Bread and Butter – Press Herald Fri, 24 Nov 2017 20:36:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Bread and Butter: Retreat offers Vinland restaurant staff a collective deep breath Wed, 12 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last of three columns by chef/owner David Levi of Vinland and Trattoria Fanny, both in Portland.

Accelerate. Accelerate. Accelerate. That’s fine dining kitchen work 101. Deceleration, that’s the intermediate class. Modulation is advanced. This is no Indy 500. This is Grand Prix.

Life in a fine dining kitchen is notoriously intense, physically and emotionally demanding. September is the afterglow of peak season, still busy, flush with the greatest bounty of crops all year.

October brings calm along with gorgeous colors and crisp nights. For the Vinland team, it’s time for our annual retreat.

This fall, like last fall, and the one before that, Vinland will shut for three days, the team will pile into a couple of cars, and off we’ll go to Hanover, New Hampshire. We’ll raid the town’s justly famous food coop for anything we didn’t manage to snag from the restaurant. We’ll wend our way to a dirt road in neighboring Etna, unload at an unmarked trailhead, and hump our goodies a half-mile up Moose Mountain to the Dartmouth Class of ’66 Lodge, a big, rustic, hand-built log cabin with stream-fed water and gas lights. (I’m a Dartmouth grad myself.) So begins the retreat.

What is Vinland? As I wrote in the first part of this series, it’s a restaurant, not a concept. But at its heart, it’s people. It’s us. It’s Timm, Liam, Alexis, Bradley, Mario, Sarah, Han and Cory. It’s a community, and part of a broader community, which is Portland, and which is Maine. We spend every day celebrating that broader community. On the retreat, we take a couple days to celebrate our micro community, to appreciate each other and kick back as friends.

A big part of the joy of this industry is that we get to be in relationship with each other, day in and day out. It’s an incredibly social environment. I think that’s a major reason that so many people continue to flock to restaurant work. It’s not the money or the hours, that’s for sure. And even for those of us who thrive in stressful situations, the pressure can be a bit much. But the social aspect of this work is a joy.

Striking balance in life is a difficult and elusive goal for most of us. But just as we seek to achieve perfect balance in a dish or cocktail, we have to strive for at least some balance in our lives. After all, what we create and serve at Vinland reflects ourselves. If we’re harried or disgruntled, I truly believe it will show up on some unconscious level in the meal. If we’re feeling energized and invested as a team, I trust that will come through in the guests’ experience.

Of course, when the Vinland team takes to the woods, there’s food. Pull together such a creative and ambitious crew and anything short of a feast is out of the question. There’s a strange pleasure in unloading your backpack at a remote cabin and pulling out your mandoline and bench scraper, pulling the sheaths off your Japanese blades, sticking a killer bottle of champagne in a small waterfall to chill. We might be a bunch of misfits, but we know how to do certain things right.

Returning to Hanover each year with my Vinland team is a homecoming of sorts. As a member of Dartmouth’s class of 2000, I often think of how profoundly my student years shaped my values and sensibilities, ideas that would come to fruition in Vinland. Dartmouth gave me my first taste of the wild woods of northern New England, when I did my four-day freshman orientation hike along the Appalachian Trail, ending at Mount Moosilauke. It was at Dartmouth that I first started cooking with ambition, regularly taking the lead for Friday night dinners at the Hillel House (the Jewish students’ center) which, improbably, led to me being president of that group in my sophomore year. Hillel gave me my first chance to run a large kitchen and feed dozens of people. On some level, I even appreciated the fact that I had to keep it kosher, much as I love many non-kosher foods. The challenge of working within a meaningful form stimulated me then – it still does. It’s no small part of why I chose to create a restaurant that keeps “My Kind of Kosher” (the title of a blog post I wrote in 2011).

David Levi on a staff retreat in New Hampshire, where it’s Vinland versus Mount Moosilauke. Photo courtesy of David Levi

I was lucky, in many ways, to have had the chance to study at Dartmouth. The path I’ve taken since has been unconventional, to say the least, but I’m continually struck by how enthusiastically my fellow alumni have responded to Vinland. My staff sees it all the time. Old friends pop in with their families. Older alumni introduce themselves with a tip of the cap. A current Dartmouth student is spending her summer working with us in the kitchen. Dartmouth was the beginning of my love affair with the land and culture of northern New England. Vinland is the culmination of it. What better way to celebrate the Vinland team, then, but to bring them to the place where my journey toward Vinland began?

The crux of our retreat is the climb up Mount Moosilauke. At over 4,800 feet, it is a serious climb. The long, strenuous hike gives us plenty of time to get out of our minds and into our bodies, to open our eyes to the beauty around us, to bond through a shared challenge, and to reap the magnificent reward of that sweeping view from the summit. These are simple joys, readily accessible but too often ignored or indefinitely deferred. Scheduling and planning for the retreat ensures that we create the time and space to bring these joys back into our lives.

In the depths of the Maine winter, in our slow emerging spring, and in our frantic summer, we often speak of the retreat with eager anticipation. It’s a ritual, and frankly, we all need a little ritual in our lives. It demarcates the progression of our years. It reminds us of how the team has grown and evolved. It gives us a radically different psychological space in which we’re not so defined by our roles in the restaurant. We can engage with each other more fully as people and as friends. We gather around a fire. We gaze at the stars. And we soak in the simple, humbling goodness of the world.


Recipe from chef David Levi of Vinland and Trattoria Fanny, both in Portland. You’ll have to begin the recipe, for Vinland’s version of steak tartare, by salt-curing the shiitake mushrooms, which you should do as far in advance as possible. Salt-cured shiitake are an amazing pantry item, which only get better with time. You’ll also need to make black trumpet mushroom salt, and to pickle the ramps or quick-pickle the shallots – instructions follow. A microplane, or rasp, is handy for mincing the garlic and the horseradish.

Shiitake mushrooms

Dried black trumpet mushrooms

Pickled ramps or shallots

Apple cider vinegar

Habanero pepper

Excellent quality, fresh, lean grass-fed beef, about 3 ounces per person

Crushed garlic

Raw egg yolks, 1 per beef puck

Fresh finely grated horseradish

Micro arugula

Crisp flatbread

Remove the stipes, aka stems, from the shiitake. (We dry and toast the stipes in the oven before pulverizing them in the blender for future use in sauces.) Salt the caps with 8 percent sea salt by weight. The caps will soon start throwing off a lot of water and turn tender. Pack the brined shiitake with all that precious brine in a jar and store in the refrigerator. They will keep forever.

Dried black trumpet mushrooms, pulverized with an equal volume of salt, make for a delicious seasoning, with the look of black pepper but a unique fragrance. Black trumpet salt is totally shelf stable. It will never go bad.

The ramps we use at this time of the year were hot pickled in apple cider vinegar (we always use Sewall’s) with a little habanero. They keep extremely well. This is quite different from the paper-thinly sliced shallots which we quick pickle in cold, habanero-infused apple vinegar. The shallot pickle is ready once the red color begins to bleed and the shallots turn soft, typically after about an hour. They are at their best for the next several hours. By the next day, they are in steep decline (though they still cook up well at any point thereafter).

To make the raw beef, you’ll need a very sharp knife. The beef is shaved more than sliced. (If you freeze it for about 30 minutes, it makes it easier to slice.) It should wind up a much lighter, looser texture than ground beef, with none of the fat and connective tissue that characterize the latter. Once the beef is shaved and gently formed into a puck – do not press it, but leave it fairly loose. Then sprinkle both sides with black trumpet salt, spread thinly and evenly with the garlic paste on 1 side, pour on a little shiitake brine, and add a thin layer of finely sliced cured shiitake. Top those with a layer of the shallot or ramp pickle, then the yolk (save the whites for another use). Sprinkle with a little more black trumpet salt, followed by the horseradish. Serve the raw beef garnished with micro arugula and splashed with vinegar from the ramp or shallot pickle. We serve the meat with our fermented oat flatbread, but any crisp flatbread will do.

]]> 0, 11 Jul 2017 18:28:18 +0000
Bread and Butter: Portland’s Vinland is a 100% local restaurant – except for the drinks Wed, 14 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of three columns by chef/owner David Levi of Vinland and Trattoria Fanny, both in Portland.

Vinland is not a 100 percent local restaurant. We don’t serve 100 percent local products. We serve 100 percent local food. The drinks? Nope. Same mission, different form.

After the first installment in this series on May 24, I won’t waste time on why it’s “OK” to offer French wine but not fresh lemons. It’s not about what’s “OK.” It’s about being mindful and being intentional.

I love Dante, but from a distance. Unlike my grandmother Fanny, for whom I named my restaurant in the West End, I’m not Italian. I read Dante’s Italian for his music, but rely on the translator for the meaning. What does this have to do with the drinks at Vinland? Everything.

Timm Bielec, the bar manager at Vinland, makes a Pine Gimlet on Saturday. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The forms I’ve chosen for Vinland’s food and drinks programs are interpretations of our mission, translating theory into practice. Dante chose a poetry form called ottava rima, which has eight-line stanzas. It works really well in Italian, because the language is rhyme rich. English is rhyme poor. Translating Dante to English demands a different form. Different forms work in different contexts.

Cooking with all-local ingredients is like writing ottava rima in Italian. It works, bringing resonance to what we create. Forcing the all-local form on the beverage program would be like forcing ottava rima on English. It’s a straightjacket. The product suffers. We don’t do it.

We offer locally made brews, including beer, cider, mead, and kombucha. Our natural wine, organically grown and wild-fermented, is mostly French and Italian. We buy ethically produced coffee and tea from The Speckled Ax in Portland and Little Red Cup in Brunswick. Our spirits are distilled from Maine to the Hudson Valley, New York. Our cocktails combine these elements with otherwise all-local ingredients. Citrus and cane sugar are out, rhubarb and honey are in. The form is a springboard for surprising, delicious products, geared to pair with the liveliness of our food, which so often incorporates elements that are wild, fermented, raw.

I didn’t always think about form for Vinland’s drinks program. But one day, in the months leading up to opening day, my friend Hugh Redford challenged me. We’d been meeting for months, brainstorming and testing cocktails (tough job). One day, amid the mixing and tasting, Hugh said, “Why not use all-local booze?” It was a bold idea. No Campari? But I couldn’t deny that our previously imagined program suddenly seemed like a missed opportunity, a mere afterthought. Could Vinland afford to miss an opportunity to be daring, creative, unique? To more thoroughly showcase and support small businesses in Portland and New England? How could we?

