KITTERY — Before Bill Clifford, chef/owner of Bill’s Original Kitchen, starts making his signature lobster rolls, before he starts prepping vegetables, and before he makes the cornbread salad to go with the flatiron steak entree, he’s cleaned the bathroom and washed the silverware and glassware.

He’s done the shopping, and swept and mopped the restaurant floors. He done the “high dusting,” cleaning the hard-to-reach places. He’s even done a little banking.

Bill’s Original Kitchen is a one-man restaurant show, where the chef is also the host, waiter, busboy, cashier and dishwasher. Clifford is the owner and only employee.

Last Thursday, the Yangs, a family of five visiting from Boston, were his first lunch customers. They were lured inside by the sign touting Clifford’s lobster roll as “one of Maine’s best.” As they settled into blue, diner-style chairs, Clifford stood near the kitchen door, polishing glasses.

“Welcome!” he said. “Can I bring you something to drink while you’re settling in?”

While Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” played in the background, Clifford explained the drinks list and the menu of New American food; prices for entrees range between $13 and $18. He answered their questions about the lobster roll and the tuna, and then he asked one of his own, the question he asks every customer: “What can I cook for you today?”

Bill Clifford checks for smudges on clean glasses at Bill's Original Kitchen (BOK) in Kittery.

Bill Clifford checks for smudges on clean glasses at Bill’s Original Kitchen (BOK) in Kittery.

ONE FOR ALL

Such direct engagement between a chef and his customers is “really quite a hook” for a new restaurant, says Scott Allmendinger of Cape Elizabeth, who is director of the CIA Consulting Group at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. While Allmendinger doesn’t know of anyone else going it completely alone like Clifford, he said some restaurateurs are trying to streamline the number of people who touch a plate a food as it travels from chef to customer.

Also, with health-care costs and minimum wage on the rise, Allmendinger said, the economics of traditional independent restaurants need redefining because they “just won’t be feasible in the future.” Chef David Chang of Momofuku, he noted, addressed the issue in the March issue of GQ magazine.

Doing every job in a restaurant requires impeccable timing, a well-edited menu, lots of practice, and a few shortcuts. It also helps to have induction burners, which prepare food in half the time. “They get incredibly hot, incredibly fast,” Clifford said.

Clifford opened Bill’s Original Kitchen last October and has spent months working out techniques and timing. To help customers understand the one-man concept, he wrote a letter explaining the set-up, framed it and hung it on the wall.

Whatever he is doing, it seems to be working. Reviews on sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor have been overwhelmingly positive.

“We heard about it from a friend, and we looked it up on the Internet and it had great reviews,” said Wayne Moulton, who drove over from Portsmouth, N.H., with his wife, Kali, for an early dinner. He had the lobster mac-and-cheese. She had the flatiron steak served with cornbread salad. “I didn’t know what to expect from a cornbread salad,” Kali Moulton said. “It was really delicious and interesting.”

Moulton liked being able to speak with the person who made her meal. Her husband liked the speedy service.

Bill Clifford serves a table of six at Bill's Original Kitchen (BOK) in Kittery.

Bill Clifford serves a table of six at Bill’s Original Kitchen (BOK) in Kittery.

STEP COUNTER

Clifford, a 47-year-old divorced father of two who commutes to Kittery from Sanford, started washing dishes in restaurants at age 14 in his hometown of Portsmouth. He is a 1993 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and early in his career worked in Boston, Miami and Denver. He moved to Boothbay Harbor in 2002, and became the 2003-2004 Maine Lobster Chef of the Year. Later, he worked as executive chef at the Portland Harbor Hotel, and at Mercy Hospital.

After he was unexpectedly laid off from Mercy, Clifford started looking for something he could do entirely on his own – but not merely a food truck or catering gig. He wanted to have control over his next project, and avoid the toll a big staff takes.

“The stress of being financially responsible for a lot of other people? I’ve been in those shoes,” he said.

In 2014, he traveled to San Francisco and discovered lots of small operations feeding people in tiny, custom spaces. But they offered casual fare like soups and burgers, while he envisioned a traditional restaurant serving hot entrees at tables. He eventually signed a lease for a modest place at One Government Street in Kittery.

But would his idea of running the place solo work? Could he serve customers all by himself without taking too long? Would the concept seem like a gimmick? Clifford decided to test it. He dragged everything out of his garage and, using second-hand furniture and a tape measure, constructed a restaurant dining room at home. Then he set the timers on two phones and went to work.

Over the next two days, he visualized what he might cook, from a plate of scallops to an open-faced Reuben, and walked himself through the steps of service: greeting, getting a beverage, taking an order, returning to the kitchen, cooking the food, delivering it, one follow-up, getting the check, getting the proper change and saying “Have a nice day” to his imaginary customers. How long would all of that actually take one person?

And that, Clifford says, is how he decided what style of food he could realistically serve.

“I’m cooking a medium-rare burger,” he recalled, demonstrating one visualization. “Now what am I going to do? All right, I’m going to have to leave the burner and walk back into the other bay of the garage and say hello to people, seat them, take their beverage. How am I actually going to make this thing operate?”

He determined that 16 was the magic number – that’s how many customers he could handle by himself before things started to fall apart.

He also taught himself how to use induction burners, an experience he describes as “horrible.” Since October, he’s tossed out 45 dishes that he deemed “not customer-worthy,” such as the grilled cheese crab sandwich on a brioche bun that came out with cold crab inside. A traditional burger wouldn’t work, either. No omelettes because the eggs cook too fast.

