|Maine Chef Sam Hayward. Lily Piel Photography photo.
By Polly Shyka
Award winning chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street in Portland, Maine, has been on MOFGA’s board of directors for eight years and has been working closely with Maine farmers, foragers and fisherpeople for nearly 30 years. As many more restaurateurs and farmers forge relationships, Hayward’s knowledge of both worlds is of great value to chefs, producers and food lovers. Fore Street serves 1,500 diners per week and treats each to an array of Maine and regional flavors drawing from farms, fields, fishing grounds and forests.
Polly Shyka: What led you to good food and cooking?
Sam Hayward: I think I came to it in stages. I came from a family that had its roots in the Deep South, and food was really important to that part of the family. After college [in the late ‘60s], I was living outside of Ithaca on a farm commune and got into cooking for a small crowd … pretty basic, ‘60s style, largely vegetarian diet with some wild foods thrown in because we were broke and there was an abundance of game birds and wild ingredients. But I think the big change happened after my wife and I took what we thought was going to be a working vacation at a marine science laboratory off the coast at the Isle of Shoals. For three seasons, starting in 1974, I was either the assistant chef or the island chef, serving an island population of 80 to 120 people all the meals, all the food, that they consumed. Local fishermen coming out of Gloucester would come by and open up their holds to our selection, and that kind of thing was an eye opener. That is when I really fell in love with it.
PS: Who were your mentors along the way?
SH: Among the people whom I consider my mentors: the chefs I worked with in Louisiana and New York, and Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a food writer and journalist who lives here in Maine. She has really been a very helpful guide to me in everything having to do with food and in some cases food history and agriculture, as well.
PS: Could you describe the Fore Street?
SH: Fore Street started off with a very small menu and our plan was to come up with a few items on the menu that would become “signature,” that people could count on that were always on the menu, every day, every month, every year; that would give people a sense of security about the menu. They would feel comfortable coming in even if they had no idea what other exotic, unknown stuff was going to be on the menu. It was a way of cushioning the blow of our own culinary ambitions.
PS: That was preconceived?
SH: That was a plan. Among those are: a particular cut of beef called a hanger steak. There are only two portions per steer. It is one internal muscle adjacent to the diaphragm. So there aren’t enough steers produced in Maine for me to get enough hanger steaks in a given week for the amount of people who are ordering them. I think my record is 60 orders of hanger steak on a given night, and most nights it is 30 or 40. And the other cut that we wanted to put on the menu [regularly] was a pork loin, bone in, that is given a dry rub over a three-day period and on the fourth day it is roasted on a turnspit over a wood fire. That has become another signature item that we know we can’t take off the menu. That means I am buying as many as 30 whole pork loins per week. The pork loin we use comes from Quebec province that is very good; humanely treated, no antibiotics, no hormones, not organic but it is a fairly consistent product. If I could find a coalition of farmers who could raise hogs in Maine, in those conditions, with that consistency of quality, I would be all over it.
PS: What are some of the hardest to find, local ingredients? What would you like to see more of?
SH: I always have an active wish list for things that I would like to find. Scorzonera, which some people refer to as “black salsify” even though it is not really a salsify at all, is one of the root vegetables that I really love. We get it after the first thaw in the springtime from one farmer who overwinters it to give it extra sweetness and texture. So he brings me in one big batch of scorzonera and we use it over the course of 10 days, and then it’s gone. I would love to see a little more of that.
Game birds are something I think about a lot. I would love to be able get pheasants, chucker partridges, guineas and a couple of different kinds of quail. The fact that I have to get them in from Vermont … feels like a bit of a betrayal. I would really much rather be giving that business locally.
Ducks. Problematic to process, because they … require a different method of plucking [than chickens], but there are certainly duck varieties that would do well here if we could get over the hurdle of processing.
‘Gilfeather’ turnips. Another one of those great root brassicas that I just can’t get enough of. We really don’t see them very often. They are plentiful in Vermont, so I know they would probably do well in parts of Maine. It’s a great root.
I would love to see more cultivated mushrooms. Some of the so-called “exotics” like shiitake and different oyster mushrooms. One of my foragers, Rick Tibbetts, is also doing cultivated exotics in the wintertime.
