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North Haven is aptly named. The Penobscot Bay land dot is one of Maine’s 14 island communities, where nobody locks doors, lobsters grow fat and the local Congresswoman also owns an organic farm. No one comes here by accident; from Rockland, it’s an hour’s sail on a thrice-daily ferry with 25 layers of white glossy paint on its railings. “Town” is a zero-minute stroll from the dock. Gift shops outnumber grocery stores two-to-one (as in, two gift shops, one grocery store), and if you turn left and walk for five minutes, you reach Nebo Lodge.
Congresswoman–farm owner Chellie Pingree of the 1st District of Maine bought the rundown lodge in 2004 and fixed it up, but she kept things simple: No trying-too-hard boutique-ifying or fussy primping. The nine rooms have white-painted wainscoting, claw-foot tubs and vintage patchwork bedspreads, and they all seem to be on a slightly different level, down narrow corridors on creaky, waxed wide-plank floorboards. The dining room, fittingly, is at the center of the house.
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Visitors are welcomed with lemonade and warm brownies by chef Amanda Hallowell, the woman responsible for the inn’s audacious, incredibly delicious food. Her menu has become the talk of the island—and beyond. Last summer saw a steady stream of visitors (including Mark Bittman of the New York Times) who had somehow gotten word of her fontina-arugula pizza, her pickled local eggs with dill and her answer to edamame: fava beans with roasted lemon and fleur de sel.
Hallowell didn’t follow the usual chef’s career trajectory. Until she came to Nebo, she’d never even cooked at a restaurant. The North Haven native grew up running around her family’s now-closed inn, a couple miles from Nebo. Her mother was an extremely self-reliant cook: “She raised sheep, ducks and turkeys, kept bees and made maple syrup.” In her early thirties, Hallowell joined a catering company in Lincolnville, Maine, before moving to New York City, where she worked as a copywriter while dreaming of opening a restaurant. The community aspect of the business appealed to her: She wanted to own a place that would become the center of her Brooklyn neighborhood. Eventually, Pingree lured her back to Maine with the promise of her own kitchen. “Somehow, long ago,” she says, “Chellie identified me as someone who liked throwing a party.” As an experiment, Hallowell made dinner at Nebo Lodge on Valentine’s Day weekend 2007. Buoyed by the meal’s success, she came on full-time.
It was tough at first. Hallowell soon discovered she was pregnant. She was overwhelmed, but had her family to lean on: “My sister was the sous-chef. My brother collected honey. ” Hallowell’s then-boyfriend, Josh Amato, was barman. She’d buy oysters from her best childhood friend, who raised them in nearby Heidi’s Pond.
“Honestly, if I lived on the mainland, I don’t know where I’d begin,” Hallowell says. “Here I have this lamb and this pork and these wonderful oysters.” A drive around the 10-mile-long island reveals plenty of agricultural action—much of it headlined by Pingree’s Turner Farm. When Pingree brings sorrel to the Nebo kitchen, Hallowell turns it into a bright sauce for crispy, lemon-zest-spiked veal; a surplus of Swiss chard becomes the Japanese vegetable dish oshitashi.
Her food has a sense of fun: She recently invented a Reuben-inspired fish taco. And it’s emotional. “I make food from sweet times in my life, the way people hold on to a favorite T-shirt,” Hallowell says. She nods to her New York days with a pizza using Sullivan Street Bakery chef Jim Lahey’s recipe for no-knead dough. There are dishes inspired by her travels: Crispy kale recalls her trip to St. John. “It was almost oxymoronic,” she says. “Tropical spot, winter vegetable.”
In 2010, Pingree expanded the kitchen, adding a professional-grade oven and more counter space—plus 40 more seats. The upgrade helped fulfill Hallowell’s dream to create a community. “Suddenly, people could walk in without a reservation. They’d come in three times a week,” she says.
When asked to describe her food ethos, Hallowell says, “I make what I like to eat, in a place that I love.” It’s a simple idea, often trumpeted, rarely perfected. But Hallowell makes it look easy.
Kate Sekules is a former F&W editor, author of The Boxer’s Heart and founder of couture trading site Refashioner.com.
Hallowell’s Maine Vacation Picks
The Nebo Lodge chef hops a ferry to the mainland for Asian food and cookbooks.
Long Grain, Camden
Amanda Hallowell loves this authentic, locally sourced Asian restaurant. The owners are originally from Bangkok. 207-236-9001.
Suzuki’s Sushi Bar, Rockland
This Japanese place serves locally caught baby herring and foraged wild onions and watercress. suzukisushi.com.
The food-focused bookstore has just moved to a new, bigger space in Biddeford, 20 minutes south of Portland. rabelaisbooks.com.