Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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Chef Carmen Gonzalez, above, in the kitchen at The Danforth Inn in Portland, where she is busily preparing for the planned May opening of Carmen at The Danforth. Gonzalez’s plans for the summer menu emphasize seafood with a Latin twist.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer
The Danforth Inn owner, Kimberly Swan, with dog Ava, in the “salon,” where guests are served cocktails and hors d’oeuvres before dinner.
Gordon Chibroski/ Staff Photographer
Daily breakfasts for the inn's guests will continue, with Gonzalez putting her stamp on the menus.
Guests will begin their evening in the inn's salon area, listening to piano music and enjoying cocktails from a new bar and pasabocas, or passed hors d'oeuvres. Seating will be in three small dining rooms, including a "chef's table" area in what is now the inn's sun porch.
Gonzalez just hired a sous chef and a front of house manager, both from Maine, as well as a sommelier consultant to help create the wine list and train the staff. "We're going to have a big wine-by-the glass program," she said.
There will also be a cheese cart that will move from table to table.
SMALL SPACE, SMALL CHANGES
The inn's kitchen is undergoing limited renovations April 30 to May 3, but it will remain small. A three-bay sink will have to be added to satisfy the city code, but other improvements will be small things like installing under-counter refrigerators and adding granite countertops.
Gonzalez desperately wanted to keep the inn's old stove because it has so much character, but she said it will likely be replaced because it's too big – and she needs a grill.
"I still cook the old way. As long as I have a stove, a grill, a fryer, I'm just so good," she said, laughing. "Listen, I had the privilege and the honor of working at The Quilted Giraffe (in New York City) in the '80s. We used to work in a kitchen that was a closet. I mean, it was a closet, and we were so happy. We were putting out some of the best food in New York and probably the United States.
"When I hear a kitchen's a million dollars, it would be nice, you know what I mean? But there's no need for me to have that. My food is very simple."
RAISED IN A FAMILY OF GOOD COOKS
Gonzalez's love of good food began when she was growing up in Aguadilla, a small fishing town in Puerto Rico. Her mother and grandmother, she says, were both "absolutely magnificent cooks."
"When I was in high school, everybody was always thinking about something when you got out of school," Gonzalez said, "and the only thing I was thinking when I got out of school was going home and seeing what my mom was cooking for dinner."
Gonzalez, now 53, was raised by a mother who kept a garden filled with herbs, tomatoes, lettuce and watermelon. The family's backyard was covered in mangoes, avocados, plantains, papayas and Key limes.
Gonzalez's mother read all the women's magazines of the 1950s and '60s – Family Circle, Women's Day, Good Housekeeping – and when Carmen was about 8, she started cutting out recipes. Her mother made her a stool to stand on so she could help in the kitchen.
After school, Gonzalez and her siblings would change clothes, do their homework quickly, and go to the beach for three hours. On the weekends, they'd rise at 7 a.m. so they could get to the beach early.
"In Puerto Rico at that time, in that little town, it didn't matter if you didn't have a car, but you needed to have a boat because everybody was always in the ocean," Gonzalez said. "So every Saturday and Sunday we would go very, very early. I can tell you we were on the beach at 7:30, 8 o'clock in the morning – all my cousins and my uncles and the boats – and it was just a big party."
The family would wait for the fishermen to come back around 11 a.m. in their yolas, brightly colored wooden rowboats that they had filled with fish and lobsters.
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click image to enlarge
Carmen Gonzalez grew up in a small fishing village in Puerto Rico. She opened her first restaurant at 19 in San Juan and has since worked at highly regarded restaurants in Miami and New York.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer