The former rock front man and his wife prepare to open their first restaurant, the Garrison, in the same Yarmouth mill as their successful catering company.
In a YouTube video from May 2012, Christian Hayes strides fiercely around the stage at Portland’s State Theatre, an electric guitar slung across his hips as he and his band, Sidecar Radio, rip into an original rock tune. Six months after the video was shot, the regionally successful band ended its nine-year run. Hayes decided he’d rather be home with his wife, Christine Hayes, and their baby daughter, Fiona, than at late-night rehearsals or on the road. While some may recall Sidecar Radio’s halcyon days, its front man is perhaps better known now as the co-owner and chef of Dandelion Catering Company, which he and Christine launched a decade ago. The rock-and-roll fierceness remains intact, but it has been channeled into life with his family—Fiona is now seven, and the couple also has a four-year-old daughter, Cassidy—as well as the thriving business. “There are a lot of similarities between the music and the food industries, especially with catering,” says Christian. “When it comes time for the show you have to load up and travel, and when you’re done you leave and you hope you did your job, and that they remember you.” This summer the Hayeses are bringing the show home by opening their first restaurant, the Garrison, next door to their catering operation at the Sparhawk Mill on the Royal River in Yarmouth.
When I stop by the old brick mill on a warm, mid-May afternoon, the river is still high and rushing from the rainy spring. I find Christian in the spacious new catering kitchen; originally in a corner of the building with windows on two sides overlooking the river, the kitchen was moved to allow the Garrison to have the view. Christian gives me a brief tour of the restaurant space, where carpenters from Barrett Made in Portland are building the long bar, which will have a deep slate top for dining and 12 to 14 stools. Opposite the bar, some of the room’s 35 to 40 table seats will be at a banquette that wraps around the white-painted brick wall underneath the row of windows. The design for the space deliberately reflects its industrial past. The whitewashed ceiling showcases the original beams, and the concrete floor has been polished and sealed. The tabletops will be reclaimed white oak. “I didn’t want to open a restaurant just because it was the next logical step,” says Christian. “I wanted it to have its own identity, and make sure what we created represents us.” He and Christine looked at several sites before deciding that the first floor of the mill, which houses a few other businesses on the upper floors and has parking, was the ideal spot. “It just all kind of fell into place here,” he says.
Back in the catering kitchen, Christian offers me some of the family meal he has just made for his catering crew, who are preparing for the upcoming weekend’s events. Upstairs in the office, we are joined by Christine and the family’s new puppy, a sweet Italian mastiff named Rosie, who nibbles my knees under the table while I dig in to my lunch: Asian-style braised beef cheeks and sticky rice cake (a variation of which will be on the Garrison’s menu). The flavors are balanced and literally mouthwatering even eaten out of a foil to-go container, it’s an impressive dish.
Married for 11 years and together for 16, the Hayeses met when they were teenagers but connected seriously a few years later, when both worked for Portland’s Big Sky Bread Company. Christian, who grew up in the city’s Rosemont neighborhood, left the University of Southern Maine after his freshman year; he was already balancing playing music with cooking, the latter of which he was beginning to see as more than a way to pay the bills. He credits chef Jesse Souza, then at the well regarded, now-closed Portland restaurant Natasha’s (where Christine was also on the kitchen team) for refining his skills. “I’m really into food—always have been, since I was a kid,” Christian says. “But I always saw cooking as a job, and then when I started to really work with Jesse, really learning about refinement, a different leaf turned over. It became hardwired, and I realized I was good at it, too.” Christine Hayes attended the culinary arts program at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. In addition to Natasha’s, where she eventually became sous chef, her resume includes stints at Five Fifty-Five and Standard Baking Company. A black-and-white photo on Dandelion Catering Company’s Facebook feed shows her standing at a stainless-steel work table, nine months pregnant with Cassidy, hand-laminating a large sheet of tart dough (laminating is the process of folding butter into dough to create multiple layers). The caption, written by her husband, includes a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” It applies to both of them. Today Christine handles the bookkeeping and human resources aspects of the business, overseeing a full-time, four-person administrative team. “She’s the ultimate matriarch,” Christian says. Their admiration for each other is clearly mutual. “He’s always been the creative one, the artist,” says Christine. “I’ve always been the workhorse in the back; tell me what to do, what to chop.”
After six months of dealing with all the aspects of opening a restaurant that have nothing to do with food, Christian has recently returned to the kitchen to work on the Garrison’s menu. Like his catering menu, it’s wide-ranging, with Asian and Mediterranean influences. On the small plates side, there are crispy skin dumplings—chicken skin filled with pork with ginger and hoisin—and a dish of sautéed mushrooms with an egg yolk that is inspired by a Basque preparation the Hayeses discovered in Spain. “You just break the yolk and mix it into the mushrooms; it’s the simplest thing on the menu and probably my favorite to eat,” says Christian. On the large-plates side are pan-roasted halibut on chamomile buttermilk with potato, prosciutto, and fava beans, and roasted lobster with herbed butter and lemongrass broth, a homage to Christian’s late father, who was a lobsterman. “I love nuanced stuff,” he says. “I like things that have definite flavor profiles and layers of texture and color; that’s how I built this menu.”
That approach, and his ability to make food that tastes delicious, proved to be useful when Christian competed on Food Network’s Chopped. In the episode, which aired in March 2018, he wowed the judges with his entree made from canned pigs brains, claiming the title of Chopped Champion and taking home a $10,000 prize. “He bought me a nice camera, but other than that, it went to paying off some debt, to keep our credit scores up,” says Christine. Disparaging of chefs who cook for the limelight—what he calls “the toxic side of the industry”— Christian initially had no interest in going on the show, but Dandelion’s catering chef insisted that he put in an application. “And then, once I was there, even after round one, I was invested; there’s a goal there, and I just wanted to meet it,” he says. “I don’t like that my victory is surrounded by this gimmicky, novelty thing, but that’s what Chopped is.”
His distaste for gimmicky ingredients notwithstanding, Christian’s win bolstered his profile in the Maine chef community, which is notable for its close friendships and collaborations. “Social media is incredible, and when these people that I thoroughly respected began to comment and reach out there was a sense of validation that I had started to reach colleague status,” he says. After he and his family ran into celebrated chef Krista Kern Desjarlais at Bresca and the Honey Bee, her snack shack at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, he joined her for a Basque barbecue dinner. “I said, ‘I cook with wood, you need a hand?’ That’s how the friendship started,” he says. “To hear Matt Ginn (of Evo) say he’s excited about the food that’s coming up at the Garrison, I just hope I can deliver.” He glances at Christine, who simply smiles with a quiet, yet fierce expression of her own. “We’ve got this,” it seems to say.