YARMOUTH, Maine — Chef Nick Krunkkala lay in bed last Friday night, well after midnight, wide awake. He couldn’t stop thinking about his menu.
“My mind is constantly racing,” he said. “I was just thinking up specials to run [the] next weekend.”
So goes the life of a fledgling restaurateur.
Krunkkala, 32, opened his first restaurant, Oscar’s New American, late last month on Route 1 in the space previously occupied by Sea Grass Cafe. He hopes to continue Sea Grass’ tradition, while serving patrons his own brand of Southern and Spanish flavors and small plates.
“My goal is to provide the most unique dining experience in the area,” he said.
Before he was a chef, Krunkkala was an athlete. The Cape Elizabeth native attended the New York Institute of Technology to play lacrosse. When he realized he wasn’t going to make it as a professional athlete, he struggled to find a career, working construction and odd jobs without much success. Cooking, however, had always been a hobby.
“I was always watching ‘SportsCenter’ or the Food Network,” Krunkkala said. “I was reading Inside Lacrosse or Food & Wine magazine. I basically lived in a frat house in New York for six years, and when I’d cook meals for my friends, they’d say, ‘Dude, you should think about doing this professionally.’”
Krunkkala enrolled in a nine-month program at the Culinary Academy of Long Island in Syosset, N.Y., and started working as a sous chef. He got his break in 2011, when he took a job in Rockland as the chef at Rock City Cafe, a coffee shop that wanted to expand its menu to include dinner service. Eight months later, he helped open the Fog Bar & Cafe, where he worked as executive chef and served upscale bar food such as nachos topped with duck meat.
When chef Stephanie Brown closed Sea Grass in April to go to the Woodlands Club in Falmouth, Krunkkala jumped at the opportunity to open his own restaurant.
“I had been trying to get back to the Greater Portland area for seven or eight years,” he said. “When the opportunity came to buy this space, I couldn’t pass it up. There are so many restaurants in Portland, you can get lost. So I figured I’d make a name for myself out here.”
Sea Grass regulars will notice the space hasn’t changed much, aside from new artwork on the walls. But Krunkkala said he aims to make his mark by offering dishes diners can’t find at other area restaurants. His homemade ice creams include strawberry balsamic and vanilla black pepper. He also offers an assortment of popcorns as appetizers.
“It’s not your typical popcorn you get at the movie theater,” he said. “My favorite one has cheddar powder and hot pepper oil with smoked paprika.”
Krunkkala’s signature menu items include pepper-crusted scallops, served with a maple bacon creamed corn; sherry glazed ribs, with patatas bravas, and lobster sliders with smoked tomato aioli on buttered brioche buns.
Krunkkala gets much of his food from Morning Dew Farm in Newcastle and Harbor Fish Market in Portland. He says in a foodie community, the farm-to-table approach is more of a necessity than a selling point.
“It’s important to know where your food is coming from and to help the local economy,” he said. “It’s a lot better than getting food that’s mass produced in the Midwest or South America.”
Oscar’s, which draws its moniker from Krunkkala’s middle name, seats 40 people and an additional 12 at the bar. Krunkkala employs six front-of-house staffers as well as a sous chef, pastry chef and dish washer. Everyone on the staff helps out with babysitting his 4-month-old daughter, Kadence, who spends her evenings at the restaurant.
There have been challenges in Oscar’s early stages, including an oven and refrigerator that have gone on the fritz. And unlike downtown Rockland, Krunkkala doesn’t have the benefit of foot traffic to help fill tables.
Mainly, though, the young chef and owner said he has been amazed at how smooth the opening has gone. And between his daughter and his cooking, he doesn’t have time to worry about all the obstacles that can face a new restaurant.
He’s too busy coming up with next week’s specials.