My Kitchen Your Table: Kelly Nelson

Welcome to the September edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Kelly Nelson from Fore Street. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on instagram, so stay tuned.

She is unmistakable, eccentric, and nothing short of fabulous. Her hair shifts from one vibrant shade to the next (it’s currently flamingo pink) and cephalopod tattoos wrap her arms and legs. On Instagram she’s @geeksquid, and if you follow her you are well aware of her fondness for hairless rats. After contributing to the Portland food scene in various ways for over a decade, she now revels in the role of wine coordinator at Fore Street. She is, of course, the one and only Kelly Nelson.

Kelly’s wine expertise has been years in the making. In fact, there was a time when she disliked red wine altogether. Long before she began curating thoughtful and intentional wine lists, Kelly attended College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. At the ripe age of nineteen, she became the kitchen manager at Reel Pizza, but her personality screamed front-of-the-house. Since then, she’s held nearly every front-facing restaurant role outside of the kitchen, from host to general manager.

In 2008, Kelly left Bar Harbor for Portland where she was persistent in her pursuit of working at Local 188. “Local 188 was a hotbed of creativity. It was one of those places that everyone wanted to be,” Kelly explains. She dropped her resume off multiple times, but it wasn’t until she bumped into chef-owner Jay Villani at Whole Foods that she finally got her foot in the door. She told him how much she wanted to work there and he responded with, “Yeah yeah kid, just show up at 4:30 pm.”

Kelly was a loyal employee of Local 188 and its sister restaurant, Sonny’s (now closed) for six years. She rose through the ranks, eventually running events and building wine lists. She continued to expand her wine knowledge at the beloved Italian restaurant, Piccolo (now closed), for more than five years. Then, in January 2019, Kelly became general manager and wine coordinator at Evo Kitchen + Bar where she also planned wildly popular monthly wine dinners. While most of her expertise is self-taught, she has a Level 2 Award in Wines from Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and is also a member of Maine Sommeliers Society, a blind tasting group run by Erica Archer of Wine Wise.

Since April 2021, Kelly has been breathing new life into Fore Street’s wine list. Vintage wines and Napa Cabernet Sauvignon are still plentiful but now you can also try something a little off the beaten path. Read on to learn her favorite wines on Fore Street’s expansive list, her go-to Portland restaurants, and where she ate her most memorable meal nearly ten years ago.


AA: How was Local 188 influential to your career in wine?
KN: When I started at Local 188, I knew nothing about wine. I didn’t even like red wine then. I drank Pinot Grigio because I knew how to pronounce it. I learned about wines from Gary Boycott, who is now the operations manager. He had an incredible way of translating what was washing over his tongue when he tasted wine. Without him, I wouldn’t be as passionate about wine as I am now or have had that kind of introduction that made this path possible.

AA: How do you pair wine with food?
KN: There are two ways of pairing wine with food; one is with a wine that cuts through the richness of the dish. It has that palette cleansing experience. The other is with a wine that becomes one with the dish. Each bite of the food and sip of the wine becomes a full-circle experience. You’re not quite sure where one begins and the other ends.

AA: What is your favorite winery or wine region?
KN: Chateau Musar in Lebanon is my favorite winery. It’s one of the most unique wineries in the world. It’s all French varietals grown in the Bekaa Valley. Every sip is layered with spice, acidity, fruit, and tannins. It fascinates me that it comes from such a war-torn country and a place of strife and pain, but also so much beauty. It’s all the things that I love in life trapped inside a bottle. Evo really gave me the opportunity to highlight that winery.

AA: How does your wine list at Fore Street differ from the one you created at Evo Kitchen + Bar?
KN: At Evo, I wanted to create an esoteric wine list that connected wine with food in the way that it is meant to be. Their food is more delicate and vegetarian-based. Because of that, you don’t need tannic, aggressive wines. You need wines that are more quaffable in nature. At Fore Street, I wanted to blow a little dust off of the wine list. I’ve been designing the wine list to make it all-inclusive. I have everything from the classics to a Gaglioppo from Calabria, which pairs well with grilled meats. Of course, that’s what Fore Street is known for. You need wines that balance all that smoke and char.

AA: What are some of your favorite white wines by the bottle at Fore Street?
KN: The Château Simone Palette Blanc (2014) is a beautiful expression of a varietal that you don’t hear about often. It has the right amount of oxidative notes and this really interesting full-body palette without being too cloying. It goes beautifully with our turnspit roasted chicken, which is next level. I also love the Dona Maria Amantis Reserva Viognier (2016) from Portugal. Viognier can be a very temperamental variety. With the right amount of care, it can either be very bright and light or rich and voluptuous. This one has nice spice and caramelized notes. It tastes like it’s from Portugal.

AA: What is one of your favorite red wines by the bottle at Fore Street?
KN: One bottle that I added to our list is the 2013 Movia from Slovenia. I actually priced it a little lower because I want to make it more accessible to the general public. It’s sultry with dark fruit, like blueberry and bramble. It has a lot of depth, but also a burst of acidity that opens up your palette. That’s what sets this one apart from pinot noir.

AA: Where do you go to eat in Portland?
KN: One of my favorite restaurants in town, and has been since they opened in 2011, is Schulte and Herr. Brian and Steffi are some of the most kind, generous, humble, hospitality-driven people that I know. Their restaurant has that hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop kind of feeling. It’s one of the only places in town that is BYOB. The potato pancakes are to die for and hopefully they will bring back the Sunday Brunch. For the Sunday roast, they do this beautiful big pan of roast beef or pork with gravy and potato dumplings. I’ve never been anywhere that’s as consistent as they are.

AA: Where else do you dine often in Portland?
KN: Izakaya Minato. I’m a huge fan of Thomas Cooke’s food and Elaine Alden does an incredible job with the wine and sake list. I love their warm cozy atmosphere and fine detailed food that’s also so comforting. Again, I’ve never had a bad meal there. My favorite dish is the age ochazuke. I usually get at least two servings.

AA: Where have you had an incredibly memorable meal?
KN: At Hugo’s on January 4th, 2012. It was my birthday. I still have the menu from that night on my refrigerator. Nicholas, my partner, planned this incredible meal with the then chef-owner, Rob Evans. He is wildly talented. He made twenty courses and it ran the gamut. The Fantasy of Lamb was one of my favorite dishes. It looked like a Salvador Dalí landscape of food. The whole meal was memorable beyond imagination.

AA: Are there any newer restaurants that you’re loving right now?
KN: Leeward is so good. Raquel Stevens is amazing. She put together a wine list that I’m obsessed with. It’s so unique that I get overwhelmed by how awesome it is. I just asked her to pick a wine for me. The chef, Jake Stevens, made a Nero pasta with squid that was awesome and a stuffed squash blossom with maple cream, mushrooms, and fried lemon. It was so interesting and really well done.

AA: We know you’re a big fan of Ruski’s. What is it that you love about the West End institution?
KN: I love Ruski’s for many reasons. The main one is comfort. Ruski’s is that old comfy robe that you’ve had for years that shows its age in the best ways — frayed and stained it keeps the importance of nostalgia at the forefront of your mind. I’ve literally walked from my house in my pj’s and robe to enjoy a beverage with some of my favorites both behind and at the bar.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article: Local 188, Evo, Izakaya Minato, Leeward, and Ruski’s are open with indoor and outdoor seating. Schulte & Herr is open for takeout. Hugo’s has been closed during the pandemic. Fore Street is open for indoor seating—reservations are strongly recommended but if you don’t get one join the line that forms starting at around 4:30 to grab a seat at the bar or one of the seats held back for walk-ins each night.

Previous editions of My Kitchen Their Table have featured Courtney Loreg, Chad Conley  Atsuko Fujimoto, Matt Ginn, Jordan Rubin, Cara Stadler, Thomas Takashi Cooke, Ilma Lopez, Bowman Brown, and Brian Catapang.

The My Kitchen Their Table series is brought to life through the talent and hard work of food writer Angela Andre, and the generous sponsorship by Evergreen Credit Union and The Boulos Company.

My Kitchen Their Table: Brian Catapang

Welcome to the July edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Brian Catapang from Magnus on Water in Biddeford. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on instagram, so stay tuned.

Two women walk into a bar in Biddeford, Maine, and find themselves in a life-changing conversation with the bartender… No, this isn’t the first line of a joke. It’s a true story about how Brian Catapang, Carmen Harris, Julia Russell, and Brittany Saliwanchik went from strangers to friends to business partners in less than 24 hours.

