Casual on the Cove
FEAST-June 2009 (from Maine Home+Design)
By Rebecca Falzano
Photographs by François Gagné
It is nearly impossible to talk about MC Perkins Cove without first talking about Arrows; it is just as difficult to discuss the two Ogunquit eateries without likening them to sisters. The two restaurants share similar DNA but have otherwise distinct personalities—like two sisters of the same blood who couldn’t be more different. If Arrows is the more established and refined sister, then MC is the younger, more playful one. If Arrows is where you would make reservations on a special occasion, then MC is the place you would visit regularly for a casual night out. Despite their differences, the two share a common pedigree: the decades-old, garden-to-table philosophy pioneered by award-winning chef-owners Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier.
Following the huge success of Arrows, Gaier and Frasier decided in 2005 to start a second restaurant rooted in the same philosophy and relying heavily on produce and herbs from the same gardens that supply Arrows. Located only a few miles down the road, Gaier and Frasier sought to distinguish MC (named after Mark and Clark) from its older sister in both atmosphere and menu. “We wanted a much more approachable, come-as-you-are, neighborhood-bistro feel,” say the now-seasoned entrepreneurs, who also started a third restaurant called Summer Winter in Massachusetts three years later. Inside MC, the music is a little louder, the attire more casual, and the vibe more laid-back. And then there are the views. Overlooking Perkins Cove, the ocean waves are practically within reach, affording diners a view reminiscent of that from the bridge on a ship. The sights are so stunning that it is hard to focus on anything but the incomparable ocean scene—until the food arrives, that is.
Any well-versed foodie is likely familiar with the Gaier and Frasier story by now. The pair, who are life partners as well as business partners, met in 1984 at Stars Restaurant in San Francisco, where they worked with renowned chef Jeremiah Tower for two years. Back then, Gaier and Frasier were pursuing career paths outside the culinary realm and had not yet fully committed themselves to cooking. “At the time, being a cook was not really considered a profession the way it is now. Now it is looked at as a very glamorous sort of thing,” says Frasier.
But glamorous it was not, especially at the time. In the 1980s, Stars was one of the premier restaurants in the United States, yet neither Gaier nor Frasier had much experience beyond working as bussers and dishwashers at local eateries. “I had never really cooked in a restaurant like that before, so I went to work every day terrified,” admits Frasier. “It was an amazing opportunity, though, and opened up so many doors for us.” In California at that time, the two chefs found themselves on the brink of a food revolution. “It was such an exciting place. It changed the way a certain group of people eat,” says Frasier. It also inspired Gaier and Frasier in their blossoming careers to think about food differently.
After working at Stars and developing their confidence as chefs, the pair moved to Maine in 1988 and bought Arrows from friends. As they built their reputation and clientele, Gaier and Frasier lived above the restaurant in tight quarters for several years. During that early period, the culinary scene in Maine was “bleak,” according to Frasier, especially compared to the culinary epicenter they had come from. “When we first arrived, there were some good restaurants, but by and large the food scene really didn’t exist. Finding olive oil and bread was difficult,” says Frasier.
When Frasier and Gaier opened their gardens at Arrows in 1992, the two chefs broke ground on the Slow Food movement. “Ask any real foodie in America and they’ll tell you that the people who consulted for Dan Barber [executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill Farm in Massachusetts] came to Arrows to learn. Long before it became popular, we were practicing what essentially is now called the Slow Food movement for twenty-one years—quietly making our own cheeses and salamis, picking cranberries from the bogs behind the building, going into the forest to pick mushrooms,” says Frasier.
Thanks to Maine’s climate, the menu at MC is heavily influenced by the seasons. “Because of the drastic weather of New England, our inspiration is very seasonal. In California, we could get anything at any time. Here, we can’t. It has really made us better chefs and given us a real sensibility,” explains Gaier. Perhaps their greatest inspirations, though, come through exploration—something Gaier and Frasier have always enjoyed. The two travel frequently, searching for new ingredients to draw from in the regions they visit, particularly Southeast Asia. They also dine out as much as they can. Even when they were novice cooks on a shoestring budget in San Francisco, they would try a new restaurant each week. “You’d be surprised how few young cooks go out to eat. We believe it’s an investment. If you want to be a successful restaurateur you need to put your money there. You gain inspiration from seeing what others are doing,” says Frasier.
Like its ambience, the menu at MC Perkins Cove has a fun and relaxed beat. Its contemporary American dishes feature savory flavors from the pair’s childhoods—like Gaier’s mother’s corn custard and Frasier’s mother’s flank-steak marinade. “We wanted to create a menu diners wouldn’t be afraid of,” says Gaier. Even the tone of the menu is playful, with sides sorted into “virtuous vegetables” and “evil carbos.” “That’s part of the fun,” says Frasier with a chuckle. “It’s not meant to be taken so seriously.” Despite its light-heartedness, the menu doesn’t cut any corners. Mainstays like grilled steak are balanced by entrees such as sesame-crusted, deep-fried rainbow trout with Chinese fermented black beans and, of course, the indulgent lobster mac and cheese, a favorite of Gaier’s when he’s not overdosing on the chopped salad (“Everyone teases me that I’m going to become one, I eat them so often,” he jokes).
After decades of hard work, Gaier and Frasier are now widely recognized for their innovative cuisine and abundant talent. Just this March, they were nominated for a 2009 James Beard Foundation Award in the Best Chef: Northeast category. The pair’s prolific success undoubtedly stems, in part, from their complementary personalities and the enduring strength of their twenty-four-year relationship. “What’s made our partnership really strong is that both of us have different interests but similar visions. Mark has a background in bookkeeping, while I love promoting the restaurants. I’m a little more in the front of the house, while he is in the kitchen more,” explains Frasier. “But of course, we both love to cook.”
On the waters of Perkins Cove, waiters in jeans dance around tables without linens as they greet patrons anxious to sample Mark and Clark’s legendary creations. Those familiar with Arrows might not know exactly what to expect, but one thing is certain: it will be distinctively MC.