EDITOR’S NOTE: This week and over the next several weeks, we’ll speak with a few of the record 10 Maine 2015 semifinalists for a prestigious James Beard Foundation Award. The New York-based foundation will announce the finalists on March 24 and the winners on May 4.

Brian Hill – Maine native, former rocker, dad to a boisterous toddler (Piper, by name) and chef/owner of Francine Bistro in Camden and Shepherd’s Pie in Rockport – is living the dream.

“Every chef’s dream is to have a little place where they can have control over the food every night, and it’s romantic, and they’ve a great staff and great ingredients,” he says. “It’s an incredibly hard job, but it’s so cool.” Hill, 49, grew up on a farm in Warren, one of four children of back-to-the-landers from Rhode Island. “We had incredible stuff to cook. Knowing how things taste right out of the ground rather than after a few hours in the fridge has always driven my approach to cooking. At the restaurant, I always try to make it a much better version of what I ate growing up.”

“Don’t tell my Mom.”

We spoke with him about celebrity chefs, happy chickens and how he feels about his sixth James Beard Foundation nomination for Best Chef: Northeast. The interview has been edited and reordered for clarity and length.

Q: I read an interview where you said, “You know, we live in this time of celebrity chefs, and I think it’s kind of silly.” Elaborate, please.


A: I always felt that a chef’s job is to be in a kitchen and not tweeting and posting photos on Instagram. I’m not good at posting tweets while in the middle of cooking. It just seems crazy. I have an account that somebody set up for me, but I don’t tweet. I have chef friends in New York that post stuff on Instagram; it’s interesting to see what people are doing. But to be a chef in New York now, they have to do so much with social media to get that market share, and that seems horrible. I hate that sort of modern chef thing (where it’s) necessary to publicize yourself.

With the James Beard Foundation, I’m so honored that I’m in the middle of nowhere and we still get recognition every year. I think that’s really nice.

Q: But, um, it’s not disappointing to be nominated so often yet not to win? Kind of like that soap opera star …?

A: It happens to a lot of chefs that they are nominated again and again. I don’t know the process they use. But yeah, we’ve been making the Susan Lucci joke all week. I’m wig shopping right now. (Lucci, who played Erica Kane on “All My Children,” was nominated for an Emmy 18 times before actually winning one.)

Q: So are you the Best Chef in the Northeast?

A: That’s a question that I kind of hate to answer. I try. I try to be the best. Or one of the best. We have a pretty good crew up here, a pretty good bunch in the Northeast. Those guys at Hugo’s do a great job. Melissa (Kelly) at Primo is fantastic. Krista (Kern) with that shack at Sabbathday Lake – she is one of the greats. She could do anything.


Q: Have you got your speech prepared?

A: (He laughs.) No, but I promise I’ll be funny.

Q: You’re up for an award for great chef. But what makes a great restaurant?

A: There is a restaurant in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. – Cafe Riche – that I always thought of as my favorite restaurant ever. I’m sure it’s not there anymore. I’m sure that the chef isn’t still with it. He was a Tunisian guy named Benny who made really cool French Tunisian food – duck couscous. And he made a tableside salad of pears and ouzo and butter lettuce – it was just incredible. I stole that trick. The lighting was dark. There were Christmas lights up.

I hate it when tables are all perfectly lined up and austere. A restaurant has to have a real twinkle to it. And it’s got to smell great when you walk in. If I walk into a restaurant and it doesn’t smell great, I’ll tend to leave. A great restaurant is a kind of magical experience.

Q: From your bio, I see you lived and cooked in New Orleans, New York, Hawaii and California.


A: I tried to fit as much experience as I could and have as many adventures in the kitchen as I could. I played guitar in a band until 1992. From that point, I really had to catch up. I knew a few chefs from being on tour. Hans Röckenwagner (of the eponymous Los Angeles restaurant) was nice enough to give me a job. Everything about those years was an amazing learning curve and a real struggle. It’s great to be in the right place at the right time and learn amazing tricks and amazing ways to cook. Looking out the window, I miss Hawaii pretty intensely right now. The cool thing about Maine, though, is that everything tastes better here. It really does. There’s something about the terroir.

Q: Did you always know you would return to Maine (or as his website bio puts it, “Like a salmon, the ambitious young chef headed home”)?

A: It was a surprise. I was working in New York City, and I quit my job and went to Florida. I surfed and fished my way up to Maine and checked out towns all the way up the coast with an eye out for where I could open a restaurant like Francine. At the end of my travels, I was back home to say hi to my folks, there was a cute little coffee shop called Francine (which he bought and turned into a bistro). It seemed like such an obvious fit. We had amazing chickens right down the road, incredible Caldwell Farm beef, the cheesemaker was right here. Not so many places had that then. When you are a kid here, the first thing you want to do is get out. Being here as an adult, I appreciate it a lot more.

Q: Now you keep your own chickens at the restaurant. For eggs? For meat? For rustic charm?

A: They are our pets. We use their eggs when we have soft-cooked egg on the menu because they are perfect. Those chickens eat so well. They are very happy girls. They eat leftovers from making dashi – kelp. And bacon, mushrooms, salad trimmings, and they eat the garden, too. They fight with my daughter to get the ground cherries that we grow in pots.

Q: Was the food in Maine different when you were growing up?


A: I’m sort of nostalgic about some of the stuff that was in this area. There was a restaurant called The Helm run by French Canadians. It was the only place in Maine serving mussels. It was so cool. My grandmother came up and ordered a salad of Roquefort dressing. Wow! I was so impressed. I’m going to order that. It probably wasn’t as delicious as I remember, but I love the idea of that sort of food.

Q: So a guitar band, huh? I read the names of some of your songs from back in the day – “Static Rat,” “Radioactive Sluts.” That doesn’t sound anything like the charming, romantic Francine Bistro.

A: I like to play a lot of loud rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s not the best thing to enjoy your dinner to. It was fun to be a punk rock kid. It was fun to do a lot of crazy stuff and tour with Joe Strummer from the Clash. It was a great extended adolescence for me.

Q: I stumbled on another chef named Brian Hill when I was researching you. Apparently, he has been on “Top Chef,” and Food Network’s “Private Chefs of Beverly Hills” – he cooked for Eddie Murphy and Mariah Carey. Plus he was named one of Hollywood’s Most Eligible Bachelors. Is your life anything like his?

A: I wholeheartedly disapprove of celebrity chefs. What a revolting thing to call yourself – a celebrity chef. It just seems like the craziest thing: You can put on a crazy bandana and get a bunch of tattoos and you can get a TV show. It’s so weird.

Q: What question would you like me to ask you?


A: One of the crazy things about being a year-round restaurant in Maine – very few people ask you, ‘How do you do this?’ We keep a staff throughout the winter. It’s an amazingly challenging thing. There may be a couple busy nights, but if Monday and Tuesday are slow… It’s such a financially crazy thing.

Q: So why do you do it?

A: It’s hard to stop. I’ve been doing it for 11 years. Our employees have worked here for a long, long time. They have kids and families and mortgages. You can’t really just close the door, like I used to, and go to Mexico for a month. And lots of restaurants in Camden are closed for the winter, so it’s really fun here on snowstorm nights when everybody in town comes. It’s when the restaurant is at its most magical. The challenging part is keeping everybody paid.

Q: I recently read the term “restless palate syndrome.” Do Americans have this? Do your customers? Do you?

A: What does that mean?

Q: I think it means that American diners get bored very easily. Unlike Italians, say, who eat the same dishes their grandmother and great grandmother ate, we always want to be eating the next big thing.


A: Restless palate syndrome sounds as bad as alien hand syndrome.

Q: What’s that?

A: Alien hand syndrome is when you have a hand that tries to attack you. So this food is attacking itself. It seems so destructive to food when people try to make food from their so-called imagination. It’s funny I just watched a video of (French-born British chef) Pierre Koffmann. He went to the MAD Symposium (founded by world-famous Danish chef René Redzepi), where they cook all those crazy, crazy things, and he made an omelette. I’ve been thinking about omelettes a lot lately: They are so simple but so hard to get right. He got a standing ovation. I do a lot of things in the kitchen that maybe are unconventional – we cook mussels with pine needles – but everything is based on classic technique.

Q: Well, I bet Redzepi would approve of you cooking with pine needles.

A: (He laughs.) Yes, I did it first, though.


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