Interview with Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street Grill - Portland, ME
Liz Tarpy: What is your first food memory?
Sam Hayward: My grandmother’s housekeeper, Zella, in Morristown, TN, making an apple pie. It had a meaty lard crust that I have never been able to duplicate. She also made a crab soup, which I seldom try to recreate because it doesn’t do it justice. But when I do, I call is Zella’s Low Country Crab Soup and it just sells out the door.
LT: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a self-taught chef?
SH: I’m not constrained by someone else’s ideas of refined, professional cuisine. I am free to explore other traditions and methods. There is no worry of fitting into a professional canon. If I can’t get rustic, primitive qualities in the food I am working with, I am not limited to
learned, refined techniques. I can be rough-hewn because those refined techniques are not ingrained.
LT: Your cuisine has been described by others as “New England’s closest equivalent to Alice Waters.” How does it feel being compared to Alice Waters? How would YOU describe your cuisine?
SH: Totally unworthy and a little embarrassed. My cuisine is simple. I limit the number of ingredients so as to not overshadow or over complicate the preparation. I like to shine a bright light on the raw material. Other efforts are superfluous and distracting. I am interested in how to use locally raised food, seasonal and fresh produce. It reveals something about Maine. The traditions and agriculture. I find that more interesting than satisfying my own flights of fancy and personal artistic expression. I find inspiration out of local forests, waters.
LT: Who have been your influences?
SH: Fernald Point and his book Ma Gastronomie. If I sense that one of my incoming cooks has potential and likes to read, I make them read this book. Also Jean-Louis Palladin and Allain Chapelle. They were always exploring and experimenting, very connected to the earth, the notion of terroir, saw food as simple and brilliant. Alice Waters. I have read her books, and eaten there twice in my life. It was everything I had hoped it would be. She led us to the “farm to restaurant” concept that is uniquely strong in Maine and has made Maine an epicenter for the concept on the east coast. There was also a woman home cook I met in the early 80’s. Trudy Hupper. She and her sister cooked on logging barges in the 1920’s and earlier. She would have these parties in the wintertime with massive amounts of turkeys, hams and pies. She was a terrific storyteller. She taught me what Maine food tasted like in the early 20th century and that has had a huge impact on my thinking.
LT: When I was in culinary school, I noticed a difference among my classmates. Some of us were already good cooks, others had potential, but some were way beyond the rest of us. The way they approached food was almost mystical, like an inner harmony that the rest of us could only hope to know one day for ourselves. Do you think someone is born with THIS - or can IT be learned?
SH: I was not born with IT. But because of all the women in my life – my mother, grandmother, aunt – being in the kitchen was like play. The smell memories are powerful. My approach is sensual, tactile, very mystical because food is part of the connection to land and place.
LT: What is your advice to aspiring chefs?
SH: Eat, taste, learn how to use salt and pepper, develop technique the best you can, eat other people’s food as often as you can, eat from the land or sea where you are, and know when to stop adding other things to the dish.
LT: How do you guarantee consistency in your kitchen?
SH: Consistency is not top priority. Quality is crucial. I require precise cooking techniques because we are dealing with wood fires – a reluctant technology. When dealing with small-scale local farmers there is no way to guarantee consistency. There are dramatic cooking characteristics. I don’t fight the differences, I celebrate them. Animals are never identical, so the outcome isn’t either. That is what is so fascinating. Consistency is a cover up for standardized food. I look for quality, taste, seasoning, precise cooking, and sensitivity to muscles of animals.
LT: What do you do when you’re not cooking?
SH: I am usually in the woods or the garden, writing, backpacking or canoeing.
LT: What’s next?
SH: Opening a seafood retail shop with a seafood restaurant in the Public Market in the early summer. We will serve traditional New England shore foods using the best raw materials. Standard Bakery will make our oyster crackers, Parkerhouse rolls and brown bread. We will do the food with care and attention to detail, and it will be affordable.
LT: Do you get to cook much these days?
SH: Not as much as I’d like. I spend a lot of time with the farmers and foragers, learning about new products, talking to them about how to cook with them, what makes them unique. Then I bring it back to the restaurant and play around with it. When I feel confident, I teach my cooks, or at least my sous chef, how to work with the product. Like me, all my cooks right now have an exceptionally short attention span, and they are always hounding me for new products to use, new dishes to cook. They like to be challenged.