Our Maine Man
Sam Hayward of Fore Street on unpretentious, unctuous eats
Lists of up-and-coming food cities tend to include the two Portlands. No one deserves more credit for raising the profile of the eastern one than Sam Hayward. His restaurant, Fore Street, is a welcoming brick space with an open kitchen, picture windows looking out on Casco Bay, and a daily-changing menu that might include lobsters cooked in the wood-fired oven, braised local lamb, and sustainably raised seafood. His dishes earned him the James Beard Foundation’s 2004 award for Best Chef: Northeast. Here he talks about why Maine produce is better than California’s, why he stopped hanging out with Huey Lewis, and why he likes killing his own food.
Fore Street has big windows and an open kitchen. Were you intentionally looking for some kind of transparency?
We wanted to make sure it was not forbidding or intimidating in any way, because in Maine that kind of temple-of-gastronomy hush and overly designed space can be, along with other considerations that are mystical as far as I’m concerned, the kiss of death.
I’m a little nervous, by the way. Chefs terrify me ever since I worked in a restaurant.
I’m really not that kind of chef. I certainly defer to my line cooks to get things done. I give them broad objectives, hand them a market basket, and say, “Make a menu out of this.” They’re trained well enough by the sous-chef and the kitchen manager in the course of their first three months here that they don’t stray too far from the central mission, which is: Don’t overproduce it, buy the best raw materials you can, don’t mess them up, don’t inject too much ego, don’t make it pretentious, keep it simple, honest, authentic, and straightforward. So there is not a lot of yelling.
Have all your cooks been to culinary school?
No. I’ve never been to culinary school. Having a culinary degree is not a guarantee of success at Fore Street. There is not a lot of applicable experience that many of these young cooks bring when they arrive. They were given the basics, and in many cases far beyond that, but it doesn’t necessarily give them the skills to be a good line cook using wood fires: oven, grill, turnspit; how to get the timing exactly right; and using the kind of raw materials we have from local farms, local fisheries, [and] local livestock producers who aren’t giving us uniform products.
Tell me about your supply chain.
We have a whole network of local farms. Currently we’re using four produce farms and one more who only farms in the wintertime. He’s a landscape gardener in the summertime and he gets too easily bored, so he started producing greens for us in the middle of winter. When I first started in Maine it was easy to get a variety of seafood locally, and yet it was very difficult to get meats locally. In some ways that’s reversed. I can get almost all of my meats locally, and yet because of the overfishing in the Gulf of Maine, starting in the 1980s a lot of our fish had to be imported. We’re seeing a little bit of a recovery in some of the New England fisheries. My foie gras duck livers come from a great, small farm in Quebec Province, because I’m not utilizing the bigger producers in the Hudson Valley, and I’m not interested in sourcing them from California.
Is that for ethical reasons about how the big producers treat their geese, or is it about buying locally?
Both. I think the quality of the Quebec livers reminds me more of French-style duck livers, and the production is incredibly small, which means they’re not rushing the process. They’re being as gentle and humane as that process can possibly be. And it’s probably the cleanest farm operation you’ll ever see, end of story.
What’s it called?
I’m not at liberty to say.
I’ve read that the short growing season in Maine makes produce more intense.
That’s a theory. Produce in Maine tends to have an extremely strong flavor. California, which is dry and where most water is applied to crops artificially, tends not to have very many bugs and the plants are not challenged. Our plants are challenged by cool nights, a short growing season, an intensity of light in late June and July, and a lot of bugs and funguses and other attacking microbes. I did an event in Mendocino County, California, in the midst of a brilliantly profuse organic commercial garden. Basils were growing five feet tall. You very seldom see basil growing like that in Maine. I harvested a bunch … and I couldn’t coax any flavor out of it. [It] might as well have been lettuce.
You sometimes refer to your menu as being a narrative. What do you mean by that?
I like to think that the food we serve is really grounded in this place. You might call me a committed “terroirist.” The menu [uses] primarily English words, never pretentious French words—what most people call arugula we call rocket; what most people call mahi mahi we call dorado. We’re trying to find terminology that reflects the way our ancestors referred to food here in New England, not necessarily the way marketing people and celebrities and fish and produce companies around the country have tried to make us think about food.
