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

(Continued from page 1)

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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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"I don't ever try to say I'm the best chef around. There are tremendous chefs doing all kinds of crazy, intense stuff that we don't necessarily do. We're good at the service part, and putting on the show and making the room look nice."

To Smith, his establishments aren't just restaurants. They're theaters.

And when customers start to arrive, it's showtime.

The concept of restaurant-as-theater is so ingrained that even his employees and customers pick up on it.

Morgan Fineberg, who has worked for about a year as a server and bartender at The Corner Room, where Smith holds court behind the antipasti bar on Friday and Saturday nights, says he likes it when Smith is in the house because it makes him step up his own game.

"It's almost like a play, a show," Fineberg said. "You prepare throughout the week and then ... he's finally there, it's Friday or Saturday night and you're booked for the whole night, and it all culminates into that one night of 'Ready? Go.' "

At the copy shop, Smith picked up blueprints for the hood system at Boone's, then drove to City Hall, a place he knows well by now.

He was wearing his signature black chef's garb and a navy jacket, sunglasses secured around his neck. While tattoos are de rigueur among younger restaurant workers, Smith has never succumbed to the temptation. Instead, he wears tiny loop earrings in each ear, gifts from his father and uncle.

He punched the elevator button for the third floor and vented a little bit about how frustrating the city's red tape can be -- making sure to note, diplomatically, that it's the process he has a problem with, not the people. He calls it "a practice of patience."

Venting about City Hall is a frequent pastime.

When Smith reached the window at the Building Inspections Office, he discovered that the paper blueprints he just paid for at the copy shop were unnecessary. The clerk informed him that all plans must now be submitted electronically, a change implemented just three days before.

Smith headed back downstairs, calling and texting his people on the phone, trying to figure out what to do next.

"So after you open three restaurants," he said, "you'd think it would be easy to open a fourth one, right?"

He barely made it off the elevator when he got a phone message. He said, with a bit of a smirk, "We gotta go back up."

"This is my day, pretty much every day," he said. "I run around like this. Then I get a break in the afternoon, and I get to cook."

As frustrating as Smith finds the paperwork, being a restaurateur is in his blood.

One of his earliest memories is of standing at the stove at age 4, watching his father make crepes. It was the 1970s, and his parents loved giving dinner parties.

"You know when you flip it like that? If it didn't land back in the pan and hit the stove, I could eat it," Smith recalled.

His early years were spent on Shoal Cove in West Bath, right on the water. He grew up sailing and lobstering in the area. The family didn't have a lot of money, but Smith's father would spend money on good food. Barry Smith read cookbooks by James Beard and Julia Child, and often tried making elaborate dishes like Baked Alaska.

Smith's father soon became a full-time partner of Barbara Dean's in Ogunquit, a classic coastal Maine restaurant that was open for breakfast and dinner. At age 7, Smith sat on a stool at Barbara Dean's waiting for someone to order a lobster, and when they did, it was his job to cook it.

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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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