Transcription of Three is a Magic Number: Winning James Beard #298

Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland.
Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at
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All of us at Maine Media Collective look forward to seeing you there. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Love Main Radio, show number 298, “Three is a Magic Number: Winning James Beard,” airing for the first time on Sunday, June 4, 2017. With the restaurants Hugo’s, Eventide, and Honey Paw, the partners of Big Tree Hospitality have achieved remarkable success. This week we speak with Arlin Smith, Mike Wiley, and Andrew Taylor about their own stories, winning the 2017 James Beard Award, and what life is like as they expand their business outside of Portland. Thank you for joining us.
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Dr. Lisa Belisle: It’s my great pleasure to have with me today Arlin Smith who is one of the partners of Big Tree Hospitality and someone I’ve had on the show before. It’s good to have you back again.
Arlin Smith: It’s great to be here.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You’ve been a very busy guy since the last time you were in.
Arlin Smith: Yes, very much so. It’s been a whirlwind for sure.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So for people who haven’t had a chance to listen to our very early interview, that was right around the time that you had purchased Hugo’s along with your partners, Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley, and then you also were opening Eventide.
Arlin Smith: Yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So it was pretty early.
Arlin Smith: It was. We were able to turnkey Hugo’s because we were all working there, but had the idea of opening up a little oyster bar next to it. That took about four months. Our little oyster bar, which turned into something much bigger than we ever expected.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I want to go back a little bit to the Arlin Smith that grew up in Buffalo, New York. I don’t think this is an Arlin that a lot of people know very well.
Arlin Smith: No. I mean, my close friends do. I grew up in Buffalo, and pretty early on I knew I wanted to be in the culinary world, so I started working in kitchens when I was 15, 16. Then I had some chefs who looked at me and saw that I could do this more. I could really dive into it. I wasn’t just trying to be a cook. So they encouraged me to go culinary school. Soon after I graduated high school, I moved out to the Hudson Valley-Hyde Park where I went to the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America, and they had a couple of recommendation letters that helped me get in.
It was definitely a different school back then. Now that makes me feel old. That time in my life was pretty awesome. Lot of changes happening. I was the first one from my family to go to college, so exciting for them as well.
My New York life was mostly Buffalo and then about eight years in Hudson Valley where I loved it, it was beautiful there. A lot of people compare it to Maine just because of its agriculture and its restaurants and things like that. It was great.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You were the first one in your family to go to college. Tell me about your family, brothers, sisters?
Arlin Smith: Yeah, I have an older brother who went off to the navy. My father’s from the navy and my brother wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but that was appealing to him. Definitely not appealing to me. So he went off and did that, and I had my dreams of going to culinary school and I have a younger sister who is incredible. She moved out here right after we opened up Eventide, so she’s now one of our bar managers there. So I actually have some family here, which is really awesome.
I’m close with both of them. My brother still lives back in Buffalo, who has two kids now and, yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: When you were in high school, what did you like to do for classes. What was your main area of interest academically?
Arlin Smith: High school I did everything I could to get by as a, I guess, an honor student as close as possible. But really, I did not like academics that much. I was more hands-on, more vocational. I loved sports. I was a swimmer, wrestler, football, but then something changed. It was probably mostly girls.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: It’s always the girls, isn’t it?
Arlin Smith: I didn’t want sports taking up all my time, but I did like working. I worked with, my father is a plumber, and I got to learn a lot through him and I was very hands-on, but once I got into the kitchen, it was the social environment was really fun. It was very appealing to me.
To feel, it’s easily to have instant gratification when you’re making things with your hands, and I was always a creative person so that type of outlet for me was very appealing.
I’m still into arts. I wish I could express it more, but life is changing so quickly right now. One day I’ll get back to it.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: If you had some chunk of time?
Arlin Smith: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: If you would actually be able to do exactly what you wanted in the arts, what would you be working on?
Arlin Smith: I would be definitely be into sculpting. I do a lot of carving, stuff like that, pumpkins and squashes, ice, things that are perishable, I guess. But I’d want to explore more of the clay realm. I’ve talked to a few friends of mine who are in that world, and it’s just something that my brain enjoys it and can understand it.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: It seems like even with the art you still like the food?
Arlin Smith: Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Why food versus, why pumpkins versus clay?
Arlin Smith: I don’t know if I can explain that, I just know that… I guess once you can understand something, it’s a lot easier to play with it. Does that make sense? If I knew marble really well and I knew how the tools worked with it, I guess I would be carving marble, using those types of mediums. By understanding the way something behaves, it’s more fun to play with.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So it sounds like getting into the culinary world made sense on a lot of different levels because it had the social aspect, it had the hands-on aspect and the artistic, the creative aspect to some extent.