The seed was planted. Now our drinks program had a form. Yes, we would have wine and beer, coffee and tea. I wouldn’t want a restaurant without them, and neither would you. The drinks program wouldn’t be all local, but it would be as local as possible without denying ourselves the drinks we love. We’d source everything from local producers; small, passionate distributors; organic farmers; or natural winemakers.

Enter Alex. Alex Winthrop was Vinland’s original bar manager, a position he held for nearly two years before training and then handing the reins to his capable successor, Timm Bielec. Alex and I looked to the wild. He harvested chokecherries after his lobster boat shifts in Harpswell, while I foraged wild bay laurel at Willard Beach.

A friend with a black walnut tree offered us his harvest, and Alex studied the tradition of making a digestive liqueur called nocino with green walnut fruit. We pulled together a dizzying array of wild and cultivated herbs, fruits, fungus, and roots. Soon, the Amore Amaro was born, and it’s been reborn each year since, with an ever growing array of ingredients. It’s a signature Vinland product and every bit a product of our form.

Alex looked to the apothecary tradition as inspiration. Timm has only heightened the focus on medicinals, including fungi like chaga and reishi, roots like ashwagandha and turmeric. You see, Timm is a magician. “There are those who call him… Timm.” Joking aside, from his years of deep study of spirituality, Timm brings a palpable awareness of how the properties of the ingredients, as well as the processes we employ, affect us on the level of spirit, as well as body. Sure, it’s boozy and fun. But is it crazy to also design cocktails that are physically and spiritually healthful? From Chartreuse to Fernet, that’s how the great liqueurs of Europe were born.

Timm Bielec garnishes a Pine Gimlet, one of Vinland’s cocktails, with white pine needles. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The Vinland wine list owes everything to a mad Belgian in Sicily. Seven years ago, my oldest friend, Adam Eisenberg, brought me a bottle of cloudy, barely red wine called “Contadino,” Italian for “peasant farmer.” It was my introduction to the wines of Frank Cornelissen, and it changed my life. It was strange, vital, compelling, wine meets kombucha, but also bright and supple. This was real wine, and all the dull, manufactured wines I’d once grudgingly accepted were dead to me. I was in love.

Just after we opened, Frank’s importer, Zev Rovine, came to Vinland to host our first wine dinner. After a fun and boozy dinner, he startled me by pulling out a pen and saying, “David, I don’t want to be an (expletive), but your list isn’t all organic. Let’s go through it. We’ll have to open another bottle.” So we cracked a Chenin from Jean-Pierre Robinot, and went to work. Overnight, half the list was gone, either not wild fermented, heavy on sulfur, or “industrial organic.” At 3 a.m., a tipsy Zev sabered a bottle of Peteux Blanc from Domaine Octavin after only nine or 10 knocks with a knife. The list was reborn.

They say that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might set off a tornado, weeks later, across the globe. Every decision sets in motion unimaginable consequences. But trust in this: when we approach everyday questions as opportunities for innovation, consciously veering off well-trodden paths, making decisions shaped by commitments rather than defaulting to habit, we unleash an army of butterflies. I’m biased, but Vinland’s cocktails are truly unique, and the all-natural wine list has few parallels. Are we an all-local restaurant? You bet we’re not. But those semi-local drinks and non-local wines are products of the land, of the real passion of real people. They complement the all-local food while furthering the mission. It’s no afterthought. It’s an equal partner in this Vinland cuisine.

Pine Gimlet

Recipe from Vinland chef/proprietor David Levi. Find a recipe for Condensed Yogurt Whey with our May 24, 2017 Bread & Butter column.

Handful of white pine needles


Condensed Yogurt Whey (or lemon)

Barr Hill Gin

Set aside a few white pine needles for garnish, then place the remainder in a pan with dense, honey-sweetened yogurt whey (or lemon-water) and keep at a low simmer until strong, with balanced sweetness and sourness, about 1 hour. Chill and mix to taste with Barr Hill Gin. Shake vigorously with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with the reserved fresh white pine needles.

]]> 0 Bielec, the bar manager at Vinland, makes a Pine Gimlet on Saturday.Tue, 11 Jul 2017 10:17:00 +0000
Bread and Butter: Vinland chef David Levi works to build a coastal Maine cuisine Wed, 24 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Editor’s Note: This is the first of three columns by chef/owner David Levi of Vinland and Trattoria Fanny’s, both in Portland.

“Restriction” is a word I sometimes hear when people first hear about our concept at Vinland, where every ingredient in every dish is local. I counter with two words: “form” and “mission.” To be clear, Vinland is a restaurant, not a concept. At the most basic and real level, it is a place to eat, drink, enjoy company, relax, be delighted and have fun. Like any restaurant. So what makes this restaurant unique? Actually, a fair number of things, but they all boil down to form and mission.

When you go to a Chinese restaurant, do you ever wonder “where are the tomatoes?” Does Mexican food miss out on cranberries, Lebanese food want for miso, Indonesian food suffer for lack of rye?

The world gives us so many beautiful flavors, so many exciting colors, aromas, textures and great ingredients, each one delightful in its own way and – here’s the crux of it – each in its proper context. The best Japanese food in the world does not need olive oil. It’s not a restriction. It’s a form. Every cuisine is a form.

At Vinland, we’re working to build a cuisine of place, of this place, from the ground up.

Oh, it ain’t no way

(Ain’t no way)

It ain’t no way

(Ain’t no way)

It just ain’t no way, baby

One night, not long after Vinland opened, my sous chef, Kate, and I realized, to our horror, that we were out of yogurt whey, only to crack up when we heard Aretha Franklin singing “Ain’t No Way” overhead. Ain’t no whey? At Vinland, yogurt whey is our lifeblood. We have no lemons, so we use whey for a similar sour effect. Our commitment to local food is total, right down to the salt. As far as anyone can tell, we’re the only such restaurant on earth, which “is something. It’s definitely not nothing,” in the words of an old friend.

Without commonplace ingredients like olive oil, cane sugar and lemon, understandably, our cuisine might sound “restrictive.” Restriction, after all, defines form. But it’s not the purpose or effect of form. The purpose is to inspire. The effect is beauty.

A good form resonates with the meaning of the work, whether it’s a plated dish, a painting or a song. A good form provides room for expression and exploration, never inhibiting so much as forcing our imaginations into twists and turns that they might not, otherwise, have taken.

With all due respect to the mighty Mississippi, there are more beautiful rivers in the world, rivers that twist and turn and cascade around and over more dramatic landscapes, rivers that face the “restrictions” of boulders, cliffs, mountains and canyons. Rivers like the Saco, the Kennebec, the Androscoggin and the Penobscot.

A bad form is constrictive, like a dam, impassable to salmon and kayaks alike, dulling the imagination and boring everyone. Before I opened Vinland, I spent years considering whether 100 percent local ingredients in coastal Maine would be a fun and meaningful form for crafting a cuisine of place.

Chef David Levi carries a local hen of the woods mushroom into Vinland, one of his two Portland restaurants. Staff file photo by Gordon Chibroski

No whey? Now that would be a problem. Yogurt whey, the sour, yellow-blue liquid that is strained out of yogurt to get “Greek” yogurt like Chobani, is a by-product, an obscure one at that. But the sour flavor is delicious, and by reducing it 90 to 95 percent, it’s almost like citrus. Except that lactic acid is more mouth-watering than citric acid, and even more useful.

So while the sharp component in our food at Vinland sometimes comes from rhubarb, apple vinegar, cranberries or sorrel, condensed yogurt whey (the omnipresent “CYW” in our recipes), is our staple. It goes in our sauces, our desserts, our cocktails, and as a finishing touch on our fish and meat. How do we cook without lemon? How does anyone else cook without CYW? It is a gift of our form.

Maine is the home of ployes, the buckwheat crepes that are a staple food to the Acadian French. Our version pushes the crepes toward Ethiopian injera bread. We nudge it in that direction by fermenting the buckwheat batter with live yogurt whey, then making flat, spongy ployes by foaming the batter out of a whipped cream maker straight onto the hot griddle. It’s Acadia meets Addis Ababa, a meeting that could only happen in Maine.

Or take our fermented oat pizza. Oats, a staple to the Irish and Scottish, are a huge part of Maine’s heritage. Pizza came with the Italians, another great presence in Maine. These little pizzas, which happen to be gluten-free, are fun because they’re so tasty, but they’re also a good example of how our cuisine uses its form as a way to bring together the food traditions of Maine’s diverse people. Cuisine of time and place.

At Vinland, our mission is not our form, and our form is not our food. But they’re all of a piece. I’m not a very religious guy, but my spirituality is centered on one Hebrew phrase: tikkun olam, “heal the world.”

Is that too hokey? But it’s true. We’re here to do our small part to heal the world. Despite our imperfections. Despite the myriad compromises the world demands. The mission keeps our compromises in check. The form keeps us honest.

During my two-month stage (or culinary apprenticeship) at Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, the team there, then in its eighth year, faced a service the likes of which they’d never done. A flat seating. A buyout dinner. Forty-three people at once.

“Isn’t this very ambitious?” the wine director warned at the team meeting.

“This is a very ambitious restaurant,” replied Matt Orlando, the chef de cuisine.

Vinland is, in our own way, also a very ambitious restaurant. It is an ambitious form and an ambitious mission, which produces an ambitious cuisine. Why do less? Why not try to heal the world? And why not have some fun while we’re at it?


Recipe from Vinland chef/proprietor David Levi.

To strain yogurt, drape a large cloth napkin, similar cloth or cheesecloth over a colander set in a deeper bowl. Pour in the yogurt and let it strain until the yogurt is thick – allow at least six hours. Save the yogurt as Greek yogurt or what used to be called “yogurt cheese.”

Cook down the liquid whey in a pan on the stove until it is tan and viscous and at least 90 percent reduced by volume. The higher your burner, the faster the process, but be sure to keep your eyes on it as it gets nearer to done.


Recipe from Vinland chef/proprietor David Levi.

You will need a kitchen scale to make this recipe. Like most chefs, Levi measures in weights, which allows for more precision. You’ll also need a Vitamix or another high-powered blender. Levi uses ghee (clarified butter) to make these custards; we call for ordinary butter here. He recommends parsnips harvested after a couple hard frosts, “when they are sweetest.” The recipe calls for raw eggs, which will be partly heated by the warmth of the whirring blender, but if you are sensitive to raw eggs, this is not the recipe for you.

Serves 5

400 grams parsnip, thoroughly scrubbed, in chunks

200 grams butter

200 grams cold egg yolks

120 grams cold honey or maple syrup

50 grams condensed yogurt whey, chilled (see recipe)

60 grams ginger root, scrubbed

30 grams fresh turmeric root, scrubbed (or a heaping teaspoon of ground turmeric)

5 grams salt

Maple sugar, ground ginger, to serve

Gently roast or steam the parsnips until they are very tender. Chill.

Melt the butter.

Add all the ingredients, except the melted butter, to a Vitamix or a similar high-powered blender. Blitz briefly at maximum speed, then pour in melted butter. Continue to blend until the ingredients are silky smooth and fairly hot, hotter than a hot bath but cool enough to touch. Refrigerate the custard overnight. Serve with a dusting of maple sugar and ground ginger.

]]> 0 David Levi carries a local hen of the woods mushroom into Vinland, one of his two Portland restaurants.Wed, 24 May 2017 15:36:06 +0000
Bread and Butter: Crafting a wine list is more complicated than you may think Wed, 15 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two columns from Stella Hernandez of Lolita Vinoteca + Asador in Portland.

Putting together our wine list for Lolita was the closest I’ve come to understanding what writers do. It’s less mechanical than you’d think. You have to choose your story line, craft that story, and then there’s the continual editing process. When I gave my first draft to a friend to review, I felt as if I were handing off my first novel. I had handed over something very personal.

Of the thousands of wines available in Maine (and the others I continue to pine for…), I had to find a way to make our list make sense. I bristled at absolutes – it should be all Old World or all organic or all whatever. Our menu at Lolita is broadly Mediterranean in focus, from Spain to Portugal to North Africa and then east to the Middle East.

We needed wines that complemented the food, so the bulk of our list was – and is – focused on French, Italian and Spanish wines. But we are also a vinoteca – a wine bar (or wine library, as I like to think of it). To me, that means we need to cultivate a list that makes diners comfortable with, and curious about, tasting new things.

I’ve always seen our by-the-glass list as a way to coax customers into trying a new wine. It’s like my husband (and business partner) Guy used to say about some of our small plates – you might be frightened off oxtail as a big, imposing entree but willing to try a small plate for just $9. Or maybe it’s like a first date as opposed to a relationship; glass pours are a great way for customers to experiment without the commitment of a full bottle. Since we opened in 2014, we’ve poured Zweigelt, my beloved Chenin Blanc, Lagrein, Frappato and other less well-known grape varietals by the glass. Our staff is well-trained to describe them, and customers can, in a small, safe way, get out of their comfort zone.

To get to the 80 bottles now on our list, I started with a draft list of more than three times that number – about 250 bottles. (Roughly 80 seemed like a happy medium between not having enough options or variety and having too many.) Clearly, I had a long way to go. After more than a little research, I chose to organize the list by style of wine, not region or varietal. For a more casual environment such as we have at Lolita, I find that having a traditional multi-page wine list organized by country of origin is limiting.

Stella Hernandez, owner of Lolita restaurant on Congress Street in Portland, said the process of creating a wine list gave her new appreciation for what writers do. Staff photo by John Ewing

We look at it more in terms of broad categories – crisp, aromatic, rich. Within each of those categories, I had to find a way to provide enough variety, not to mention value. It’s much easier to create a stellar list of blockbuster wines – cult producers, rare bottles, highly rated wines. A $500 Burgundy can be an exquisite treat, but it’s not an investment most people make casually nor one that’s available to most of us. At Lolita, my goal was to find the hidden gems – smaller producers, less familiar regions and wines that punched way above their weight class. I like to joke that you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find these princes.

Then there’s our “Wild Things” category. That might be about a quirky producer – a winemaker who makes a brilliant Riesling from a centuries-old winery and who loves partnering with punk rock bands for marketing. Or it might be a unique expression – a New World field blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewürtrazminer – yes, please. Or it could be a wine that’s incredibly opulent – sometimes huge is awesome. They all have to be delicious, but they don’t all have to be pricey or typical.

Last is our “Le Coup de Foudre” catgory. It’s a phrase I adore – love at first sight. It’s the one you can’t necessarily explain – it’s just, sigh, about emotion. One of the wines we picked was from a winemaker I met while in Italy last year. He came back his holiday to his tiny winery a few days after Christmas just to give us a tour. His pedigree was tremendous – the great-grandson of a historic wine-making family whose grandmother took the vineyards she inherited and created her own winery. He walked us through his cellar and showed us his tanks and barrels, and talked about his wine-making process, all with his dog tagging along. He poured us his wines in a little tasting room with a wood-fired stove. These wines were technically gorgeous but they were also, now, personal.

It’s so easy to forget that wine is made by people. It’s not a mechanical process. The vast majority of our wines are hand-harvested and made in a manually intensive way. It’s not just a bottle on a shelf, it’s someone’s work. And when you connect those things, sometimes it’s love at first sight.

Maybe that’s how to best explain how our list finally came together. We chose each wine for its unique appeal. And, like my mom says about her children, I love them all equally.

Stella Hernandez is co-owner and wine director at Lolita Vinoteca + Asador. She is also a certified sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers program.


I’m not usually a fan of chicken liver mousse, but it’s something my husband really loves. On a recent trip to Florence, we discovered a version like the one below, which is so unique and has gone a long way toward changing my mind! You can stay in Italy and pair it with a lovely Chianti, like the Castello di Farnetella Chianti Colli Senesi. Or, if you want to try something new, I suggest a pretty Cabernet Franc from the Loire, like the Charles Joguet Chinon “Cuvée Terroir.”

Yield About 2 dozen toast points

1 pound chicken livers

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

3 salted anchovy fillets, rinsed

2 tablespoons toasted walnuts

1 tablespoon capers

4 sage leaves

1/2 cup white wine

Toast, for serving

With a paring knife, trim off any sinew and/or blemishes from the livers. Pat dry and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a pan large enough to hold the livers in a single layer, warm the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic to the pan and gently sauté until aromatic, 3-4 minutes. Increase the heat to high. Add the livers and cook until well browned on both sides. Add the anchovies, walnuts, capers and sage leaves. Deglaze the pan with the wine and continue to cook until liquid is reduced and thick.

Transfer the mixture to the food processor and pulse until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve with grilled toast points.

]]> 0 Hernandez, co-owner of Lolita restaurant in Portland, with Lolita's wine list, which she wrote herself.Tue, 14 Feb 2017 18:15:54 +0000
Bread and Butter: At Lolita in Portland, wine is a conversation, not a monologue Wed, 08 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two columns from Stella Hernandez of Lolita Vinoteca + Asador in Portland.

“Snotty Somm.” That’s one sommelier’s tag on social media. (She’s actually one of 236 master sommeliers worldwide and, by all accounts, an amazing wine professional.) Even if it’s meant to be self-deprecating, it does give me pause every time I read it.

Until recently, I wore the title of sommelier a bit ambivalently. It made me think of stiff, stuffy types who wanted to make you feel inadequate. Or nearly the opposite – really talented people I knew who had spent decades learning about wine, taking exams and being consummate hospitality professionals.

Despite all the work I was doing to learn about and sell wine, when customers at Bar Lola (my husband Guy’s and my first restaurant) would ask me if I were the sommelier, I’d balk. I’d say, “I’m the one who picked the wines” – and leave it at that.

As I head into the 11th year of owning my own restaurant (and more before that as a server), creating wine lists and serving wine to countless people, I’m starting to get more comfortable with the idea of being a sommelier. But on my own terms.

Back in 2006, Guy and I laid out a hospitality model for our businesses. Our goal was that, as one guest so lovingly put it, “You leave with a great sense of well-being.” That takes more than food, and more than wine. It’s about leading with genuine hospitality – a quality that seems to be on the wane. It sounds easy, but that’s deceptive because true, welcoming hospitality is really quite difficult to pull off across a whole crew night after night after night. To work, it has to be part of the fabric of the place.

Wine is a key piece of it. At Lolita, we work hard to train our staff so they can help guests find a wine that works for them. Our staff isn’t there to sell customers the most expensive bottle we have or to foist their favorite wine on customers.

Also, I always try to have a story ready to tell about a wine. (Selfishly, the story helps me remember the wine, too.) Something about the winemaker, or maybe why I think that particular bottle goes well with that particular dish.

Trust me, most people don’t care how long a wine was on the lees or whether it uses whole cluster fermentation. While those things are part of what I might research in picking a wine for our list, or learning about wine generally, unless you’re really into geeking out about wine, information like that is not going to get you excited about drinking it. To me it’s a sign of poor training when a wine professional tries to show you how smart he or she is. That’s not the point. Selecting something to drink should be a conversation, not a monologue.

My job is making sure people find something they will enjoy, and it’s a huge compliment when a customer says, “We trust you. Pick something for us.” If a customer is a wine enthusiast and actually does want to discuss details, I’m happy to do that, too. The guest leads the way. In the back of my head, I still hear the voice of my first real mentor trying to show me that there are no absolutes. He always said, “A good wine is a wine you like to drink.”

At Lolita, people often ask why we use “vinoteca” in our name and what it means. Literally, it means wine collection. In my head, I think of it as a wine library. Most of our wine is displayed on shelves that line the restaurant’s side walls. True, because we’re so small, it’s also our only storage.

We see the wine as an equal and important complement to the food, and I’m always looking for an opportunity to offer more opportunities for diners to try new wines. Recently, we started offering a wine flight on Thursdays: Three wines, chosen to pair together in some way. They might feature the same grape varietal but from producers in three different countries. For example, we might have pinot noir from Oregon, one from Burgundy and a third from New Zealand. Or three wines from a specific region – on a recent Thursday, we had a flight of Lebanese wines.

