June 2, 2013

Portland's hardest-working chef piles more on his plate

Unsated by the success of his three 'Room' restaurants, Harding Lee Smith is bringing his demanding standards to yet another eatery, adding to what some call a 'mini empire.'

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Harding Lee Smith was on the phone in his black Chevy SUV, chatting with a chef he wanted to hire for one of his restaurants while he drove toward a copy shop on Fore Street.

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The chef's day is always filled with activity. Harding Lee Smith shops for fish recently at Browne Trading Co. in Portland.

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Portland restaurateur Harding Lee Smith interacts recently with a longtime patron as he prepares for evening service at The Grill Room & Bar on Exchange Street. Smith's fourth restaurant is set to open at Custom House Wharf later this month.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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The 44-year-old chef was talking to Dylan Boepple, "a kid from Vermont" who would be taking over for Brandon Tenney, chef de cuisine at The Grill Room & Bar. Tenney was being promoted to a new position -- executive sous-chef for all of Smith's popular "Room" restaurants.

In his baritone voice, Smith told Boepple that he wants a year's commitment: "That's what I expect from someone like you -- that you're not going to walk down the street for 50 cents more an hour, or something like that."

Smith, whose phone is constantly glued to his ear, drove around a while until he had finished the call and realized, a little sheepishly, that he was still blocks away from the copy shop.

This has been Smith's life the past few months, as he juggles managing his three Portland restaurants while trying to open a fourth: Boone's Fish House & Oyster Room, a new seafood place on Custom House Wharf.

In a year with an unusually large number of restaurant openings in the works in Portland, Boone's is one of the most anticipated. It's a project that will give Smith an unprecedented fourth restaurant within the city limits, and revitalize the late-19th-century waterfront building where it's said Alexander Boone first served baked stuffed lobster.

While other Portland chefs are developing third and fourth restaurants of their own, some of them may be in other locations or financed by outside investors. Smith's restaurants are all in Portland, and they have been successful enough that he says he did not need an infusion of outside cash for Boone's.

The new Boone's, whose target opening date is June 15, will provide jobs for 55 to 60 people, bringing the total number of employees working for Smith, at the height of summer, to between 160 and 170. In a first for Smith, he's just hired Bryan Dame, formerly of the Tides Beach Club in Kennebunkport and The Edge in Lincolnville, to be executive chef at the new establishment.

"It's the first time I've hired an executive chef, so this is a big step for me," Smith said. "I'm not turning it over to him. Obviously, we'll be working very closely together, but I'll be the expediter overseeing it, and he'll be nose-to-the-grindstone. He's a tremendous, dynamic personality, an absolute workaholic, and very talented foodwise, too."

With four restaurants to run, Smith will need the help. He opened The Front Room Restaurant & Bar on Congress Street in 2005. The Grill Room & Bar and The Corner Room Italian Kitchen & Bar, both on Exchange Street, followed in 2008 and 2009.

Kate Krader, restaurant editor at Food & Wine magazine, said there's a national trend of chefs creating "their own little mini empires."

"It's probably sort of a backlash against some of the chaining of talented chefs," she said, "and they have different interests and different itches they want to scratch."

In Smith's case, he is as much restaurateur as chef. It is a path that he has consciously chosen. He still enjoys being in the kitchen and cares about the food he serves, but he is focused just as much on the decor, the ambience and the bottom line as what goes on the plate.

"I'm not just a cook," he says. "I love to cook, and I'm a good chef, I think, but I hire good people and I let them sort of do what they do. I put them in place and let them run with it. What I'm really good at is doing the food demonstrations and talking with people at the dining bar and explaining what the food's about.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Smith takes in the aroma of a red during a wine tasting at The Grill Room.

Gabe Souza

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Smith consults with the project manager at his newest venture, Boone's Fish House and Oyster Room in renovated space on Custom House Wharf.

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The demands of his growing restaurant empire in Portland mean Smith's phone is never far away.

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A mirror at The Grill Room & Bar in Portland reflects chef and restaurateur Harding Lee Smith as he meets with his staff recently. A fellow chef in Portland who used to work for Smith describes him as extremely demanding but fiercely loyal to employees who work hard and show loyalty to him.

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Near the end of a long day, Smith walks his dogs across Congress Street before heading back downtown to check in on the two restaurants he owns on Exchange Street.


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