(The upside? The kitchen stays a lot cooler when the chef is cooking with induction burners.)

In the early days, Clifford had a little front-of-the-house help from his sister and a friend. But the last time he needed it was on Valentine’s Day weekend, and he swears he won’t hire any help during the busy summer season. He isn’t against the idea of having an extra employee or two if, for example, he moves to a larger space down the road. But for now, the one-person model has become a personal challenge – and a challenge from folks in the neighborhood who expect him to make good on his vow to go it alone. “Bill’s Original Kitchen as it’s built right now? It’s going to be me,” he said.

Clifford prepares to deliver two lobster rolls to dinner customers.

Clifford prepares to deliver two lobster rolls to dinner customers.

SOMETIMES HE WAFFLES

The ramp-up from no customers to 16 is the most hectic part of his day, Clifford said. Once the restaurant is full, he hits his stride. If someone spills something, though, or leaves a mess in the bathroom, it can disrupt the flow and he may fall behind. Clifford finds most customers are understanding and patient.

But there have been some disasters. A couple of weeks ago, he cut the end of his finger and it wouldn’t stop bleeding. He had to close early.

Two keys to keeping things running smoothly have been short menus and shortcuts. The wine menu has just one choice for each varietal. To simplify cooking during the dinner service, Clifford tries to find sides that can be served room temperature. And he offers only one dessert, which this week was a waffle with sour cherry jam, chocolate morsels and vanilla ice cream.

It also helps that more than half the customers order his famous lobster roll.

Clifford makes the hummus for the hummus plate himself, but the rest of the plate is merely assembled – he buys the beets already roasted, and the olives already marinated. He buys ready-made cornbread muffins at Market Basket to use in the cornbread salad, and he buys pre-cooked pot roast for the pot roast burger, then slices it and reheats in a bath of warm butter and water.

The pre-cooked pot roast is “a shortcut I don’t think a lot of chefs would feel good about,” Clifford said. “I try not to do too many of those dishes.”

But “I think in the context of what I’m doing, it makes sense.” Besides, he added, “It’s working.”

Sometimes he improvises. It takes a full six minutes to make a waffle, so if it’s a busy night he might prepare one early because “statistically speaking, someone in the next 10 to 12 minutes is going to get a dessert. Worst case scenario, I have to eat a waffle.”

Bill Clifford talks with dinner customers Marissa Brawn and Ben Pottier of Portsmouth, N.H.

Bill Clifford talks with dinner customers at his restaurant.

THE JOINT IS JUMPIN’

At 6:30 p.m., a high-maintenance party of six came in and put Clifford to the test. After starting with a hummus plate for the table and a lobster roll to be split in three, they ordered one lobster mac and cheese, plus one lobster-less mac and cheese to be split between two people. They also split a seared tuna entree, and one person wanted the calamari and shrimp with linguica and lentils for himself. Clifford wrote it all down, then hurried to the kitchen, where he turned up the heat on four burners. “We’re going for the turbo jets,” he said.

Clifford put the calamari, shrimp and linguica sausage in one pan and let it sizzle, then ran to put penne and cheese sauce in two other pans. He stirred the sauce, then ran back to the calamari pan and covered it. Back to stir the mac and cheese. The tuna landed in the fourth pan for searing. Clifford uncovered the calamari and moved to the prep station to plate the marinated veggies that go with the tuna – two plates, since his customers were sharing the dish. Next he plated the plain mac and cheese. He removed the tuna from the pan and cut it into two portions, then poured the lobster mac and cheese into a big shallow serving bowl.

He left the bowls of mac-and-cheese steaming on a shelf, while he plated the calamari and lentils. He sliced a lemon to squeeze onto greens served with the calamari, then added a squeeze of oil to the dish.

Clifford served the calamari and lobster mac and cheese first. When he returned to the kitchen, he was carrying dirty dishes from the table. He served the two tuna plates, then came back to the kitchen to grab the plain mac and cheese.

Bill Clifford prepares a lobster roll for a customer.

Bill Clifford prepares a lobster roll for a customer.

JUST DO IT

He can’t waste an ounce of energy in this kitchen dance, although occasionally Clifford does get flustered. At one point, scrambling to throw together a dessert, a big scoop of ice cream flew out of the scoop and landed splat onto the floor.

But the set-up makes for fast service. Many orders are ready in just 5 minutes, and most customers are in and out in 45 minutes.

In between customers, Clifford adjusts tables, collects water glasses, wipes down tabletops and resets silverware. He wears knee-length black shorts, a white chef’s jacket and Nike sneakers that squeak on the floor when he moves quickly. He is on his feet virtually all day, rising at 5:30 a.m. and not getting home until 9 or 10 p.m.

How long can a man who’s within spitting distance of 50 keep up this pace? Clifford says he doesn’t compare himself to the many 22-year-old cooks, and he doesn’t worry about the physical demands. “I have young children, and I think that kind of reset my clock for me.”

Still, he’s had to learn to take care of himself better. He eats more calories, and instead of coffee for breakfast and then a big lunch, he tries to spread out his calories during the day.

Even his direct interaction with his customers – something most chefs are insulated from, he says – can be nourishing. A positive interaction can energize him for the rest of the day.

“It makes me so happy,” he said. “It is a real fuel source to see people enjoy food.”