Then on Mondays, we do tapas, and with them we feature four wines that aren’t currently on our list. The pours are inexpensive – $5 each, and they come with a tasty bite from the kitchen. These opportunities are meant to be fun, a chance for diners to taste and compare and maybe find a new love. It’s wine, not heart surgery.

(Curious about what the “Asador” in our name means? It generally refers to cooking over an open fire.)

At this point in my career, I’ve passed two exams and am happy to wear my certified sommelier pin. In addition to working more than full time, I studied for months to earn that pin during the only free time I had – 3:30 to 6:30 a.m. four days a week before our son woke up for school. I did blind tastings at lunch with anyone I could find to join me. A bazillion flash cards later, I booked a hotel, flew to Florida and spent a day trying to make my hands stop shaking so I could pass the service exam portion without dropping a full tray of champagne flutes. Apparently, I answered enough questions about obscure terms and wine-making details correctly.

I’m still deciding whether or not to keep going and study for the next exam – it’s like a full-time job to get to the next level. But even if I don’t, I won’t stop reading, tasting or trying to make myself a better professional. I’m okay with calling myself a sommelier now, but it’s an ongoing project.

Stella Hernandez is co-owner and wine director at Lolita Vinoteca + Asador. She is also a certified sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers program.

]]> 0, 07 Feb 2017 22:52:31 +0000
Bread and Butter: Bakery has been open just 2 days, so, of course, the power goes out Wed, 11 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re sorry to say we profited by chef Krista Kern Desjarlais’ misfortune. Her new restaurant, The Purple House in North Yarmouth, which opened on Dec. 28, lost power soon after. Not good. We asked her to write about the experience. Since writing this column, Desjarlais tells us that though she increased her bagel production by 50 bagels per day this past weekend, she still sold out by 9 a.m. Saturday and 9:40 a.m. on Sunday, so she’s planning to go up again. Desjarlais also owns the seasonal Bresca & the Honey Bee in New Gloucester. Bread & Butter is an occasional chef-written series that runs in Food & Dining.

One step forward, two steps back.

“I can’t believe you’re out of bagels before 10:30 a.m.!!” These are words I never expected to hear on day two, ringing out like a gong and sending waves of anxiety through my body. I smiled – at that customer and everyone else who showed up over the next two hours – as I explained again and again that the 200 bagels we’d made had sold out in just two hours.

As that crazy shift came to a close, I decided we’d close for the next day, Friday, in order to try to catch up. We’d make Friday a prep day, tripling our par for Saturday, restaurantspeak for increasing the number of items to be produced per shift. I vowed to myself that when the weekend came, we would be ready.

What we couldn’t prepare for, it turned out, was Mother Nature’s wrath upon the region on Dec. 29-30. The events that unfolded that night would culminate in multiple trash bins filled with a majority of our prep.


Buzz buzz… buzz buzz… I can see a flash of light from the flip side of my phone while I’m lying in bed. I pick up the phone and stare at the screen. It’s a text from my security company. They’ve detected a power outage at The Purple House as of Friday, 3:18 a.m. I take in the information, then roll over and go back to sleep. The power will come back on soon, I tell myself, so don’t stress out.

When I do get up, the world outside my bedroom window is awash in a frozen, glistening white wave of snow. The storm passed in the night. It’s beautiful, but I don’t let myself linger. I need to get out the door and begin work. I quickly check the Central Maine Power (CMP) website for outage information and learn that all of North Yarmouth is without electricity. I am supposed to meet my staff at 9 a.m. It has now been five hours since that security company text. I’m starting to worry, but I’m determined to get to The Purple House – I live in New Gloucester, exactly 17 minutes’ drive away – and fix any problems as soon as I shovel out my car. All will be well.

I never make it to the bakery, let alone to my driveway. Instead, I lie down on my daughter’s bed (she’s already gone to school) in the warm morning sun, curled up on my side and battling a sinking feeling that on top of the power outage, I am coming down with the dreaded stomach virus that is surging through schools and the neighborhood. I text my staff to delay our prep since we don’t have power. I also delay deliveries. I console myself that the food and doughs will be fine as the coolers run very cold and that without power, the room they are in will stay cold, too. Thankfully, I’ve got power at home, so I linger in my daughter’s ever sunny bed, comfortable and warm, while my health sinks steadily downward – like the temperature at The Purple House.

At noon, I check the CMP website again. Still no power.

Normally, I would make myself get up and drive to the bakery, and I’d push all our fish and meat into the snowbanks, if that’s what it takes. But I can tell that today is not going to be a normal day for me. By 1 p.m., the virus has overtaken me.


Meanwhile – and I know I sound like a broken record – there is still no power at The Purple House. By 3 p.m., I’ve canceled prep day. The power is still out, and the sun is starting to sink on the horizon, dragging temperatures into the teens and soon presenting yet another flurry of things to worry about.

Buzz, buzz… buzz, buzz… Oh god, why is everyone texting me today while all I want to do is lie here and try to survive this virus? It’s Derek, the coffee roaster I work with from Massachusetts. He’s seen my Instagram post from that morning about losing power, and is concerned, very concerned, that the drip coffeemaker tank (price tag: roughly $1,200) will freeze and crack in a frigid, unheated room overnight. He’s worried the espresso machine tank (price tag: roughly $7,500) will suffer the same fate.

I tell him I am too ill to drive. I further tell him that if the power isn’t restored soon, I will find, I will have to find, a way to get to the cafe. Unless I drain the tanks and water lines, I risk facing huge and expensive plumbing and equipment repairs. Derek tells me to hold tight. Maybe it isn’t absolutely necessary yet – I can put it off until later tonight. He rings off. I refresh the CMP website: still no power in North Yarmouth. I sink deeper into my pillow, hoping later doesn’t come too soon.

6 p.m. I’m in full viral meltdown with simultaneous upheaval, a 102 fever and chills and shakes. Thoughts of losing the food and the equipment have melted into a hazy dream that I’ll revisit once I can actually see and think clearly. The phone buzzes – again – and I’m gently reminded by Derek that we are approaching “DEFCON 1” time. To save the equipment I’ll need not only to get out of bed and drive to North Yarmouth but somehow to pull myself together to be a capable plumber. I obsessively check CMP again. No power. It has been 15 hours and even though it’s cold outside, our fish and meat are goners. I am looking at a major loss at this point. (Insurance won’t cover them until I hit my deductible.)

I stay where I am and drag a blanket up over my head.

Time flies when it feels like your guts are spilling out all over the bathroom floor. Not a pretty picture. But by 11:20 p.m., I can finally keep down ginger ale and catch my breath. I refresh CMP, and while The Purple House doesn’t yet have power, a message now appears next to the address. It reads: “11:30 p.m. December 29, power to be restored.” This is clearly the wrong date, but I take it as a good omen and proceed to do the only thing I can manage: I pass out for the night.

When I awake Saturday morning, I am still sick, but the power at The Purple House has been restored. I am exhausted and have a low-grade fever, so I’m not driving anywhere anytime soon. Fortunately, my husband Erik is able to help out today, and he drives over to The Purple House to check on things. The heat is on! So though the food is history, the equipment is saved.


The virus lasts the weekend. By Sunday night, I feel well enough to eat again – also to dread what I will find at the bakery on Monday.

When coolers go down and time has passed, sorting through their contents feels like a forensic exercise. You remove everything, unwrap it and assess. What survived? What did not? Some things are obvious, like wilted herbs or sliced vegetables. Proteins – meat and fish – are too risky to keep. These go straight into the trash, no questions asked. It turns out that the rest, like hard cheeses and such high-acid preparations as pickles and preserved lemons, have survived the outage; luckily, my coolers never warmed up that much, and there are no signs of warmed-then-cooled-again food, which is highly unsafe.

But we have lost daily preparations, like chopped chicken liver, hummus and a few soft cheeses as well as all of our gravlax, smoked salmon, smoked hake and fish roes. My doughs from Thursday are also a loss and must be started all over again. I pause to tend to my sourdough starter, which has sat unhappily for four days waiting to be fed. And I make a list of all we have lost and all we need to prep before we can open later in the week.

Barely a week ago, we opened our doors at Purple House for the very first time. Just like then, we begin anew.


“This kept me alive once I could stomach more than ginger ale,” chef Krista Kern Desjarlais said after suffering a terrible stomach bug. Use all organic ingredients if possible. “You may have survived this terrible stomach virus like I did and now your body and soul are fully cleansed to start the new year, so why ingest a bunch of pesticides?”

Serves 1

2 cups chopped kale

1 cup chopped green cabbage

1 piece apple, quartered, seeds removed

1 piece carrot, chopped

1/2-inch piece ginger root, peeled

1 cup chopped spinach

2 tablespoons maple syrup

Add all the ingredients to the jar of a powerful blender. Pour in ice-cold spring water until it reaches the top of the vegetables and fruit. Blend until the mixture is completely liquified. Do not strain. Drink immediately and feel good about doing something good for your body.

]]> 0 YARMOUTH, ME - DECEMBER 9: Krista Kern is in the process of opening a new cafe, The Purple House. (Photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer)Wed, 11 Jan 2017 10:43:46 +0000
Bread and Butter: First-day jitters as The Purple House cafe opens in North Yarmouth Wed, 04 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two columns from chef Krista Kern Desjarlais, owner of Bresca & the Honey Bee in New Gloucester and The Purple House in North Yarmouth, which opened Dec. 28. Bread and Butter is an occasional chef-written series we publish in Food & Dining.

I wake at 4:30 a.m. and silently glide through my chilly house, not even pausing to slide up the shade as the impending dawn has yet to raise an eyelid in this wee hour of morning. My dog, who normally follows me out of bed, has thought better of it today. She wags her tail briefly, then falls back to sleep with a soft huff. My two cats lie curled up in a chair in my office, merely perking up their ears as I pass through on the way to the kitchen.

As usual, I cannot force myself to sit down, so I eat my breakfast while standing in front of my kitchen sink. Unusually, I have to force myself to eat at all – a bowl of granola and some juice.

I am readying myself for what will be the first day that my new restaurant, The Purple House, will be open to the public.