Arlin Smith: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the odd part about me is that I went through all that, I went through school, and I made the switch to be in front of the house management. I pursued that for my Bachelor’s Degree, so out of our partnership, I’m the only certified chef, which they always get a laugh out of, because they’re absolutely incredible and self-taught.
But that understanding of the back of the house, the kitchen, gave me, I think, an advantage in managing the front of the house because you understand what the kitchen needs from you. You’re able to provide that in a way that’s appealing to a kitchen. Having that connection at the front of the house is how it all works. I don’t think all kitchens have that, but they should, and I think it’s a huge benefit.
That was my sort of weird change over, so now I’m not playing with food, but I’m around it all the time.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Sounds like maybe you miss it a little bit.
Arlin Smith: Yeah. I always say I don’t do it professionally because I’m meant for hunting polar bears. I don’t like the heat, and being out front allows me to take care of guests, which is something I really enjoy. But cooking at home is really my passion. Being able to cook for friends is a lot more fun for me than being on the line.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So if you’re at home, what are you cooking?
Arlin Smith: With my time now, I typically stick to comfort foods. It’s grilling season, so I’m always doing steaks and pork chops. Things that are not too labor intensive, but have an awesome, a quick satisfaction, put it that way. I’m not doing long stews or roasts and things like that. And I also don’t like having leftovers in my fridge, so I try to keep my meals to one or two.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You first came to Maine because of your exposure to Hugo’s, before you owned it yourself.
Arlin Smith: Yeah, yeah. My girlfriend at the time, we were living in Rhinebeck and we wanted to make a move. I was thinking about New York City. I was close to where I was, I knew that I had a lot of job opportunities there. David Chang’s Ssäm Bar had been looking for front of the house management and a friend of mine connected me to them. I was seriously considering it. They made me an offer, it wasn’t great, but it was definitely going to be my first big move.
Some other close friends of mine, who live in Kingston, New York, used to live in Portland and when they heard I was looking to go to New York, they sort of grabbed me by the neck and said, “Please go to Portland. That’s your city. Everything about it, you’re going to love it. Just go visit.” So two weeks later we visited up here, and my girlfriend did all the research. She had the time, and she quickly plugged into what was happening at the time and this is 2009. There was still some amazing things happening then. I mean just looking at what it is now, it’s incredible.
We ended up going to Local 188, seeing the scene there. It was an awesome cocktail scene. Even the people, the diners, this group of young girls come in probably early college and they all sit around this couch and you hearing them ordering and they’re ordering mead and these craft cocktails. Stuff you just wouldn’t expect that demographic to be enjoying. The kicker was, she found Hugo’s had been nominated for a James Beard Award and hadn’t won it yet. It was up for one that year. It was Rob Evan’s third year, I think.
On the website it had a chef’s tasting for $120, a chef’s tasting. We’re like, wow, that’s really cheap. Looking at New York prices, 12 courses for $120, yeah, let’s sign up. We didn’t realize how big of a deal it was for them to be doing it. They were doing tasting, had al-a-carte, it was a very mom-and-pop joint.
So we sit down. It’s the middle of February when we were there too. There’s like four feet of snow on the ground, but I’m from Buffalo, so I’m in heaven. This is still working great. We were staying at the Regency, which is still one of my favorite hotels here. We walked down and we sit in this dining room that had a couple people in it, it wasn’t crazy, and had still one of the best meals in my life. Ended up being 17 courses, I was eating things I had never experienced before, and I could not believe this city was supporting something like that.
We went back home to Rhinebeck and two weeks later came back, looked at apartments; two weeks after that we moved here. I think it’s a testament that we fell in love with Portland in the middle of winter and with not as much going on as it is now. I mean it was really just, it was very charming and appealing. So my goal was to come here and not manage. My goal was to take a break, serve a little bit, make some money, make my own schedule because I was working a lot.
I walked through the door, after three days of living here, of Local 188 and Jay Villani was in the back kitchen and all I heard was a voice saying, “Are you here about the job?” They had just posted it. It was basically like a cattle call. I remember it was raining that day, it was gross out, I’d dressed up and I had my bag and just printed out my resumes that were cleaned up. I’m like, “Yeah. I’d love to talk to you.” He came out and I handed him my resume and he looked at me and he’s, “This is all management. We’re looking for serving.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah, that’s kind of what I want to do.” He sort of rolled his head like, seriously?
I noticed he had a little bit of an accent and I called it out. It was from Staten Island, which that’s where my family is from. So we hit it off and the next day I had a job. It was one of the best things that happened to me, I think, because it plugged me into some of my best friends now. Friends that are doing awesome things in the community still, and it was very serendipitous for me at that time.
