KENNEBUNK, Maine — Chef Rebecca Charles walks me through the first floor of her new restaurant here, in the throes of renovation. Splotches of spackle adorn the walls, and the air is filled with the aroma of freshly cut birch from a just-delivered bar. Piles of lumber and gallons of paint are stacked in the corners, and a new fireplace facade leans up against the old. She leads me up a flight of stairs to what will be the main dining room, Pearl Kennebunk Beach, scheduled to debut in the spring of 2017. Despite the heavy coats of black paint on the walls and the thick layer of dust that covers the wide-plank pine floors, it’s easy to see the future space through her eyes, which shine as she describes her plans. The massive wood-burning fireplace, she tells me, is the “single most important reason I bought the place.” The more-casual part of the restaurant, the downstairs Spat Oyster Cellar, inspired by the oyster cellars of New York at the turn of the last century, is set to open next week.
This is the newest venture for Charles, whose Maine-inspired seafood restaurant, Pearl Oyster Bar, has been a Manhattan institution since 1997. She will split her time between New York and Maine, with executive sous chef Andrew Sutin “firmly in charge” in New York in her absence, she says. Her family has deep roots in Maine; they’ve summered in Kennebunk for nearly 100 years, and early in her career Charles worked at Kennebunk’s Whistling Oyster and the White Barn Inn. As she wrote in her 2003 book, “Lobster Rolls and Blueberry Pie: Three Generations of Recipes and Stories From Summers on the Coast of Maine”: “Collectively and separately, my family all fell in love with Maine.”
They’re not the only ones. Just over 100 miles away in Rockport, another acclaimed Manhattan-based chef, Sara Jenkins of Italian restaurants Porchetta and Porsena, recently opened the restaurant Nina June, with a stunning view overlooking the harbor. In nearby Rockland, superstar Melissa Kelly still has nightly lines out the door at Primo, 16 years after opening. And in Brunswick and Portland, 28-year-old Cara Stadler has earned kudos for restaurants Tao Yuan and Bao Bao Dumpling House, respectively.
Maine’s coast is increasingly a draw for highly accomplished women chefs. Sometimes they have personal ties to the region, having grown up or spent summers here. But there’s more to it, says restaurant consultant and award-winning chef Rozanne Gold: “While male chefs tend to follow the money and status, women chefs are in search of appreciative, knowledgeable audiences, a sense of community, and a more balanced life outside the kitchen.” Maine offers all of these things, and more.
Jenkins was born in Maine (her mother is food writer and historian Nancy Harmon Jenkins), but she began her career in Boston, cooking for Barbara Lynch at Michaela’s and coming into contact with a community of women chefs, including Jody Adams and Lydia Shire. Jenkins’s decision to open a new restaurant in Maine was influenced by the fact that she has a child in elementary school: In New York, where late-night dining is the norm, she says, “it’s a really hard industry for women having kids.” Also, the competitive pressure to get publicity there is so intense it can be a distraction. “I love to cook. I love creating food. I love eating food. I love everything about restaurants. And I want to be able to do that without having to be constantly in the press,” she says.
And then there are the wonderful ingredients, so readily accessible: “There’s not much fish left in the ocean, but what there is, is pristine here.”
Two-time James Beard award winner Kelly chose Maine’s coast for Primo in 2000 because it is, she says, “a beautiful place to live.” What’s more, she has the space not only for a high-volume restaurant but a 4.5-acre farm, home to the animals and fields that supply her kitchen. Kelly understands why other chefs have flocked to Maine’s coast over the last 15 years. “There’s great food, there’s great products, there’s a good food culture,” she says. “People come here for a food vacation.”
Kelly began her 30-year career working with one of the East Coast’s greats, Anne Rosenzweig, “a huge mentor” for her (Charles also worked with Rosenzweig early on and “learned a great deal about the business in New York”). But it was after Kelly’s move to San Francisco in her late 20s that, she says, “my mind exploded.” There, at Chez Panisse, she encountered “my grandmother’s food. I had never done food like this in a restaurant. It was always restaurant food and home food, and Alice Waters bridged the gap for me. . . . That was an important moment; a light bulb went off in my head.” While on the West Coast, Kelly met a community of notable chefs such as Peggy Smith, Catherine Brandel, Judy Rodgers, and Nancy Silverton. Later, when she returned to the East Coast, she was inspired by Ariane Daguin, Debra Ponzek, Ana Sortun, and Adams. Kelly has seen the profession shift, she says. Now, “I have a lot of women in my kitchen. They’re equally as good and talented as the men.” She’s pleased to see the increasing numbers of young female chefs. “At the end of the day, it’s a hard job whether you’re male or female. And it’s a very rewarding job at the same time. If you’re passionate about it, it’s in your blood and you really can’t help but do anything else.”
Stadler spent her summers as a child at her family’s home in Phippsburg. As with Charles, those childhood memories run deep. “I have always come back,” she says. “I love it here.” And Maine offers her easy access to “incredible ingredients.” She believes that is a huge catalyst for the eruption of Maine’s food scene in recent years: “Most of the people who are chefs here who love what they do also pride themselves on where they source their products and how they source them. We’re a very green state.” When Stadler opened Tao Yuan in Brunswick with her mother, Cecile, it was a cost-effective decision to do so in a small city “and not lose the shirt off your back if things go wrong.”
At 16, Stadler got her first cooking job at Berkeley’s Café Rouge. Chef Marsha McBride is, she says, “still a person I look up and aspire to.” She later worked with Florence Dalia in Shanghai and acknowledges, “I’ve grown up in a world where there are female chefs to admire.” Stadler sees the arrival of more female colleagues in Maine as a boon: “Part of what drives people to Maine is the food, so the more places that people have to come, and the more food tourism is driven here, the more we all benefit financially.”
Charles’s move to Maine is in part a consequence of Manhattan’s challenging economy: “Independent, small businesses, not just restaurants” struggle to survive amid increasing rents, operating costs, and competition, she says.
But practicality aside, opening the new Pearl is an act of love: “I knew if I didn’t do it, for the rest of my life, I’d regret it. I don’t like to live with regret. That’s one thing I’ve learned along the way,” she says. “I’m going to do this, and I’m going to do it because this town deserves something good. . . . My heart is here.”
And she couldn’t be happier about the growing community of women colleagues. “You feel that they’re out there, and it’s support,” she says, “the way women have always felt about supporting each other. Particularly in this business.”