A baker’s life can be a lonely one. Bakers push against normal sleep patterns and often work alone and in silence in the hours before dawn. But it is a life that suits me, apparently, as I have come in and out of it over my long career. Like all things in our lives, baking has a rhythm. Once you find it, that rhythm can lead you into a beautiful discourse with the doughs and the oven. You can find yourself working seamlessly and producing mass volumes as a sole engineer. Today, though, as I ready the bakery for its first day, I struggle to find that rhythm.

Opening time is 7 a.m. It’s 6 a.m. now. The fire is lit and the doughs are resting. This morning I will need to finalize the savory side of the kitchen, too, not something I’ll have to do at this hour once the restaurant gets going, and also start rounds of pastries I hope to serve later in the day. Under normal circumstances, this is not a daunting task, but my nerves are on edge. And, of course, that’s when mistakes happen – like overboiling (and ruining) a batch of bagels so I need to throw them out, or knocking over my spoon bain marie (a small container that holds my sauce spoons and a bit of water), thus covering my prep sheets with a gloss of cold water and turning the fresh ink of my “to do’s” into a stream of useless, blurry black lines.

6:30 a.m. and Sean, my barista, has arrived and started the coffee, filling the air with the smell of morning. Tom and Jason soon follow. They will work the savory station and build the orders for bagel sandwiches, salads and pizza as we move through the day toward lunch.

The young men are calm and prepare their stations with ease, but I can’t shake my first-day jitters. To make things worse, the fire is lagging today, and the temperature is not yet quite up to 550 degrees, where it needs to be to create the thin crust and oven spring for the bagels.

I should have been in earlier to account for this, but waking at 4:30 a.m. was early enough for my body and brain. Any earlier, and I’d be reliving my days as the sole baker at the Sonesta Hotel in Portland, formerly the Eastland and now the Westin.

In those months, I had to arrive at work at 3:30 a.m., which meant waking at 2:30 a.m., getting dressed and running from my apartment on Park Street to the hotel to prepare and bake off all the pastries and breads for the entire hotel as well as any scheduled banquets. I was tired all the time. Really, really tired.

Krista Kern Desjarlais sweeps the steps at her new cafe, The Purple House in North Yarmouth.

Krista Kern Desjarlais sweeps the steps at her new cafe, The Purple House in North Yarmouth. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

7 a.m. is fast approaching. This is it. The beginning. And I don’t have any baked goods ready!

At 7:10 a.m., I can see the handle turn and the door open. We say hello to our very first customer, an older gentleman who is bundled up against the freezing morning air. He enters quickly, smiles and asks for a menu and coffee. Sean obliges with a smile of his own, hands the man a fresh cup of drip coffee and begins the conversation of what we have to offer – later today.

There will be bagels; house-smoked and -cured fish; many spreads, toppings and finishes; pastries that will be displayed beside the cash register; and all sorts of items planned for lunch.

Baking has a rhythm, Krista Kern Desjarlais says, and once you find that rhythm, you can strike up a great partnership with dough and the oven.

Baking has a rhythm, Krista Kern Desjarlais says, and once you find that rhythm, you can strike up a great partnership with dough and the oven. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The gentleman smiles and says he’ll be back for a bagel. The clock is moving quickly now, and a few other people have noticed cars in our parking lot and are stopping in for coffee. Some of them wait until the bagels finally emerge from the oven, around 8 a.m.

Customer No. 1, the bundled-up gentleman, returns as promised and orders a traditional bagel sandwich with smoked salmon, cream cheese, tomato, onion, dill and capers, to go. Tom prepares this quickly, as Jason and I tend to more bagels that are baking in the oven. Before I can even turn my head to say thank you and goodbye, he is heading out the door. As he leaves, another new face slips in.

The sun has started to rise in earnest as I greet a few more customers and thank them for their well wishes. Its warm glow mimics that of the flames in the oven. And just like that, after many months of hard work and preparation, The Purple House is open. Day one is underway, full of hope and my quest to find my baker’s circadian rhythm, which beats against the 9 to 5 workday norm.


Recipe courtesy of chef/owner Krista Kern Desjarlais.

4 cups rolled oats

2 cups sliced almonds

1/2 cup flax seeds

1/4 cup chia seeds

1/4 cup hemp seeds

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1/4 cup sesame seeds

1 cup coconut flakes

All organic if possible! Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper, grease the paper and set aside. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Then combine the following:

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup maple syrup

1 oz water

1/4 cup coconut sugar or brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Pour the combined wet ingredients over the combined dry ingredients and toss everything together to coat the oats mixture.

Spread the granola on the sheet pan. Bake, stirring often until evenly golden, for 25 to 30 minutes.

Remove and cool. Store in an airtight container.

Serve with milk of choice or over local yogurt or just toss in your mouth and enjoy!

Optional ingredient: 1 tablespoon instant ground espresso (Medaglio d’Oro brand) added to granola as it comes out of oven before it cools. Just sprinkle on and stir to combine evenly.

I don’t drink coffee anymore, but while I’m adjusting my internal clock to my new baking schedule I’ve been tempted to toss a spoon full of instant espresso in the milk I pour over my granola. Whatever works, right?

]]> 0 Kern Desjarlais sweeps the steps at her new cafe, The Purple House in North Yarmouth.Wed, 04 Jan 2017 08:51:41 +0000
Bread and Butter: Opening a restaurant requires resourcefulness, optimism and more money than you think Wed, 14 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two columns from chef Krista Kern Desjarlais, owner of Bresca and the Honey Bee in New Gloucester and the soon-to-open Purple House in North Yarmouth. Bread and Butter is an occasional chef-written series we publish in Food & Dining.

“You know what would be great in that spot!? A bakery … like a wood-fired bakery. With rustic pastries, nice coffee and bagels!!! I’ll just call the broker to schedule a look-see.”

That’s how it starts, innocently enough, with the glimpse of a “for sale” sign, a glimmer of an idea, a lot of enthusiasm, and a quick, impulsive phone call. Fast forward two years, and I’m on the brink of what will be my third restaurant opening in Maine, The Purple House in North Yarmouth (the others were Bresca in Portland and Bresca & the Honey Bee in New Gloucester), and the 13th of my career.

I’ve opened four restaurants on my own and nine as a chef or pastry chef with an opening team and owners to carry the financial burden. I say “burden” because of the massive cash drain it takes merely to open the doors. More about that in a minute.

Opening a restaurant or bakery or cafe is not for the faint of heart. Things go wrong, budgets go south, contractors go missing, openings get delayed. The first lesson I learned this time around was not to hire a carpenter off of a craigslist ad. Ever! He was a nice guy but in way over his head, and when he finally disappeared for good I was already two months behind.

Second lesson, things happen for a reason: If I had not hired this first carpenter, I would have never found my way to the professional carpenters who took over on the fly right before Christmas and completed the job expertly and quickly.

As for delays, well, it depends on your perspective. I made a deliberate decision to take my time, so it’s funny when I see the media describing The Purple House as “a long-delayed opening.” I gave myself time to rest after the summer, when I spend 12-hour days and seven-day weeks at Bresca & the Honey Bee. I’ve enough openings under my belt to know that the stress can literally kill you, so I structured this one so that I could still take care of my family and myself. I worked smarter, not harder.

The Purple House is at its heart a bakery, but I’m a cook as much as I am a baker and pastry chef, so I can’t help myself from intertwining the two. Whenever I design the interior of a space, I try to join the two worlds so I’ll be able to work with ease in my split existence. Part of my initial attraction to The Purple House, all 544 square feet of it, was that despite its small size I sensed it could accommodate all of me.

What I didn’t account for was that I would also have to serve as landscaper, gardener, general contractor and all-around fixer. I enjoy all these roles. Still, working by yourself pulling up weeds on the entire half-acre property for two weeks, as I did last fall, when you should be in the kitchen readying the place to open – sourcing flours, firing the oven, finalizing a million things – well, sometimes things just take time. That’s the reality of owning the property.

It’s a reality I embrace. For years when I would open a restaurant as an employee, I’d focus on the kitchen, the equipment and sometimes the placement of the equipment and the kitchen flow. But when I open a restaurant as an owner, I get to see my vision through from start to end. It’s daunting, sure, but it’s also exciting.

When I went on that “look-see” of this little cottage two years ago, I thought all the building needed was some aesthetic love and a few other upgrades, changes that seemed perfectly doable for my little budget. But after I bought the property and began to peel away the years (The Purple House has been a summer cottage, a year-round home, a hot dog stand and a beloved video store), it became clear I’d need to do a complete overhaul.

In the past year, I have had a roof installed, along with a new septic system, a leach field, a heating and cooling system, a front door and front steps, a parking lot surface and a patio. I’ve had the place painted inside and out, added electrical wiring, plumbing, flooring, interior walls, landscaping, and interior and exterior lighting. Did I forget anything? Oh yeah, a wood-burning oven for cooking and baking everything I plan to sell, including Montreal bagels, rustic pastries and Roman pizza by the slice. I needed – I need – all new windows too, but that one will have to wait a year, or maybe five.

Taken together, the overhaul represented a serious cash drain but, truthfully, it’s par for the course for opening any new business. If you want to succeed, you learn to roll with it, to adjust the budget (like a hundred times), to make succinct decisions that keep things moving but at the same time aren’t imprudent, and to reassure yourself that things usually work out fine. Or if they don’t, you force them to work out fine with your iron will, smiling as you write the largest checks you’ve ever written outside of signing your mortgage documents.

As of this writing, I aim to open The Purple House the week before Christmas. I’m staring down this beast I worked so hard to create. Day One is always a day of hope. Deep down, I know that ultimately it will be great. But it’s also a day of reckoning that can be nerve-racking in the extreme. Day Two is usually when I emerge from that portal of dread and self-doubt otherwise known as a restaurant opening.

My anxiety doesn’t stem from a fear of the unknown. Rather, it comes from my desire to create something beautiful for you, the guest; something financially successful for me, the owner; and a space that’s efficient for me, the baker/cook, to work in every day. Until I open, I can’t know if I’ve succeeded on all three counts. Stay tuned. I’ll let you know after Day Two if I got it right.

]]> 0 Kern Desjarlais outside The Purple House in North Yarmouth.Tue, 03 Jan 2017 09:48:35 +0000
Bread and Butter: Once a year, restaurateurs host purveyors of ingredients Wed, 26 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third and last column written by chef, restaurateur and two-time James Beard Foundation Best Chef: Northeast finalist Mike Wiley of Eventide Oyster Co., The Honey Paw and Hugo’s, all in Portland.

