A Locavore Looks Forward
After 35 years in food, Waldoboro caterer Laura Cabot still thinks about what’s next
Laura Cabot is walking through the gardens behind the historic army post that house her commercial kitchen in Waldoboro. The chef, caterer and former restaurateur holds up a three-pronged, bright green leaf, “Are you familiar with lovage?” she asks. “It smells exactly like celery and it’s wonderful in sauces.” I inhale, and sure enough, am enveloped in the distinct smell of celery. We walk next door, to the abundant raised beds behind her nineteenth-century home. She fills a basket with delicate nasturtium and cilantro blooms, mixed salad greens, and fresh vegetables for our lunch, including the last purple asparagus of the season. The giant asparagus is just one of many well-tended plants in her garden.
With a basketful of summer’s bounty, she guides me toward her kitchen, where her sous chef, Cole Ashmore, is busy preparing the grill for Faroe Islands salmon. While he preps, she begins reducing cream on the stove for classic Oysters Rockefeller. Tremendous Taunton Bay oysters rest in a bed of ice on her marble kitchen island. Ashmore jokes that he had to get down on his hands and knees to pry them open. All the while, Cabot moves swiftly about the kitchen, pouring Italian soda into a pitcher filled with ice, chopping fresh spinach, and steaming haricots verts. Cabot is a graduate of the École de Cuisine La Varenne, an intensive three-month program for established restaurant professionals that was then in France, and the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in California. Before moving to Maine in the late ’70s, she ran a bakery in Philadelphia, where she specialized in artisanal, naturally yeasted breads and macrobiotic pastries.
In the midcoast fishing community of Waldoboro, Cabot was the chef/owner of the Pine Cone Cafe, a popular restaurant that she opened in 1984. The neighborhood cafe was known for its outstanding wines and creative meals made from locally sourced ingredients. I ask Cabot if she regards herself as a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement. “If you consider it a recent movement, then perhaps in a sense,” she says. “But honestly it’s been such a short leap since farm-to-table was simply the norm. Especially in rural areas, it’s just what people did. Before frozen food became a thing, people had less of a disconnect from their food. They tended to grow their own or shop locally from farmers.”
While Cabot loved the cafe, in 2006 she decided to turn to catering full-time. Asked if there’s anything she misses about the restaurant, she says, without skipping a beat, “It’s the dinner audience I miss most. The sound of clinking glasses and conversation is the happiest sound I know. Every day at 4 p.m., I still get kind of wound up,” she admits. “Now I have a glass of wine and watch the news every night at 6:30 p.m. because for 25 years, I was serving people dinner. It’s still a novelty.”
While we speak, bacon crackles and pops on the stove. Rocky, her pet coon cat, strolls into the kitchen, nose in the air, and then lazily plops himself down onto the floor, surveying the activity. Once the bacon is crisp, Cabot mixes it into the cream, along with Sambuca, spinach, diced shallots, and garlic from the garden. The mouth-watering combination is spooned over the oysters, followed by a topping of buttery panko breadcrumbs. She tells me Oysters Rockefeller is one of her signature dishes. “It’s a crowd-pleaser; making the dish supports local food, and I love oysters.”
Once the oysters are in the oven, Cabot turns to plating the salmon. She begins with a dollop of romesco sauce, tops it with the fish, edible flowers, and greens, then expertly drizzles the dish with olive oil, placing her fingers over the top of a giant jug to control the flow. While she works, I ask her about current food trends. I’m interested in what her clients are clamoring for on a regular basis. “That’s easy,” she says; “the trend now is plant-based, eating clean and eating consciously. People are mindful of what they eat, and that’s really nice.”
Cabot is equally thoughtful when it comes to her clients’ dietary needs. She easily adapts recipes for gluten-free, vegetarian, or vegan diets. In fact, the romesco that she’s prepared is made with toasted almonds rather than breadcrumbs to accommodate those who avoid gluten. The result is a bright, tangy, tomato- and red pepper-based sauce with extra texture and a welcome crunch. The sauce is superb with fresh vegetables or crusty bread.
To further her food education, Cabot takes what she calls food safaris in the off-season. During her most recent winter break, she traveled to New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, where she visited Nancy Silverton’s restaurant, Osteria Mozza. Throughout her travels, Cabot paid particular attention to vegan offerings, considering how these dishes can keep inspiring her own menu.
Of course, the place she calls home is equally inspiring, as now not only in Portland, but throughout Maine, the food scene is burgeoning. For example, Waldoboro is one of the state’s leading producers of clams, Cabot says. She also points to new local establishments such as the Odd Alewives Farm Brewery and Tasting Room, along with American Unagi, which is building a new aquaculture facility in town for raising Maine-harvested elvers to market-size eels for restaurants. She says this continued growth is good for business. “There’s a lot of creativity happening here in Waldoboro. I love the whole community. ”
Over a picture-perfect al fresco lunch on the deck, Cabot confesses she has her own creative pursuits. In addition to traveling, she’s been writing about her food travels in a quiet, in town office that overlooks the Medomak River. She’s also considering writing a cookbook this winter. I wonder if food wasn’t her focus, what else might she be doing? She pauses for a moment and says, “You know, I never had a fall-back plan. The trick is not so much looking back on your career, but looking forward. My focus now is how to do the second half well.” I nod in agreement. Her plan sounds like the perfect recipe for good things to come.