But quickly, being a server there, wasn’t going to be enough for me. I wanted it to be, but Rob won the James Beard Award. So this is April 2009. He wins and he doesn’t have any management. They never had a front-of-the-house manager. It was always his wife, Nancy, and she’s a rock star and she has all of her things in place the way that she likes to work, but that award sort of blew up Portland.
The James Beard Award is not just for a chef or a restaurant. It is incredible for the area, and they had to handle it. My girlfriend was working there, she actually got a job at Hugo’s and told them what my background was. They quickly had me come in. They already knew me, we were already friends, but they didn’t really know who I was and what I was looking to do. They offered me a job and I liked it. I really liked what I was going to get out of it. It wasn’t corporate, it was very mom-and-pop. They had all of their policies and procedures that was something I hadn’t experienced like that, so I got to learn it and fall in love with it. That’s where I met my partners now, Andrew Taylor, he became the chef de cuisine a month after I started. We were basically there from the beginning together.
As time went on, we became really close. Mike Wiley came on board, I think, a year after Andrew and I were there. Rob and Nancy were trying to sell it, they were trying to sell Hugo’s. For me, I didn’t have any money, and all I had was my experiences and so my dreams were to just keep working for awesome people. So I kept encouraging Andrew to buy it. David Chang came up with Ryan Miller, who was his chef at Ssäm Bar, which is funny how it all comes back around, he was going to buy it. They were seriously considering coming up here and he was going to do his New York restaurant or his dream of a restaurant and David Chang was going to back him.
And we started thinking about it. Wow, we can’t… one, I realized I didn’t want to see Hugo’s go. It was something really special for us and to see it continue on would be awesome. So I kept encouraging Andrew to do that. He came back to me and said, “I think we should buy it.” I said, “Do you have a mouse in your pocket? Because you’re saying we.” That’s something my father used to always say. He laid out really quickly what he thought would work well as far as bringing Mike in as a third partner and having Rabelais, which was, well, that’s a whole other part of the story, but one of the pushes for us to buy it and to do our own thing, was our good friend Sam and Don Lindgren, who own Rabelais, that was the bookstore right next to Hugo’s.
It was just an incredible bookstore. I mean it’s still just one of those special things when you look back how awesome it was to have in Portland. They were really close friends of ours, but they weren’t renewing their lease. So the same time Rob and Nancy are trying to sell Hugo’s they’re going to get rid of their lease. So all these changes are going to happen to the building and personally I’m like, “Wow, these are big changes. What’s going to happen?” But they nudged us and told us, “We’re not going to renew our lease,” because they became an Amazon books window shop. They would look at the book in their store and then buy it online, which is very unfortunate.
So they moved down to Biddeford. We bought Hugo’s knowing that we were going to be able to take over their space and do an oyster bar, which we didn’t really know what the restaurant was going to be, we knew it was going to be something. The appealing part of that was Hugo’s would not sustain three owners, it just wouldn’t. It’s not a cash cow, if you will. It’s a very special restaurant, but it’s not built to make money. It makes money, it’s appealing to us to be able to have something that’s a little more like Rob and Nancy’s Duckfat. They had their casual spot that helped sustained life in the wintertime, because this is a very seasonal town.
So we chose to do that knowing that we would be able to keep that casual and push it forward as our, I hate using the term cash cow, but really for business you need something that’s sustainable. That’s where the partnership came together and then it blew up from there. It was sort out of our control when the popularity of Eventide just took off.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I appreciate your taking the time out of your very busy schedule. It’s really been a pleasure to watch your, I want to say meteoric rise, but I know so much effort is put into this, and I know that it’s really been just an ongoing continual process for you and done very well. For me to be able to see this, is very gratifying, and I appreciate your taking the time to come in here today.
Arlin Smith: Thanks, Lisa, that means a lot.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Arlin Smith. He’s one of the partners in Big Tree Hospitality. I hope we’ll see you again.
Arlin Smith: Me too.
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Dr. Lisa Belisle: Today it’s my pleasure to have with me Mike Wiley who is one of the partners in Big Tree Hospitality. It’s good to have you here today.
Mike Wiley: Thank you, good to be here.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You’ve had some really fun stuff happening in your life lately, not least of which is the James Beard Award.
Mike Wiley: Yeah, yeah, thank you. It’s pretty wild. Definitely never thought I’d be here doing this and, yeah, just won the James Beard Award.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Well, tell me a little bit about growing up in Hanover, New Hampshire. What was your life like back then?
