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Maine's Food Hero: Sam Hayward

For someone born in Ohio, chef Sam Hayward understands Maine ingredients like almost no one else. Writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins visits the man who transformed Maine's food scene and gets his best recipes.

By all rights Sam Hayward should be considered a dyed-in-the-wool Mainer (or Maine-iac, as we locals call ourselves). The chef, who co-owns an award-winning restaurant (Fore Street) and a bustling seafood lunch place and fish market (Scales) in Portland, has probably done more than any single person in the past 30 years to promote the cause of good food in Maine. Still, you're not a Mainer, Down-easters say, till the fourth generation. Hayward, who was born in Ohio, is good-naturedly resigned to always being "from away."

With the same humility, Hayward dismisses praise for his positive effect on food in Maine, crediting instead the farmers, bakers, brewers, fishermen, foragers and cheesemakers, along with many of his fellow chefs. Yet the fact is that when Hayward first came to the state on his honeymoon in 1970, "good Maine food" meant lobster, fried clams, blueberry pie and not much else. Today the region has an amazing array of artisanal food producers, even a few wineries, and a growing collection of restaurants that are, in the words of the Michelin guide, vaut le voyage—worth the trip. And much of that change is due to Sam Hayward.

Few of Maine's food artisans would exist without a viable market. And Hayward has fostered it by buying their ingredients, featuring them on menus, encouraging other chefs to do the same, offering advice and simply being an extraordinary role model. As Russell Libby, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, explains, Hayward's influence has led to "a whole group of farmers who think about what a chef wants as they're planning their year."

A large part of Hayward's success comes from his gentle approach. Confronted with a farmer growing so-called haricots verts as big and fat as pole beans, he doesn't berate or lecture. Instead, he might calmly say, "Y'know, I could really use these next season if you can get them to me when they're just about two and a half inches long." And the farmer goes away, disappointed this year but prepared for next.

Seafood is an important part of Hayward's kitchens. Take Bang's Island cultivated mussels: At Fore Street, Hayward cooks them in his wood-fired oven and dresses them with almonds, butter, garlic and vermouth to point up their brackish flavor. Smelts, line-caught through winter ice on the Abagadassett River, get roasted too, then served whole with a cornichon-spiked mayonnaise. Recently, Hayward began buying halibut from a new University of Maine fish-farming project.

Cooking with the kinds of ingredients Hayward favors isn't always easy. "When you're using artisanal products and raw, cantankerous seafood creatures," he says, "things don't always react the way you think they will." But his commitment is unwavering. Libby explains why: "Sam uses local produce, meats and fish not because they're the next new idea but because at a deep, intuitive level, he knows they're right."

Fore Street, 288 Fore St., Portland; 207-775-2717. Scales Restaurant and Seafood Market, 25 Preble St., Portland; 207-228-2008.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a frequent contributor to F&W, divides her time between Maine and Italy.

Published November 2005
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