Catapang was bartending at Elda when Harris and Russell stopped in for a drink. Impressed by his off-the-cuff cocktails, they asked if he had ever thought of opening his own bar. The DC-based women were interested in the rise of Biddeford’s food scene and looking for a way to get involved. Indeed, Catapang had given it some thought along with Saliwanchik, Elda’s general manager at the time. The next day, the four met for coffee and bonded over their shared vision of a cocktail bar rooted in community and hospitality. It was then and there that the team behind Magnus on Water was built.

Catapang first developed an interest in spirits when he was a brand ambassador for Wiggly Bridge Distillery in York. Fascinated by the distilling process and inspired by a liquor’s limitless possibilities, he started searching for bartending gigs to develop his own menu.

In the winter of 2017, he came across an ad on Craigslist for the opening bartending position at Elda. The description was vague and the restaurant was barely built out, but he knew the opportunity to work with Chef Bowman Brown wasn’t one to pass up. At Elda, he quickly developed his unique cocktail style, striking a balance between bold ingredients and nuanced spirits.

One year after that inspired conversation over coffee at Elements, Catapang and his team celebrated Magnus’ grand opening on January 18, 2020. The new cocktail bar and restaurant was drawing crowds to Biddeford, but the pandemic brought it to a sudden halt. After a temporary closure, Magnus reopened that summer for outdoor dining on the adjacent granite patio. Feeling limited by the challenges of the pandemic, the team made the difficult decision to close for the winter and spring of 2021.

As of June 8th, Magnus on Water has again welcomed patrons back to their spacious outdoor patio adorned with pink lawn flamingos. Unlike last year, there is full table service and non disposables. Indoor dining is available on a limited basis.

The food program is led by Ben Jackson, a 2020 James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef Northeast. The small menu is seasonally inspired, drawing from Maine’s diverse landscape and abundance. It is the perfect complement to Catapang’s intriguing and ever-changing cocktails.

Keep reading to learn more about how Catapang developed his craft, why the Crowd Surfer is one of his favorite cocktails on the menu, and where you can find him dining in Portland on his nights off.


AA: How did working with Bowman Brown influence your craft?
BC: I learned to really challenge myself and throw out the rule book. He’s continuously perfecting his dishes. It’s like the Kaizen approach where incremental improvements really add up over time. He would bring me different ingredients from the kitchen, like fermented butternut squash, and ask me if I could make it into a drink. Some of the best drinks that I’ve ever made have been crazy experiments, but not without a lot of trial and error.

AA: How would you describe your cocktail style?
BC: I’d say polished and a bit whimsical. I don’t like to use garnishes that don’t serve a purpose, even though it might make a drink look prettier. Sometimes my garnish is a spray, tincture, foam, or oil. It forces the drinker to be a bit more present and think about what they’re tasting. Ultimately, I try to make drinks that are complex yet approachable and familiar yet intriguing. When a guest is trying to figure out what they’re tasting, I consider that a win.

AA: What is one of your favorite cocktails that you’ve made?
BC: The Crowd Surfer was inspired by my love of surfing and the ocean. The drink has a margarita esque base made with fresh quality ingredients. I make it with your choice of Camarena tequila blanco or Banhez mezcal, lemon & lime juices, dry curaçao, and a touch of simple syrup. Instead of a traditional salt rim, I make a poblano and pineapple sea salt foam to top it off. The drink itself resembles a wave!

AA: How do you make the foam?
BC: I gather a five-gallon bucket of seawater from Fortunes Rocks, cook it down until it looks like wet sand, and dehydrate it until it’s just sea salt. Then, I add Ancho Reyes Verde and pineapple juice and charge it in a nitrous oxide canister. The first sip is airy and salty. It’s like when you’re swimming in the ocean and get smashed in the face with a white water wave.

AA: What are some of your favorite restaurants?
BC: I have to start in Biddeford. Palace Diner is a staple. I go there almost too often. Whether I’m there for breakfast or lunch, I always get the cheeseburger and a can of Coke. I also love Elda. I know I’m biased, but I truly believe Bowman Brown is one of the most talented chefs in Maine.

AA: What about in Portland?
BC: Sichuan Kitchen for sure. I love the Zhong dumplings, Yu-Xiang eggplant, spicy noodles with minced pork, and gong bao chicken! Everything is super flavorful and when you order takeout, the food is just as good as the day before because all the food sits in the aromatic oils and spices. I also really like Little Giant. Chef Neil uses creative and obscure ingredients. Sometimes I have no idea what I’m ordering, but that’s what I love. You can just trust him to drive.

AA: What does a typical meal out look like for you?
BC: I usually go to Izakaya Minato for a whiskey highball and a couple of small plates, like sashimi and the JFC (Japanese fried chicken). Then, I go across the street and get way too full at Cong Tu Bot. It reminds me of my childhood. My dad is Filipino and lived in Thailand for a while. He always took us to hole-in-the-wall places. Mom’s Fried Rice is great and I always get the pandan pancake no matter how full I am.

AA: Where have you been recently that really impressed you?
BC: I went to Ramona’s the other day. I had their breakfast hoagie and it was so good. Make sure you add the Calabrian chili spread. I was also very impressed with what they are doing over at Judy Gibson. The lamb tartare and gnocchi were delicious. And, Leeward. Jake and Raquel are so talented and Kate, the pastry chef, is unbelievable. I’m not a big dessert person, but everything she makes is wonderful. For savory dishes, I love the chicken liver mousse and mafaldine. The texture of the pasta is perfect and the meat sauce is so well balanced.

AA: Where do you go for a great cocktail?
BC: Hunt and Alpine is the institution. You’re going to get a really balanced drink there ten out of ten times. The Select Old-Fashioned is amazing. I’m jealous they have that barrel of Four Roses Bourbon. But honestly, when I go out I’m having a Budweiser or a Martini with a lemon twist. Woodford F&B is the bartender’s bar. Their drinks are great and you’ll always see other industry people there.

AA: Would you call yourself a “mixologist?”
BC: I prefer ‘bartender.’ Just because someone can make a fancy cocktail doesn’t make them a good bartender. It’s different. A mixologist might be able to make you the perfect negroni, but a great bartender knows how to handle their bar. They know their customers and what they drink. Mixologist is just a fancy word. A great bartender wears many hats, and they are always on stage. There’s nothing wrong with being called a bartender.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article: Palace Diner is back to serving indoors and is cash-only, Elda has reopened in their new location with a multi-course tasting menu (reservations required), Sichuan Kitchen and Ramona’s are open for takeout, Judy Gibson, Little Giant, Izakaya Minato, Hunt & Alpine, Woodford F&B and Leeward have indoor and outdoor seating, Cong Tu Bot is not currently open.

Previous editions of My Kitchen Their Table have featured Courtney Loreg, Chad Conley  Atsuko Fujimoto, Matt Ginn, Jordan Rubin, and Cara Stadler, Thomas Takashi Cooke, Ilma Lopez. and Bowman Brown.

The My Kitchen Their Table series is brought to life through the talent and hard work of food writer Angela Andre, and the generous sponsorship by Evergreen Credit Union and The Boulos Company.

My Kitchen Their Table: Bowman Brown

Welcome to the June edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Bowman Brown from Elda and Jackrabbit Cafe in Biddeford. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on instagram, so stay tuned.

Bowman Brown credits his strong work ethic and abundant creativity to his upbringing. When he was just twelve years old, he pitched in as a cowhand on his family’s ranch in Arizona. He also tended to his mother’s garden, an experience that helped shape his resourcefulness and innovative use of local and seasonal ingredients.

His great-grandmother, Elda, was especially influential. A woman of many talents, she was a school teacher, a beekeeper and proprietor of a large honey business, a hat maker and door-to-door salesperson, and also lended a hand on the family ranch.

Brown attended Atlantic Culinary Academy in New Hampshire and went on to work at the esteemed Gary Danko in San Francisco and 231 Ellsworth (now closed) in San Mateo. He eventually settled in Salt Lake City where he opened his former restaurant, Forage, in 2009. He was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine in 2011 and was nominated for Best Chef in the Southwest by James Beard Foundation six times. Despite its prestige, Brown closed Forage after nearly seven years. He was ready for a new adventure.

He and his wife, Anna, were searching for a farmhouse in New England when he first visited Biddeford in 2017. Initially, they had no plans of opening a restaurant here, but he recalls walking by and admiring the space, formerly Custom Deluxe. When he returned to Biddeford, it was serendipitously available and Elda, affectionately named after his great-grandmother, was established.

In its first year, Elda was named one of the Best New Restaurants in America by Eater and the New York Times called it “both reverent and innovative.” In March 2020, Elda temporarily closed as they prepared to move into a larger space located at Pepperell Mill Campus. While you patiently await Elda’s grand reopening (expected Summer 2021), check out Brown’s latest concept — Jackrabbit Cafe.

Brown’s new restaurant is named after the desert-dwelling jackrabbit widely found throughout the western United States and his grandfather, Jack Brown. Rooted in heritage and a nod to Brown’s Danish ancestry, Jackrabbit Cafe serves Scandinavian-inspired breads, pastries and cakes as well as seasonal vegetable dishes, sandwiches, and heartier small plates. “It’s basically what we eat at home on a regular basis, but a little fancier,” Brown describes.

Read the full interview below to discover what is unique about his signature omelet at Jackrabbit Cafe, his go-to dishes in Portland, and how the pandemic has had an unforeseen positive impact on his life.


AA: Reflecting over a year later — has the COVID-19 pandemic had any positive impacts on you?
BB: I cooked at home a lot more than I had in years; I spent more time with my family than I had in years; I sat on the beach more than I had in years. It does put things in perspective, and hopefully, that perspective helps create more of a balance when returning to the kitchen.

AA: Besides yourself, who is in the kitchen at Jackrabbit Cafe?
BB: The pandemic caused most of our staff to take on work elsewhere, so when opening Jackrabbit, we had to start over with building a team. We have two full-time bakers, Kristina Alving and Juliette Risica, that execute my list of bakes, and we were able to hire back our former Chef de Cuisine, Ben McQuay, who will be managing the daily execution of the food menu in the near future.

AA: What makes the omelet on the cafe menu Japanese style?
BB: Traditionally, the Japanese omelet is a rolled omelet seasoned with dashi, which we do with our omelet, but it isn’t strictly traditional. I serve it with housemade spelt brioche bread, onion jam, and fresh herbs.

AA: Will Elda still offer a four-course fixed price menu?
BB: There will still be a fixed price menu, but it will not follow the traditional tasting menu structure. We will offer the full menu at the bar with a very limited selection of a la carte offerings.

AA: Can you say more about the menu at Elda?
BB: We would like to showcase whatever ingredients are at their best at a given time and keep them on the menu for as long as they are viable and in-season. I’m hugely critical of my own cooking, which is why past menus have always changed so often, but also because products here are really inconsistent in availability, especially seafood. It’s a really difficult kind of restaurant to run. It’s endlessly challenging to get the best stuff at the best time and it can be difficult for the staff to have a constantly changing menu. We don’t make it easy on ourselves.

AA: What is one of your favorite dishes in Portland?
BB: The dishes I love from other restaurants are not anything like what I make. Most of the meals I eat out are fast, simple, and guilty pleasures. One of the first things to come to mind is Duckfat’s doughnuts. It’s probably the best fried dough I’ve ever had. The texture is very soft, but bouncy. It has a little bit of toothsome to it.

AA: What is a fast meal that you love in Portland?
BB: The pastrami sandwich at Rose Foods is one of the most exceptional things I’ve had. It’s a classic, straightforward pastrami sandwich. It’s just rye bread, pastrami, and deli mustard.

AA: What do you love about it?
BB: I have a weakness for rye bread, or just earthy dense breads in general, but also the juiciness of the meat and how it fills up the space in your mouth. The texture and temperature of the pastrami is just right. It’s one of those things that’s really hard to nail in a restaurant because if it’s sitting there all day, presumably warm, it has a tendency to dry out, but if it’s not warm enough, it’s not juicy.

AA: Seeing as you are fairly new to the area, are there any restaurants in Portland that you’re looking forward to going to for the first time?
BB: Scales is on my list. I had Fred Eliot’s pâté en croûte at the gala wine dinner event during Portland Wine Week. It was really special. It’s the kind of thing that chefs try to avoid and probably fell out of fashion for a reason because it’s difficult to execute perfectly. The dough can be sort of stodgy, heavy, and soggy, but Chef Eliot’s is perfectly flakey. His dedication to that craft is really inspiring.

AA: Knowing how much you love change and newness, does New England feel like your forever home?
BB: I have put down some significant roots here, so it looks like I’m sticking around for a while. On the other hand, I have a wayfaring heart and a desire to experience many new places, so I guess we shall see.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article: Jackrabbit Cafe opened on May 7th and Elda is expected to reopen this summer. Duckfat has outdoor seating on Middle Street and takeout, Rose Foods is offering takeout, and Scales has outdoor and indoor seating.

Previous editions of My Kitchen Their Table have featured Courtney Loreg, Chad Conley  Atsuko Fujimoto, Matt Ginn, Jordan Rubin, and Cara Stadler, Thomas Takashi Cooke, and Ilma Lopez.

The My Kitchen Their Table series is brought to life through the talent and hard work of food writer Angela Andre, and the generous sponsorship by Evergreen Credit Union and The Boulos Company.

My Kitchen Their Table: Ilma Lopez

Welcome to the March edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Ilma Lopez, co-owner and pastry chef of Chaval. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on instagram, so stay tuned.

Ilma Lopez had been attending medical school for two years when she decided she wanted to go to culinary school instead. Her mother made her a deal. She could drop out, but only if she kept her grades up for another year while also working at a restaurant. Sure enough, Lopez excelled both in the classroom and the kitchen, winning her mother’s approval to trade stethoscopes and lab coats for whisks and aprons.

In 2004, Lopez graduated from the pastry program at Stratford University in Virginia. Her next stop was New York City where she met her future husband and business partner, Damian Sansonetti, while working as the pastry cook at DB Bistro. At first, they didn’t get along. “I thought he was a total jerk. He was so bossy. Plus, he played rock music while we prepped,” she recalls. Needless to say, it wasn’t love at first sight, but one trip to Long Island Beach with mutual friends would forever change their relationship. “We started talking and I realized he wasn’t so bad. Fourteen years later, here we are,” she jokes.

Lopez honed her pastry skills at some of the most acclaimed restaurants in New York City and beyond. She perfected French technique at Le Bernadin, embraced new disciplines while staging at El Bulli in Spain, and experimented with exotic ingredients gathered from the ports of Greece, India, and China while working at sea on a luxury cruise ship.

After her world travels, Lopez and Sansonetti were ready to leave the Big Apple in pursuit of a place with restaurant potential, direct access to farmers, and somewhere their future children would always want to come home to. That place, they decided, was Portland, Maine.

Their first restaurant, Piccolo, was an instant hit. The intimate Italian restaurant earned Lopez a StarChefs Rising Star award in 2014 and two James Beard Award nominations for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2017 and 2018. Sadly, after seven celebrated years, Piccolo joined the pandemic casualty list this past July.

Lopez and Sansonetti’s second restaurant, Chaval, continues to thrive and evolve under these challenging times. The West End brasserie was named Best New Restaurant in 2017 by Portland Press Herald and has been featured in several other publications including Bon Appetit and Down East.

Check out the full interview with Chef Ilma Lopez to learn where she goes in Portland for takeout and great cocktails, how she became a leader behind the grassroots organization, Cooking for Community, and what it was like cooking beside one of the world’s greatest chefs, Ferran Adriá!


AA: How have your parents been crucial to your success as a chef and restaurant owner?
IL: I owe it to my mom. She’s always pushed me to be the best at whatever I choose to do. When I moved away from home, twenty years ago, my mom would call me every day, even when I was in Europe and Asia. She moved to Maine three years ago. She made the curtains at Chaval and my grandmother made the pillows. My dad is also fantastic. They’ve both supported me everywhere I go and in everything that I do.

AA: What was it like staging at El Bulli for the renowned chef, Ferran Adriá?
IL: It was awesome. I’ve never seen a kitchen run that way before. When I was in New York I would show up for my shift at 4 or 5 in the morning even though I was scheduled for 7 am — because being your best meant showing up early and working harder than anyone else. So, on my first day at El Bulli, I showed up two hours early and Chef Ferran asked me what I was doing. He didn’t allow anyone to start early. At first, it blew my mind because there I was working for free trying to give him even more of my time. Then, I understood; everyone started at the same time so that everyone had the same opportunities. We were all equal.

AA: How did you become one of the founding restaurants behind Cooking for Community?
IL: Lesley Oster, the general manager of Aurora Provisions, and Ellie Linen Low were looking for chef partners. They contacted me because they knew I was a big advocate for Full Plates Full Potential and Ian Malin, owner of Little Giant. Chaval was doing 500 meals per week at the beginning of the pandemic. As more restaurants have joined the cause, we are doing closer to 100 meals per week.

AA: What is your favorite dessert that you’ve ever made?
IL: Hands down, it’s my raspberry sorbet with caviar. It was on Chaval’s menu in the summer of 2019. I love caviar! You can use it in anything. I made the sorbet with seawater and fromage blanc with goat cheese from Sunset Acres. His cheese is delicious, but what really sold me was that he brings the baby goats with him on deliveries.

AA: What are some of your favorite restaurants in Portland?
IL: We tend to go to places where we adore the people, like Chris and Paige at Tipo and Central Provisions. If I want crudo, I go to Central Provisions and every Fall, I have to go to Tipo for the local pear and ricotta crostini. It’s sourdough bread with ricotta, sliced pear, olive oil, sea salt, and dried chile. It’s so simple but so good.

AA: Where else do you go for a consistently delicious meal?
IL: Sur Lie has great service and solid food and Krista and Tony are such good people. The pimento cheese and fried chicken is really tasty. I also really like Schulte and Herr. I love how non-pretentious and hospitable Steffi and Brian are. It’s one of those places you go because you feel welcome. Their zwiebelkuchen is the best onion tart I’ve ever had. Just perfect.

AA: Where do you go for a great cocktail?
IL: I love Cocktail Mary. In the fall, Isaac MacDougal makes a frozen cocktail inspired by a pumpkin spice latte. It’s made with Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy. You don’t usually see that liquor on menus because it’s not high-end, but I like it and that drink is fantastic!

AA: What are some of your go-to takeout spots?
IL: We love the eggplant parmesan at Isa Bistro and the crab cakes at Woodford F&B. Oh, and the banana pudding at Figgy’s! I have a weakness for custard.

AA: Is there anywhere around here with food that reminds you of home?
IL: The pan de bono at Maiz is just like I had it growing up in Venezuela. My family is Columbian, so that’s the kind of food we ate. Pan de bono is cheese bread, but gluten-free because it’s made with yucca flour. They sell it freshly-baked or frozen. I like to get it frozen, so I can bake it at home antid have it with hot chocolate — just like my grandmother used to make.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article: Central Provisions has temporarily transformed into Central Sandwich and Provisions, Tipo’s patio is open for outdoor seating, Takeout is available from Isa, Sur Lie and Schulte and Herr. Cocktail Mary expects to restart their cocktails to go program in April, Woodford F&B has takeout and (weather permitting) outdoor seating. Figgy’s re-opened for takeout on March 9th.

Previous editions of My Kitchen Their Table have featured Courtney Loreg, Chad Conley  Atsuko Fujimoto, Matt Ginn, Jordan Rubin, and Cara Stadler, and Thomas Takashi Cooke.

The My Kitchen Their Table series is brought to life through the talent and hard work of food writer Angela Andre, and the generous sponsorship by Evergreen Credit Union and The Boulos Company.

My Kitchen Their Table: Thomas Takashi Cooke

Welcome to the January edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Thomas Takashi Cooke, co-owner of Izakaya Minato. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on instagram, so stay tuned [watch Cooke make Kani Dofu soup].

Thomas Takashi Cooke didn’t always plan on being a chef. He left his home in Tokyo to attend University of California in Berkeley and pursue a career in engineering. “I wasn’t that into it,” he says, chuckling. During his senior year, he signed up for kitchen duty to fulfill work hours that the student housing cooperative required only to discover he quite enjoyed cooking. After graduating, he landed his first restaurant job at Manpuku in Berkeley and never looked back.

Cooke spent fourteen dedicated years at Tsunami, a stylish Japanese restaurant in San Francisco. There, he learned from his fellow chefs, got the inspiration for his famous uni on a spoon dish, and met his future wife, Elaine Alden. With a dream of opening their own restaurant, the two headed to Tokyo where Cooke trained at an izakaya and Alden immersed herself in the culture. After three months, they returned to San Francisco, but felt it wasn’t a feasible place to open a restaurant. It only took a week’s long vacation to Portland to call the city their new home.

On January 31, 2017 Izakaya Minato opened their doors to a crowd eager to share plates of Japanese comfort food and stay for the sake, as the name “izakaya” suggests. The small dining room seats eighteen people while the front room has just one communal table and eight bar seats. Believe it or not, the space would be considered large for a typical izakaya. Unfortunately, low ceilings and cramped tables just aren’t conducive to the times, so for now Izakaya Minato is open with limited outdoor dining, takeout, and the occasional omakase to-go.

Read the full interview with Chef Cooke to discover what izakayas are like in Japan, the most valuable lesson he learned while working there, where he goes in Maine for authentic Latin American cuisine, which Portland restaurants he frequents most, and the dish he shared with his wife that made for a long-lasting memory.


AA: What is the most valuable thing you learned while training at an izakaya in Tokyo?
TC: I realized I was good enough to open my own izakaya. I grew up in Japan and cooking there is the gold standard. I didn’t want to open an izakaya and say, “Well, it’s good for America.” Cooking in Tokyo gave me confidence.

AA: What are izakayas like in Japan?
TC: Every train station has an izakaya. It’s more like a commuters bar than a restaurant. It’s embedded in the work culture there. Most aren’t even open on the weekends. Almost every izakaya has a seating charge of three to five dollars. It keeps people from bar hopping. You stay and you drink.

AA: Who has been crucial to your success as a chef and restaurant owner?
TC: Elaine for sure. She does a lot. She handles the bookkeeping and social media, manages the staff, and works the floor. She also comes up with good ideas, like the omakase to-go. I also learned a lot from the chefs and owner of Tsunami.

AA: In what ways can you still provide an intimate dining experience during the pandemic?
TC: The shared plates experience definitely helps. You have to break bread together, so to speak. At first, we were only doing takeout, but then we added a few tables for outdoor dining. It’s cold, but the Mainers tough it out. Eventually there will be a place for intimate settings again, but right now is just not the time.

AA: Where do you get inspiration for your menu?
TC: There are many books with different ideas from the numerous izakayas in Japan. I try to recreate recipes with whatever is in-season here. I’ll get an ingredient and have a dish in mind and then work with my staff to make it happen. The menu isn’t all me. My cooks make suggestions and help make everything better. It should never be just about you.

AA: What is one of your favorite dishes on your menu?
TC: In the summer, we get mackerel that I salt and cure in vinegar, then sear, and serve with wasabi and soy sauce. My other favorite is bonito, but we don’t get it very often. I serve it with homemade ponzu, red onion, and ginger. I like anything that is local and seasonal. Right now, we have Maine scallops. I think they’re best raw, so it’s on the sashimi plate, but we also have scallops in the kakiage.

AA: Where do you recommend going for takeout?
TC: I like Quiero Cafe. It’s casual, but very good. In terms of authenticity and classic Latin American flavors, it’s the closest Portland has to the taquerias I loved in San Francisco. I also really like the burgers at Black Cow. [take a virtual visit to Quiero Cafe]

AA: What is one of your go-to restaurants in Portland?
TC: Baharat. It’s hard to pick a favorite dish because everything is so good! The hummus, baba ganoush, falafel, even the rice is great; it goes so well with all of Chef Clay’s food. I even like the haloumi and I’m not much of a cheese guy.

AA: Where do you go to celebrate a special occasion?
TC: Isa Bistro. I love the pork chop and the tres leches cake. I also strongly recommend the chiles rellenos from their Mexican Monday menu. It’s his grandmother’s recipe.

AA: Where have you had a particularly memorable meal in Portland?
TC: Elaine and I had the coq au vin at Chaval. Chef Damian serves it in a small Le Creuset. The experience of sharing a delicious pot of stew in a beautifully lit space was very intimate and memorable. [watch Damian  Sansonetti make coq au vin]

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article: Quiero Cafe and Black Cow are open for limited indoor dining, takeout and delivery via 2DineIn, Baharat is open for takeout from their  menu and food from their grab-n-go shop, Isa Bistro is open for takeout or delivery via CarHop, and Chaval is open for takeout, delivery via CarHop, and outdoor dining in the greenhouses and heated patio.

Previous editions of My Kitchen Their Table have featured Courtney Loreg, Chad Conley  Atsuko Fujimoto, Matt Ginn, Jordan Rubin, and Cara Stadler.

The My Kitchen Their Table series is brought to life through the talent and hard work of food writer Angela Andre, and the generous sponsorship by Evergreen Credit Union and The Boulos Company.

My Kitchen Their Table: Cara Stadler

Welcome to the December edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Cara Stadler. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on Instagram, so stay tuned.

Cara Stadler
was only sixteen when she graduated from high school, eighteen when she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and
twenty-four when she opened her first restaurant. In 2014, she was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine and nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation. Since then, she’s tacked on three more JBF nominations.

In 2011, after cultivating her skills both near and far at prestigious restaurants like Guy Savoy in Paris and Gordon Ramsay Au Trianon Palace in Versaille, Cara settled in Maine. Along with her business partner and mother, Cecile, she opened her first full-service concept, Tao Yuan Restaurant, in Brunswick in May 2012. Cecile runs the business while Cara runs the kitchen. The small plates menu has a heavy Chinese influence and is built around locally-sourced ingredients.

Cara and Cecile have two more dining concepts under their company, Eighty Ate Hospitality (eight is considered a lucky number in China). Their second restaurant, Bao Bao Dumpling House, opened in 2015 in Portland’s West End. Since March, Bao Bao has been weathering the pandemic as a to-go restaurant. Luckily, Chinese food is the second most popular takeout food in the U.S., after pizza. 

Cara’s latest concept, Zao Ze, launched in response to COVID-19 and the temporary closure of Tao. She wanted to offer ‘fun, easy, not fussy food because that’s what we need right now. We might as well enjoy the little things while we can during this crazy time,’ she explained. Zao is currently running out of Tao’s kitchen and will eventually move into the first floor of the Canopy Farms building. Zao will operate as part cafe part grocery store where customers will buy housemade Asian staples like buns, dumplings, kimchi, hot sauce, sambal, and soy sauce. 

Canopy Farms was developed in 2013 by Cecile, Cara, and her life-long friend, Kate Holcomb. The aquaponics greenhouse is currently operating at fifty-percent and supplies its restaurants and a CSA with a bounty of produce. “As an L3C entity, we are a for-profit company, but mission-driven. Our mission is to promote the industry and development of sustainable year-round agriculture,” Kate Holcomb explains. Canopy Farms offers public tours, community education, and immersive internships through the University of Southern Maine. Public tours are available on the second Saturday of every month. 

In this month’s edition of My Kitchen Their Table, you’ll discover which ‘weird’ dish at Zao Ze is Cara’s favorite, what she loves most about being a chef in Maine, and where she goes in Portland and beyond for a great meal.


AA: What is one of your most popular dishes?
CS: The most popular dish in my company is, without a doubt, the 88 Slaw. We serve it at all three locations. It’s a riff on a dish I’ve had many times in China modified for the American palate. It’s not as sharp. I use less vinegar and more fat. It has carrots, cabbage, snow peas, fried shallot, rice vinaigrette, peanuts, cilantro, and scallion. It’s never what I thought would be the bread and butter of my company, but people love it.

AA: What is your favorite dish on your menu?
CS: I like the weird things; the items people read on my menu and have no idea what it is, like the sheng jian bao at Zao Ze. It’s a cross between a dumpling and a bun. The dough is yeasted but thinner than a bun and thicker than a dumpling. Usually, it’s made with pork belly, but we make it with Peking-spiced duck. It’s so greasy, it’s almost like a soup dumpling, but with animal fat. It’s really unhealthy and really delicious. 

AA: How has your team contributed to the success of your restaurants and keeping the doors open through a pandemic?
CS: The team is so essential. They’ve gone through so much. The first week was insane. Transforming a restaurant that does in-house dining to takeout in the span of a week is nuts. It was very stressful and took a lot out of everyone. I’ve been very fortunate to have great people on my team.

AA: Why do you think we have such a vibrant food scene?
CS: Maine has the best farms. The produce here is insane. It’s so beautiful and it’s done in all of the right ways. So many are family-owned and operated; Mainers support that as an identity. And then there’s the seafood! The oysters, clams, lobster, mussels… Bangs Island produces the plushest mussels and there’s never a single piece of grit in them. We have cheese, Maine Grains, so many breweries, I could go on and on. 

AA: Speaking of farms, what made you want to start your greenhouse project, Canopy Farms?
CS: We’re not here to compete with the local farms. We’re doing a different kind of sustainable farming. Our goal is to create a financially viable system that can be used anywhere year-round. I also wanted to grow weirder stuff and things I can’t source here, like ngò om (aka rice paddy herb). It’s a Vietnamese herb that tastes like citrus and cumin. 

AA: Do you eat Chinese food out?
CS: I go to Sichuan Kitchen. Their food is legit. It’s nice to have some flavors that are aggressively Chinese and not watered down for the American palate. The mapo is really good. It’s greasy in the way that Chinese food in China is greasy, where fat is flavor and a vehicle to stretch ingredients. For example, in America we trim fat, but in China trim is a whole other dish. They waste nothing.

AA: What restaurant or dish have you tried recently that impressed you?
CS: The pizza at Radici. I’ve had them all. I ordered the whole menu for a staff member’s going away party. The marinara is delicious and the ragu is killer. Get the anchovy sauce and chili oil, too. 

AA: Where do you recommend going for a great dessert?
Leeward. Kate Fisherham is one of the most talented pastry chefs in the state. I went a little while ago and had the olive oil cake and all of the ice cream flavors, which were chocolate, peach raspberry, and corn at the time. Her desserts always introduce new flavors but still feel familiar at the same time. They’re surprising and comforting.

AA: What are your go-to restaurants in Portland?
Izakaya Minato is my favorite. I love what Thomas and Elaine Cooke do. I think they’re some of the most genuinely wonderful human beings in the world. I like the aged ochazuke. It’s a fried rice ball in fish broth. They offer it with plum or ikura (salmon roe), but I like to get both and add uni. Also, how could you not get the sashimi plate? It’s a steal!

AA: Where else do you recommend going for a great meal?
CS: I love Portland, but in my opinion, some of the best food in Maine is outside of Portland. You have Primo in Rockland where chef-owner Melissa Kelly brings an ethos and mentality about food to a place that is so remote. It takes a ton of talent to do and do well. There’s Suzuki, too. Her food is so simple and so good. It’s perfectly executed. Long Grain in Camden is also lovely and Oyster River Winegrowers is on the way. The owner, Brian Smith, is a teeny winemaker. It’s just him and his family. The pét-nat is so perfectly made. There are so many people doing small beautiful projects that aren’t in the interest of expansion, but stability for themselves and their community. That’s what makes Maine, Maine.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article…Sichuan Kitchen, Radici, Suzuki, Long Grain and Leeward are all open for takeout. In addition takeout, Izakaya Minato also has outdoor seating; Primo has both indoor (through this weekend) and outdoor seating. Oyster River is selling wine for pick-up at their location in Warren.

Previous editions of My Kitchen Their Table have featured Courtney Loreg, Chad Conley  Atsuko Fujimoto, Matt Ginn, and Jordan Rubin.

The My Kitchen Their Table series is brought to life through the talent and hard work of food writer Angela Andre, and the generous sponsorship by Evergreen Credit Union and The Boulos Company.

My Kitchen Their Table: Jordan Rubin

Welcome to the October edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Jordan Rubin. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on Instagram, so stay tuned.

Mr. Tuna premiered in Portland in July 2017 and made a splash from the start — gaining national attention and building a loyal local following. For many, Mr. Tuna is a gateway to sushi. Colorful cone-shaped rolls served cartside coupled with owner Jordan Rubin’s laid-back attitude makes eating sushi for the first time far less intimidating. You don’t need to know the difference between nigiri and maki or how to use chopsticks to enjoy his food. 

Jordan has worked on and off in sushi for over fifteen years. His first professional kitchen experience was at Uni Sashimi Bar under the mentorship of Ken Origner, one of Boston’s most notable chefs and restaurateurs. His time at Uni overlapped with Chris Gould’s, who went on to open Central Provisions where Jordan eventually got his local start. 

