For the love of food and family
On the day of my visit to MK Kitchen, Gia Kaldrovich is turning seven years old. She’s restaurant owners Mitchell and Lisa Kaldrovich’s older daughter, and tonight the family will be celebrating with dinner at MK Kitchen. It’s the first time they’ve ever sat together in the dining room as guests. Mitch has changed out of his black chef coat and clogs, transforming himself from chef to dad.
Family is enormously important to the Kaldroviches. It is the reason they chose to open their restaurant in Gorham in the spring of 2015. This is Lisa’s hometown, where her extended family, the Shaws, live and work. “I have 50 first cousins,” she says. “There’s almost always someone eating here that’s related to me.” The couple met while working at a restaurant in Squaw Valley, California, and they it was love at first sight. In their spare time, they would ski and snowboard together and visit other restaurants in the area. “But he could sense I was missing home,” Lisa continues. “Our goal was always to come back and open a restaurant here in Gorham.”
The chef had never been to Maine,but he’s moved many times, to many places. Mitchell Kaldrovich was raised in Argentina surrounded by women—his sisters, mother, an aunt, and his grandmother, who brought a strong Italian influence into the house. “My nona was a very fancy lady,” he tells me, with accented English. “She taught me to be a gentleman. She taught the manners and the ceremony around the kitchen.” He adored spending time in the kitchen with the women in his life, learning respect for the table and a passion for food. “Cooking is a work of love,” he says. Kaldrovich’s mother owned a jewelry store and would come home for lunch, when he would cook steak and mashed potatoes for the noon meal. “I don’t know how I did it,” he says, laughing, “I just did, and she was amazed.” After attending a French boarding high school in Argentina, Kaldrovich wanted to go to cooking school. “At that time, men didn’t go to cooking school,” he says. “If you went, you were either gifted or weird.” He laughs. “I was gifted.” During his first class, he says, “something hit me—the white coats, the immaculate kitchen, and the desire to travel.”
Kaldrovich has covered a lot of ground on the road between Buenos Aires and Gorham, starting with a move to Patagonia at age 22 to run a small hotel. But he wanted to learn English, so the chef sold everything he owned and moved to California, landing a job with Ludo Lefebvre, one of Los Angeles’s most influential chefs. There, he learned the art of French cooking and developed discipline, as well as learned English. “After that, all the doors start opening,” he says. “It’s true; when you’re on the right path, the universe conspires to help you.” A rotating cadre of Michelin-starred chefs at Miami’s Biltmore Hotel brought invaluable experience, but “it was like being in the army. It showed me how to be a sergeant in the kitchen. There was a lot of sweating and crying.” His wife interjects: “He’s much tamer now.”
Despite his impressive background, Kaldrovich had trouble finding work when the couple arrived in Maine. While Lisa took a front-of-the-house job at Fore Street, the chef spent time in and around Portland, as a sous chef at the White Barn Inn in Kennebunk, helping in the kitchen at the now-closed Bresca, and catering. But when the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth came under new ownership, Kaldrovich found his place at the hotel’s restaurant, Sea Glass. “I had to come up with all the menus before it even opened,” he says. “For breakfast, lunch, dinner, banquets, even for dogs.” He quietly built a reputation for himself at Sea Glass by offering global interpretations of local food. He stayed for seven and a half years. Then the time was right for him and Lisa to strike out on their own.
The couple was ready to sign a lease for a space in downtown Gorham, when they noticed a “For Lease” sign diagonally across the street. Three contiguous spaces were being offered in a historic building: a hair salon, a bake shop, and a clothing consignment store. By combining the three spaces, they could achieve their vision for a restaurant that’s casually elegant but unpretentious. With the help of Lisa’s family, friends, and area artisans, they renovated the space. “We knew what we wanted,” says Lisa. “They took our ideas and made them real.” The chef cut the wood for the tables himself, thoughtful about the right size for both comfort and place settings. Daniel Allen, a local roofer and family friend, crafted the copper tops. Stonecraft Concrete of Gorham made the poured concrete bar, inlaid with tiny LED lights. Even the Kaldroviches’ little girls pitched in with the painting. It took four months to complete the process, and the result is a soothing finished space that’s both stylish and inviting. Deep cocoa brown walls, chic lighting, and uncluttered decor make MK Kitchen feel special but not stuffy or intimidating. They carefully considered every detail, from the high-quality glassware to the custom-made metal tray that holds three of the chef ’s signature lobster cones. “We don’t want people to think of us as a special occasion restaurant. We can be, but we’re really here for everyone, any time,” Lisa says.
“Everyone is treated like family.” Even on a Saturday night, the crowd in the dining room is dressed mostly in jeans.
Over in the bar area, Greg Arruda is mixing drinks and greeting guests, including regulars who enjoy MK Kitchen’s happy hour. After spending 11 years as beverage director at Fore Street, where he worked with Lisa, Arruda welcomes the change. “It’s totally different here,” he tells me. “There are more locals than visitors from away.” He’s developed a small but well-thought-out cocktail menu, featuring house-made infusions. “My goal is to establish a drink program that complements Mitch’s food,” he tells me. Wines are chosen with the menu in mind as well, with many choices from Argentina and France.
Kaldrovich believes that his travel experiences have made him the chef he is today. “In Mexico, I would see women in the streets making mole, and that authentic memory stays with me. Chefs are like Marco Polos, bringing spices and knowledge from far away,” he says. “That’s my mission for this restaurant.” The menu reads like a resume of his globetrotting days and the food he loves, encompassing influences from South America, France, Italy, and Spain. Memories of his childhood in Argentina appear in offerings like the Gaucho Mixed Grill. “It’s very traditional,” he says. “Every house had a fire pit in the yard, and on the weekend neighbors would come together around the fire and cook. It was all about wine, fire, and meat.” The dish has beef short ribs, pork loin and belly, and sausage, served with chimichurri, the ubiquitous Argentinian condiment of herbs and spices. “Everyone has their own recipe for chimichurri,” the chef says. “I use my grandmother’s and add hickory smoked salt to enhance the taste of fire I remember as a child.” A side order of super crispy herbed French fries with grilled habanero ketchup is a must. His grandmother’s presence is also felt in the ricotta gnocchi and lamb ragu. The tender, slow-braised lamb, from North Star Farm in Windham, shreds at the touch of the fork, and its sauce is full of umami flavors from pecorino, capers, and a subtle touch of mint. Kaldrovich crafts the airy gnocchi by hand, and the result is a light dumpling that fully absorbs the flavors of the sauce. “This is the dish that most reminds me of my nona,” he says.
Dishes are created with health in mind, using nutritious, fresh ingredients. “I’m a pioneer in town for using quinoa,” he says of the high- protein South American grain. It shows up studded with raisins and almonds next to a perfectly roasted piece of halibut with citrus caper butter. “He thinks all his food is an aphrodisiac,” Lisa tells me. The chef smirks a little, but does not disagree. “I put happy energy into cooking,” he says. “I want to feed more than your stomach.” He pauses for a moment, then continues, “MK Kitchen is my kitchen. I give my heart and the knowledge I have since I was a boy.”
MK Kitchen is the thirtieth kitchen Kaldrovich has worked in, but the first that’s all his own. He likes to come in early in the morning, when he can have the place to himself. He makes the gelato and sorbet first, then starts baking bread. MK Kitchen is his labor of love: for family, for his memories, and for outstanding food. The road from Buenos Aires has taken him to many places, far from his childhood home. Now he and his family are happily making their life here in Maine. In a quiet moment during dinner service, both Kaldroviches can be found visiting tables in the dining room. “I feel like people are coming to my house for dinner,” says the chef. “I want to make sure everyone is happy.”