Writer David Jenison dishes out the details on one of New England’s finest culinary affairs—Harvest on the Harbor in Portland, Maine. Traditional Maine cuisine conjures up images of fresh lobster, clambakes and blueberries, while rumor has it that Amato’s restaurant in Portland may have invented the Italian submarine sandwich. Although these foods are still New England standards, the Pine Tree State has switched up the menu in exciting new ways.
Over the past few decades, local chefs have mastered farm-to-table techniques which they now apply to all types of cuisines to create inspired, ingredient-forward dishes. These emerging talents will be on full display at the Harvest on the Harbor, a Portland-based food and wine festival taking place Oct. 22 to 25. Harvest on the Harbor, produced by the nonprofit Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), started in 2008 as a fundraising event, but it has since become a showcase for the growing culinary scene throughout Maine. In recent years, Bon Appetit magazine fittingly referred to Portland as “America’s Foodiest Small Town,” and the Food Network named it a Top 5 culinary destination. The city also boasts a farmer’s market that has operated continuously for almost 250 years.
The more exclusive Harvest Dinner on the Stage opens the festival Wednesday night with a seven-course meal prepared by several top chefs, while the more affordable Grand Tasting on the Harbor anchors Thursday night with more extensive samplings. The most heavily attended events, however, are on the weekend. A lobster chef competition, wine tasting, beer tasting and Brews, Booze & Blues Barbeque are all slated for Friday, while the Big Eat is the biggest draw with two Saturday sessions offering more than 120 food, wine, beer and spirit tastings.
“There has always been a great culinary scene and food culture in New England going back to chefs like Lydia Shire and Jasper White in Boston and going up to Maine with Fore Street and other stuff going on there now,” says Tom Colicchio of Top Chef, whose Boston-based 12th season premieres Oct. 15. “There has always been a great tradition, but it is often overlooked. Anybody in the industry and the people who live there know there is great stuff up there.”
New England restaurants are often overshadowed by NYC heavyweights like Per Se, Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin, and the national attention that does fall on the area is typically focused in and around Boston. Still, Portland is only 100 miles away, and innovators like Sam Hayward – the R&B musician-turned-chef who opened Fore Street in 1996 – helped Maine establish an international epicurean identity. The state now competes with Massachusetts for the top New England food titles.
Consider, for example, the prestigious James Beard Awards, which celebrates chefs by region. The Northeast covers seven states from New York to Maine (excluding NYC), and Hayward won the Best Chef Award for the Northeast in 2004. This marked the first time a chef from Maine won the award, which Boston-area chefs typically dominate. Though several more years would pass before Maine won again, it has since taken three of the last six Best Chef titles. All five winning chefs – Hayward, Melissa Kelly of Primo (2013), Robert Evans of Hugo’s (2009) and Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier of the now-defunct Arrows (2010) – have participated in past Harvest on the Harbor events. Another recent participant is Jonathan Cartwright, Executive Chef of the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport, which is one of only 47 U.S. restaurants with a current AAA Five Diamond endorsement.
A top chef to watch this year is Cara Stadler of Tao Yuan in Brunswick. The young Paris-trained cook was a Rising Star Chef of the Year semifinalist for the 2014 James Beard Awards, and Food & Wine magazine honored her with a 2014 Best New Chef Award. Other notable chefs participating this year include Ilma Lopez from Piccolo (Portland), Michele Ragussis from Pearl on the Pier (Rockland), Shannon Bard from Zapoteca (Portland) and Gary Caron from Stripers Waterside Restaurant (Kennebunkport).
“Maine chefs are dedicated to farm-to-fork and trawl-to-table, but each chef brings their own sensibility making it a truly unique experience in every restaurant,” explains chef Mitchell Kaldrovich of the Sea Glass restaurant at the Inn by the Sea (Portland). “Talented chefs from all over the country have been drawn to Maine’s newly celebrated food scene, and each chef pulls from his or her distinctive experience and background. There’s no one style here other than making use of the abundance of fresh seafood and produce available from neighboring farms and the sea. I like to think my Argentinean roots create a bit of a Maine Tango. It is local fare combined with South American heritage.”
As far as his contribution to the Grand Tasting event, the chef adds, “We will be serving bite-sized Gulf of Maine fish cakes created with a variety of delicious fresh seafood focusing on underutilized and less-known fish and topped with a scallion aioli.”
“Harvest on the Harbor is a culmination of Maine,” adds Jennifer Hale, the CVB Events Manager overseeing the festival. “We are really focused on fresh farms, fresh fish and locally grown food from around the area, whether it is from the land or sea. We are trying to give these chefs an opportunity to give a taste of what they can produce in their restaurants. It is all about the farm-to-table restaurants and recognizing these chefs who use local ingredients. At an event like the Big Eat, you see this applied to dishes like flatbread pizza, a wonderful soup, foie gras and lobster. We have all this talent in Maine that we want the world to see.”
Photos courtesy of the Portland, Maine CVB.