Organic Chemistry


By Christopher Locke

Photography James R. Salomon

Three premier restaurants serving fresh food from their own gardens

Poet William Blake once quipped that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. If that’s true, then three outstanding Maine restaurants—Primo in Rockland, Arrows in Ogunquit, and Joshua’s in Wells—have staked out their own culinary Shangri-Las

Their philosophy is easy to embrace. In fact, if there’s any justice in the world, it’s what many more chefs will be doing in the coming years: inundating their menus with an overabundance of organic, homegrown produce and a bottomless passion for plating the freshest and most honest food they can find. What’s not to love?


Though Primo is licensed by the Marriot Corporation, co-owner and executive chef Melissa Kelly’s highly personal food eschews the cookie-cutter approach sometimes associated with large hotel chains. Located in a stunningly refurbished 18th-century farmhouse, eight-year-old Primo utilizes on-site greenhouses and a four-acre organic garden (the largest of any restaurant in Maine) to anchor the menu. Kelly’s style leans heavily on Mediterranean influences, which makes sense given that her first cooking lessons bloomed in the kitchen of her Italian grandmother while she was growing up on Long Island. Also, Kelly does her best to work with in-season produce and herbs, saying that it’s important to celebrate items when they’re in season and to respect that when they’re gone, they’re gone. “The season dictates what we use,” she says.

Besides the ubiquitous garden stalwarts such as lettuce, tomato, basil, and rosemary, you’ll also find a staggering selection of unique vegetables and herbs in Primo’s garden, including fava-bean blossoms, Padrone peppers from Spain (Kelly first ate these peppers while overseas and loved them so much that she brought back some seeds), the wonderful yet relatively unknown lovage (the flavor is reminiscent of celery, but more complex), and the aromatic and anise-like sweet cicely. Kelly also forages for local wild produce such as burdock root, nettles, and Jerusalem artichokes. Oh yeah, and the tomato? Primo grows more than 45 different varieties.

A 20-year restaurant veteran and an active member of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), Kelly says diners are more savvy nowadays and expect much more in the way of quality and choices. “When we first moved here, we were using frozen fish!” she laughs. My, how things have changed

feast1.jpgPeach Tarte Tatin
from Primo’s Chef Melissa Kelly
(serves 4)

4 oz unsalted butter
3 c cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean
24 medium peaches

16 12 oz. porcelain soufflé dishes (ramekins)

Preheat oven to 375°.
Prepare dough: (Crostata) roll out to 1/8” thick and cut with biscuit cutter a bit oversized -chill until later use. Prepare peaches: cut each peach in half, remove pits and slice each half in half. Set aside.

Melt butter over medium-low heat. When fully melted, sprinkle sugar over butter. Cook over medium heat without stirring. When the edges start to brown and the mixture bubbles, mix sugar very slowly from the edge of the pan to distribute the heat. Once all the sugar is browned, scrape seeds from the vanilla bean and add with bean to the caramel mixture. Mix constantly to even the color and remove any lumps (mixing too early will cause the sugar to crystallize and make it difficult to get a smooth mixture).

Once the mixture turns a deep amber color add peaches and turn stovetop to low. Let cook stirring only as necessary. Cook until peaches release juice, then turn to high. Cook over high heat until peaches are caramelized but still semi-firm. Strain peaches reserving juice. Turn peaches onto sheet tray and cool. Put juice back on the stove in same pan and bring to boil, add 1/2 c heavy cream and bring back to boil and remove from heat – reserve.

Put 1 1/2 tbsp Carmel Sauce in bottom of soufflé dishes,(not reserved carmel jus) covering the bottoms generously. Pack dishes with peaches—try to fit the bottom layer of peaches in some design because the dish is inverted before it is served. Pack peaches in snugly and mound over the top slightly. Use the overcooked, broken down pieces on top which will be covered with the dough. Top with dough. Fit in snug and score top to release steam.

Bake at 375° until pastry is well browned and juices are thick


Highly celebrated Arrows started its own three-quarter-acre organic garden 15 years ago and hasn’t looked back since. They also make several of their own cheeses and cure much of their own meat. Head chefs and owners Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier—both of whom were recently nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s annual Best Chefs of the Northeast award (think Academy Awards for food)—understand that there is a quantum leap in quality when harvesting your own vegetables and herbs right on the premises. “The difference is palpable,” says Frasier.

Yet owning and operating a restaurant with a private garden is not without its challenges, Frasier concedes, as kitchens and gardens operate at different tempos. “A huge amount of coordination is required between the two,” Frasier says. And just because you plant something, it doesn’t mean that it will adhere to your expectations. When Frasier and Gaier decided to grow okra, which is usually associated with southern cuisine, they didn’t count on how much space would be required to properly grow the vegetable, and consequently they had a limited harvest. Frasier can usually count on his garden edibles to stay on the menu for up to a week. But okra? It was gone in a day and a half. Likewise, lemongrass, a well-known herb used in many southeast-Asian dishes, exceeded all expectations and “grew like a weed” in the Maine climate. It also freezes exceptionally well, meaning Frasier can crack open the freezer and dip into his supply even when the most unforgiving winter weather rages just outside the restaurant door.