Mike Wiley: I don’t know, it was simple. Hanover is a really wonderful place to grow up. Dartmouth College sort of dominates the landscape there, so everything’s pretty safe. You don’t need to worry about crime too much. It’s right on the banks of the mighty Connecticut River, and there are amazing rope swings. You could swing out into the river, swim to Vermont, go to the next rope swing.
It’s a great spot to mountain bike, skiing culture was really big there. I skied a lot as a kid and hung out with my little brother and played Capture the Flag and enjoyed school. I was kind of a bit of a dork, didn’t play a lot of sports. Yeah, being a dork is cool now, so I guess I was just ahead of my time.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Yeah, I’ve noticed that. I feel that I missed by a few years myself. But, yes, it’s good that you can like intellectual pursuits now and be accepted.
Mike Wiley: Yeah, not feel like a pariah. It’s amazing.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Exactly. You went on to Colby College, and you have a degree in creative writing.
Mike Wiley: Yep, creative writing and religious studies.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: And religious studies?
Mike Wiley: Yep.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Why those?
Mike Wiley: I don’t know. I mean I always loved words and English was much easier, it came easier to me. My folks were really good about at dinner, “What book are you reading?” If you don’t have a book, then a book is assigned to you. So it was just, “Reading’s big in our family, we’re readers, that’s what we do.” My brother is a really strong reader, and he kind of got the math brain. I was put in advanced math because there was some wave of pedagogical theory that said if kids are good with Legos then they’re going to be excellent mathematicians or whatever, and I was really good at Legos. But then when math got hard enough, they were like, “Okay, turns out the Lego thing doesn’t really apply. We’re going to have put you in the regular track math.”
School always came easy to me and I always liked reading. Reading was really the big thing, and my father went to med school out in California in the 70s and got really into transcendental meditation and ruined lots of cocktail parties. He had me reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when I was a kid, Essays on a Mustard Seed and all this hippie 70s nonsense. I really thought it was fascinating, so I took a bunch of classes in it when I was at Colby.
I was really always interested in Eastern Religion primarily. I read about it my free time and I actually sort of was just one day at the registrar’s office and I realized, “Well, I’m just two credits away from being a double major, I might as well take a Biblical Studies II,” or whatever the heck the class was.
I sort of just kind of stumbled backwards into the religious studies, but English was always kind of, my mother’s an English professor, and I always sort of thought ultimately I’m going to become a professor. I like talking, I like words, I like the life of the mind and I just sort of thought, “Yeah, sure, English, that’s easier.”
When I got to Colby I thought I’m going to be a paleontologist because I was also absolutely in love with dinosaurs when I was in high school. Not when I was kid, it was trucks when I was a kid, but I took the intro bio course and it was like whew, this is a lot of hard work, I’m not going to do this, I’m going to go to English where I can pontificate and I can skim some of the readings and I’ll be fine.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What type of doctor did your father become?
Mike Wiley: Anesthesiologist. He’s since retired, but he worked at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for 25 years or so.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Was your mother also a professor at Dartmouth?
Mike Wiley: No, she wasn’t. She was an ICU nurse, but she went back to school when I was in elementary school and got her doctorate and she taught at Colby-Sawyer College, which is in New London, New Hampshire, about 20 minutes from Hanover.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: It’s interesting that your father had this kind of hippie, transcendental meditation and then went into a pretty mind-oriented sub-specialty as a physician.
Mike Wiley: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, my mother’s fond of saying he’s anal retentive. He’s very particular about everything and I think that anesthesia, I mean obviously all of medicine does, but I think anesthesia lends itself well to that. He’s very, very organized. He’s since gotten really into cooking and that attention to detail definitely comes through in Chris Wiley’s cuisine as well, it’s funny.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What did you like to read when you were younger?
Mike Wiley: Geez, really, anything and everything. I mean what did I love. I loved Jurassic Park. I think I read Jurassic Park eight times. I crushed all of Michael Crichton’s books. I read a bunch of sci-fi. I loved this book called Ender’s Game. I got into Stephen King a little bit, and then my father was, “You should read It.” And honest to God for like three or four years thereafter, maybe even five years, I would run past storm grates and sewer drains and flush the toilet and sprint out of the bathroom. It just absolutely ruined me for Stephen King. Now with the remake coming out, I’m going to be confronting some of my demons. It’s going to be interesting.
I liked reading just about anything. Fiction, primarily, some of the Eastern religion stuff, Ram Dass and Timothy Leary. I got into poetry when I was a little bit older. Yeah, I would say fiction. I was never a big nonfiction guy. I’ve sort of been exploring that a little more recently. It was always fiction, novels, primarily and short stories. I loved J. D. Salinger, he was my guy. Not Catcher in the Rye, but Franny and Zooey and all the Glass family stories were the ones that really hooked me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So I’m guessing that if you have a degree in creative writing, then you must have explored your writing side as well?