Jordan’s affection for Maine brought him to Portland in 2014. He joined Gould in the kitchen for one year before leaving Central Provisions to help open Solo Italiano with Paolo Labao. He manned Solo’s crudo bar and crafted spectacular dishes, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy his love of working with raw fish. 

When he launched Mr. Tuna, he set up shop on Commercial Street right across from Solo Italiano, slinging hand rolls and sushi burritos from a hot dog cart. Not surprisingly, Paulo was one of his first customers. Since then, he’s added several trailers to his mobile unit and landed a spot in the Public Market House.

These days, you can find Mr. Tuna in Portland at the Eastern Promenade seven days a week from 11am to 7pm and Austin Street Brewery every Saturday year round. For now, he remains temporarily closed at the Market House. You can also catch him in Brunswick at the Town Mall Monday through Saturday from 11am to 3pm. Follow @mr.tuna_maine to stay up-to-date on schedule changes. 

In this month’s edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, you’ll learn where to get a great meal outside of Portland, which hand roll Jordan’s loving right now, and how he’s staying in business during a pandemic while also giving back to the community. Read the full interview below and stay tuned for weekly Instagram stories featuring some of the excellent dishes and restaurants that he frequents.


AA: What made you want to start Mr. Tuna?
JR: I loved working at Solo, but deep down in my heart I’m a sushi chef. I remember seeing the HighRoller Lobster cart with maybe twenty people in line and they just looked like they were having a great time. I didn’t have the capital to open a restaurant, so we started the cheapest possible way we could – with a hot dog cart. I got it on Craigslist from Vinalhaven. It was a real hunk of junk, but we made it work.

AA: Your fiancė, Marisa, has been crucial to the business from the start. What is her role?
JR: She does a lot – payroll, scheduling, booking events, our social media and marketing. She is also front-of-the-house manager at the market and works on the food truck. 

AA: How has the pandemic affected your business?
JR: A lot of people assume food trucks are making a killing through the pandemic, but we’re really not. The majority of my business is in catering and special events. Without the festivals, breweries, and Thompson’s Point concerts, it’s been really tough. In the beginning, we were making a ‘Laid-Off Lunch’ bento box for two dollars. Over 200 people came the first day it was available. Eventually, I couldn’t afford to do it anymore, but then I heard about Cooking for Community. 

AA: What is Cooking for Community (C4C) and how has it helped support your business during the pandemic?
JR: C4C raises money to pay restaurants to make food that feeds those in need. It’s a win-win. I have guaranteed work for my employees, we’re making a small profit, and we’re feeding the hungry. We do 200-500 meals per week for the YMCA, the My Place Teen Center in Westbrook, and Amistad. We usually make sushi with seaweed salad and edamame or chicken teriyaki with steamed broccoli and rice.  

AA: What is your vision for the future of Mr. Tuna?
JR: I’ll never stop doing hand rolls, but I’d like to offer more elegant and traditional Japanese cuisine. When I went to Japan, it really opened my eyes to omakase-style dining. Before COVID-19, I did a couple omakase ticketed dinners at the Market House. We sold out both times for all three seatings. There were fourteen courses of nigiri, a few hot dishes, and a dessert. Ultimately, I hope to have my own brick-and-mortar someday. 

AA: What are some of your favorite Mr. Tuna hand rolls?
JR: Right now, the otoro roll is one of my favorites. It’s has local line-caught bluefin tuna belly that is aged and brushed with nikiri, a sweetened reduced soy sauce, with pickled daikon radish and scallions. We age all of our tuna for up to two weeks to develop the flavor and texture. I also really love Boston mackerel; it’s so under appreciated. A lot of people have had a bad experience with mackerel, but I encourage everyone to try ours. We use fresh, locally-caught mackerel. It’s lightly cured , brushed with nikiri, and paired with grated ginger, and scallion, and nikiri.

AA: If someone is visiting Portland for the first time, what restaurant do they have to eat at?
JR: I always recommend Solo Italiano – it’s some of the best food. Get the carbonara di mare. Instead of using eggs, he uses sea urchin to emulsify the sauce. It’s really rich and creamy. Then he adds clams, mussels, and shrimp. It’s so decadent. The tajarin with sixty-yolk pasta and white truffles will blow your mind, too. 

AA: What are some of your go-to meals in Portland?
JR: Being in the Market House, I eat at Yardie Ting a lot. Chef Wright does this curry goat that is unbelievable. It’s so tender with tons of spices. [watch Yardie Ting hef/owner Shanna-Kay Wright make her curry goat] Another one is Belleville’s pepperoni pizza. Chef Deutsch makes it with the really good pepperoni that curls up into a cup then drizzles hot honey on top. I drive by every day leaving the Eastern Promenade and it’s so hard not to stop. [learn how Belleville makes their pepperoni pizza]

AA: Where have you dined recently that really impressed you?
JR: I just tried Judy Gibson in South Portland. I really like Chef Wilcox’s flavors. They’re very unexpected. He builds the menu around whatever is in season and uses a lot of local produce and seafood. I especially appreciate his salads – there’s always two or three. Some places put salad on a menu because they feel like they need to, but he’s really thoughtful about it. [learn how to make a Judy Gibson salad]

AA: Where else outside of Portland would you recommend?
JR: One of my favorite places is Purple House in Yarmouth. It’s unbelievable. Everything I’ve eaten there is so good. She does pizza, ice cream, wood-fired bagels, salads – all kinds of stuff. Krista Desjarlais is next level. She cooks from the heart. I have so much respect for her. [watch Krista Desjarlais dish-up some of her excellent ice cream]

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article…Solo Italiano has both indoor and outdoor seating, Yardie Ting is available for takeout as is Belleville, Judy Gibson has takeout and The Purple House will be re-opening for takeout next week on October 22nd.

Previous editions of My Kitchen Their Table have featured Courtney Loreg, Chad Conley  Atsuko Fujimoto, and Matt Ginn.

The My Kitchen Their Table series is brought to life through the talent and hard work of food writer Angela Andre, and the generous sponsorship by Evergreen Credit Union and The Boulos Company.

My Kitchen, Their Table: Matt Ginn

Welcome to the September edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Matt Ginn. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on Instagram, so stay tuned.

Matt Ginn never went to culinary school. He went to the “school of hard knocks.” His first restaurant gig was at Spurwink Country Kitchen in Scarborough when he was a senior in high school. Since then, he’s worked in thirteen other kitchens – from dishwasher, to line cook, to sous chef, to chef de cuisine to executive chef.

“I was born in a dish pit and I will die in a dish pit,” he jokes.

Long before he became the executive chef at Evo Kitchen + Bar and Chebeague Island Inn, and years before he was crowned champion on Food Network’s Chopped, Ginn was a line cook at a bustling Outback Steakhouse in Mesa, Arizona. It was there, in the organized chaos of a busy kitchen, that he fell in love with cooking.

Intrigued by Portland’s growing restaurant scene and admittedly feeling a little homesick, Ginn returned to Maine in 2007 where he had his first acquaintance with fine dining as the cold station cook at Five Fifty-Five. He struggled at first, but would eventually go on to become Chef de Cuisine and train at other fine dining restaurants, most notably, L’Espalier in Boston that closed in December 2018 after forty successful years. 

Ginn has been Executive Chef at Evo since it’s debut in 2015. The restaurant was named one of Portland’s Best Places for Brunch by Conde Nast Traveler and is one of Zagat’s top 10 Reasons to Drive to Portland, Maine. This summer, Evo went mobile and launched a food truck concept, Evo X, at Fore Points Marina on Portland’s East End. The seafood centric menu offers New England classics with a touch of refinement. Think beer battered fish seasoned with furikake and a lobster roll with aioli, herbs, and Old Bay. Don’t worry, the tuna and chickpea fries are on there too!

Keep reading to find out what makes Matt Ginn’s tuna dish so outstanding, how a chain restaurant has helped shape him into the chef he is today, and what dishes he craves most from other restaurants in Portland. Hint: he’s all about the carbs. 


AA: How did you end up in Arizona?
MG: Truthfully? To clean up. I had gone to college, it was 2004, and basically got kicked out for partying too much. I was only three semesters in. My family was shocked. My parents are both from very little means and basically gave me some tough love, which turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. A friend of mine from high school needed a roommate in Phoenix and at the time I was working at Outback Steakhouse at The Maine Mall. One of the perks of working there is that you could transfer to another Outback anywhere in the country.

