Close your eyes and imagine eating your favorite meal. Each delicious bite becomes a fulfilling experience, and a tasty reminder of why you decided it’s your top choice. Harraseeket Inn Head Chef Troy Mains is at the forefront of wowing his diners with unique twists on their favorite classics. Just named 2018 Maine Chef of the Year by the Maine Restaurant Association, Mains uses his honed skills and range of career-developing experiences to confidently produce quality food in his restaurants. As for his favorites, it’s anything with mushrooms, radishes, or pork belly that brings him to a special place.
Some foods, however, are tied to an experience in a different kind of way. It’s when food evokes memories of travel, childhood, or family, that it transforms a simple meal into a nostalgic reminder. One of Mains’ first food memories is cooking scallop stew with his Grandma Bertha. And every time he bites into corn, the sweet taste, aroma, and juiciness transports him back to childhood memories of eating it fresh out of his parents’ garden.
Now Mains is giving diners their own memories, as many of them staying at the Inn are visiting from away. The Maine native knows that many people eating in his restaurant are looking for an experience unique to their stay with the Maine staples – seafood, syrup, blueberries, and more. They’re also coming with an expectation toward the growing trend of supporting the local food movement. What he hopes to do is elevate this experience: giving them a meal they recognize and gives them comfort, but manipulating it in a way that makes it more memorable.
“So many restaurants are doing the same exact thing, you know, we’re all working with local farmers, we’re all trying to find foragers,” says Mains. “We set ourselves apart [at the Harraseeket] because we’ve been doing that for 25 years. So we have to take all these ingredients that are really great and really delicious, and all the people and all the relationships we’ve formed, and now we have to manipulate them into something that’s cool and interesting, like roasted cauliflower with buffalo sauce and tahini.”
Just as much as visitors want to experience the local cuisine, he too wants to highlight local products. The Harraseeket values working with neighboring farms and each week they purchase thousands of dollars-worth of produce from their anchor farm, Six River Farm in Bowdoinham. It also means they’re anticipating ingredient needs for their menu six months ahead of time, in line with the growing season for farmers.
Because they work with local farms so frequently, it’s important to Mains that these ingredients are highlighted in the meals they serve. Mains uses his relationship with Six River Farm to ask them for ingredients that are “cool, colorful, and interesting” to keep his dishes vibrant. And while they joke with him that he’s crazy for wanting ingredients like Thai basil, they keep the relationship strong. The farmer called him the other day to reassure him, “We bought your basil seeds, we’re starting to plant them.”
They supplement this with a range of other local sources, from the aquaponics at Springworks Farm, yogurt and cheese from Winter Hill Farm, and sausage from Bisson’s to name a few. Other times still, it’s a local farmer coming to him with excess harvest. “Our relationship with farmers here is ever evolving, it’s ever growing. Somebody will come in the back door [from a farm] that’s three miles down the road and they’ll say ‘I grew all these potatoes and I don’t have a resource for them, what can you do?’ And I’ll say, ‘I’ll buy a hundred pounds today and next week.'”
For a restaurant that thrives on the consistency of Maine staples, it’s moments like these that give Mains a creative outlet to diversify his menu offerings and let him support the smaller local farms. He also admits he’s lucky to have a great outlet to make these smaller batch purchases possible. If a farmer comes to him with 200 pounds of excess tomatoes, the kitchen can turn it into a tomato sauce, soup, and salsa for their six-day per week breakfast and lunch buffets.
Just as eating can evoke past memories or make new ones, other times still eating is an empowering experience. Being a chef, Mains connects to food as more than just a meal. Being able to take basic, raw ingredients and transform it into a quality dish means that he thinks every eating experience should be fulfilling, even in his own home. While he could go out to dinner to get inspired by other chefs, him and his wife often opt to eat at home. They’ll spend a day cooking and agree that they are more satisfied and fulfilled by making a homecooked meal together.
Mains also deepens his connection to food by sourcing it himself. As an avid deer hunter, he not only uses all the meat, but carries on a tradition of time spent in the woods with his father, uncle, and brother. They’ll process everything off the deer – stock out of the bones, meatballs, bacon-wrap the tenderloins – and eat it as a family. “I love to hunt because it’s quiet. I’m surrounded constant noise and banging and questions and heat and fire, and problems, really, all day long. This is my escape.”
Eating is more than simply food on your plate. It’s nostalgia, making memories, family bonding, supporting local farmers, and so much more. For Mains, it’s also the creative outlet that transports a Maine staple into a dish that makes people go “Wow.”
Experience Chef Troy Mains and his skilled kitchen team as they host our final Farm to Table event of the season, a Harvest Dinner in our historic Mallet Barn on October 14th.