FEAST-November + December 2009 (from Maine Home+Design)
By Rebecca Falzano
Photographs by François Gagné
Michael Gilroy is not your average cafe owner. But then again, Frontier is not your average cafe. The Brunswick business lives and breathes its motto: “Go Beyond.” The combination eatery, cinema, gallery, and meeting place was designed to be a traveler’s crossroads—a cultural intersection of stories and ideas inspired by Gilroy’s own world travels. This philosophy finds good company in the Fort Andross Mill on the Androscoggin River, a building that’s buzzing with diverse creative energies and a collective entrepreneurial spirit.
The vision for Frontier began to percolate in Gilroy’s mind when he was studying international business and relations in Washington, D.C. There, “surrounded by maps” and reading about the world, the New England native developed an unquenchable urge to travel. He moved to Russia, attended school in Moscow, and learned Russian. He led expeditions on the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Silk Road, guiding groups down old trade routes through China, Central Asia, and the Middle East. He worked in Iran. For ten years, Gilroy heard and shared stories with people from across the globe. After 9/11, he returned to the United States and began searching for a place where he could bring to life his passion for connecting people. And on a day when the leaves were wearing their bright autumn coats, he decided that the place was Maine.
Inside the mill, Gilroy—who goes by Gil—sought to create a space in which stories could be shared. “My interest was understanding the world and figuring out how to create a space centered on discovery and connection. There’s something really authentic and beautiful about the way we connect with people when we travel…when we engage each other in an accessible and unassuming way,” he says.
Realizing that one of humanity’s most potent points of connection is food, Gilroy knew he wanted to incorporate a cafe into the space—and not just any cafe, but an eatery specializing in fresh, simple ingredients. “In all my travels, invariably the best meals were the ones we had when we went through the market and gathered bread, cheese, veggies, and a bottle of wine, put everything in a bag and hiked off to the river and had a picnic,” says Gilroy.
This focus on freshness and simplicity is given life by chef Joel McGarvey, who heads up the kitchen—a modestly sized space with no hood system, no grills, and at one point, no freezer. “Rather than view these things as limiting, I view them as freeing,” says McGarvey with a smile. “One of the benefits of not having a hood is that we don’t have a fryer, so we can’t sauté everything in butter. We have to find a way to make everything naturally flavorful. It’s a chance to use herbs and spices,” he says.
Cooking this way has been in McGarvey’s blood since his childhood in downeast Maine, where he grew up on a saltwater farm. “I am fortunate to have a diverse background. My family would eat things like ground nut soup from Ghana. My mother made me read On Food and Cooking when I was a teenager. ‘Slow food’ was not a new concept to me—I didn’t know there was anything but,” he says.
Inspired by the convergence of sights, smells, and flavors so often experienced on his strolls through the world’s open-air markets, Gilroy (with the help of Jen Amara, then the cafe’s manager) created Frontier’s mainstays: regional market plates served purely and beautifully on a cutting board. The plates include a Middle Eastern version with hummus, dolmas, dates, fresh tomatoes, and cucumbers; an Italian plate featuring prosciutto, salami, mozzarella, focaccia, and peppers; and a French variation with pate, brie, ham, and niçoise olives. McGarvey has continued to perfect these plates, as well as Frontier’s new Meze Plates—”Meze,” from the Persian word maze, meaning “taste, snack.”
Yet food is just one part of the Frontier experience. Visual storytelling is another. A seventy-five-seat cinema is used for film screenings, live music, lectures, workshops, and community events and festivals. Exhibition space is dedicated to contemporary visual narratives produced by storytellers from Maine and around the world. Past events have included everything from a screening of the documentary The Way We Get By to performances by banjo player Béla Fleck to belly dancing exhibitions. On some nights, McGarvey designs the menu to match the programming. “We had an event related to Japan not too long ago, and Joel transformed into a sushi chef for the night and came up with this beautiful presentation. It was amazing,” says Gilroy.
The artistic and culinary mission of Frontier has found an ideal home in the 10,000-square-foot mill space that boasts 16-foot ceilings and original hardwood floors. “It was the perfect blank canvas,” says Gilroy, “but it’s a big space. The challenge was figuring out how to make it feel intimate.” Gilroy and a team of friends and family transformed the raw space using reclaimed materials, fixtures, and equipment wherever possible. Tables, benches, and counters made from reclaimed timbers from historic Maine buildings provide a casual, communal-style eating area. Inside the cinema, vintage theater seats from the Biddeford City Theater were converted into swivel chairs and coffee tables by local artist Nathan Deyesso. “It was a real labor of love. We built the place around our belief in a few fundamentals: authenticity, creativity, and accessibility,” says Gilroy. “To some people, a gallery might be intimidating. But here, when you’re drinking a beer and eating some food, and you look up from your meal and see an image of women in Afghanistan from a show we had recently, it’s more accessible,” says Gilroy. “It’s a subtle kind of exposure.”
The name Frontier is a perfect fit for Gilroy’s creation, because frontiers are boundaries between worlds, spaces located at the limit of our understanding and experience. “‘Frontier’ was inspired by the Latin term plus ultra, which translates to ‘further beyond.’ It’s about finding out where your comfort zone is and going beyond that point. To me, that line is the frontier,” say Gilroy.
Going beyond may be Frontier’s modus operandi, but here on the banks of the Androscoggin, worldly flavors and shared stories hold guests captive. That is, until the next stop on their journey.