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

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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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"We did 400 breakfasts at a whack," Smith said. "Dinners, it was a broiled haddock, scallops, prime rib kind of place. It wasn't fancy, but I did learn a lot."

After his parents divorced, Smith moved to Ogunquit to live with his father while he attended Wells Junior High. During the summers, he'd work at Barbara Dean's, restocking the salad bar and doing prep work.

For high school, he moved back to Portland to live with his mother and stepfather, Ernie Stallworth, who at the time was a Portland Press Herald sportswriter covering the New England Patriots. He worked in local restaurants and cooked at home a lot -- eggplant parmigiana was his specialty -- to help out.

When it came time to decide on college, Smith told his guidance counselor he wanted to be either a doctor or a journalist. The counselor knew his family had owned a restaurant, so he steered him toward the hospitality industry, explaining that becoming a doctor involved many years of schooling.

"He summed up my academic achievement thus far in my letter of recommendation as 'the conservation of energy,' " Smith said. " 'He applies himself when needed, but it takes some time.' He actually wrote that."

Smith finally found his calling in Boston, working in restaurants while he studied hotel management at Boston University. He landed his first big-city restaurant job at Joe's American Bar & Grill.

"I grew up in restaurants," Smith said. "I thought I knew what I was doing, and (I had) no clue. No clue. Could barely hold a knife, it turned out. So they put me on the pantry, making salads during the day. Then one night the saute cook called in sick, so they said, 'OK, we're going to put you on saute tonight.' No training, nothing. Just threw me on, and I did well.

"The next night, they put me on the grill. And then, like two months later, I was a sous chef. I was good at it. Then I realized, 'This is what I'm going to do. I want to be a chef.' "

During these early years, Smith set a goal of opening five or six restaurants by the time he was 30. He vowed that if he failed, he would find something else to do.

After leaving Boston, Smith spent a few years working in restaurants in California, Italy and Hawaii. He took classes at the West Coast campus of the Culinary Institute of America. He married and divorced.

By the time Smith was in his mid-30s, not only did he not have a restaurant of his own, he was fired as the chef of Mims Brasserie in Portland after what he describes as a power struggle with the owner.

He moped around for a couple of days afterward, depressed. But getting fired would turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.

Seven months later, he had a lease for The Front Room.


The Front Room space was in Smith's own Munjoy Hill neighborhood -- he'd originally spied it while walking his dogs. He wrote a business plan, got the zoning changed, and found five investors willing to pony up $25,000 each.

Smith was 36, but he was finally on his way. He opened The Front Room with "negative $173 in the bank."

He remembers being so filled with worry the night before the restaurant opened that he was unable to sleep. What if it's not busy?

Turned out that would be no problem.

"It was gangbusters, and it's been gangbusters ever since," he said. "We got really lucky with that spot."

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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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