We’ve held a purveyors dinner every year since 2011 – it’s one of my favorite nights of the year. We shut down Hugo’s, although last year we held it at The Honey Paw, and we invite farmers, brewers, foragers, fishmongers, coffee roasters and folks who raise animals to have dinner with us. These are the wonderful, patient people who day in, day out supply our three restaurants with the raw materials we need to keep our menus running. They each donate something for the occasion – vegetables, fish, beverages, maybe a lamb, and we make a grand feast. It is a hoot.

Some years it has been absolute chaos: A fishmonger drunkenly lectured lambers about the finer points of animal husbandry; a brewer passed out in our office; farmers tried to smoke joints under the kitchen hoods. It was nuts. That year we served punch. We haven’t served punch since.

In the absence of punch, we’ve had much more stately dinners, where we’ve all behaved ourselves. One year, a couple of farmers helped out with service: Daniel Price of Freedom Farm in Freedom presented the grilled swordfish belly and described the accompaniments to the dining room. Afterwards, Ian Jerolmack of Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham helped brûlée the warm-spice meringue atop the roasted pink banana squash. As a final flourish, Will and Kathleen Pratt from Tandem Coffee Roasters in Portland provided pour-over coffee service. It was downright soigné.

Sure, the purveyors dinner means another day of work for our kitchen. But it’s fun to cook food for this event. Cooks from the different kitchens that staff our restaurants get the chance to cook on the line together and to cook different types of food than they normally might. At past purveyors dinners, we’ve done cumin lamb moo shu, whole fried bass curries, skate wing taco bar, “practice Thanksgiving,” Peking-style barbecue ducks and large, creamy hillocks of soft-serve ice cream. As a kitchen, we get to spoil our friends and show off a bit, too.

Admittedly, the event is a veritable minefield of clichés. In the contemporary dining scene, it is the height of cool for kitchens to boast of their proximity to their products. Actually, sourcing locally has been eclipsed by kitchens growing their own vegetables and chefs foraging their own wood sorrel in the glen just beyond the restaurant’s kitchen garden. If you ask me, it has all gotten a little silly, which may be why I’m a little cagey about gushing over the purveyors dinner; my mother taught me to be dubious of earnestness.

Still, it is undeniably heartwarming to bear witness to true farm-to-table dining, to take part in a collaborative creative endeavor, to contribute to local economy, and to find community among like-minded entrepreneurs.

Which is not to say that we’re always on the same page: When we’re ordering for the restaurants, we are very precise about what we want. I suspect the farmers and fishmongers think we’re loony when we specify red kuri squash “no larger than a volleyball,” swordfish belly “with the loin removed,” “all the cod heads you can send us” or pinto potatoes “between marble and ping-pong ball-sized.”

But I hope that after the purveyors dinner, they understand. Maybe even remark on it: “Indeed, that German potato salad was more beautiful (and perhaps delicious) with such particularly sized potatoes.” That’s probably wishful thinking. But at base, the dinner gives us a chance to show them what we do, to (cliché alert) change the dynamic: They take such good care of us throughout the year that it’s nice to take care of them, even if just once a year,


Whether entertaining a group of rowdy farmers or putting out a spread for a few friends, it’s important to serve something crispy and salty – especially if beer is served). Enter the chicken skin cracker! (And save the now skinless bird for another use.)

1 whole chicken

Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Lay the chicken breast-down on a cutting board and slice along the spine, just deep enough to cut through the skin. Using your fingers and the knife, peel the skin from the chicken – apart from the wings and ankles, it should come freely from the whole bird.

Whether you remove the skin in one sheet or a few pieces, lay it on the cutting board and scrape the fat so that the skin is translucent. The better you scrape, the crisper the cracker.

Lightly oil a piece of parchment paper and line a sheet tray with it. Lay the skin down onto the parchment, stretching the skin so that it occupies as much surface area as possible. Season the skin with salt and lay another oiled piece of parchment paper atop the skin. Top with another sheet tray and bake for 15 minutes, or until the skin is golden brown.

Allow the skin to cool, it will crisp as it cools. Try not to eat it all at once.

]]> 0, 09 Dec 2016 15:59:52 +0000
Bread and Butter: Music hath the charm to soothe the frenzied cook Wed, 05 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of three columns written by chef and restaurateur Mike Wiley of Eventide Oyster Co., The Honey Paw and Hugo’s, all in Portland.

Apart from the satisfaction of a job well done, cigarettes (either smoking them, or quitting), and snacking, listening to music while we work is one of the greatest balms against a taxing workday life. I can attest to this personally as the part-owner and chef of three very busy restaurants in Portland.

At our restaurants – Eventide Oyster Co., The Honey Paw and Hugo’s – we’ve tried streaming services that curate playlists for our dining rooms, where all roads (yes, dear reader, all roads) eventually lead to The Smiths. We’ve turned to personal music libraries, which invite critique and invariably lead to bickering. And at The Honey Paw, we’ve got our own turntables and record collection. (Fun fact: we have more albums released by Ghost-faced Killah than any other artist.) The limitations of vinyl are wonderful and terrible, given that we can’t not play music and we must continue to play a finite amount of music, which leads, inevitably, to repetition. As one of our sous chefs once put it, “Oh, you like Sam Cooke? Well, we’ll see about that …”

At The Honey Paw and at Eventide, the cooks used to listen to whatever was playing in the dining room all day long, but with the advent of Bluetooth portable speaker technology, all bets are off. Individual cooks or prep teams can disrupt the soundtrack. Although Eventide might be playing Daft Punk, and The Honey Paw, Little Feat, as I walk from through one kitchen into another I might hear Dying Fetus, Belphegor or Isaiah Rashad, and if I head down to the bakery, Drake, Justin Beiber, etc. In kitchens, alliances are forged and battle lines drawn over musical tastes. It can be difficult to navigate the cacophony, and find common ground.

In fact, it happens only once a week.

Whether it’s streaming from Apple devices at Hugo’s and Eventide, blasting from tiny technicolor portables, or spinning from the turntables at The Honey Paw, without fail every Saturday at 4 p.m. – which may be the busiest, craziest, most frantic part of our entire week – we all listen to Jeff Lynne and his Electric Light Orchestra. Every Saturday since 2011.

At first, it was the troika: “Telephone Line,” “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Boy Blue.” But over time our repertoire has ballooned to seven or so ELO hits. My favorite part is not the thrum of power chords, nor the mingling violins and harmonized falsettos of Lynne and the boys. I love watching our staff, deep in the weeds – restaurantspeak for being way behind, with disaster looming – scrambling to clean the kitchen and survive the transition from prep to service, all the while singing along under their breath, “Blue days, black nights, doo wah, doo waaahaa.”

Clearly, the music is much more than filler. But strangely, it almost doesn’t matter what kind of music it is. Many of our employees, both past and present, loathe ELO with the white-hot intensity of a thousand flames. But because it’s been ritualized, because we’ve prepared for Saturday nights with ELO every week for five years now, we’re dependent on it. You should see what happens if the music app tosses ELO into the mix at Eventide on a Tuesday: The cooks go, bananas. There’s an all-out sprint to the music terminal to turn it off, fast, right this instant, thus protecting the sanctity of the Electric Light Orchestra.

I suppose it does, in the end, matter to me that ELO has become our restaurants’ collective anthem. With the band members’ perms, huge collars and chest hair, their aviator sunglasses, and also their certainty that America was ready for classical music and rock ‘n’ roll in one dazzling package, I think they’re a pretty good foil for us.

Also, “Do Ya!” rocks.


What’s the connection between tempura and music? Both are always welcome, chef Mike Wiley joked. You can find rice and tapioca flours in Asian markets, like Sun Oriental Market and Veranda Asian Market in Portland.

Yield: About 2 cups batter

Tempura Batter

½ cup all-purpose flour

¼ cup rice flour

¼ cup tapioca flour

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

Ice cold club soda

Vegetables, meat or fish chunks for dipping

Mix the dry ingredients together. Gently stir the club soda into the mixture to achieve a consistency like lumpy, loose pancake batter; start with 1/2 cup club soda. If the mixture jiggles instead of sloshing when shaken, add another 1/4 cup.

Refrigerate the mixture while you gather the vegetables, mushrooms, meat, or fish you intend to dip into the batter.

Ponzu Sauce:

Wiley measures the sauce by ratio, rather than exact cups and teaspoon measurements.

1 part sugar

1 part water

2½ parts light soy sauce

2½ parts lemon juice

Bring sugar, water and soy sauce to a simmer and cook for a few minutes until the sugar has dissolved. Cool, then stir in the lemon juice.

To Fry:

“Purists may argue that the batter should be blonder,” Wiley says about the tempura-fried chunks, “but I like a bit more color.”

Pour canola oil to a depth of 4 inches into a small pot and heat it to 350 degrees F.

Dip whatever vegetables, meat or fish you’ve chosen into the tempura batter, then shake off the excess.

Gingerly slip the items into the oil – you want to keep the hot oil from splashing – and fry until it is golden brown and delicious. Don’t crowd the pot and if you need to fry in more than 1 batch, return the oil to 350 degrees F before adding the second batch. Drain the tempura briefly on paper towels, then serve with a small bowl of ponzu for dipping.

]]> 0 Wiley's staffs grit their teeth and listen to ELO every Saturday.Mon, 15 May 2017 13:43:59 +0000
Bread and Butter: Joys and sorrows of the staff revolving door Wed, 14 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Wiley, chef and co-owner of Eventide Oyster Co., Hugo’s and The Honey Paw, all on Middle Street in Portland, is the second chef to contribute to our occasional chef-written series, Bread and Butter. This is the first of his three columns.

I’m not going to whine about how hard it is to hire good cooks, because enough ink has been spilled on the subject already. Cooking is hard work, it eats up a lot of time, and it isn’t for everyone. But as part owner of three restaurants in Portland – Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honey Paw – I can say with authority that staffing sure is hard.

A lot of cooks have quit our restaurants over the years. We’ve fired a few people for dangerous, insane or illegal behavior, but for the most part, cooks leave of their own volition. We’ve had people leave our kitchens and change careers entirely; frequently these folks need more time with their families and a more “normal” work schedule. Or they finally succumbed to the siren’s call of insurance adjusting, I’m not sure which.

