MILLINOCKET — On Wednesday morning while most people were settling into work, chef and restaurant owner Sam Hayward was taking down his tent in a Millinocket parking lot. It was the last part of an ice-cold, three-day ritual Hayward has practiced for 19 years.

He was one of a dozen people who camped out at Baxter State Park headquarters to be one of the first in line for the opening day of reservations. Hayward was one of just three who camped out for two nights in temperatures that hit minus-14.

It is a tradition Hayward, 65, has upheld all but one year since 1996, which is the year he opened his award-winning Portland restaurant, Fore Street. Since that year, Fore Street has appeared in Gourmet magazine’s top-50 restaurants, and Hayward has been named best chef in the Northeast by the James Beard Foundation.

Now, as he makes plans to open one of Portland’s largest waterfront restaurants this summer, Hayward also looks toward his summer camping trip. Wearing Iditarod-style boots and all-weather gear Wednesday, Hayward went home smiling, knowing two cabins on a pond below Mount Katahdin were reserved for two weeks in July.

How many years have you camped out for opening day?

Since 1996. We took one year off because we went somewhere instead of Baxter. It was lovely. We brought the dog, which we can’t do in Baxter. But we have three children and two grandchildren, and I never know until the last minute when they can join us. That’s why we get two cabins at Baxter, so we can leave one open for them to drop by as they can.

As an owner of a Portland restaurant, how can you even take vacation time in the summer during tourist season?

(Laughs) I’m too old to be a line cook. They’d kick me off. They’re better cooks than I ever was. We have great kitchen leadership. I trust them. It’s running like clockwork by summer. And I worked long and hard years to get to the point I could have some vacation. I’ve been doing this since 1974, cooking as a profession.

Why do you camp out in subzero weather to get your park reservation?

My wife is a registered nurse. She needs to put in for her vacation time early. We have to look way ahead or she might not get the days off she requested.

Why come to Baxter at all? Why not go somewhere else?

Many of us here have come to love the park deeply, and I’m one of them. For finding remote ponds, multiday backpacking trips, for hiking, I feel this is such a gem. It’s such a model for what a wildland park can be. Nature is operating with minimal intervention. It is a real opportunity to immerse yourself in the natural environment.

It’s pretty important psychically for me. I value my time up here. It’s a real contrast from the rest of my life, where I am surrounded and involved with people all the time, and lots of people. I value my private time. It’s why I live in Bowdoinham and not Portland. If I have to work in the city, I want to recreate and I want the seclusion of a less-public world.

So coming up here and using Daicey Pond for a headquarters for hiking and fly fishing and backpacking is important. We’re pretty active. We don’t sit around. It’s about being in nature and on the water.

And once I get my reservation my enthusiasm will ramp up dramatically thinking about it.

What about your new restaurant? Will that curtail your plans to get up to Baxter?

A lot depends on the new business and how it’s going. If everything is going well, I’ll be up. But the reservation is for my family. They will be up without me if something comes up.

The chances are good I’ll be here. We have such a great team. They’re competent, they’re responsible, and they’re great cooks.

How do you feel your last day staying at Baxter?

I’m often saturated and ready to go. But I have regrets I didn’t get to do certain things, sights I wanted to see. Last year my son and I spent three days in a row trying to hike the (10-mile) Traveler Loop. We left Daicey Pond three times to hike the loop. It’s a full-day hike. And three times thunder storms came in while we were driving the Tote Road. That was disappointing. The thunderstorms were beautiful in their own right but we didn’t achieve one big goal.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask what you cook at camp?

(Laughs). It’s all about the food, even when we are backpacking. I ask the kids for their suggestions and preferences. It’s often the same year after year. There is always duck, lamb, along with an evening of fresh fish, either swordfish or wild salmon. Those kinds of things over a fire pit are so easy. I do a lot of prep at home with shrink wrap. We bring protein and keep it in the bottom of the cooler with blocks of ice, and rotate the frozen items up to the top. We’ve learned a lot through trial and error.

Is it as good as Fore Street?

What’s better than eating in the spell of the Maine woods, looking at that mountain towering, with a loon laughing on the pond? That’s as magical as it gets.