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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Darcy Smith says her husband is "not mean to people," but he has "thrown many a pan" to get his employees' attention. One new employee was so intimidated by Smith's reputation that he asked for every Thursday off -- because that was the day Smith came in to that restaurant.

Jesse Poirier, the new chef at The Porthole, worked for Smith at The Front Room, and describes him as extremely demanding but fiercely loyal to employees who work hard and show loyalty to him.

"He probably expects more out of his employees than any other chef I've ever worked for," Poirier said. "It's a good thing, because it teaches you to go on and do things on your own."

Smith said it can be a challenge to find people who are a good fit for his businesses. He sings the praises of Greg Wilson, the chef de cuisine at The Front Room and now The Corner Room, who worked at the tony White Barn Inn in Kennebunk before coming to Portland to cook homestyle comfort food.

But it took a long time for Wilson to gain Smith's trust. Smith still remembers the day his new chef kicked him out of his own kitchen, sending his boss upstairs to his apartment to watch TV.

"Those first couple of nights," Smith said, "it was, 'What's going on down there?' I've let that go now."

Smith's attention to detail, and the trust he puts in his employees, pays off with customers.

Dan Crewe of Cumberland has a standing breakfast date with two friends every Sunday at The Front Room, and he stops by often for lunch or dinner. He likes that he can recommend a dish to friends and know that when they order it, it will be as good as the day he tried it.

"You know, so often when you go to a restaurant and you're impressed with something, it's very seldom that it's always consistent," Crewe said. "It's a very small facility, and they just seem to do a marvelous job of keeping it reasonably high quality, and I'm very impressed with that."

It's a sign of the popularity of the "Room" restaurants that when Smith offered Living Social coupons for The Corner Room a couple of years ago, he sold 2,700 of them, which at the time was a record for New England. When he offered coupons for The Front Room in January, he sold 4,400 -- the most ever sold by a U.S. restaurant.


After leaving City Hall, Smith drove down to Boone's, which was almost completely gutted and crawling with workers, for meetings with equipment dealers and vendors.

He had to make significant improvements to meet code, installing steel beams to reinforce the second floor and adding a new sprinkler system.

"This was all spray-painted with baby-blue paint," Smith said, describing how he found the first floor when he leased the space. "The floor was just nasty carpet and so forth. Over the last three months, we've taken everything out, put down a brand-new floor, stripped all these beams down individually one by one -- an hour and a half per beam -- and then sanded them and varnished them."

A mezzanine area in the back gives the space that theatrical feel. Smith calls the main seating area "the pit." Altogether, the downstairs will seat 150.

In the front of the room will be "the stage," a display kitchen flanked by a lobster tank, a bar and a fireplace. A prep kitchen with refrigeration, storage and a larger lobster tank will be behind the display kitchen, out of sight.

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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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