Occasionally, cooks quit because they don’t like the job. Earlier this summer, in an unforgivable display of cowardice, a cook walked out the door without giving any notice on a very busy Saturday afternoon – he melted a plastic container by accident, and was embarrassed. You should hear the Hugo’s cooks talk when his name comes up.

On the other end of the spectrum, fantastic cooks like Dane Newman, who had worked for us for almost three years, move to Seattle for their partner’s career, no matter how much begging I did – or how much I slandered the Emerald City.

In some cases, the best thing to do is to shoo people out the door. Since in this industry, cooks aren’t in it for the money, learning is part of the salary. If we come to a point where we don’t have much left to teach cooks, it seems like the right thing to encourage them to find a new job where they can grow and learn.

However it happens, it’s always painful to lose a staff member with whom you’ve shared a lot personally and professionally. I can’t imagine that rehashing “Game of Thrones” around the water cooler in an office setting forges the same kind of deep bond that challenging prep days and busy services at restaurants can.

In fact, people in restaurants become so close, so dependent on each other that many chefs behave like disowned parents when valuable cooks leave.

But such behavior is childish and short-sighted. We’ve been lucky enough to rehire cooks regularly. We’ve hired Teen Wolf (Ian Driscoll, who started at Hugo’s and needed a haircut, hence the nickname) something like three times, maybe because we got a him a gift certificate to Eleven Madison Park (one of New York City’s best restaurants) when he left the first time. Or maybe because we treated him like a human being.

I’m interested to see if Nick Nappi ever comes back. We presented him with a gilded Gray Kunz spoon. If that’s not a symbolic parting gift, I don’t know what is. (Gray Kunz, for those of you not in my world, ran the four-star Lespinasse in New York for many years. And he designed a special spoon for chefs to taste, portion and sauce.)

We’ve been lucky enough to have cooks work in the building while they are working toward opening their own restaurants, such talents as Anders Tallberg (eventually, he opened Roustabout) and Chris Gould (Central Provisions). Right now, Brant Dadaleares is helping us out in the pastry department (and pulling the occasional shucking shift at Eventide) as he works toward opening his dessert bar.

It is a privilege to have such dedicated professionals staff our restaurants. We provide them a source of income and a place where they can keep their knives and skills sharp before their own spots open, and they set a high standard of professionalism in our kitchen. I’m not so deluded as to think that they’re working for us to pick up new recipes from the likes of me. But I am thrilled that they serve our kitchens’ culture by inspiring and teaching greener cooks.

It’s funny, people want to believe that all restaurants have one artistic genius, the brilliant chef, from whose noggin springs – like Athena from Zeus – inspired and delicious dishes. This is not the case. At least not for us.

When I try to be frank with our guests about where the ideas and food come from, I get the sense they think my explanations are false modesty. That’s not it at all: A lot of really talented and hardworking people work in our restaurants, and everything is a collaboration.


This dish is a real crowd-pleaser. You can bake it as a big log or pack it into the same kind of pan you might use for meat loaf, or you could make it into little meatballs.

Serve this with pitas, a red onion and tomato salad, grated cucumbers in a yogurt dressing, some leaf lettuce, and maybe a little hot sauce on the side.

2 pounds ground beef (90 percent lean)

1 tablespoon Diamond Kosher Salt

1 onion, minced

5 garlic cloves, minced

5 parsley sprigs, minced

1 mint sprig, minced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground Aleppo pepper (sweet paprika is a reasonable substitute)

1/2 tablespoon smoked paprika

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Combine salt and dry spices with the ground beef.

Allow to cure in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.

After curing period, transfer mixture to a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.

Paddle on low for 5 minutes.

While the mixer is running, add garlic, onion, parsley and mint.

Choose your shape – logs, meatloaf or meatballs.

Arrange schwarma mixture on a baking sheet, and bake until golden brown and delicious. Internal temperature should be 155 degrees F.

Allow to rest for 10 minutes. Arrange your delicious Grecian buffet, and slice schwarma as you like it.

While you bask in the adulation of your friends and loved ones, look skyward and whisper, “Thank you, Chef Ben Groppe.”

]]> 6 Mike Wiley, in center wearing glasses, with some of his crew from Hugo's, Eventide and The Honey Paw, photographed outside Hugo's on Monday.Fri, 09 Dec 2016 15:58:19 +0000
Bread & Butter: Couple try to keep it sweet while running a food business Wed, 22 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third and final of three columns by Black Dinah Chocolatiers co-founder Kate Shaffer.

When I first met my husband, Steve, I remember thinking, now here’s a guy I can talk about Ideas with.

He was the young owner of a computer business in Santa Cruz, California, and my best friend’s new housemate. She brought him to dinner at my house one fall evening. I made a time-consuming and utterly delicious ratatouille, because she had told me he was a vegetarian.

We all drank wine, and talked about serious things late into the night. And though it was years (and many boyfriends and girlfriends in between) before Steve and I would start dating, if you ask my friend Krystal, there is little doubt that Steve and I fell in love that first night in the mountains of Santa Cruz.

We were married five years later in a friend’s backyard in Blue Hill, Maine. Our vows were full of big Ideas about love and respect. Our goal was not to start a family and buy a house, but to stumble upon something that we both felt passionate about, and build a business out of it.

When the Shaffers got married in Blue Hill in 1999, their goal was to find something they both felt passionate about and to build a business out of it.

When the Shaffers got married in Blue Hill in 1999, their goal was to find something they both felt passionate about and to build a business out of it. Photo courtesy of Kate Shaffer

To our friends and family, this trajectory could not have been less understandable for a couple whose combined degrees included philosophy, sociology, religion and English literature; and whose past jobs were waitressing, limousine driving, bagel-baking and selling kitchen knives out of the hatchback of a Datsun B210.

To everyone’s horror, Steve and I sold the bill-paying (but soul-sucking) business of computer repair after we were married barely a year.

Then we sold almost everything we had at a yard sale, bought a leaky 1978 Dodge camper, and celebrated our first anniversary over pizza and beer on the side of a blue highway, somewhere deep in the Rocky Mountains.

We lived on the road for six months, meandering through state and national parks, eating at small-town diners, and talking about the business we would create together.

We had a lot of ideas, and made a lot of plans.

Of course, not a single one of those ideas or plans had anything to do with chocolate. But when, seven years later, we found ourselves making chocolate on a tiny island in the middle of Penobscot Bay, we knew we had stumbled upon the big Idea.

Liquid chocolate is poured into forms at Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Westbrook. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Liquid chocolate is poured into forms at Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Westbrook. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

It’s one thing to dream about starting a business with your spouse, and quite another to actually do it. And do it every day for 10 years. And plan to do it for at least another 10.

A business is an ill-behaved, unpredictable, unreliable, ever-changing organism. Ours has, at times, destroyed us. As individuals and as a couple.

It has also, at times, forged us into something strong, and beautiful, and utterly unrecognizable to that young, newly married couple eating pizza in the Rockies. They surely would have been disappointed in us.

Business partners are that most of all. Sometimes they also are friends, but first, always first, they’re in business together.

I struggled for years as I realized the definition of my relationship to my husband was changing the more we depended on Black Dinah to support us.

Our sweet island home turned into a public space that hosted employees and customers every waking hour of our days.

Our fierce romance, which had been the force that ruled our lives for a decade, was now second fiddle to projections and spreadsheets, payroll and supply lists.

Kate Shaffer of Black Dinah Chocolatiers makes ganache, the inside portion of a French truffle, in their Westbrook facility. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Kate Shaffer of Black Dinah Chocolatiers makes ganache, the inside portion of a French truffle, in the company’s Westbrook facility. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

We held morning planning meetings, over coffee, in our bed. And this all made me unbearably sad. I felt I had failed at love. That I had betrayed the Idea of love.

I had a neighbor when I lived on that mountain in Santa Cruz, an elderly widow whose ring finger had grown around her wedding band like the ragged trunk of an old oak. I would visit her on occasion, to bring her an experiment from my kitchen and to talk through a problem I was having, or share a new idea.

I remember her laughing when I bemoaned that it would take me another three years to get my degree if I kept my full-time waitressing job. “Three years!” she barked, “Three years is a blink of an eye!”

My relationship with Steve has gone through several incarnations in the last 20 years. We’ll celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary at the end of the month, and this trip around the sun has seen us as primarily business partners. And we’re good at it. Together.

That young couple meandering the blue highways all those years ago had the right idea. And the couple we are now knows what it takes to make the idea real.

And this, too, is fleeting. An eye-blink. But for now, I look forward to sharing my morning coffee in bed with Steve, where we yawn and stretch and plan to take over the world.

Kate Shaffer and her husband, Steve Shaffer, co-own Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Westbrook and Isle au Haut. Kate Shaffer is the author of “Desserted: Recipes and Tales from an Island Chocolatier.” She can be contacted at:

]]> 1 and Kate Shaffer at their Black Dinah Chocolatiers shop in Westbrook. Married for 17 years, they have learned how to succeed as business partners.Fri, 09 Dec 2016 16:01:49 +0000
Bread & Butter: Move from island to Portland leads to rediscovery of dining – and cooking Wed, 25 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of three columns by Black Dinah Chocolatiers co-founder Kate Shaffer.

When I moved to Portland from Isle au Haut in June of last year my must-do list mostly consisted of one item: Go out to eat as often as humanly possible. After living in a place for close to 15 years where the only restaurant in town was, well, my own, I felt that even if I ate out every day for an entire year, I’d barely be scraping the surface of my long overdue training as a Maine-centric food lover.

My husband, Steve, and I – we own Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Westbrook and Isle au Haut – had the almost unbelievable good fortune of scoring an affordable apartment on Munjoy Hill when we moved here. But its one-room efficiency kitchen – with zero cupboard space – did not lend itself to the elaborate cooking projects I used to like to do in my spacious, fully stocked kitchen on the island.

So I left my library of beloved cookbooks behind, gave away most of the contents of my pantry to island neighbors, and gave myself over to enjoying the experience of other people’s cooking.

