: cognac, Lillet Blanc, Cointreau, lemon and egg white.

You can toast to the end of the nightmare for $12.