As with Primo, Arrows is situated in an 18th-century farmhouse, which means that spending an evening in the dining room is a deep pleasure not only for the beguiling food, but also for the handsome architecture: original plank floors, post-and-beam construction, and magnificent windows that were salvaged from a turn-of-the-century hotel and were of early Frank Lloyd Wright design. Frasier understands that renovation must be a gesture of respect that enhances what you already have, saying that it’s critical to “pay attention to the fact that you have a beautiful antique.”


feast2.jpgCreamy Blue Cheese with Bacon Lardons
from The Arrows Cookbook

2 tbsp finely crumbled blue cheese
2 tbsp champagne vinegar
2 tbsp sour cream
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp olive oil
3 thick slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
6 oz lettuce such as Bibb or romaine (about 1 medium head), leaves separated, washed and dried

Combine the blue cheese, vinegar, sour cream, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl and gradually whisk in both olive oils until emulsified. The vinaigrette will keep covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Warm a large sauté pan over high heat until it is quite hot. Add the bacon to the pan and toss. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the bacon lardons are crisp, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a papertowel-lined plate.

Toss the lettuce with the dressing, arrange on plates, and garnish with the lardons.


Which brings us to Joshua’s.

The wonderful thing about Joshua’s is that head chef Joshua W. Mather was raised on an organic farm, and knew nothing else growing up—Joshua’s dad, Mort Mather, once served as the president of MOFGA. “My parents were homesteaders,” Joshua Mather says with pride. In 1969, his parents, after both working at a playhouse in Maine, got married and bought a farm in Wells for less than $20,000. Back then, the town offered very little in terms of tourist attractions.
Today, Joshua’s is truly a family affair, as Mather’s mother, Barbara, manages the dining room and Mort supplies the organic produce from the farm. Barbara loves to recount how Mather, when he was 11 years old, drew a picture, presented it to her, and said that it was a drawing of the restaurant he would someday own. “I wished I saved that!,” Barbara says with a touch of fondness and nostalgia.

Like his parents, when Mather got older, he believed he was destined for a life in theater. But after enrolling in college in Boston to study technical theater, he dropped out and moved west, taking a job as a dishwasher in Eugene, Oregon. As he stayed on and others dropped off, Josh moved up the chain, eventually earning a promotion from the salad station to lunchtime sauté cook. “That totally freaked me out,” he says. Though Mather had a love of food and quality ingredients, he had no formal training. So he did what any industrious individual would do in his situation: he sequestered himself in the public library and read all summer long. “Julia Child, James Beard, I read them all on how to sauté,” he says.

From there, he successfully worked his way up the line until he decided to come back to Maine and continue cooking at a restaurant in Ogunquit. His parents knew he aspired to own his own place, and three years ago they made his dream a reality.

Everything at Joshua’s is unpretentious yet refined, from the food to the beautifully renovated 18th century home Joshua’s resides in. Even the kitchen is ordained with a mellow hominess—hanging above one of the counters is a humble wooden sign that simply says “Fenway Park.”

Although Mather doesn’t like to trumpet these facts, everything at Joshua’s is made to order, from scratch, with mostly organic ingredients found on his family farm or in the garden behind his restaurant. “I focus on lowering expectations—no pomp and circumstance,” Mather says, “We want people to enjoy themselves without lofty expectations.” A noble philosophy to maintain in today’s highly competitive restaurant scene.

Perhaps more restaurants will discover this inventive way of dining, and the excesses of local, organic cuisine will become our bounty.


Stuffed Squash Blossoms
from Joshua’s Chef Joshua Mather

1c ricotta cheese
1/2 c mozzarella cheese
2 tbsp chopped fresh basil
1/2 c bread crumbs
1 c parmesan reggiano

In a bowl, or food processor mix all ingredients with salt and pepper to taste; try not to over mix so the filling retains a rustic character.

12 squash blossoms

Take the blossoms off the plant with small squash still attached, no more than 3 or 4 inches long. Open the blossoms carefully and fill them with the cheese and herb filling, slightly sealing the flower around the cheese.

2 c flour
4 eggs
1/2 c cream
2 c breadcrumbs

Take the blossoms and roll them in the flour to lightly coat. Mix the egg and cream and whisk with a fork. Dip the floured blossoms in the egg wash, and then roll them in the bread crumbs so that they adhere fairly well to the blossom and baby squash. When all twelve are done they can be reserved until about 15 minutes before you want to eat.

With your oven set at 350, on the stove heat a pan over medium heat with olive oil. Season the blossoms and add them to the pan without crowding and pan roast until the bread crumbs start to brown. Turn the blossoms over and put them into the oven until the cheese is melted and the squash is tender; about ten minutes. If a little cheese comes out it is fine, in fact it’s kind of delicious as it will crisp up a bit like a grilled cheese. Place on top of your favorite stuffed pasta and enjoy.

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