This article was reported prior to Maine Governor Janet Mills’s order on March 18 to close all restaurants in the state. Since then, the chefs interviewed for this story have responded in various ways: Some are offering takeout, curbside service, and/or home delivery, others have closed their restaurants completely for the duration of the shutdown and are contemplating ways to regroup and reinvent their businesses. But the crisis has not shaken their solidarity and support for their fellow restaurateurs and the farmers, fishermen, and other purveyors with whom they work so closely. Nor does it seem to have shaken their ability to embrace the challenge of reinvention with grit and creativity. As chef Rob Evens puts it: “Mainers are resilient and have a long history of overcoming and adapting. Overall Portland has been strong, and everyone has been patient with what’s needed. As always we’re proud to be part of this community.”
PORTLAND, Maine — It’s no secret that this is a sizzlingly hot destination for foodies. The small, walkable, culturally vibrant city of 67,000 has an astounding number of restaurants (estimated at 1 for every 118 residents) and culinary accolades that surpass many larger American cities — and these accolades keep pouring in.
Winners and near-winners of prestigious James Beard awards are almost as common here as briny oysters and hazy IPAs. And recognition is now rippling out beyond the city’s borders. Earlier this year, 12 Maine chefs and restaurants were named semifinalists by the James Beard Foundation, many from outside Portland. (Winners will be announced this summer.)
Further affirming Portland’s place on the national food map was Bon Appetit magazine’s proclamation in 2018 that Portland is the “Best Restaurant City in America.” And in January this year, five Maine food crafters, including three from Portland, were named winners of America’s 2020 “Good Food” awards.
One lesser-known claim-to-fame for this gastronomic mecca — or “Disney for diners,” as this newspaper dubbed it in a recent article — is its impressive showing on TV’s “Chopped.” The popular Food Network program pits American chefs against one another in a high-pressure, elimination-style, timed competition to create original dishes with a basket of mystery ingredients participants unpack just moments before the clock starts ticking. Chefs must wow a panel of three expert judges with their appetizer, entree, and dessert creations. The last chef standing wins $10,000, a huge publicity boost to his or her career and businesses, and a heaping helping of self-confidence.
Maine’s numerous “Chopped” champions include chefs Matt Ginn of Evo Kitchen + Bar and Chebeague Island Inn, Christian Hayes of Dandelion Catering Co. and The Garrison, Rob Evans of Duckfat, Natalie DiBenedetto of Figgy’s Takeout and Catering, butcher Elise Miller, then of Duckfat and now at Rosemont Market & Bakery, and Melissa (“Missy”) Corey, who won in 2012 when working as a cook at Duckfat and has since moved out of state. Native Mainer Rachel Legloahec also won “Chopped” when she was a chef in Las Vegas. She now owns Weft and Warp, a shop that crafts leather knife rolls for chefs, in Freeport.
Many other Maine chefs have participated — and received plenty of positive feedback, but in the end, didn’t escape the Chopping Block.
If there is a common ingredient among these top chefs that led to their success on this pressure-cooker of a show, it’s related to a strong sense of place.
“There is just something really special here in Maine,” says Hayes, whose restaurant and catering company are based in Yarmouth. ”It breeds a pretty tough human being. We’re used to massive, bitter winters and working our asses off.”
In a word, one might call it “moxie,” says Hayes, a seventh-generation Mainer with many relatives who have worked in the lobster and fishing industries. He’s proud of this trait in his own family as well as in his home state. (He won on the episode, “Pork on the Brain,” which tested chefs’ ability to cook with the whole hog.)
“It could just be good old Yankee intuition,” says Evans, whose team at Duckfat won “Chopped” three times. “Also, to survive in Maine with the seasonal changes takes creativity, endurance, and the ability to think on your feet.”
Simply put, DiBenedetto says “we are hearty folk.”
Ginn suggests that Maine chefs are also big-hearted folk. “People genuinely care about their work here in Maine,” he says. “It’s a passion, not a paycheck, and when you put all that love into your food, you become a better chef, and that trait shines through on TV.”
So these Maine chefs can clearly handle the heat and cook with heart, but they’re also human. Even the most seasoned among them couldn’t completely keep their nerves out of the Food Network kitchen.
It’s impossible not to feel butterflies at first with the crew shuffling about, lights glaring, and TV cameras ready to go, says three-time champ Ginn. But nerves steady once the clock starts, he added. “All you can do is cook your heart out and try your best.”
For DiBenedetto, whose winning dish, fried chicken, is also her specialty at Figgy’s Takeout in Portland, the jitters would come and go. “I seriously considered leaving after having a panic attack just before going on set,” she says. “The cooking was the easy part. Not knowing what I would be cooking was terrifying, as was waiting for the judgment.”
For some of these competitors, the pressure hasn’t let up since taking the top prize. “Winning ‘Chopped’ has given me more confidence,” says Miller, who won on an episode dubbed “Meat Your Match. “ “But there’s also much more pressure for me to succeed in daily tasks whether in or outside of work.”
That pressure is eased somewhat by the friendly competition of the Maine food scene. Those interviewed all speak glowingly about the state’s supportive culinary community, how they understand one another and help one another through hardships from rough weather to bumpy economic times.
“We all support each other, especially during the off-season,” says DiBenedetto, who typically takes time off after the end of year to “reflect on past seasons, chill out, and test out new ideas.”
Some of the savviest “Chopped” veterans, particularly Evans and Ginn, take advantage of winter’s slower pace to mentor friends who have thrown their toques into the “Chopped” ring. Evans and Ginn have both also competed on “Chopped Champions,” vying against fellow “Chopped” winners.
Evans, who says he was surprised how much he enjoyed the “Chopped” competition, typically sets up a mock show, complete with a basket of mystery ingredients, so that his pals can get comfortable with the time restrictions. Once they gain confidence with the format, he then advises them: “Relax, enjoy the competition, and just cook.” (He won on the “Everything’s Rosy” episode for his Wild Boar Pork Chop with Posole Pancake with an apple, sage, and rose petal salad.)
When a buddy recently reached out to Ginn for coaching, Ginn, whose winning episode “Room for ‘Shrooms” was judged by Martha Stewart and two Iron Chefs, suggested he first put things in perspective: “ ’You’re a great chef,’ I told him, ‘with many years of experience. So try to have fun with it.’ ”
The off-season can also provide more downtime to kick back with fellow chefs — and perhaps raise a glass of local whiskey or gin to what makes cooking in Maine so special.
“We share the same food values,” says DiBenedetto, “we care about the environment, we feel lucky to have such amazing natural resources, farmers, and artisans who contribute to our success, and we’re proud of our state.”
Hayes concurs. “I’m so proud to be a chef here,” he says. “The farmers’ markets are a testament to the incredible farmers and families working so hard to grow the best product possible. Combine that aspect with being able to get a scallop fresh off the boat and have it still be moving when you slice it for a crudo — that’s like hitting the lottery.”
Or as Ginn puts it when naming some of his favorite ocean- and farm-fresh products (just-caught lobster from a lobsterman on Chebeauge Island, organic Swiss chard at the farmers’ market in the middle of winter. . .): “I sometimes feel like a kid in a candy shop.” It’s hard to predict whether a new crop of Maine chefs will step up to compete on “Chopped” anytime soon. But Hayes is confident that if they do, they just might join the swelling list of “Chopped” champions from Maine.
“There is such a roster of incredible chefs in this state it’s ludicrous,” he says. “Any one of them could slay on that show.”