Chef Dustin Martin (orange hat) takes a ribeye off the grill as he prepares banh mi for A Flying Flock toboggan team at the Camden Snow Bowl in early February. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

As an experienced chef, Dustin Martin prefers grilling with live fire – fueled by charcoal or wood – to using a gas grill. But on a recent a windy, bone-chilling Saturday at the Camden Snow Bowl, where Martin had been hired to cook an outdoor tailgate feast, he came to appreciate the consistency of a gas grill.

“I just really like cooking over live fire. It’s a little more special, and it’s nice to be around live fire in the cold,” Martin said. A veteran chef based in Northport, Martin knows his way around a kitchen, for sure, having been a longtime sous chef at Primo in Rockland, and more recently chef of the seasonal Northport venue The Hoot.

Beyond grilling the occasional steak or piece of chicken, though, Martin didn’t have much experience with outdoor winter cooking. Plenty of people grill and cook outdoors in the summertime when the living is easy and the warm sun is shining, but cold weather outdoor cooking is a whole different story.

Martin was at the Snow Bowl to cook for about a dozen people, including the six-member, all-women “A Flying Flock” toboggan team – decked out in pink flamingo and yellow duck costumes – which was there to compete at the 33rd U.S. National Toboggan Championships. The chef was using a portable grill to heat broth for Vietnamese pho, and also to cook the ribeye steak that was a component of the soup, and slices of tofu for banh mi sandwiches.

The well-fed A Flying Flock toboggan team, from left to right, Amie Hutchison, Dianne Brown, Larissa Flimlin, Maile Buker, walks across the ice of Hosmer Pond after their run at the Camden Snow Bowl earlier in February. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A stiff wind made the low-30s temperatures feel closer to 18 or 19 degrees, Martin said, and strong gusts weakened the fire in his small Smokey Joe grill, leaving it barely hot enough to simmer the pho broth. He felt compelled to put his ribeyes on the grill sooner than he normally would have – before the coal flames subsided to form an evenly glowing bed of embers – because he didn’t want to waste the precious heat from the flames. As a result, he dealt with some flare-ups as the steak rendered its fat, which left extra smoke residue on the meat.

“I should have gone with a gas grill so I could have more consistent heat,” Martin said. “With gas, you have a constant heat source where you can easily adjust the temperature.”


Regardless, the crowd Martin cooked for seemed to love every bite.

“The pho with the noodles was so warm and filling, and I think that just got everybody off on the right foot, and the sandwiches were delicious. It was quite the spread,” said A Flying Flock tobogganist Maile Buker, who hired Martin for the tailgate event. “To warm from the inside out with Dustin’s delicious food was absolutely perfect.

“We want to eat well and be nourished before we go hurling down an icy wooden toboggan chute and careen across a frozen pond, and he brought his best game,” she continued. “Chef Dustin is now an honorary member of our flock. He’s our Chief Feeding Officer.”

Cooking a meal outdoors during a frigid Maine winter is a bold undertaking. A certain amount of discomfort comes with the territory when you’re standing out in the elements for hours at a stretch. Some chefs we spoke with said the man vs. nature struggle actually invigorates them. But they all seemed to appreciate the experience of cooking outside amid Maine’s stark wintertime beauty, and the charm of the scene helps distract them from the cold.

A Flying Flock toboggan team and supporters enjoy Martin’s food around a fire. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


“I’m personally not a fan of being in the cold all day long, but it was a sunny day, and kind of lovely to be outside,” Martin said. “If it was a cloudy day, it would have been much harder. I was in awe a little bit at times, looking over the grill and seeing a frozen pond. There’s snow everywhere and there’s live fire and food. Once you get to that point, you kind of forget about the cold.”


Martin learned lessons from the Snow Bowl event, the type of cooking wisdom that’s often gleaned the hard way, even by chefs with experience cooking outdoors in the winter. Chef David Brown of Sea Glass restaurant at the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth cooks outdoors for 40-50 people a day during the Inn’s annual midwinter Ice Bar and Seafood Celebration. While the Inn has held the three-day event since 2019, the cooks switched to a gas grill only last winter, prompted by a “never again” kind of experience a year earlier.

“I recall the wind being so bad that year and blowing the smoke in my face as I’m trying to talk to guests,” Brown said. “I couldn’t see. I could barely breathe and I smelled like smoke for three days after. The temperature was in the single digits. Hand warmers were barely helping, and it was hard for us to keep the fire lit. It was one of the toughest work experiences I’ve had.”

He said his team was just barely able to get mussels hot enough to open over the embattled flames, and simply taking the chill off the hot-smoked salmon was also a challenge. Depending on the temperature or weather, a wood-fire grill can be problematic, Brown said.

“We’ve got the wind blowing off the ocean and sometimes snow falling, and sometimes the wood was a little wetter than we wanted it to be, so maintaining a live fire just presented a bunch of challenges,” he said. “So we just had to adapt and go to gas (in 2023). It’s foolproof and provided a better overall experience for myself and the guests.

