Who’s Afraid of Krista Kern?
FEAST – JULY 2007
By Christopher Locke
Photography Benedetta Spinelli
Portland is getting crowded. And I’m not referring to the paucity of convenient parking. It seems nowadays that you can’t swing a fresh slab of monkfish without hitting an award-winning restaurant in this town. So who in her right mind would open a new restaurant amongst so many dazzling stars, and on top of that, a place that only seats a scant twenty? If you’re Maine-born chef and restaurateur Krista Kern, this is the part where you raise your hand
Bresca is inconspicuously located on Middle Street—a small sign overhead bears merely the name and a simple picture of a honeybee. Kern opened her Italian-centric restaurant back in mid-February of this year, yet she has already established herself as an inventive and dynamic chef, and Bresca as someplace exciting to eat. After more than 25 years in the restaurant business, with ten of those coming as a hotly pursued pastry chef, Kern has finally ended up where she’s always wanted to be—back in Maine as the proprietor of her own place.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since the early 90s,” says Kern. “Even when I was cooking in Aspen or Vegas, I’d look on the Internet for places in Maine.” Bresca is the twelfth restaurant she’s opened, but the first that she’s owned.
Kern’s rise from locally trained pastry chef to high-profile executive chef (she ran a kitchen in direct competition with Food Network poster boy Bobby Flay and culinary superstar Bradley Ogden) to self-made entrepreneur is a beguiling and breathtaking journey. Including stints in New York, Paris, Rome, and Las Vegas, Kern cut her teeth in a variety of stellar kitchens under the tutelage of some of fine dining’s heaviest hitters, including Michelin three-star chef Guy Savoy.
But after jetting between Las Vegas and Europe several times to help open new kitchens and translate recipes from French into English for Savoy—not to mention her dizzying string of promotions from co-chef to pastry chef and then executive chef, all at different restaurants in Caesar’s Palace—Kern decided she could no longer stomach the corporate lifestyle. After securing a loan of $65,000 (an amount so small it’s almost completely unheard of in the restaurant world), she snatched up the property that is now Bresca.
And what a property it is. Bresca hums with intimacy and soft light. From the warm hues of the cocoa-shaded walls to the high ceilings, Kern has done a lot with very little; at roughly 300 square feet, the dining quarters of Bresca are tiny enough to make a Tokyo hotel room blush. In the kitchen, Kern needs only to spin around to go from plate to fire and back again. On one visit, I was bemused to find a deli-sized meat slicer not in the kitchen, but on the counter in the wait station. Yet despite its diminutive size, nothing seems cramped or out of place.
Kern calls the style of her dining room “rustic refined.” Tables and chairs are unfinished, and the lamps swoop in soft angles across the ceiling. During the renovation, Kern knew that physically changing the space by knocking down a wall or two would be cost-prohibitive, so she had to make do by stripping everything down to its bare bones, and cleaning, fixing, and painting everything herself. “I tried to visually erase its past,” she says. A good idea, it turns out, since Bresca’s current space has housed several restaurants whose owners unfortunately learned the meaning of extinction first hand, including Café Troika and the Eatery, to name but a few. In fact, if we are to believe author, chef, and reluctant television star Anthony Bourdain, some buildings are simply cursed to churn out restaurants by the yard every 18 months or so, regardless of focus or design. This troubled legacy does not intimidate Kern. “Those [previous] concepts were different from mine: breakfast/lunch is a very different business.” And with a sampling of Bresca’s current menu—including the stunning braised Tuscan black kale with a six-minute egg, crispy pancetta, and kombu butter, or the balsamic-glazed quail with Italian sausage, toasted fennel seed, roasted grapes, and soft brown-butter polenta—she proves she’s serious when she says “different.”
Also, as a female chef, Kern acknowledges the odd cultural perception that most successful restaurants are run solely by men. “True, Terraza (her first restaurant experience in Las Vegas), never had a woman in the kitchen, and I had to work hard to get them to trust me.” Asked if she’s intimidated by all the male names currently inundating the Portland restaurant scene, with Rob Evans of Hugo’s Restaurant and Sam Hayward of Fore Street leading this formidable pack, she laughs good naturedly, “No way—I thrive on competition.”
Chef Sam Hayward believes that female chefs have set an outstanding precedent in Maine for creating successful restaurants, and having eaten at Bresca, he also believes Kern could follow. “Years back, both Le Domaine and the Gaslight competed as the top French restaurants in Maine,” Hayward says, “and both places were managed by female chefs.” Asked if he currently knows any other women as tough as those he mentioned and admires, Hayward laughs and says, “I’m married to one.”
On one particularly cool spring evening, I sat at Bresca’s narrow bar and enjoyed a sumptuous glass of red wine from Sicily. I noticed a string of unassuming black-and-white photos stretching across the wall like Christmas cards. The photos are clearly austere yet elegant European city scenes, each one holding an intriguing bit of mystery.
“The pictures are things that I love and motivate me,” Kern admits. “I took, maybe, 400 photos just walking around Paris and Rome on days off, and the feeling I had when I took them was that I had worked for so many years for others and that it was finally time to do my own thing—and nothing was going to stop me from doing it.”