Mike Wiley: Yeah, yeah, I did. To no great avail. I sort of made a practice and a discipline of it when I was living in Crested Butte, Colorado where I’d get up in the morning, I’d get myself out of bed at eight and then I would sit and type for two hours. This was one of my mom’s favorite teaching exercises to her English 101 or Intro to English classes is the secret to writing is writing. You just need to sit there and do it. So every class they would start with 20 minutes of sustained writing where you could just write on your keyboard, I’m writing, I’m writing, I’m writing, but as long as you were generating words, then you were okay. It was just this exercise in logorrhea, just constantly producing words and putting them on a page.
So I did that for a while and I would write for two hours every morning and I enjoyed it and I think it was jus sort of a nice way to organize my brain. I wasn’t working on a novel or anything like that, it was more just kind of, I don’t know, just reacting to my day and what I was thinking about and things like that.
It’s almost funny that I studied creative writing. I think the literary theory stuff appealed to me more. All those classes in theory I thought were much cooler and sort of trying to decipher crazy nonsensical contemporary American poetry. That appealed to me more like code breaking or something like that.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So it was really the understanding of the writing and the writer?
Mike Wiley: Yeah, the writer a little less so. I was always sort of interested…. I loved the idea that structuralism, whatever’s on the page, that’s what matters. You can expand that to be, “Well, they were abused as a kid and so maybe,” the psychoanalytical critique. That never drew me that much, I like much more of the what does this symbol signify and da, da, da, and are there recurrent themes. I really liked writing essays in college.
I really enjoyed the fact that every single, or almost every single English Department was read this and then write about it and that was it. It wasn’t like pick five themes and discuss why these themes are…. even if that was the assignment, you could always turn into whatever the hell you wanted. That’s what appealed to me about English.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You spent five months in Nepal?
Mike Wiley: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What were you doing out there?
Mike Wiley: So, I was an idiot. I did a really good job in my foreign language classes, I was in advanced Spanish and advanced French when I graduated high school, and if I wasn’t a moron, I could have just taken whatever the test is to prove that you’re competent or capable and I could have pro-ed out of taking any foreign language classes. But of course I didn’t figure it out until halfway through my sophomore year and I realized, “Oh, man, I don’t think I could take that test and do as well. So how can I avoid taking classes in a foreign language?”
Colby offered a program that was run by Pitzer College out in California, which was an amazing program. It was a foreign language program and it’s total immersion and they sort of take this idea that some people are fond of saying, “I’m not good at math. I’m not good at foreign languages.” And they were just like, “No, that’s not something we believe. Everybody is good at foreign languages. You just need to be in the right situation and the right setting with the right people.”
So it was this fully immersive, “You’re going to live with a Nepali family who doesn’t speak any English for four months and you’re going to attend six hours of language classes every day where it’s going to be you and two other American students and one Nepali instructor who won’t speak any English to you or very little English to you.” I was just sort of a trial by fire.
They’d send us out into markets and be like, “You need to go and buy two bunches of bananas.” And we would just barely know how to say bananas, and it was just an exercise in feeling social pressure and humiliation. I don’t know how many times I deeply offended people by my behavior before I was, “Oh, that is not done, you don’t aim the soles of your feet at people that’s incredibly rude.”
But it was amazing. I mean they had all of us, every single one of us in the program were chattering away in Nepali, arguing with cab drivers. And then the last month of the program was our independent study and we could pretty much decide to do whatever, study whatever aspect of Nepali culture, society that we wanted to. I decided to study yak herding culture in the Solukhumbu Valley, which is kind of a valley over from Mount Everest. It was amazing.
I had my rock climbing shoes with me and I just climbed, I just bouldered, climbing smallish boulders in huge glacial marines at 13,000 feet and ate rice and lentils and got up really early and went to bed really early. Yeah, it was amazing when I came back to American I could sprint for miles, and of course you lose that in a week or four days or something like that. I felt like a super hero there for a little while.
It was an amazing experience and Nepal is an incredibly beautiful country. It’s so simple and almost without exception everybody there was just very warm and I got a great sweater out of it that Andrew Taylor’s fond of making fun of. It’s like a Cosby sweater, it’s all these hideous colors and patterns, but it’s made of yak fur and it cost $2.50.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What about this rhetoric degree that you got, this graduate degree? I’m kind of interested in this, because first of all I don’t really know what that means. I’m not really sure, where does this fit in your scheme?
