The summer of 2016 was full of big changes for Hampden chef Elisabeth Dean.
In May, she took over ownership of downtown Bangor eatery Fork & Spoon from former owner Chris Roberts. Shortly after that, she began revamping the menu. Originally the menu was exclusively vegan and gluten-free, but Dean wanted to expand the offerings and began introducing traditional baked goods, dairy products and even meat. Later in the summer, she began a total overhaul of the interior, from seating arrangements to kitchen setup to wall art. It’s only now, in September, that Dean is starting to feel like things are a little less in flux.
For Dean, 49, the dream of owning a restaurant has always been in the back of her mind.
“People always told me, ‘You should open a restaurant!’ But it’s so scary to do that. You never know if it’ll actually work,” said Dean. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Before she got into the food world, Dean was a stay-at-home mom of two. Cooking had been her passion for as long as she can remember.
“I grew up in Sunnyside, California, near San Francisco, in the 1980s. There was food everywhere. It was the start of California cuisine — fusion-type stuff, lots of healthy food and different influences,” said Dean. “I’ve always loved that. I’ve always loved to cook.”
After living all over the country, she settled in Maine, first in Lincoln and then in Hampden, where she’s lived since 2004. As her kids entered high school, she felt the urge to try something new, and enrolled in Eastern Maine Community College’s culinary arts program. As part of her degree, she took on externships — first in 2014 at Primo, chef Melissa Kelly’s nationally acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant in Rockland, and then in 2015 at Erin French’s The Lost Kitchen, the locavore dining destination in Freedom, and at Bar Harbor Catering Company with chef Mandy Fountaine.
“I learned so, so much from them,” said Dean, who also operates Basil Creek Catering. “To work with such amazing female chefs was totally life-changing.”
A few months after completing her externships, Dean heard that Chris Roberts was putting Fork & Spoon — formerly known as The Juice Cellar — up for sale. She decided to make an offer on the business, and Roberts accepted.
For Roberts, it was time to move on.
“I was diagnosed with Lyme disease earlier in year after struggling with various symptoms for the year prior. It wasn’t allowing me to be physically able to do what I needed to do and I needed to have time to focus on my own health,” Roberts said. “I’m now following treatment for the disease and am about 80 percent of my ‘normal’ self.”
“I really, really liked what he had started,” said Dean. “It’s good, healthy food. It’s feel-good food, to me. But I decided I wasn’t going to maintain it as strictly vegan and gluten-free.”
Fresh-pressed juices and smoothies, made-to-order salads, daily soup specials and an array of sandwiches remain on the menu, along with a variety of animal product-free options like Chik’n, tempeh and jackfruit “pulled pork.” But now, that fare is joined by grilled chicken on salads, cheese on sandwiches and lots and lots of fresh-baked and glutenous pastries.
The baked goods come thanks to Dean’s new baker, Lee-Russel Dunn, who had a chance encounter with Dean just a few weeks after she purchased the business. Dunn had just moved to the Bangor area. He was looking to put his years of baking experience to use in Bangor. And the baker who previously worked at the James Beard Award-winning Fore Street and at Rosemont Bakery, both in Portland, was just what Dean wanted for Fork & Spoon.
“Lee and I just clicked right away. He had all this experience at two places I very much respect. And his stuff is just so delicious. We’re so lucky to have him,” said Dean.
Fork & Spoon patrons can now enjoy Dunn’s specialties like sweet potato biscuits, lemon-glazed shortbread, danishes, linzer bars and croissants made fresh daily, with or without fillings like ham and swiss, spinach and feta cheese, pepperoni, chocolate, almond or whatever else Dunn feels like making — if there are any left after 4 p.m., they are sold half price. He also bakes foccacia, ciabatta and fragrant loaves of white, wheat, sourdough and raisin bread.
Dean will soon offer more breakfast options, a selection of beer and wine and pop-up dinners in the restaurant on select evenings. She’s also working with the Maine Discovery Museum next door to offer food that families can enjoy together.
“We need to have things on the menu that kids like,” said Dean. “I know PB&J and grilled cheese aren’t the peak of cuisine, but if the kids have something they want, then mom and dad can come in and eat our delicious salads … and we have Morton’s Moo ice cream now, too.”
Visually, Fork & Spoon looks very different from how it was when Roberts owned it, including shifting the location of the front counter, removing the center console, and painting over the large, colorful mural Bangor artist Kat Johnson painted when it first opened. Dean said that was a decision she had made early on in the transition process.
“I knew I wanted to gut the space. I wanted to change the feng shui of it,” said Dean. “I know people were upset that we got rid of the mural, and that was a very hard decision to make, but it just spoke to me of a different restaurant. Not our restaurant. It was beautifully done, but we just wanted to do things differently. And we’re still going to feature local artists on the walls,” adding that Maine artist Peggy Clark Lumpkins will feature her paintings for the fall.
Dean calls Fork & Spoon a “quirky, conscious eatery” — quirky, because you never know what might come out of the kitchen, and conscious, because she and her staff are committed to offering ethically and locally sourced food.
“I love Bangor. I love the people, the streets, the feel of it,” said Dean. “I knew I didn’t want to be elsewhere in Maine. I wanted to be here, and I wanted to offer locally sourced food. I think there’s also a lot of room for growth in the food scene here. There’s room for experimentation … there’s room to try a lot of different things.”
Fork & Spoon is located at 76 Main St. in downtown Bangor. It is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays.