September 24, 2017
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A day in the life of a popover chef at the Jordan Pond House

By Alex Acquisto, BDN Staff
Updated:

The eggs are the not-so-secret ingredient. They make Jordan Pond House’s famous popovers live up to their name: The eggy batter gives them the fluff that causes them to literally pop over lopsided as they bake. So, eggs — dozens and dozens and dozen of eggs — have to be broken every day if the waves of hungry tourists are to be fed.

To spotlight the vital but often little-noticed seasonal work that revs up the midcoast in summertime, my colleague Nick McCrea and I are taking turns at trying our hands at mucky, sweaty or simply odd jobs for a day.

That’s why on a recent morning I found myself sticky with dried egg yolk in the restaurant’s hot kitchen and using both hands to hurriedly crack hundreds of eggs into a 10-gallon bucket. I pride myself on knowing my way around kitchens, but I kept accidentally crushing eggs, dropping pieces of shell into the bucket and cursing myself.

I wiped my forehead with my forearm, my gloved hands dripping with yolk.

The kitchen was loud, alive with cooks and waitresses, familiar, unlike me, with how to move gracefully around each other. I felt in the way, nervous that my clumsiness would keep diners from having fresh popovers waiting for them when the restaurant opened in less than an hour.

I had already learned that the key to the perfect popover hinges on time — sufficient time for the dough to rest once the ingredients have been mixed, just enough time in the oven so the pastries neither collapse or become too crisp and not too much time in the warmer after coming out of the over. If popovers linger too long in the warmer, they wilt and have to be discarded.

Ray Graybeal, this summer’s only full-time popover chef at the Jordan Pond House, which is in Acadia National Park, explained the delicacies of popover timing to me as I joined him as his sous chef. I wanted a taste for what it is like to toil over the popular pastries from start to finish.

Graybeal cracks 1,500 eggs a day and bakes 4,000 to 6,000 popovers. Sometimes, that’s not enough. When the warmers are empty and the tables are full of guests wanting popovers, a bite-sized crisis ensues, what Graybeal calls a “popover wait.”

Popovers, cooked in special muffin pans, are a cross between a croissant and a souffle. Each popover looks a bit different, but they’re all alike in their mishapenness. They are hollow but look dense. A perfect popover is golden brown, its crust taut and flakey and, most importantly, chewy with the faintest touch of crispiness. A popover should be eaten warm, slathered with butter and strawberry jam.

The Jordan Pond House, which has a large outdoor seating area, sits on a lawn overlooking Jordan Pond and the rolling mountains of Acadia. Popovers, which are the restaurant’s most famous offering, have been served there for 130 years.

The baker

I met Graybeal around 9 a.m. in the kitchen to mix our first batch. Graybeal, 32, like many of the more than 100 seasonal employees at the restaurant, is not from Maine. A native of Winslow, Arizona, Graybeal regularly travels for seasonal work and has spent summers in restaurants in Grand Canyon National Park and Glacier National Park.

Graybeal is new to Jordan Pond House, which opened for the season May 18 and will close in late October.

While we got ready, other kitchen staff completed other food prep work. Outside, chairs were being unstacked and tables set.

Sporting the informal uniform — a backward Jordan Pond baseball cap, an apron and closed toed shoes — I poured flour, salt, milk and baking soda into a large bucket of cracked eggs. Then, I blended the ingredients with an extra large, hand-powered mixer.

The objective, Graybeal instructed, is to mix the batter just enough so that there are still visible patches of flour. This aids the fermentation process and helps give the popovers the proper texture. We then put the mix into the walk-in refrigerator, where it would sit for 48 hours.

Out of the fridge came already fermented bins of batter. Double fisting bottles of Pam, I drenched every other muffin hole with the greasy spray. We then filled only those holes, giving the mixture room to pop up and spread out when baking — first at 415 degrees and then at 350 degrees in a convection oven for a total of 26 minutes.

We loaded all four ovens. It was nearing 10:30 a.m., and we needed to keep working quickly. Graybeal moved fluidly—transferring hot popovers to the warmers, re-buttering pans, refilling pans.

About 500 popovers a day end up as discards, eaten by pigs at a nearby farm.

Working in a kitchen is “not for the faint of heart,” Graybeal said, a point echoed by General Manager Ed Noonan.

“We want to hire locals, but it’s a very busy island, and there are more jobs than people,” Noonan said. This year his staff includes about 20 locals and nearly twice as many foreigners here on J-1 student visas.

Travelers come from around the world to spend time in what, at least for the summer, is the Jordan Pond House staff’s’ backyard.

Graybeal appreciates the location. Looking out over Jordan Pond, he said that working in a city kitchen job, “You wouldn’t have a view like this.”.

 


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