The Fusion of Flame
FEAST – OCTOBER 2007
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography Warren Roos
Rockport’s Prism Glass mixes glassmaking with gastronomy
Here in Maine, we are surrounded by a natural world that is forever in flux. Winter winds blow down the old trees, and the forests send up new sprouts every spring. The ceaseless waves erode the shores and topple rocks. Rivers strike new courses and change the woods and meadows through which they wend.
Over the years, Maine has also become a place where people come to reinvent themselves. Individuals and couples from all walks of life abandon their jobs, pack up their lives, and seek out their dreams in Maine. And in many cases, these far-flung pilgrims don’t stop reinventing themselves once they arrive, for our state has a tendency to inspire. For the co-owners of Rockport’s Prism Glass Gallery and Gallery Café, Patti Kissinger and Lisa Sojka—who were both already esteemed in their respective fields of glassmaking and cooking when they moved to Maine in 2004—the past three years have been marked by continued personal and professional evolution.
In early 2003, Kissinger and Sojka made the tough decision to close the doors of their thriving glass gallery in Nashville. While the gallery’s eight-year run had garnered the couple a national reputation, the pace and workload had left the pair exhausted—what had begun primarily as a showcase for Kissinger’s glass work evolved into the representation of more than 150 glass artists and, at one point, two separate gallery locations. “Nashville can feel like a small town, but it’s actually a big city,” Sojka says. “And it’s not seasonal at all, so we were going flat out all year round.” After 13 years in the south, the couple was not only ready for a change of pace, but also for a change of scenery. Kissinger, who grew up in Pennsylvania, suggested they explore the Northeast for a place to relocate—and reinvent—their gallery. “We set out looking for a different quality of life,” Kissinger says. “But landing in Rockport was really a wonderful accident.”
In May of 2003, the couple packed themselves and their dog into a borrowed RV and hit the road. They considered possible gallery locations in North Hampton, Massachusetts; Burlington, Vermont; and Providence, Rhode Island. By midsummer, they had tentatively decided to settle in Vermont. But after making an offer on a building, Kissinger and Sojka made one last exploratory visit to southern Maine. From there, they headed up the coast on a whim and landed in Rockport. “When we got here, we just fell in love with this place,” says Kissinger. They parked the RV and didn’t move it again for months
Beyond the natural beauty and slower pace of life, the couple found an open and welcoming community in Rockport. “We immediately met people with real depth of character,” Sojka says. “And people reached out to help us; we never felt alone.”
By the end of 2003, Kissinger and Sojka purchased a former bed and breakfast just south of the intersection of Route 1 and Route 90. In only four months time—and in spite of having one of the state’s coldest winters blowing against them—the couple managed to do far more than convert the bed and breakfast into a restaurant and glass gallery. By the time Prism Glass Gallery and Gallery Café opened for business in April of 2004, they had also erected a two-story, post-and-beam barn just a few steps from the main building that would serve as Kissinger’s glass studio.
Today, the barn is situated behind the main building in such a way that it creates a perfect space for an herb-and-flower-filled courtyard that makes customers feel miles away from the whir of nearby Route 1. With seating on the stone patio, Kissinger and Sojka have seamlessly combined the dining experience with the ancient art of glassmaking. Guests who are not seated outside with a view directly into Kissinger’s studio will often collect a drink from the bar and, while waiting for their table, wander across the courtyard to watch a glass piece created from start to finish.
What began as a fascination during a break from her career as a singer/songwriter became Kissinger’s central passion for the past 30 years. She’s been creating stained-glass and fused-glass pieces that entire time, and eight years ago she also began blowing glass. Kissinger’s enthusiasm for the evocative art is addictive, and at times as many as 30 people gather to watch her glassblowing demonstrations. But the attraction at Prism is truly twofold: people bounce between the heat of Kissinger’s glass furnace and the heat of Sojka’s kitchen.
The ladies admit today that they weren’t even thinking about opening a restaurant when they first toured New England in search of a new gallery location. Sojka had trained in kitchens in the venerable culinary destinations of Bologna, Italy, and the Burgundy region of France, but she left professional cooking behind for a time when she was helping manage the gallery in Nashville. Her talents in the kitchen—which included stints working as a chef at the four-diamond Inn at Turkey Hill in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, and at the Opryland Hotel—had been on the back-burner for years.
So when the couple decided that Prism would also include an eatery, they initially hired a chef to run the kitchen. While the food was tasty and well presented, Kissinger and Sojka began to fear that it might be a bit too high-priced and excessively “gourmet,” which was out of character with the kind of dining experience they wanted to provide.
Last year, Sojka reclaimed the kitchen and reinvented the Prism menu anew. “It’s a combination of Northern Italian with Northern New England now,” Sojka says aptly. In fact, the menu is laden with both the fruit of the Atlantic and Italian-inspired dishes such as creamy mushroom risotto. Sometimes it even feels as though Maine and Italy have collided on the menu; Sojka’s swordfish puttanesca would be one example. “More than anything,” Sojka says, “what I’ve always stressed with my cooking is simplicity.” Her spaghetti dressed in browned butter and Greek myzithra cheese shows off Sojka’s ability to get a lot of taste from just a few ingredients.
Sojka believes that consistency, more than fancy presentation or spicy daring-do, is the most important aspect of any great restaurant. So Sojka did not simply return to the kitchen, she became the kitchen. In addition to creating the ever-changing menu, Sojka personally prepares every hot dish that the Galley Café serves. “We probably won’t ever expand the dining room because we want to maintain the quality we have right now,” she says. Kissinger, who can’t say enough good things about Sojka’s cooking, also says her partner’s return to the kitchen last year has made a huge difference at Prism. “Lisa’s menus have a much broader appeal, especially with the locals,” Kissinger says. “I think the secret is out about her cooking. People can’t usually find this kind of high quality at such a great price.”
While keeping an eye on the cost and quality of their delicious dishes has been crucial to Prism’s growth and success, making the atmosphere comfortable, yet memorable, has also been paramount. “People tell us that coming to Prism is like going to a friend’s house for dinner,” says Kissinger proudly. She says it is especially rewarding to see how many friendships have been forged at Prism—whether in the glass studio or in the dining room. “People have such a strong sense of character in Maine,” she says, “and I’ve found friendships here to be stronger than anywhere else in the country.”
While invention can be a magical thing, reinvention offers just as many thrills and surprises. As Kissinger and Sojka forge ahead, reinventing their business and themselves in their adopted state, Prism will keep turning grains of sand into scintillating glass art and common food into mouthwatering cuisine.