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

by Caroline Hatchett
April 2014

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.