It’s not hard to find a fabulous meal in Portland, and I quickly found a few favorite spots: a walking-distance cafe to sip my Saturday morning cup over the crossword puzzle, a comfortable place to enjoy a solo beer, a couple of neighborhood bistros that promised reliably impressive meals when guests were in town.

In early September last year, just as the weather was starting to cool, and Portlanders were beginning to realize that summer wouldn’t last forever, I would come back to my apartment after work to find my upstairs neighbors enjoying evening drinks al fresco on the front stoop. Before long, I was joining them. And not long after that, I started to realize that even after working all day every day in the kitchen making chocolates, and despite access to so many fabulous eateries, I missed the pleasure of cooking in my own home. And I missed sharing my own meals with friends.

It’s no accident that I chose a career in food. I love to cook. I love to feed people. Food is how I move through the world, and in a lot of ways, it’s how I communicate. Steve jokes that he can tell what kind of day I had by what I make for dinner. And it’s a big part of how I introduce myself to new friends. Here, taste this. This is who I am.

By late fall, I limited my eating out to a weekly Friday-night splurge, and I began to instead frequent the neighborhood markets. I found several within walking distance of our apartment where I could pick up freshly baked bread, house-made pastas and super-fresh vegetables from nearby farms.

Shops on the Commercial Street wharves promised varieties of seafood outside my comfort zone of island lobster and halibut. I discovered that the winter farmers market was an easy walk downhill, and that the promise of the walk back uphill kept me from going overboard on too many leafy greens, or tiny potatoes, or varieties of beets and carrots, or fresh cheeses.

I began to train myself not to buy ingredients for a week, or even for the month (as was sometimes necessary on the island), but to buy just enough to make simple meals for a couple of days. Untethered from cookbook recipes and a cafe menu, I picked the ingredients that looked the freshest, or inspired an idea, or lent themselves to my small prep space and limited cookware.

I resisted the temptation to equip my kitchen with more pots and pans and baking dishes (there’s no room!), and instead let the tools I owned influence what ended up on our plates. I developed a system, a tiny mise en place, that both fit on my counter and kept our two kitties out of my prep. The meals that emerged were a new thing altogether, a new experience, a part of myself that I had not yet met.

And, to my surprise, I’m learning to cook. Again.


I love Sunday brunch. And, as it turns out, so does the rest of Portland. But if I’m not feeling like braving the lines at one of the city’s fabulous brunch restaurants, I’ll invite a friend or two to our apartment.

The leeks are the star of this dish, and while the bacon and the egg make it a meal, you could omit those, and simply serve the leeks on toasted slices of baguette for a spring appetizer. I use an Italian white for the bread.

Every ingredient in this recipe (except for maybe the wine) can be picked up at a Saturday farmers market, and quickly prepared for a simple Sunday brunch suitable for company.

Serves 4

8 slices bacon

1 pound spring leeks (or 1 large leek)

4 tablespoons butter

Pinch or 2 dried thyme, or 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

Salt and pepper, to taste

Dry white wine, or water

4 large eggs

4 slices bread of your choice

4 tablespoons chevre (goat cheese)

Parsley, chopped

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the bacon on a cookie sheet and bake, turning over once, for 20 to 25 minutes, until it is very crispy. Drain on paper towels.

While the bacon is cooking, halve the leeks lengthwise, and thinly slice the white and pale green parts into half rounds (reserve the dark green tops for stock, if you like). Place the sliced leeks in a colander and rinse away any dirt or grit.

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the thyme, leeks, salt and pepper. Give it all a good stir, lower the heat, and cover the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, adding a little wine or water to keep the pan moist and prevent browning, until the leeks are very soft – about 20 minutes. Taste them. When they are finished they should melt on your tongue.

Meanwhile, toast the bread, and spread each slice with a tablespoon of chevre.

When the leeks and the bacon are done, bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Crack 1 egg into a tea cup, and gently lay it in the boiling water. Repeat with the remaining 3 eggs. Keep the water at a gentle simmer, to prevent the eggs from breaking apart. When the eggs are done (the whites cooked, the yolks still jiggly) lift them from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels.

Spoon the warm leeks on the chèvre toast, top each with 2 slices of bacon and a poached egg. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley, and serve.

Kate Shaffer and her husband, Steve Shaffer, co-own Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Westbrook and Isle au Haut. Kate Shaffer is the author of “Desserted: Recipes and Tales from an Island Chocolatier.” She can be contacted at:

]]> 0 Shaffer, in Black Dinah Chocolatiers' new 4,200- square-foot facility in Westbrook. She previously worked in a cramped but homier space on tiny, remote Isle au Haut.Fri, 09 Dec 2016 15:57:30 +0000
Bread & Butter: For Black Dinah Chocolatiers, adjustment from island life is under construction Wed, 11 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 EDITOR’S NOTE: This week, we inaugurate a periodic Food + Dining column in which we ask Maine chefs to share recipes and give us firsthand accounts of their lives in the food business. This is the first of three columns by Black Dinah Chocolatiers co-founder Kate Shaffer.

It’s an ordinary Thursday afternoon in Westbrook. I am sitting at my desk at Black Dinah Chocolatiers’ new facility on Main Street, typing up production notes for the coming week, when a major earthquake startles me out of my chair (and my glass-walled office) and under the nearest door frame.

I’m alone, so am only slightly embarrassed when I realize that it’s not actually an earthquake, but rather the army of road equipment that is tearing up our parking lot, pounding the earth into submission. The corner of Main and Bridge streets – our corner – is undergoing a major facelift, which includes two new bridges over the river, new sidewalks, new roads and a new parking lot. The construction explains the daily flashbacks I’m having to my California childhood, and also why the usual steady stream of customers to our sweets shop, which is attached to our factory, has slowed to a trickle.

I know that it will be over in the next couple of weeks and ultimately that the construction will bring us more business. And in a funny way, the earth-shaking demolition and re-building is an apt metaphor for my own life: I feel blasted from my own foundations, blown away by how much things have changed in the last 10 months.

Our new facility is 4,200 square feet of brand-new, state-of-the-art, squeaky-clean materials, and it’s beautiful. But it’s a far cry from where Black Dinah got its start – my husband Steve’s and my tiny flagship location on remote Isle au Haut, 3 1/2 hours north of here and 45 minutes out to sea. This time of year, a staff member might arrive with heaps of fresh-caught halibut, and we’d share a lunch of it on our café’s sun-dappled deck, serenaded by migrating birds and wood frogs, amid budding maples, the stream burbling behind our café. No matter how shiny and new the stainless steel and copper are here in Westbrook, they can’t compete with that.

I might be romanticizing. Running a growing business from a beautiful but remote outpost like Isle au Haut is no small feat. We started making hand-crafted chocolate confections from our island kitchen in 2007. After receiving widespread press and a few national awards, we expanded our production, moved it to a dedicated facility on our island property and hired our neighbors to work with us. Before long, the business outgrew the new space. And the romance of our location, which sometimes attracted new customers, began to frustrate them, too.


“Why aren’t you in stores in southern Maine?” I can’t tell you how many times I heard this question from someone reluctantly paying shipping on a small order to a Portland address. Or, “Why are you so hard to find?!” from an over-heated summer tourist stumbling through our café door. Not to mention our own island-based frustrations – high overhead, shipping delays because of bad weather, the pure physical stress of lugging our ever-growing number of supplies on and off the mail boat. The move to the mainland last June was the right, the inevitable, decision. Still, my heart aches every day for Isle au Haut.

I am shaken from my thoughts by another round of pounding from the parking lot, and then surprised by a tentative “Hello?” from someone in our retail store. I walk in from my adjacent office, and face what feels a lot like a scene from the past: a somewhat bewildered-looking customer, his face tinged with frustration. He throws up his hands. “You were easier to find on Isle au Haut!”

Shaking off life’s little ironies is second-nature for the small business owner. I fight the momentary urge to sigh, defeated, and instead, smile, and offer my customer a sample. The chocolate placates him as he savors what he has presumably made the arduous journey to Westbrook to find. I apologize for the construction, and 15 minutes later, he leaves like so many of our island customers have in the past: laden with chocolate and proud that he successfully navigated his way to this secret spot in the wilds of Westbrook.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. We want to continue to grow our business, and the new location will let us do that. What took us one, sometimes two weeks on the island, can now be done in a single day. Specialized equipment and much more space account for some of the time savings, but most of it is sheer logistics. In Westbrook, we have easier access to materials, to shipping, to fresh ingredients and to labor. It’s a dramatic game-changer.

After almost a year here, though, I’ve realized that in many ways, we’re starting the business all over again. There’s the expected – dealing with bigger spaces, bigger numbers, new and different challenges. But there’s also this sense of newness, that ever-present parent-of-a-newborn-fear that if you leave your baby alone for even a single second, something is bound to go wrong. The need to constantly nurture, feed and build. And the knowledge that there is, again, a very long road ahead of us.

Kate Shaffer, in Black Dinah Chocolatiers's homier space on tiny, remote Isle au Haut. Courtesy photo

Kate Shaffer, in Black Dinah Chocolatiers’s homier space on tiny, remote Isle au Haut. Courtesy photo


The bewildered customer today isn’t alone. I hear his story several times a month. And when the Fed-Ex or UPS guys chide us for being so hard to get to in the middle of all this construction, we smile and nod, and stop ourselves from whining, “Yeah, but you should have seen where we USED to be!” The truth is, I feel lucky to be here. I feel lucky that our crew takes such care with everything they make. I feel lucky that they, too, recognize the value of the space they work in. Every single one of us knows what it took to get here. But every once in a while, Steve and I come home from work and wonder if we’re up to the challenge. It’s then that I remember the island spruce needles and twigs we built a company out of in the first place, and say, “Hey, babe. We’ve already done the impossible.” Haven’t we?

Kate Shaffer and her husband, Steve Shaffer, co-own Black Dinah Chocolatiers in Westbrook and Isle au Haut. Kate Shaffer is the author of “Desserted: Recipes and Tales from an Island Chocolatier.” Kate Shaffer can be contacted at: info@BlackDinah

]]> 3 Shaffer, in Black Dinah Chocolatiers' new 4,200- square-foot facility in Westbrook. She previously worked in a cramped but homier space on tiny, remote Isle au Haut.Fri, 09 Dec 2016 16:01:41 +0000