Q+A: Sam Hayward Best Chef: Northeast, 2004

In 2004, Fore Street’s SAM HAYWARD became the first chef from a Maine restaurant to win a James Beard Foundation Award, when he won Best Chef: Northeast. While he is no longer behind the stove, Hayward remains a partner at Fore Street and at Scales on the Portland waterfront. He explains why the city’s food scene continues to astound its critics.

Q. How did you react when you won the award?

A. When I won, it was my third nomination. I thought, if I don’t make it this year, I’ll contact the judges and say, please don’t nominate me; it’s not going to happen, and I want to move on. When my name was announced as the winner, I turned to my wife and said, “It’s a mistake.” I thought I would be on my way down the aisle, and someone would say, “Oh, sorry, Sam, you didn’t win,” like what happened at the Oscars this year. I’m still so grateful.

Q. Who are you grateful for?

A. Everybody who’s ever dined here, everybody who ever voted for us, and any of the writers who supported us in publications, articles, and books. I’m also grateful to everybody who’s ever worked here, and I’m grateful to Portland for supporting the restaurant as much as it has.

Q. Why do you think there are so many James Beard Award winners from Portland?

A. In the book Imagining New England, Joseph Conforti writes that as new roots join the New England mix, our New England roots show more visibly. Look at the immigration waves that have happened here, especially in Portland, and professional chefs from around the country are moving here, too. And yet, we seem to be more Maine than ever in interesting ways. We still base our food as much as possible on New England roots, at least in the ingredients that we use and the farms that we patronize. Our roots show. I think it’s those roots that chefs are referring to when we talk about “authenticity” in our food. This is not Civil War-era cooking that we’re finding in Maine restaurants. It’s evolved. In many ways it’s better, but it’s still firmly planted in enduring Maine values.

Q. What advice would you give to ambitious young chefs?

A. I try to remind young cooks, don’t neglect your craft. Cook well. Learn to use salt and pepper. Don’t be afraid, and practice integrity and courage at every level of your career.

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