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?
AF: 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?
AF: 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.