AA: What was it like working at Outback Steakhouse?
MG: It was a really eye opening experience. Initially, I thought I was going to be in the front-of-the-house, but they didn’t have room. We did 600-700 covers a night. When I was at Joe’s Boathouse in South Portland, we did 200 to 250 covers on a busy night. 

AA: How did your experience cooking at Outback contribute to where you are today?
MG: Three or four months in, I realized I loved going to work and I started to fall in love with cooking. I enjoyed the adrenaline of working a busy line and the hard work that went into it. Chain restaurants are so looked down upon, especially in places where independent businesses and arts and culture thrive, but they have extremely high standards and great operating procedures that you have to live by. Everything is standardized. “Consistency, consistency, consistency” was their motto. That kind of structure was really beneficial for me. 

AA: What are some of your favorite dishes in Portland?
MG: I love pasta and carbs, so that’s where my mind goes immediately, like the bread and butter at Central Provisions. It’s the first thing I order along with my drink. It’s toasted Standard Baking Co. bread served with butter and a warm egg sabayon. They change up the garnish and flavoring, but it’s always delicious. It’s bread and butter, elevated. [watch chef Chris Gould prepare the bread and butter dish]

AA: Where do you go for a great pasta dish?
MG: One of my favorites is the braised rabbit pasta at Isa [see a meal at Isa including the braised rabbit pasta]. It’s local rabbit cooked beautifully in a nice ragout. It’s usually with garganelli or tagliatelle. Sometimes there’s English peas or a seasonal vegetable. It’s not always on the menu, but they actually message me on Instagram to let me know when it is.  I also really loved the braised lamb cavatelli at Piccolo. I think it was their signature dish. It was a very bar setting pasta around here. I think of it when I’m creating a pasta dish at Evo.

AA: What about for breakfast? Do you have a go-to dish?
I love the breakfast sandwich at Palace Diner. That’s probably as rustic as I go. It has this very spicy jalapeño relish and a baked egg. Oh my, it’s so good!

AA: What particularly memorable meal have you had at another Portland restaurant?
MG: There were a couple early dates with my wife, then girlfriend, that were just really memorable dining experiences. One was at Fore Street. The food was great, the service was great, the ambiance was great, and I was falling in love. I vividly remember having their signature mussels and a bottle of Mount Eden Vineyards pinot noir.

AA: Have you tried something new recently that you really enjoyed?
MG: The masa dumplings and black beans dish by Túramali is amazing. It’s a pop-up Mexican restaurant by Carlos Duarte. His food is really delicious and thoughtful. I don’t think there is anything like it in Portland. It shines a light on Mexican food as being a lot more than tacos and guacamole. [watch chef Carlos Duarte make fried chochoyotes]

AA: What are some of your most popular dishes at Evo Kitchen & Bar?
MG: Our menu changes every day, but there are three items that became guest favorites that are always on the menu: the tuna, chickpea fries, and falafel.

AA: Does the tuna dish have Mediterranean flavors?
MG: It’s Japanese influenced, but it’s very representative of what Evo is trying to do with progressive Eastern Mediterranean food. We use local bluefin tuna when available. It’s seared and served raw with a salad of pickled ginger and chiles, fresh scallion, and turmeric oil, garnished with puffed quinoa and toum sauce. [watch Matt Ginn prepare this signature dish]

AA: What is toum sauce?
MG: Toum sauce is a garlic emulsion without eggs. It’s common in Lebanese cuisine. It’s just oil, water, and a shit-ton of raw garlic. We add a little lemon juice, too. It’s a ‘mother sauce’ at Evo. For the tuna dish, we add avocado and lime to it. On its own it’s very astringent, but it works in this dish and with this type of cuisine.

AA: What do you love most about cooking?
MG: One of my favorite things is the team aspect. A kitchen is so much bigger than one person. We’re all here for one goal – to make sure the guest has the best time they possibly can. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article…Central Provisions has outdoor dining on Dana Street and is doing takeout, Isa has outdoor dining under a tent in their parking lot and on their patio as well as doing takeout, Piccolo has permanently closed, Palace Diner is doing takeout, Fore Street has both indoor and outdoor seating (under a tent in the Standard Baking parking lot), Turamali continues to their pop-up series, and Evo has both indoor and outdoor seating as well as doing takeout.

Previous editions of My Kitchen Their Table have featured Courtney Loreg, Chad Conley and Atsuko Fujimoto.

The My Kitchen Their Table series is brought to life through the talent and hard work of food writer Angela Andre, and the generous sponsorship by Evergreen Credit Union and The Boulos Company.

My Kitchen, Their Table: Atsuko Fujimoto

My Kitchen, Their Table is back. For the August edition we’re featuring an interview with Atsuko Fujimoto. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on Instagram, so stay tuned.

We know it’s been a hard few months and that some tough times are still ahead for the restaurants of Portland. But we still believe in the premise of this series and in the hard work, adaptability and resilience of the chefs, managers and restaurant workers in this town. Many places have modified their models, shifted to take out, or built outdoor dining spaces. Food trucks have launched, others have been revived. Portland is seeing its way through, and PFM is happy to once again profile the creativity and mutual admiration of the skilled professionals in this small city with a big appetite.

You know them when you see them. One day displayed at Bard Coffee, the next at Rose Foods. From matcha-dusted danishes and sake-spiked chocolate cake to adzuki-filled sweet breads and yuzu flavored pudding, these unmistakable confections can only be the work of one baker. Through her distinct creations, Atsuko Fujimoto brings an intriguing amalgam of eastern and western flavors to Portland, Maine. 

Nearly twenty years ago, Atsuko left Japan and her career in journalism for a new life in Portland. When she arrived here, she sought a restaurant job as a way to connect with the community. Through a handwritten letter to Chef Sam Hayward, she landed a position in the pastry program at Fore Street despite having no previous experience. She continued to develop her skills at Standard Baking Co. and Miyake before opening Ten Ten Pié with Markos Miller in 2014. After nearly five years, the widely loved bakery and cafe closed in March 2019.

Ten Ten Pié’s abrupt closure was a shock to many, Atsuko included. She immediately searched  for a way to salvage what she had spent years building. With widespread support from the community, she was back in business in less than a month. 

Since April 2019, Atsuko has leased kitchen space at Two Fat Cats bakery in South Portland and sells  her baked goods under the name, Norimoto Bakery. Her sweet and savory treats, spongy shokupan loaves, and golden brioche buns are on offer at many local businesses such as Higher Grounds, Sun Oriental Market, and Woodford Food & Beverage. She also offers curbside pick-up Friday through Sunday on the backside of Two Fat Cats bakery in South Portland. Follow her on Instagram to see what goods just came out of the oven and for the lowdown on how to place your order. 

In this edition of My Kitchen Their Table, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Atsuko’s favorite dishes and restaurants represent a wide variety of cuisines, just like her pastries. Though she is partial to Asian fare, her most memorable meal was at an esteemed American restaurant and her go-to drink after a long day of work is a popular Mexican cocktail. Read on to learn more about where Atsuko goes for a great meal, which pastry she loves making, and what keeps her going even during the most difficult of times..


AA: What brought you to Portland?
AF: Before I was a baker, I was a magazine editor in Tokyo specializing in the entertainment field. I interviewed many celebrities and directors, but eventually I got bored with it and tired of always looking at a computer screen. During that time I met my husband, who went to Maine College of Art. We decided to move to Portland and get married here, just days before 9/11 happened. We canceled our wedding plans and got married at city hall.

AA: What do you love about baking?
AF: There is always something to learn and room for growth. I’ve had lots of failures, especially with bread. There is never a day where I feel I’ve executed something perfectly.

AA: Have you made something you felt was nearly perfect?
AF: I made an inverted puff pastry that I was really happy with for Galette des Rois, or King’s Cake. It’s a dessert served on January 6th to celebrate Epiphany. With inverted puff, the dough is wrapped in butter then laminated, so the butter is on the outside and the dough is on the inside. The result was so rewarding. It has an even richer flavor and crispier exterior compared to regular puff pastry.

AA: What kinds of pastries do you enjoy making the most?
AF: I like fruit pastries, especially danishes. I live in Standish on three acres with lots of fruit trees. I have peach, plum, sour cherry, apple, two types of pear, and my favorite, quince. I also have rhubarb and berries. I love a pile of fruit on my danish – like a mountain’s worth. You can only do that if you have a lot of fruit to work with. [watch Atsuko make fruit tarts]

AA: What has been your biggest challenge as a business owner?
AF: I was surprised by the closure of Ten Ten Pié. I started Norimoto Bakery out of necessity. I felt like I needed to open another business to retrieve what was lost. I had wholesale orders to fulfill and accounts to carry on. It’s not easy running a business. You’re always tired and there are always reasons to quit, but you have to remind yourself why you started. For me, it’s about connectivity in the community and people appreciating what I do.

AA: Will you continue to offer curbside takeout post COVID-19?
I am currently trying to find the right balance between wholesale and takeout business. I hope to be doing both. It has been really nice to see familiar faces from Ten Ten Pié through a glass door. It is strange, but true; as soon as I started to isolate myself in the bakery, old regulars started to show up and that brought back the sense of connection that I had at Ten Ten Pié.

AA: What particularly memorable meal have you had at a restaurant here in Portland?
AF: My first dinner at Fore Street was very special. I went with my husband for my birthday. I had just started working there and they made me feel like I was part of the family. The food was great, of course, but it was that welcoming feeling that made it so memorable.

AA: What are your go-to restaurants?
AF: Boda and Isa. They are both really consistent and have great staff and service. At Boda, I always start with the quail eggs. I love the umami flavor. I also love the Thai sticky rice ball. [watch chef Dan Sriprasert make stick rice balls at Boda]

AA: What is one of your favorite dishes at Isa?
The lamb sandwich. It’s made with focaccia from Standard Baking Co. The meat is braised and very tender. The whole thing is really flavorful. I’m not a sandwich person, but that sandwich is an exception.

AA: What do you recommend for takeout or delivery?
AF: I’ve had the lamb sandwich at Isa for takeout. It was delicious as always! I also had the Emergency Margarita from Woodford Food & Beverage. It’s what I normally order when I eat there. It’s not too sweet; it’s a perfectly balanced drink to unwind with after work. I think I’ll get one today after I deliver their burger buns. [see more on the Emergency Margarita]

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article…Boda is currently open for curbside takeout and delivery. At Boda, most of the menu is available, including the thai sticky rice ball. However, the quail eggs are cooked and served in a special cast iron pan and are therefore not available for takeout. Isa’s outdoor dining and takeout menu changes daily and sometimes includes the lamb sandwich. Fore Street is currently offering indoor and outdoor dining. Woodford Food & Beverage is offering a menu for curbside pickup and outdoor dining. The “aptly named” Emergency Margarita is available either to go or on the Boat Club patio. 

The My Kitchen Their Table series is brought to life through the talent and hard work of food writer Angela Andre, and the generous sponsorship by Evergreen Credit Union and The Boulos Company.

My Kitchen Their Table: Chef Chad Conley

Welcome to the February edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Chad Conley. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on Instagram, so stay tuned.

“It feels right.” That’s one phrase Chad Conley kept coming back to when describing some of his favorite dishes and restaurants in Portland. Whether it’s somewhere that feels “untouched by time” or “welcomes all walks of life,” the way a place makes him feel often creates a more memorable experience than the food itself.

It’s no wonder his own restaurants offer more than an excellent meal. The Palace Diner experience starts before you even walk through the door. With only fifteen seats, you’ll be waiting outside among several other eager customers. Inside, you’ll feel like you’re in an entirely different decade, but which one? Built in 1927, the original manufacturing labels and hood are still in place while the stainless steel was likely added in the sixties and the mixed tile work is reminiscent of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, depending on where you’re looking. As for the food, it’s familiar, yet surprising, and has just the right amount of grease. You can’t go wrong no matter what you order from his Instagram-famous tuna salad sandwich to buttermilk flapjacks that are so good Epicurious snagged the recipe.

Rose Foods is another time warp, outfitted with retro decor and inspired by a combination of a mid-century Jewish deli and an appetizing store. An appetizing is the lesser-known cousin to the Jewish deli. The two are distinctly different. A deli sells meat whereas an appetizing sells fish, spreads, and other foods commonly eaten with bagels. At Rose Foods, you can have both; whether it’s a pile of hot pastrami on tender rye bread or a housemade bagel with a schmear of cream cheese and smoked sable. In true appetizing fashion, you can also purchase containers of sour pickles, prepared salads, and other goodies to enjoy at home.

Both Palace Diner and Rose Foods are adored by locals and tourists alike, not just for the food, but for the memorable dining experience each provides. Whether it’s nostalgia, a glimpse into a previous era, or simply the warm and welcoming staff, there’s something about eating at Palace Diner and Rose Foods that just feels right.


AA: What is it, as a serial entrepreneur, that guides your decision-making about what makes for a good restaurant concept?
CC: It’s blend of intuition, inspiration, and experience. I’m not operating in a well-financed restaurant group that has the ability to put a lot of energy into research. The big ideas are guided mostly by moving in whatever direction seems fun and interesting at the time and doing a gut-check to see if I think that people will respond to that type of food and experience. I’ve been fortunate that my own interests have lined up well with the interests of Portland’s food scene.

AA: Where did you come up with the idea to serve a thick slice of iceberg lettuce on the tuna sandwich at Palace Diner?
CC: When I was working at Jean-Georges in New York City we did this raw fish dish with iceberg. I had to cut the head of lettuce into a cube and then sculpt perfect rectangular pieces from it and then we would drape a slice of madai on top, sort of like nigiri. So, when we started designing the tuna sandwich at Palace, we wanted to use that technique instead of shredding the lettuce or just using individual leaves. It adds a lot more crunch and height.

AA: Do you have a favorite menu item at Rose Foods?
CC: If there is one thing I eat often at Rose, it’s the whitefish salad sandwich. It’s different from most whitefish salad, which is usually really smooth and mayonnaise-y. Ours is chunky and very lightly dressed. It’s a lot more substantial.

AA: Where in Portland do you like to go out to eat with your family?
CC: Yosaku is one of our spots. We sit down and they’re pouring water and before we even look at the menu we’re like, ‘Can we please order a Kids Bento Box?’ It’s this tower of little dishes and a bowl of miso soup. The top is just the lid, but it’s also a shallow bowl. The middle has seaweed salad, edamame, and something sweet. The bottom has rice, your choice of protein, and a cooked vegetable. It’s inexpensive and fun for the kids.

AA: I heard you have a weakness for soft serve. Where do you go for it?
CC: The Dairy Queen in South Portland. It’s independently owned. They don’t participate in the national promotions you see on television. To me, it’s what soft serve ice cream should be. It’s thick, it’s runny, it’s just fake enough that it feels about right.

AA: What do you order?
CC: A small vanilla cone with chocolate dip. Occasionally, I’ll try something random just to shake it up, and everytime I’m like, ‘Oh, yea I should have gotten the usual.’

AA: Have you had Honey Paw’s soft serve?
CC: Yes, it’s really good. I go there when I want something fancier and more interesting. It’s different. It’s a little more dense. The flavors are really intense and they add fancy, crunchy toppings. There’s the classic and a seasonal one. I usually get both.

AA: Do you have a go-to restaurant?
CC: J’s Oyster Bar is a staple for me. I always get a dirty martini with extra olives. You get a full martini glass plus this mini carafe that’s basically another drink. It’s a lot of booze, but it feels like the right environment for it. It’s divey and luxurious at the same time.

AA: What do eat?
CC: I like to get a bucket of steamers, especially when I’m with people visiting Portland for the first time. You go through the ritual, like, ‘This is how you peel the clam, then you dip it in water, and then the butter.’ A lot of people have never done that before.

AA: There are a lot of places to get steamers in Portland. Is there a reason you go to J’s in particular?
CC: It has a little bit more of the soul of Portland. It’s on the waterfront. It feels sort of untouched by time and it’s also a very welcoming place. It feels nice to share space with people you might not otherwise. I like places that encourage that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Editor’s Note: Since this interview took place, Conley began working on a third restaurant. Ramona’s is a Philly-inspired breakfast and lunch hoagie shop under construction at 98 Washington Ave slated to open this spring.

The My Kitchen Their Table series is brought to life through the hard work of food writer Angela Andre, and the generous sponsorship by Evergreen Credit Union and The Boulos Company.