Mike Wiley: I was a ski bum and kind of a climbing bum for almost five years. I lived in Salt Lake City, I spent most of my time at Crested Butte, Colorado, which is the most beautiful place in the world. And I always sort of, in the back of my mind, thought that I was going to be a professor and live in ski town, USA. You can have your weird daily two hour writing discipline, but most of the conversation tends towards what’s the snow pack like? What back trails have just opened? Are they too muddy? Yada, yada, yada. What’s the camber like this year?
I was missing school and I was missing having some more kind of academic style discussions. So I applied to this program at the University of Colorado at Boulder and I was accepted. I was sort of trying to think a little strategically about finding a job because you get your Ph.D. in English and it’s, “Hey, congratulations. Now what are you going to do?” There are not a lot of jobs for English professors and there are a whole lot of English Ph.D.s and there’s a lot of English Ph.D.s out there.
So I sort of started doing some research about how I could differentiate myself, and English is sort of this broader rubric that you can filter down into a handful of different disciplines, and as I was saying earlier, I really loved the kind of literary theory and almost philosophical aspects of language and composition. I knew that I wasn’t about to be doing any kind of hardcore semantics, which is almost like mathematics or logic problems.
Rhetoric, which is basically the study of argumentation and the appearance of truth, not the truth itself but it’s appearance. I sort of thought, well, the skills that I honed, it’s maybe an aggressive word here, but the skills I sought to cultivate in college they could apply well to this. At the time when I was reading about rhetoric and I started reading some academic papers, people were applying rhetorical theory to things like Ridley Scott’s Aliens. I got this idea to write a paper on the Ghostbusters films. I never actually did it.
People were looking at the rhetoric of architecture in public spaces and how that big reflective beam sculpture, I can’t remember the name of the park, in downtown Chicago. It’s enormous, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s like a hundred feet tall or something like that and people just walk up to it and they want to touch it. It’s this amazing communal thing. There were people writing about the rhetorical affect of that object and what it does. How it forces us all to come together and kind of confront each other.
I don’t know some of it, like with all academia, some of it kind of spirals out of control or disappears up its own rear end pretty quickly. I thought that rhetoric would be kind of an interesting thing to study. I really enjoyed a lot of my Master program. It was great because I was offered a teaching assistantship so I taught some classes, and as a result I didn’t have to pay for my Masters, which was huge.
At the end of it though, I didn’t love the culture of academics and I had such a different experience as a student at Colby College than plenty of my students were having at the University of Colorado at Boulder that I sort of, I don’t know, maybe I was kind of a little Pollyanna-ish about it, it just sort of felt I had been ski bumming and I’d been cooking to finance that and I just found myself missing the kitchen, and missing doing physical things with my hands.
The writing and reading was great. I found myself kind of antsy and doing a lot of braising and baking all the way through grad school. I had a meal at a restaurant, that I ultimately ended up working at, with my parents halfway through my program and I just thought, I was looking at the cooks, and I just thought I miss doing that. Those guys are really lucky, I miss being in the kitchen.
I was offered a spot on the Ph.D. track, but I ultimately, or I was encouraged to apply, but I ultimately decided not to because I just didn’t like the life that much. I didn’t want to be having that conversation for the rest of my life.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Well, I know that you’ve been incredibly busy and I know that taking the time to come in here today really has been a commitment for you, but I appreciate it.
Mike Wiley: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It’s my pleasure.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Mike Wiley who is one of the partners with Big Tree Hospitality, and as we’ve been saying, a 2017 James Beard Award winner. Keep up the good work and I hope we see you back in here again at some point.
Mike Wiley: Thank you.
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Dr. Lisa Belisle: It’s my good fortune to have in the studio with me Andrew Taylor who is one of the partners of Big Tree Hospitality. Thanks for coming in today.
Andrew Taylor: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: And the reason that you were nice enough to come in is that we’re very excited that you were named a James Beard Award winner just recently.
Andrew Taylor: Yeah, we took home the award for Best Chef: Northeast, myself and Mike Wiley, the co-chef and one of the other owners of Eventide, Hugo’s and Honey Paw, Big Tree Hospitality. Yeah, we’re thrilled.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: So I know a lot of people know about you as that guy who’s part of the big three with Big Tree, but I guess I’m kind of interested about you as the guy before that, or sort of in the middle of that. You were raised in Cape Cod?
Andrew Taylor: I spent a lot of time on Cape Cod, but raised in the Boston area, Newton, Massachusetts. But I spent a lot of time on the summers at my grandparents’ house on the Cape. I would say if there is a genus of my culinary career, it’d probably be there and doing a lot of, spent most of the time fishing and digging clams and catching clams and stuff like that.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Growing up in Newton, your father, from what I understand, is an attorney.
