In late January, Melody Wolfertz, owner and chef of Rockland restaurant In Good Company, was scratching her head. She was trying to plan a dinner menu themed to the cuisine of Greenland and was dismayed to discover that there’s no place to acquire rancid shark or reindeer meat in Maine.
“Surprise — there’s no place to get seal meat around here,” Wolfertz said. “I couldn’t even get Arctic char, because it’s out of season right now. I spent hours researching recipes. I had no idea what was going to happen. … Amazingly, it turned out really good.”
Wolfertz’s Greenlandic menu of pancakes with lumpfish caviar, pickled salmon and onions, venison suaasat (a traditional Greenlandic stew) and cod in egg sauce was a surprise hit with customers. But then again, longtime diners at her tiny, cozy Rockland restaurant have come to expect the unexpected during the winter and spring months.
For nearly 10 years, In Good Company has hosted Food Journeys, a series of dinners themed to a different cuisine, historical period or special event each week from late January until April or May. Wolfertz, an endlessly curious, often fearless chef, launched this year’s series on Jan. 26 with Greenland and continued on to Finland on Feb. 2. After a brief break, the series will return on Feb. 23, when it travels to Gaza, followed by Greece on March 2, and onward across the world from there. It ends on May 25 in Sardinia.
“We choose the locations, and then we plan the menus. We don’t try anything out beforehand. We just jump right in and see if it works,” Wolfertz said. “It’s always a challenge. I’m out of my comfort zone a lot. But I like that.”
Wolfertz was born in Rockland and from the time she was a teenager knew she wanted to be a chef. She attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York and for more than a decade cooked in restaurants and hotels in Texas and Colorado. In 2000, she moved back to Maine to be closer to family and take a break from the restaurant industry. She first lived in Freeport before moving back to Rockland, where she was manager for several years at The Wine Seller, a longtime midcoast wine shop which she co-owns.
Wolfertz couldn’t resist the lure of the kitchen, however, and the idea of opening a restaurant was on her mind not long after moving back to Maine. One day in 2003, while walking down Main Street in Rockland, she noticed a “For Rent” sign on the front of a former flower shop at 415 Main St. that was going out of business and poked her head in to take a look. She saw the space’s ornate plaster ceiling and old bank vaults in the back and immediately had a vision of what a restaurant in the space would look like.
“I never really noticed the shop, but I looked inside and I saw that ceiling, and then I could just see the rest of it,” Wolfertz said. “I was getting bored. I love The Wine Seller, and I’m still a part owner, but I just missed being in the kitchen.”
In Good Company opened in 2004 and has since become a stalwart of the Midcoast dining scene. As other restaurants have come and gone around Rockland, Wolfertz’s intimate, creative eatery has maintained a devoted clientele and a commitment to local ingredients and a dynamic, ever-changing menu. Though it’s never the same week to week, diners can expect small and large plates, often with a Mediterranean flair, featuring Maine seafood and beef, an array of cheeses, charcuterie, olives and nuts, house-made bread and local produce.
Although it’s the food that brings people to her restaurant, Wolfertz believes it’s the attitude and atmosphere that keeps them coming back.
“I don’t like to feel like I’m in a rush when I go out to dinner. I want to take my time and enjoy myself and talk to who I’m with,” Wolfertz said. “You can come in and spent five bucks or 100 bucks. You can relax. That’s the goal.”
After four years in business, in 2008 Wolfertz began hosting Food Journeys. She had experience doing international menus — she cooked a cuisine-hopping chef’s table dinner each week at a restaurant in Dallas. And Wolfertz, ever the culinary explorer, has an extensive collection of cookbooks spanning a vast array of cuisines and approaches. She draws from those books every week when putting together her Food Journeys menus.
“In the beginning this series was a lot more broad,” she said. “We’d do Spain or Thailand. Now we’re really regional. Now we’re doing specific places, like a specific part of Thailand or a tour of American barbecue styles. … The more I do it, the more I have to explore. We never repeat ourselves. Do you know how much food is in the world? It’s crazy.”
In more recent years, Wolfertz has expanded beyond cuisines tied to regions or countries and has begun exploring historical eras of food or culinary traditions tied to specific events. She did a Kentucky Derby-themed dinner one year, and last year she offered a menu featuring dishes from “The Epicurean,” the landmark 1894 cookbook illustrating what fine dining was like at the end of the 19th century.
The most challenging dinner so far? The dumpling dinner, when Wolfertz and her staff spent hours upon hours wrapping countless dumplings and then cooking them in their tiny kitchen. A personal triumph for Wolfertz was a Moroccan dinner a few years ago, inspired by a cookbook by Michelin-starred chef Mourad Lahlou. She wanted to do Uzbekistan last year but worried it might be a bit too out there for her customers — only to read a New York Times story praising a newly opened Uzbek restaurant in Brooklyn.
“I was so mad! I have an Uzbek cookbook. I could have done it,” Wolfertz said. “I can never stop exploring. That’s the fun of it for me. I never get tired of it.”
Though Greenland and Uzbekistan might seem unusual to the average Mainer, in Wolfertz’s eyes, all world cuisines have their own unique ingredients, cooking styles and history.
“Everything’s a little unusual in some ways,” she said. “And every place has its own regional cuisines and even city cuisines. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of things to try.”
In Good Company is open from 4:30 to 9 p.m., seven days per week. To make a reservation, call 207-593-9110.