Food writer Kathy Gunst and her then-boyfriend John moved to Maine from New York City in the early 1980s, planning to stay only a year.

At the time, Gunst was the culinary editor of Food and Wine magazine and had just landed a contract to write her first cookbook. The couple sublet their New York apartment, settled in South Berwick and got married.

Almost three decades, 14 cookbooks and two children later, they are still here.

Like so many people who move to Maine and end up spending a lifetime here, Gunst found that the lifestyle suits her.

“I love gardening,” Gunst said. “I love being outdoors, and I have a dog and I love walking. And I love not worrying about everything. So many people I know who live in cities are constantly checking for keys, and is this locked and is that locked, and is that security system on, and I don’t feel like that’s part of my reality. It leaves a lot of energy for other good things.”

Gunst’s latest cookbook, “Notes from a Maine Kitchen” (Down East, $27.95), follows the Maine seasons, beginning with an account of smelt fishing with Portland chef Sam Hayward and ending with a humorous essay about holiday entertaining.

So many cookbooks follow this same theme — chasing the public interest in seasonal, local foods — but readers will find Gunst’s take on the trend and her conversational tone refreshing. The book basically illustrates, through the vehicle of food, what it’s like to live in Maine year-round.

“This was sort of my love letter to Maine,” Gunst said. “It felt like it really came from the heart.” 

Q: How do you test recipes for your cookbooks, and how long does it take? Do you enlist family members and friends to help cook and taste things?

A: It depends. Generally what happens is, particularly for a book like this, I’m following the seasons, I’m following what’s fresh or what I can either grow or forage for, or find at farmers markets. And then I’ll come up with an idea for a recipe, which can literally come from just about anywhere. I test it once, and then I test it a second time based on all my notes. And if everything is clean and cool and good, I then pass it on to friends who are either in the food world or people that are just so passionate about cooking and people whose cooking I respect. And then I have them test it in their home kitchen. 

Q: I was amused by the essays where you talk about the pressure you get as a food writer to cook fabulous things for your house guests or for a party.

A: (Laughs.) How infrequently I’m invited to other peoples’ homes for dinner, and what a drag that is. 

Q: I hear chefs say the same thing.

A: Oh, of course they do, because everybody thinks they have to, like, wow (a chef). If you invite a chef to dinner, you know, they would be so thrilled to have a hamburger. 

Q: What do you like to eat when you don’t have to worry about impressing people?

A: You know, it’s a great question, because it doesn’t really change all that much, to tell you the truth, because I don’t really cook to impress people. I would say that when people come over and I kind of want to dazzle them, I end up adding maybe two dishes to a regular menu, but the kind of food that I cook doesn’t change that much. It’s really based on being fresh, being simple and being really true to the ingredients. That’s kind of become a tired speech, it’s so the mantra of everything right now, but it’s always been the way that I cooked.

To me, there’s nothing better than a salad from my garden, maybe a roast chicken and a blueberry pie. That’s a great meal to me. Which is not to say that I don’t like going to Hugo’s or to Fore Street and being wowed by some of the crazy wonderful things that (chef) Rob Evans cooks. But it’s not what I do. People always say to me, “This is chef Kathy Gunst.” And I always say to them, “I was trained as a chef, but I’m not a chef. I’m really a home cook. I’m a good home cook.” Which is important, I think, because often when chefs write cookbooks, they’re not really in touch with the home cook. And I feel like I am. I raised two kids, and when you have to put dinner on the table for kids who are really hungry and don’t have a long time to eat before the next activity begins, you start to understand that stress of cooking.

I’ve always loved cooking, and found it relaxing. But raising kids and having to put dinner on the table by a certain time was like, eww, I kind of get why people don’t like cooking, because this is stressful. The average person has a small kitchen and a small family and a small budget, and only has 45 minutes to give that meal. 

Q: You’ve been active in Share Our Strength’s efforts to fight childhood hunger. What motivated you to get involved in that cause? Was it the encounter you had with the hungry girl at your daughter’s school?

A: That definitely started it, and then my work at the local soup kitchen around here. Both my husband and I were on the board (of Share Our Strength Maine, an organization that fights childhood hunger) for three or four years, and it was incredibly rewarding. The statistics about hunger in Maine are terrifying. 

Q: Tell me a little about your school project.

A: In June 2010, I was one of about 800 or 900 chefs that was invited to the White House. And I went as a journalist. I thought, “Oh, this is so cool. I’m going to go, I’ll come back and blog about it. I’ll maybe write an article about it at the end.” And that was it.

I went to the Rose Garden, and (Michelle Obama) came out, and she started talking about childhood obesity and hunger in America. She just looked out at the crowd and she said, “You are the people that can make a difference. The government can’t do it. There is not money to fund what needs to be going on. If every single one of you that’s here today would go back to your town and adopt a local school, think of the difference it would make in the lives of millions of kids.”

I got on the plane to come back home, and it literally was like one of those movies where there’s the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other shoulder. This little voice started saying, “You have to do what she said. You have to do it.” And this other voice is, like, “No, you don’t. You’re not a teacher. You’re not an educator. You’re a writer. That’s what you do.”

I came home and contacted the principal of the elementary school in our town that both of my kids went to, and it just exploded. She was so optimistic, and she was so excited. I worked at the school all last year, and we did amazing things. I ended up teaching every single kid in this school, so it’s pre-K through third grade. I think it’s 460 kids. I gave them a cooking and/or nutrition class that focused on fruits and vegetables. Then we planted all these seeds, and with community members, we built a hoop house right behind the elementary school. We’ve been growing food all year, and all summer, we’ve kept it going. We’ve got all kinds of things growing and getting ready for the school year to start so that when the kids come back, there will be all-new food there.

And it’s been a really thrilling detour in my life. It’s really shocked me. This is not what I thought I would be doing. Nor did I think it was something I would love as much as I do.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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