Andrew Taylor: Yep, yep.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Who once said to you something like, “You should do something with your hands,” and you thought maybe he actually meant orthopedic surgery.
Andrew Taylor: I went to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine and sort of graduated with not the most distinguished record there and sort of academics was not necessarily my thing. I hadn’t really found a path, didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, and I specifically recall being on an airplane, I think it might even have been for my grandfather’s passing, on the way back and he asked me what I thought I would do? And I said I don’t know. I was thinking about taking the LSATs and plan on law school and he sort of shook his head and said, “No, don’t do that. I don’t think you’ll like that career,” and sort of pushed me to do something with my hands.
And, wow, I think he probably had in mind, yeah, orthopedic surgery or sports medicine or something like that. I took it as sort of what I needed to hear to pursue my passion and do what I wanted to do. Being an attorney sort of runs in the family, and after that I was, okay, I can sort of break that trend.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What was it that he thought about the profession he actually chose that he didn’t think would match well with you?
Andrew Taylor: I mean, yeah, that’s not necessarily to speak poorly of being an attorney because I think he really enjoyed it and he really enjoys aspects of it. The law is quite fascinating, even to me, now, still. I would have enjoyed aspects of it myself, but I think he knew that I was restless in nature and wouldn’t enjoy sitting behind a desk and pawing through 80-page legal documents and writing up legal agreements and so and so forth. I think that’s part of the job that probably wasn’t his favorite part either.
He saw in me that I had more of that side of him than any other, and he was right on, and I’ve thanked him many times for steering me away from it even if he personally denies that still.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: It is really important sometimes to get that kind of permission. If you have in your family a bunch of attorneys, for somebody to say you don’t have to do this, you can do something else.
Andrew Taylor: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a certain familial expectation to pursue more traditional career and I sort of felt that. Not only familial, but also from my peers. I went to a well-heeled high school in Cambridge, Massachusetts and then to Bates College and all my friends were getting jobs in financial companies, or law school, or business school. I certainly felt an expectation or a bit of a pressure to do so myself, and it was reassuring to hear that that wasn’t entirely important or that I could do something that I enjoyed.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Why economics?
Andrew Taylor: Ran in the family. Just like being an attorney, being an economics major I college was, my brother, my grandfather, my father, my uncle, sort of ran in the family. It was easy for me, honestly. Mathematics was one of the few things in school that I did well in.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I read a piece that someone had written about foraging and you talk about it, you talk about kind of wandering around as a child on the shores of Cape Code and digging up clams. Talk to me about some of your early memories of, I don’t know, getting your hands dirty that way.
Andrew Taylor: Yeah, tide pools were always fascinating for me. Picking periwinkles and seaweeds and starfish and sea anemones and just being fascinated by that, and I think that probably perhaps was the genus of it. Yeah, fishing. I grew up near a lake and me and my sort of four elementary school, kindergarten to sixth grade friends, best friends, we just used to disappear from our houses and meet at the lake and fish virtually every day. Often times before sunrise. My parents would wake up and go, “Where the hell did he go?”
Those types of activities outdoors, having to do with catching or finding food sources was always fascinating to me.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: How did you end up over on the west coast?
Andrew Taylor: Well, I graduated from Bates, and this was after having got this advice from my father, I sort of kind of kicked around for a summer in the Boston area and then my future wife Rachel and I basically got in the car, packed it up and drove around the country for two months, ostensibly to find out where we would live next. We hit up all sort of major cities in the south. New Orleans was number two on the list, we almost moved there instead. But Seattle was the place we felt would be the spot for us.
I really sort of knowing at that point that I wanted to get into cooking. I really wanted to work with seafood and a different type of seafood. That was probably one of the reasons we picked Seattle we wanted to be on the west coast. So, yeah, we came back, worked for another few months. Made up enough money to just move out there. Got in my car again and drove across country.
We had no jobs, no place to stay, no friends out there, but we made it work pretty quickly.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: And somehow you ended up working in a pretty well regarded establishment.
Andrew Taylor: Yeah, within a couple days of being there I had enrolled myself in a couple of culinary classes, and I think that got me into a kitchen. Got a job as a prep cook at a sort of fancy steak house. Then with the rest of my time, I just walked in the back door of the best restaurant in town and said I’m going to spend whatever free hours I have here and I’ll work for free, whatever, you don’t have to pay me.
So I did everything there from peeling shallots and garlic to breaking down Dungeness crab and just did that on my own time. Just showed up whenever I could, and it was a small kitchen, one where the personnel didn’t change very frequently, but finally a job did come up. My persistence paid off and I got a job there, and that was really just an incredible place to learn. Because they did everything from scratch, processed everything under the sun and you just learned the right way to do everything, at least in the French style. Thierry Rautureau was the chef there and he was just an incredible mentor for me at that time.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You also spent time working with Ken Oringer.
