March 9, 2011

These are a few of Maine chefs' . . . favorite things

We consulted with 20 Restaurant Week chefs and asked them to share tricks, tips, tools, recipes -- anything, really -- that they've grown to love in the past year.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

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Staff art by Michael Fisher

-- Eric Simeon, chef, Grace, Portland

One of my favorite books having to do with food is "Culinary Artistry." It's almost like a Bible in a hotel room; there's a copy in every kitchen. It contains recipes simple to read and easy to follow, also ingredient pairings that anyone from novice to professional cook can use.

-- Joe Boudreau, chef, Havana South, Portland

If there's something that I particularly enjoyed in Maine recently, it's my meeting with Lisa Webster at North Star Sheep Farm and the tasting of her lamb on a wintry morning in Windham. (I was looking for lamb cuts for a James Beard dinner presenting Maine products). It was a perfect day, the drive from Camden to Windham was beautiful, and it was the first time I explored that area of Maine. The farm, the lambs and the countryside was inspiring, and my high expectations were followed by a wonderful tasting.

The sheep were right outside the door. It was amazing to have such a close relationship to the animal. I met the lambs, toured the farm -- that was a new experience for me, to see everything up close like that. I tasted the meat at 9 in the morning. It was extremely fresh, and the experience was very powerful.

I used the lamb belly and the lamb loin in the James Beard dish. This was the first Maine lamb I had ever tasted. The way Lisa cares for her lamb and the quality of her meat makes me happy to cook.

-- Geoffroy Deconinck, executive chef at Natalie's, Camden Harbour Inn

The go-to ingredient this year for me is blue agave nectar. This comes from the plant most associated with tequila, the blue agaves which thrive in the volcanic soils of southern Mexico. Also known as "honey water." The plant resembles the cactus, but is closer to the aloe vera.

The nectar is produced by processing the liquid from the core of the plant. This liquid is high in fructose, a natural sweetener, and actually sweeter than sugar. The nectar has grades of color similar to maple sugar. I love this for the fact it's similar to honey but more complex in flavor. It's great in many applications like cocktails, vinaigrettes, glazes, sauces, desserts, anything that needs a touch of sugar.

-- Jeff Beurhaus, chef/owner, Walter's, Portland

You know the saying "two kids are four times the work"? Well, the same pretty much goes for restaurants. I affectionately refer to my staff as "the kids," without whom I'd be nowhere. I am so lucky to be surrounded by such love and talented young people. I'm amazed every day.

-- Jay Villani, chef/owner, Local 188 and Sonny's, Portland

This past year has not been defined by a book, gadget or recipe, per se, but rather an inspiration that has taken me back to the reasons I started cooking in the first place. My wife Michelle is of direct French descent, her father having moved to this country as a young man. The combination of a French family reunion and the pending opening of our second restaurant Petite Jacqueline have provided me with the opportunity to revisit the traditions and basic elements of cooking that have always been the foundation of my philosophy in the kitchen.

Having the French family here, while a bit intimidating to cook for, was an unforgettable experience and an invaluable addition to my culinary education. So this past year for me, in a culinary sense, has been based on perfecting traditional French dishes stressing the importance of building flavors and using time-tested methodology.

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