2014 Coastal New England Rising Star Chef Justin Walker of Earth at Hidden Pond

2014 Coastal New England Rising Star Chef Justin Walker of Earth at Hidden Pond
April 2014

There’s a lot to be learned at a good grandfather’s knee. For Justin Walker, it was a love of cooking. As a boy, Walker would help his grandfather prepare holiday meals for the family. As a young man, he realized that his love of cooking extended beyond the family home, and he took that passion to the New England Culinary Institute.

Walker then found his way to the vibrant Ogunquit, Maine, dining scene, working with Chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier at Arrows, first as a line cook, then a sous chef, and finally as chef de cuisine (with a stop at the James Beard House kitchen for good measure). Now at the helm of Kennebunkport’s Earth, Walker combines a dual passion for food and sustainability, raising goats and chickens and personally tending to the large gardens on his farms to create a cuisine at once honest and exquisite.


I Support: Share Our Strength

www.nokidhungry.org

Why: Share Our Strength is a wonderful organization that allows us chefs to use our abilities to raise money and awareness for childhood hunger. We all spend our entire lives working to make beautiful food for patrons of our restaurants. Share Our Strength gives us to chance to feed kids that are thankful just to get a nutritious meal.

About: Share Our Strength and its No Kid Hungry and Cooking Matters campaigns are ending childhood hunger in America by ensuring all children get the healthy food they need, every day.


Interview with Coastal New England Rising Star Chef Justin Walker of Earth at Hidden Pond – Kennebunkport, ME

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start cooking?
Justin Walker: Both of my parents worked when I was a kid. I started experimenting and was expected to cook dinner every night. I told my parents I wanted to be a chef when I was 13, and started working at Siro’s in Saratoga, New York. It was open 6 weeks a year, and the owner also had restaurants in the Hamptons. He used to bring in sous chefs from Gramercy Tavern, David Burke—they were hot chefs from New York at the time. I got to work with these guys when I was young.

CH What did you cook for your parents in those early days?
JW: You have to remember that in 1988, aïoli was fancy. I was making salad and salad dressing, actually cooking meat to temperature. That was foreign to my parents.

CH: How do you define your cooking style?
JW: I worked at Arrows in Maine for 15 years, so being part of farming and all that was really my first job as a cook. We bought all our herbs and vegetables from local farms. There’s lots of farming in that part of New York. That was normal to me. It was an obvious progression. Luckily, I don’t follow trends. There’s charred octopus on every New York menu. I do lots of preserving and lots with wild things, because we’re in a rural area.

CH: How much time do you spend sourcing ingredients?
JW: When mushrooms are in season, I spend two hours a day in the woods. I spend quite a bit of time speaking with our forager. I’m on the phone a couple of times a day and swing by farms every other day. Our chicken comes from one place, our lobster from one fisherman.

CH: What was your culinary school experience like?
JW: I went to high school at National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, New York. In the off-season, I cooked brunch for students and faculty at the school. After graduating, I went to the New England Culinary Institute for six weeks, cooking all the way through.

CH: Who are your mentors and what did you learn from them?
JW: I worked for the longest with Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier at Arrows. I learned from them professionalism, work ethic, and being organized, lots of the basics of running a kitchen.

CH: What are you most proud of?
JW: At this point, I’m happy where I am, and we’re doing lots of things to make it more interesting on the resort. We’ll open a culinary center in fall 2014 with interactive cooking classes and pop-up restaurants—I’m heavily involved in that project. We’re also welcoming lots of visiting chefs, and we’ll probably do bi-weekly pop up. Earth is only open 6 months a year. It’s intense for the time we’re open. But the down time allows me to travel to New York for James Beard dinners; it gives me time to develop the first menu of next year, test everything, and take that time to do lots of events.

CH: What’s your biggest challenge?
JW: Balance. I’ve always been in a free-standing restaurant. We have full restaurant, plus events and wedding. As a chef, it’s keeping standards high and proper while satisfying business needs and making money.

CH: Do you have any regrets?
JW: Some people questioned why I stayed at Arrows for so long, but I don’t regret it. I really feel like our profession is a trade, and it takes a lifetime to master. The more you stay put, the harder you have to drive yourself to learn and push yourself. You’re more apt to develop your own style. As a cook, stay at a place until you outgrow it.

CH: If you could cook for anyone, who would it be?
JW: My grandfather. He’s long passed away. He died in 1988 or even earlier. I would love to cook for him now, now that I’m a professional. 

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