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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Smith and his wife, Darcy, live above The Front Room in a modest apartment that they share with their three cats and two Labrador retrievers. Married for almost four years, they are preparing for the arrival of their first child, a boy expected in September.

Age and approaching fatherhood have mellowed the chef, Darcy Smith said. She admits that even she was initially intimidated by his hothead reputation and was nervous about meeting him for the first time when she went to try to sell him a new computer system.

"I was like, 'OK, I've heard about this guy,' " she said. "I've heard he's kind of mean. So I went and met him, and he was totally not what I expected at all."

Darcy helps manage the restaurants, although she is doing less of that now that she's nesting. At home, the couple's lives revolve around work, food, the Red Sox and sailing the boat he moors on the Portland waterfront.

The most outward sign that a chef lives in the apartment is in the living room, where an entire wall has been transformed into a bookcase for an extensive collection of cookbooks -- everything from Escoffier to Alice Waters.

Yet the Smiths do not cook much here, except for maybe his roast chicken or her chili on a night the New England Patriots are playing. They prefer eating out. Smith is partial to Miyake's sushi and anything from Veranda Noodle Bar. For brunch, it's Petite Jacqueline or Caiola's. When in Boston, they never miss a visit to the Neptune oyster bar in the North End.

"Really, most of our life revolves around eating," Darcy said, laughing.

From the Smiths' apartment, you can hear chairs lightly scraping the floor in The Front Room below. Smith occasionally starts his day with breakfast downstairs, but has found he has trouble relaxing because he's always on the lookout for problems to fix. And he never goes in for brunch on Saturdays or Sundays. "I feel guilty taking up a chair," he said.


Smith believes his menus earn people's trust. Make a good meatloaf or simple chicken dish, and maybe your customers will be willing to try some quail or skate wing on another day. If duck confit is on the menu, he calls it something else so guests won't be intimidated.

The topic of trust comes up a lot in conversations with, and about, Harding Lee Smith. His desire to have things just so has made it easier to butt heads with employees. There have always been rumors around town that he has a volcanic temper, but it's hard to find anyone who will talk about it publicly.

In 2010, a half-dozen workers from The Front Room who had alleged wage and hour violations -- and claimed they had been subjected to abusive treatment by Smith -- filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland that was eventually settled.

Smith saw the lawsuit as a publicity stunt and/or "cash grab" by a restaurant workers' union, and says he settled the case on the advice of his attorney -- not because he thought he would lose, but because it would cost too much to fight it.

Smith admits there have been times when he has "definitely lost it, without a doubt. But I think every chef who's worth his salt probably has."

In 2011, someone with a grudge set up fake Facebook and Twitter accounts in Smith's name. They insulted other local chefs and restaurants, made fun of celebrity chefs, and posted nasty comments about Smith's personal life.

"I'm sure certain people have certain thoughts about me, and I have a reputation with some people of being a jerk and being an (expletive) or whatever," he said. "If you do your job, you never hear a word from me, you know? If you don't do your job, you're probably not going to work here much longer."

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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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