Hearth + Home
At Walkers Maine, chef Justin Walker brings seasonal, wood-fired cooking to his own backyard.
In a portrait on their restaurant’s website, Danielle and Justin Walker stand in a barn doorway. Danielle holds a baby goat against her hip, and instead of a starched chef’s jacket, Justin wears a soft flannel shirt. The relaxed pose is not contrived; the barn is on the Walkers’ property, just five miles from the restaurant, where they raise dairy goats, keep bees, and grow vegetables on land that has been farmed by Danielle’s family for more than 120 years. Following a career in which they held tandem power positions at Arrows in Ogunquit and Earth at Hidden Pond in Kennebunkport—Danielle in the dining room and Justin in the kitchen—the Walkers have come home to the Cape Neddick area of York, where they serve Justin’s celebrated seasonal cuisine in a stylish, spacious restaurant on Route 1. Many of his dishes, including his signature whole roasted cauliflower, are cooked on an enormous, wood-fired hearth that is visible from the dining room.
Q. Why did you and Danielle decide to open your own restaurant in York instead of in Portland or Kennebunkport?
A. This is our home; our son goes to school here, and if we need to take an afternoon off to do something with him, we can. We’re not trying to do anything other than what we love to do at the level we like to do it, close to home. Of course, when you’re working in your own community, you always want to do the best you can, but it’s been incredible. The restaurant is definitely different for the area, with the service element and the hearth and the relationship with the local growers, and it has been really well received with tons of repeat guests. Once the playhouse opened in Ogunquit for the summer, we saw a lot of people from Kennebunkport. And we have a great relationship with some of the local inns and hotels; the Cliff House has been really instrumental in helping us.
Q. You have plenty of exciting dishes on your menu, and the whole roasted cauliflower is one of the most popular. How is it prepared?
A. It was one of the first dishes we jotted down when we were coming up with the idea of Walkers, taking on the Argentinian idea of roasted meats and vegetables and doing everything whole. A lot of the food here is based on the hearth, and it is the first thing that goes on in the morning. We get the fires started, put the whole heads of cauliflower on, and they roast all day. They take on a smoky, almost meaty flavor from being on the hearth, and the sauce is really rich and complex with lots of layers of flavor. I love a traditional bagna cauda, but being who we are, we like to twist the classics a little bit, so we use lots of brown butter, lots of fish sauce instead of the anchovy, tons of garlic and shallots, thyme, Urfa biber–a Turkish chili pepper that’s really leathery and tobacco-like—white verjus instead of vinegar, so it’s slightly acidic but not overly so. We douse the roasted cauliflower in that sauce, finish it with crunchy garlic, nigella seeds, and chives, and serve a half of a head with a knife and fork. It was a sleeper, but not anymore; about 25 percent of our guests order it.
Q. What vegetables are you growing for the restaurant on your farm?
A. We grew various things when we were at Earth—San Marzano tomatoes, kale, root vegetables—but Danielle has really expanded on that. She grew over a thousand pounds of tomatoes last year—heirloom varieties that even I had never heard of. She just brought in these beautiful little yellow radishes with greens that are very edible; we made a pesto with those. She did a pumpkin test plot last year and grew a whole bunch of really delicious pumpkins and squashes and melons. Our house is a giant greenhouse for most of the winter and spring. She’s planted so many things, I’ve almost completely lost track.
Q. You took over what was the Cape Neddick Inn in October 2017, and reopened as Walkers Maine after a complete renovation the following spring. What has the evolution been like over the past year?
A. We’re a Maine restaurant, and one of the things that means for us is that we try to immerse ourselves in things we don’t know, to expand what we do. When we built the wood-fired hearth, I spent part of every day talking to the masons because I was very curious about the construction. Another aspect of that is trying to use everything. All the milk from our dairy goats goes into ice creams and cheeses, and we use all the whey in certain sauces, to glaze fish on the hearth, and in bread. We’re growing lots of vegetables on our own property but also building relationships with the amazing farmers around here. Also, although we pride ourselves on having been able to get this place operational really quickly, it took this winter to really understand the business. Now, at the end of a crazy busy night, I feel on top of it, and that’s what I’m really excited about.