WINTER HARBOR, Maine — Two concepts you don’t expect to see matched up in the same sentence are “gourmet” and “hot dog.”
That didn’t dampen award-winning chef Carl Johnson’s resolve to elevate the humble frankfurter to a new level of culinary appreciation. For two years running, the Culinary Institute of America alumnus has been hard at work, perfecting his vision of the perfect dog, the perfect bun and the perfect assortment of unique relishes to garnish his Delicious Dogs line of street-vended comfort food.
“Food should be fun, and I’m having great fun,” said Johnson, who for 12 years has been the chef behind the culinary curtain at the Fisherman’s Inn restaurant in Winter Harbor. Now, instead of serving sit-down lunches at his eatery, Johnson dangles an assortment of hot dogs and a quarter-pound, never-frozen lobster roll in front of the noses of thousands of seasonal visitors who pass by his hot dog cart at Newman and Main streets in Winter Harbor en route to and from the Schoodic section of Acadia National Park.
“As costs have escalated, this is economically more viable than doing lunch, which involves staffing the restaurant to accommodate a dozen to 15 people,” he said. “A bricks-and-mortar restaurant now requires significant volume, which we do get for dinners. Essentially, I have a $500,000 restaurant supporting a $5,000 hot dog cart. There are tables and the tent, and it’s a chore to set it up and tear it down every day, but the overhead is minimal. I continue to be impressed by how well we’ve done.”
Delicious Dogs is a family affair. The day-to-day operations, weather permitting between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., are assigned to Johnson’s daughter-in-law, Nui, and his youngest son, Matt. Helping them out with setup and teardown are her two sons, Film (pronounced “Feem”), 16, and his brother Thiraphong, 13, who goes by T.
Nui works as a server at Fisherman’s Inn for dinners, but says she prefers working outside at the cart, where she can interact with an endless stream of lunch customers, who she says are less stuffy and lower-key than sometimes fussy dining room patrons.
“You meet the coolest people when you sit out here at lunchtime,” Johnson said. “You should hear the conversations that go on. The networking among hot dog cart customers is amazing, the kind of give-and-take conversations that don’t happen with people at an adjacent table in the restaurant.”
Johnson said he sees a surprising amount of professionally trained chefs veering toward less-complicated fare.
“I think they are escaping, in a way,” he said. “They are realizing that they are capable of making people good food without all the bells and whistles. You can make a hot dog special.”
Johnson does that by concocting his own assortment of relishes, including a Hawaiian relish that incorporates pineapple. He also makes a unique chili for his chili dogs.
“I wanted to have relishes that people couldn’t get anywhere else in the public domain,” he said. “But at the same time I wanted them to be identifiable. I’ve been experimenting with making my own hot dog and lobster roll buns, which I like to grill so they are crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. We’ve also been making our own potato chips, which despite the shorefront humidity, never get soggy because they sell out so quickly.”
Johnson’s assortment of hot dog choices include Maine’s iconic “red snappers,” red-colored dogs he stocks just for the locals.
“When we started this, I thought most of the business would involve tourists, people from away,” he said. “I had no idea how popular this would be with the locals.”
Being weather-dependent, Johnson said he expects the cart will remain in place into September.