“There’s nothing worse than 10 guests standing in front of you when you’re trying bring your fire back to life,” Brown continued. “Sometimes a glass of Champagne or a cocktail will go a long ways in a situation like that. People’s tolerance for things is much greater when they have a drink in hand than when they don’t.”

A little booze can be good for the cook, too, Martin said. “It’s nice to have a cocktail or a beer flowing through every once in a while,” he laughed. “That helps. For me it’s quintessential – you have tongs in one hand, a beer in the other and food on the grill.”


Brown said in the three years since he’s been working the Seafood Celebration, “I’ve learned to love it. I don’t get to cook right in front of guests very often. We have a closed kitchen here, so for me, any opportunity to get out and mingle with guests while cooking and doing what I love is the total package.”

Sea Glass Chef David Brown serves a guest at the 2022 Ice Bar and Seafood celebration at Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth. Courtesy of Inn by the Sea


Josh Berry, former executive chef at Union in the Press Hotel, has ample experience cooking outdoors any time of year.

“I feel comfortable cooking outside, especially growing up in Maine and being a Boy Scout – it’s kind of ingrained in you,” said Berry, now the owner of b frame, a restaurant consulting and private event planning business. “There’s a little bit of primal appeal that comes with it also. It’s a challenge against Mother Nature. It’s cold outside and you’re standing next to the fire, and the food has a different flavor than you can get inside. I love it.”

While he was with Union, Berry cooked outdoors multiple times at Mallet Barn at Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport. In the winter, Berry has cooked dishes as esoteric as haloumi cheese sandwiches and quail with hot honey on the grill, and he’s nestled whole squash into the hot ashes of the fire to slow-roast.

Still, he’s faced times when nature just would not cooperate, like a few years ago when he was ice fishing with a group of friends on Moose Pond by Pleasant Mountain.


“The wind was whipping like crazy, and it was hard to keep the fire going,” he recalled. He’d brought onions, potatoes, bacon, fresh thyme and cream, “all the ingredients we needed to make a chowder, except for the fish.”

Despite the high winds lashing across the pond, Berry was able to eventually get the fire strong enough to start the chowder base bubbling.

“It was simmering away nicely, but we only caught like one fish,” Berry said. “So it was more like a potato chowder garnished with some trout. But it was delicious regardless, and we all had a blast.”

Chef Dustin Martin makes banh mi sandwiches for A Flying Flock toboggan team at the Camden Snow Bowl. He grilled the tofu for the sandwiches outside on a cold, blustery day. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Last year, the founders of Secret Supper, a series of experiential farm-to-table dinners held at locations across the country that are disclosed to ticket-holders only 24 hours before the event, approached him about doing a Secret Supper event in New Gloucester for 56 people in early December.

Berry jumped at the chance. “It was their last event of the year, and we really pulled out all the stops,” he said.

Berry’s crew char-grilled cauliflower with butter and saffron honey. They broiled local oysters with a diffused blowtorch and grilled lobster tails in garlic butter over applewood charcoal.


They even fried Delicata squash rings in a pot of hot oil over an open fire, most definitely not the kind of technique Berry would recommend for novices.  “Common sense and being careful with combustible substances goes a long way with cooking outside,” Berry said. “You don’t want to get too crazy.”

Like Martin at the Snow Bowl, Berry and the Secret Supper guests at Cunningham Farm were too awestruck by the natural beauty of the surroundings to be dismayed by any fleeting physical discomfort.

“It was probably around 14 degrees that day, a little cool, but there was snow,” Berry said. “I’m so glad we got to show guests from all over a real December barn dinner in Maine with beautiful snow-covered fields. And that’s what made it really worth it. Aside from the nips of Allen’s coffee brandy.”

Chef Josh Berry, left, at a December Secret Supper event at Cunningham Farm in New Gloucester. Photo by Hitched Willie for Secret Supper


For anyone considering cooking their own outdoor feast this winter, these three Maine chefs offer their collective wisdom.

Dress for the occasion. Bundle in layers to insulate yourself, paying particular attention to proper socks and boots so your feet stay warm and dry. Berry advises wearing nonflammable outwear if possible.


“Some of these winter jackets are made of polyurethane,” he said. “I’ve seen people have their jacket cuffs or sleeves or mittens catch fire.”

Brown likes to keep hand warmers in his pockets, and wears disposable food service gloves over a thin pair of winter gloves to handle food. “It’s also very important to embrace the Mainer in you and bust out the long johns,” he added.

You’ll also stay warmer as you work if you position your grill in direct sun if possible. And Martin said wind blockers and screens are very helpful not just for keeping the cooking area warmer, but also for preventing gusts from blowing out the grill flames.

Work ahead and stay organized. “One of the most important things about cooking for a gathering outdoors is that about 95 percent of your legwork should be done inside, thoughtfully, and then the other five percent is the execution in front of the guest,” Brown said. “I feel like the more you try to accomplish outdoors in 10 degree weather, the more challenges you’ll face on the whole.”

Dishes like soups, stews and chowders can be completely prepared indoors, then simply reheated on the grill to serve. Brown recommends using a double-boiler setup – what chefs call a bain marie. Put the soup into the upper container while it’s hot, and it’ll stay warm over the fire without sticking or scorching on the bottom.

You can use the grill to cook the main protein of a dish, like steak, while filling out the plate with starch and vegetables you cooked in the kitchen. Dishes like marinated meat-and-vegetable skewers work well because they cook quickly and can be assembled beforehand indoors.


Keeping an organized, efficient work station – mise en place – is always a key concern for chefs. Outdoors in the winter, it becomes even more important. Taking time to track down missing ingredients or tools just means more time in the cold waiting to eat. Bear in mind also that it may take a little longer to cook some dishes, depending on the weather conditions.

In addition to basic tools like tongs and a spatula, Martin likes to have a roll of aluminum foil on hand. He uses the foil to create indirect heat zones on the grill, to wrap ingredients that he plans to roast directly in the coals, and for a clean “landing pad” for items he pulls off the grill just before serving

Berry noted that as with any cooking scenario, sanitation is a critical concern. He suggested having Sani wipes available and paper towels to keep your hands and working area clean and dry.

Provide extra heat sources. If you’re using a charcoal grill, have more coals on hand than usual because you may need to stoke the fire frequently on windy or very cold days. At the Snow Bowl, Martin said he kept a chimney starter filled and burning so he could feed the fire as needed, which proved invaluable.

“A chimney starter is a very important tool to have. When your grill is pretty low, you can have your chimney going so you have backup all the time, a little side fire, which is great,” Martin said.

It’s good to have extra heat sources for you and your guests, too. Brown recommends building an additional fire, or using a portable standing patio heater so that people don’t all huddle around the grill fire where you’re busy trying to cook.


And with all the open flames, of course you’ll want to be sure to have a fire extinguisher, a bucket of sand or a box of kosher salt nearby should you need to put out any grease fires.

Less is more. When cooking for a gathering, it’s a common mistake to develop an overambitious menu because you want the meal to be impressive.

But cooking outdoors over fire in the winter offers much less room for error than cooking in the comfort of your home with calibrated equipment.

“We try to be really ambitious and do things we think will be memorable and write menus with options for everybody,” Brown said. “But it’s really important to just stick with what you know, the dishes you know will prove themselves successful for you.”

Berry emphasized that the experience of cooking outdoors in the winter is a kind of transcendent reward in itself.

“As soon as you smell that grill fire, it takes you to a different place,” Berry said. “I encourage everybody to brush the snow off their grill, fire it up and get going.”

Halloumi cooks in a grill pan set on a bed of coals. Photo by Josh Berry

Grilled Halloumi Sandwich

Halloumi, a traditional Cypriot cheese with a firm texture and high melting point, is a great grilling cheese, but be sure to first heat your grill grates or grill pan. Using it for literal “grilled cheese” sandwiches is a fun choice for an outdoor lunch. Recipe from chef Josh Berry.

Serves 4 

8 ounces halloumi cheese, cut into 8 (1-ounce) slices
Olive oil
Crushed black pepper
8 slices of crusty bread
1/2 cup charred kale pesto (see recipe below)
Sea salt
Zest of 1 lemon

Heat a wood/charcoal fire until the embers are hot with a low flame. Place grill grates or grill pan over the hot embers and wait until the surface is very hot. Alternatively, you can preheat a gas grill to high or heat a grill pan on an indoor stovetop. 

Dry the cheese slices. Brush them with olive oil and season with black pepper. Place the cheese on the hot grates or pan. Sear for 3-4 minutes on one side only. Transfer to a plate warmed over the grill using a metal spatula. 

Lightly grill the bread slices on one side. Slather 1 tablespoon of charred kale pesto on four slices of bread. Top the pesto with two pieces of grilled halloumi. Sprinkle with sea salt, lemon zest and more pepper to taste. Top the sandwiches with the remaining four pieces of grilled bread and serve warm. 

Charred Kale Pesto

Berry suggests making the pesto ahead of time inside. You can “char” the kale in a grill pan. 

4 cups Lacinato kale, stems removed
2 cups packed basil leaves
3 garlic cloves, peeled
3/4 teaspoon sea salt, plus additional for seasoning
2 cups olive oil
½ cup pine nuts, toasted
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

Grill kale leaves until slightly charred and wilted, but still mostly green. Cool to room temperature.

Combine kale with basil leaves, garlic, and salt in a blender and blend on medium-high speed until the leaves are well chopped.

Slowly add the olive oil in a stream while the blender is running. Add the pine nuts and continue to blend. Transfer the pesto to a bowl and fold in the cheese. Taste for seasoning, adding pepper and additional salt, as needed.

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