Andrew Taylor: Yep. Clio, which was then, so coming from a very traditional French place to this sort of high minded, conceptual French-Asian sort of fusion-y place, it was quite a shock to me, but it was unbelievable. I was just being exposed to all kinds of ingredients and techniques that I had no idea what I was getting into I think at first, but really, really loved my time there. And Ken still is just, again, such an incredible example for me on how to expand, how to run restaurants, how to expand responsibly. We keep in touch to this day and he’s just been an amazing example.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You got to know Arlin pretty early on in this whole process. You’ve really been together with him from the very beginning.
Andrew Taylor: Yeah, from the day I started at Hugo’s in 2009, I think, and he started a month before me. I started as a sous chef under Rob Evans and, yeah, we sort of effectively ran Hugo’s for several years prior to owning it. We just developed a really great relationship, really great work relationship in particular. It’s been a great pairing.
When it sort of came up to potentially buy Hugo’s, I knew I needed his skills and I think he knew he needed my skills and we both needed Mike’s skills so that was sort of the whole genus. I knew I couldn’t open, couldn’t run a restaurant, or open a restaurant by myself. I needed somebody, particularly with his skills in the front of the house taken care of.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: In the midst of all this, you have gotten married and had three children in rapid succession. At least I consider them relatively rapid succession.
Andrew Taylor: Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You have three boys under the age of five.
Andrew Taylor: This is true, this is true.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: And you’ve really been doing this yourself, this whole restaurant ownership thing for those five years.
Andrew Taylor: Yeah, Lincoln, our first born, was born two weeks before we opened Eventide, so a month and a half, two months after we bought Hugo’s and it has been, there’s been several times when I’ve sort of tried to persuade Mike and Arlin to open another restaurant, or expand or do something, and they’re like I don’t know, not right now. I’m like, Rachel’s pregnant, we’re having another kid, we need another restaurant. They constantly make fun of me. We’re opening a fourth restaurant and they’re, “Don’t do it, don’t have another kid,” which won’t be a problem.
It’s been amazing. It’s been a lot obviously, but I’ve always been one to sort of pile it on and just take on as much as I possibly can. The three boys are all healthy and wonderful and I’ve got the most supportive wife and Rachel’s just been unbelievable in understanding what it takes to run a growing and expanding business and the responsibilities that entails. It’s been a wild ride.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: Do your boys also share your interest in things like fishing and being outside?
Andrew Taylor: Getting there, getting there. I did come home yesterday and they both had aprons on and were making cookies with the two older ones and they were making cookies with Rachel. It was a pretty charming little moment to walk into. I surprised them a little early. But, yeah, I’m working on the fishing thing.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You’ve got the cooking piece, and now you’re going to work on this other thing.
Andrew Taylor: Yeah.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What do you like to do when you’re not in the kitchen, or in the business, I guess I should say?
Andrew Taylor: I would say I go back to those activities that I really enjoy. I mean foraging, fishing, just being outdoors, hiking, camping, just the stuff that I moved to Maine for that I love being in Maine for. I don’t get to do nearly as much of it as I would like, but that day will come I’m sure.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: In the early summer, what are you foraging for?
Andrew Taylor: Ramps. I’m trying to find a time to take a trip real soon here so I can go forage some ramps. But there’s also some morels right now, but they’re pretty spotty and then chanterelle and black trumpet season kicks off in sort of July and August.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: What about sea vegetables?
Andrew Taylor: Sea vegetables. We did quite a bit of that in previous years, not as much as anymore. We actually had a little skiff that I used to run around to the islands of Casco Bay and sort of pick sea lettuce and kelp and laver. But I haven’t done as much of that as I’d like to.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: That’s mostly just a time thing at this point?
Andrew Taylor: Mostly just a time thing, yeah, exactly.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Andrew Taylor who is one of the partners in Big Tree Hospitality and recent James Beard Award winner. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day to do this.
Andrew Taylor: Absolutely.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: I give you a lot of credit for doing all the work you’re doing, not only as a restaurateur, but also as a father of three. Good job.
Andrew Taylor: I appreciate it. It’s been a grind, but it’s been amazing. I love it, wouldn’t do anything else.
Dr. Lisa Belisle: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 298, “Three is a Magic Number: Winning James Beard.” Our guests have included Arlin Smith, Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa and see our Love Maine Radio Instagram photos on Instagram.
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This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. I hope that you have enjoyed our “Three is a Magic Number: Winning James Beard” show. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your day. May you have a bountiful life.
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