I am still having trouble getting the kind of livestock products that we want. We are not there yet with grassfed meat to the extent that its fat content, and therefore flavor carrying capacity and tenderness and aging potential [are inconsistent]. We have worked with a number of farmers who are doing primarily grassfed. I know that there is a lot of effort being put into breed and feed and we are going to get there. I am going to keep pushing to see if we can get the cuts that are appropriate and have the right fat content for this restaurant. Most restaurants would have a hard time taking a 600-pound steer carcass. Producers have to figure out how to sell in ratio, every muscle, every cut from every steer and cow they produce. Some years back I was buying the middles: the shortloins and rib racks of beef from a farmer that were beautiful, but he was ending up with freezers full of shoulders and legs that he didn’t have a market for. Likewise, I would have the same problem if I were to bring in the whole animals. I would have to figure out how to use that entire animal, in ratio, in the restaurant … or find a way to freeze or otherwise process to extend shelf life of those meats. So that gets into the infrastructure problem. We don’t have a lot of interstate outlets for Maine raised beef, and that has to do with abattoirs, slaughterhouses and packing facilities being very spread out, not having great capacity; and, with all due respect to the cutters that I know and love, the skills, broadly speaking, needed for really accurate, precise cutting are not abundant in Maine. Eventually, I would love to go to [a] 100 percent grassfed meat program for the restaurant.
Butter. The Maine-made butters don’t really have the terroir that I am looking for, the taste of place that Maine dairy products, at their best, often have. We use 70 or more pounds per week.
PS: That is a lot of cows, and a lot of skim milk.
SH: I did have a conversation with the marketing fellow at MOO Milk. I would love to do something with them. It is sensational milk.
We would like to keep supporting Maine cheesemakers. We have the potential to be as exciting a cheese realm as Vermont has become. Half the cheesemakers won’t return my phone calls because they can sell everything they produce at farmers’ markets at full retail, and I want full rounds at a slightly reduced price. We are end consumers that can influence the public’s view of Maine produced food.
The last thing that we need is chicken. We go through as many as 60 3-pound broilers per week, which we brine and do on the turnspit. And they are fantastic. That was the third meat item that was always going to be on the menu [that] people could sort of “hang their hats on” when they come into Fore Street if nothing else appeals to them. We have had a couple of Maine farmers grow for us in the past, but we are looking for a Maine producer who could give us that number in that size at a price that is reasonable for us and the farmer. Right now, we are bringing them in from Quebec province.
PS: There are quite a few wonderful Maine restaurants that have a farm “under the umbrella” of the restaurant. Have you and your business partner thought of doing that?
SH: Yes. We are all keeping our eyes open for the right piece of land. We are thinking about some dairy for the restaurant … processing our own. We have thought about doing some staple crops that we all use, including leeks, onions and potatoes. We have thought about setting all that up with a farm manager. It’s interesting how these cooks that work here are all interested in farming and many of them have gone out to the farms that supply to do little bits of work. We have actually had people who have come from farms to the kitchen here. One of the best chefs in Maine, in my opinion, is now a farmer at Fishbowl Farm. She [Gallit Sammon] is an amazing cook and now she is a farmer. That is pretty cool.
PS: What’s on the menu tonight?
SH: We are starting to use winter squash. Tons of apples. Today we are cutting up three of Lee Straw’s island grown lambs. We get 120 per year. They are so interesting. Incomparable, really. And they are a great story! When [diners] see “Maine Island Lamb” and ask, “What’s that?” suddenly there is this entrée into Maine’s agricultural history and why we are unique within the United States for the kinds of foods that were historically produced here. [Straw] keeps his ewes on an offshore island. It is a good steam out into the Gulf of Maine. I am not supposed to say where it is, but I have been out there for a roundup. They are foraging on wild grasses, and they go down to the shore, and I am sure the salt and the iodine and the washed up and sun dried seaweeds are all really tasty to them. They really crunch it up, and that definitely changes the flavor for the first weeks they come off the island. [Straw] brings them back by lobster boat to the home farm in Newcastle and pastures them and waits for them to build up some weight. The restaurant wants them at about 40 to 55 pounds, dressed weight. We are looking for a certain amount of good fat. But this is great for the island owner, it keeps forest from regrowing, it keeps the cycle of grass and manure and fertility going. The predation issue is taken care of without fencing. This could be done as it once was all over the coast of Maine. If we had the slaughter and packing and inspection infrastructure to do it. With high-quality cutting that mirrors the high-quality product and a marketing effort to get this into the interstate pipeline … we have a high-quality meat product that could be proudly marketed by Maine around the country and beyond.
A few of the many offerings from Fore Street’s mid-October menu:
Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with spinach, endive, turnips, Brussels sprouts, hazelnuts, sherry vinegar, rich olive oil
Maine Farm Russian Boar with spiced date sauce
Summer Flounder Filet from the Gulf of Maine with black rice, pickled cipollini, puntarelle
Marinated Organic Chicken from the turnspit with cornbread, roasted tomato and sherry butter
Beets, Apple and Herb Butter
Warm Maine Pear and Cranberry Crisp with oat topping and bourbon vanilla milk shake