Maine has a quirky food culture. There are things like Italian sandwiches (as opposed to the Italian sub, a different animal), whoopee pies, Dagwood sandwiches …
By the way, that’s pronounced “eye-talian” in most places, and an Italian is a sandwich that comprises a bunch of different salad meats plus a bunch of vegetables, some kind of vinaigrette, salt and pepper, usually in a soft roll—there’s nothing highfalutin about the ingredients. People around here who may not have traveled to France or Little Italy—they have no frame of reference to see whether it’s authentically Italian or not. So it’s sort of superficially Italian. You exaggerate some of the elements of it and try to make it as inexpensively as you can because this is a thrifty state, not an affluent state.
Prior to being a chef you were a rhythm-and-blues bassist. Why did you end your music career?
I finally made a break and said, “I want a relationship with my wife, I want to live in one place, I don’t want to listen to the activities in the next hotel room.” And some of my close friends died. One I had been playing with since I was 12 died on the streets of London. He was on tour with Meat Loaf, and he went out on the town with our mutual buddy Huey Lewis. Huey went to bed and my friend was found dead the next day on the streets: choked on food. And we can go on with that. My very best friend died some years later. There’s a lot of sadness in that world.
There tends to be a lot of drug activity in the restaurant business. Do you try to minimize that here?
These guys all really like each other. They’re sort of self-monitoring. I actually did lose a beloved member of the staff in ’99 or 2000 to a drug overdose, and it traumatized the entire staff. It was horrible. Ever since that point there were at least a couple interventions I’m aware of among the staff. I actually did one myself.
How did it feel to win the James Beard Award in 2004?
Among the Northeastern nominees, there have been people who were nominated for seven years or more who had never won, so I figured, “I’m going to be one of those guys, and the Boston-area celebrities are going to continue to win year after year.” I just didn’t think Maine had the sex appeal to get the votes. So I was unprepared for my name to be called, and I hadn’t even thought about what I was going to say. And I was nominated twice before. I actually was thinking, “If I don’t win it this year maybe I’ll call up the committee and say, ‘Why don’t you just leave me off the list next time?’” It’s kind of embarrassing to be a finalist too often and never win.
Why did you stop serving your wildly popular hanger steak?
The line cooks, after serving 50 orders of hanger steak a night, they were ready to run screaming into the night. They were just sick of it. I said, “OK, let’s look around for another moderately priced steak.” So we tried a bunch of different steaks and came up with the butler’s steak. It’s doing pretty well. We have to apply a lot of flavor-infusing treatment to it to make it. It’s a two-part process: We have to apply part of the marinade overnight and the next day come back and apply the rest. Then it can actually be grilled. It’s really pretty good. It’s a muscle from inside the shoulder. But I think there are only four portions per steer, so you can see how many steers have to be processed in order to do 40 or 50 of these every night.
I notice the sauce on your hanger steak was made with white wine. Is that still the case with the butler’s steak?
Yes, but we experiment with other things. The sauce tends to be either oxtail or scraps from trimming the steaks that are roasted until brown, and a lot of shallots. We stew those together until they’re unctuous and have released their juices, then we add white wine to gather it up, then add veal stock, reduce it down further, then strain it out, then season. It’s very simple.
Why white wine?
We tried it a bunch of different ways, and we just preferred the lightness and delicacy of it. There are a lot of cultures in which cooking white wine with red meat is quite appropriate, and we thought it worked quite well without being too dark and too intense.
There’s a large Somali refugee population in Maine. Have you been exposed to their food?
I’m glad you brought that up. I know a lot of Somalis and Sudanese young people who have worked in our kitchen. I know there’s cultural trauma, but I’ve asked [my employees], “Is there any way I can talk to your aunt, your grandmother, about how she cooks and where she finds the ingredients for cooking traditional foods?” And they just drop the subject; they don’t want to talk about it.
People in Maine like to hunt. Do you hunt?
No, but I’m thinking about it. I keep my own chickens, and I process them for my household. That’s happening more and more in my business—there’s a group of young chefs who get together in Portland for high-end sorts of cookoffs. These guys went to one of the deer farms in Maine, killed two deer, did the butchery themselves, and apportioned all the meat among members of the group, each of whom prepared something for this group dinner. I saw the menu, and I’m extremely pleased. It tells me people in my business are willing to take some responsibility for the foods they’re purchasing and selling, that they’re interested in nose-to-tail cooking, which is the responsible way to think about it: full utilization of every part of the livestock. And that they’re excited about sharing jointly instead of constantly feeling in competition with each other.
Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe
Alexander Lane writes freelance journalism from Maine, New York City, and the Pacific Northwest. He formerly covered the environment for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, after stints as a rock guitarist and a line cook.