Everybody knows that Maine has a lot going for it, especially when it comes to what’s for dinner.
There’s the agricultural renaissance, the burgeoning farm-to-table movement and the willingness of farmers to grow all kinds of interesting produce.
One thing that Maine can’t boast about, though, is the length of its growing season.
With frosts possible even in the months of May and September, and basically guaranteed during our long, frigid winters, restaurateurs who want to serve locally-sourced produce all year long have a big challenge ahead of them.
But it’s a challenge that the team at the helm of Novio’s Bistro in Bangor believes they can handle, with a unique plan to make an end-run around the cold, hard reality of Maine weather.
This winter, Novio’s owner Bob Cutler and Chef Dustin Cyr are busy constructing a 1,500-square-foot greenhouse near Cyr’s home in Hermon. In the greenhouse, which will be heated with an oil-burning furnace, they hope to grow 80 percent of the produce they serve at the restaurant within eight months. It’s an ambitious plan, but both achievable and worthwhile, they said.
“If you believe like I do, and like Dustin does, in cooking with the best possible ingredients, it’s a no-brainer,” Cutler said. “And if you believe the extreme weather patterns will continue, as Dustin and I both do, you want to have more control [over the produce supply.]”
Both Cutler and Cyr have a lot of experience in the restaurant industry. Prior to opening Novio’s in the fall of 2016, Cutler owned The Family Dog in Orono and two food trucks in the Bangor area (he has since sold those in order to concentrate on the Bangor bistro). And Cyr has plied his craft at many Bangor restaurants for more than a decade, including a long stint behind the stove at the acclaimed Fiddlehead Restaurant. Farming, though, is fairly new to both of them.
“I started last year,” Cyr said.
After a friend of his got him interested in growing super hot chili peppers, Cyr converted his laundry room into a grow room, and found success with his 100 or so plants.
“That was my crash course,” he said. “I don’t do anything small … and it got me thinking.”
He thought about ways to make sure that he could get the freshest, most delicious produce possible. And he thought about growing exactly what he wanted for his menus, researching how to use the greenhouse to make that happen. Although Novio’s has been transitioning to sourcing more produce locally, that has not always been easy, Cyr said. Growing his own just made sense to him, and he had an idea of how to scale up to grow enough to supply the small restaurant, which serves an average of 230 diners a week. To grow his super hot peppers, he dabbled in hydroponics, the technique of growing plants without soil. Instead of planting them in dirt, they grew in water with the help of mineral nutrient solutions. In the greenhouse, he plans to use a hydroponic system to grow vegetables including tomatoes and lettuces.
“Hydroponics is really interesting to me,” Cyr said. “Plants will be pest-free, disease-free. They’re clean [because they’re not grown in dirt] and you get more plants per square foot.”
He also is working on a design for a raised-bed system for plants such as beets and radishes that will be grown in soil.
Once the greenhouse is up, Cyr will get the chance to try out a much larger hydroponic system than the one in his laundry room and with special supplemental lighting that will let the plants thrive even in the short, dark days of December and January. He’s already started a batch of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants and bell peppers in his house that he would like to move into more spacious quarters as soon as possible. He knows he is not as experienced as a farmer would be, but believes he can figure out the learning curve to make the project an eventual success.
“It’ll be a little experimental,” at first, he said.
That’s OK with Cutler, who is 100 percent in support of the venture.
“In my mind, I think we’re going to have some mistakes,” the Novios owner said. “We’ll probably grow too much of something and too little of something else. But if you don’t take risks, you’re never going to get better.”
Cutler said it’s likely the greenhouse will never be able to grow sufficient quantities of some vegetables such as garlic, potatoes, onions and mushrooms. But it is exciting to him to think about having spinach, microgreens, unusual varieties of kale, eggplant and more, freshly picked at the height of ripeness, even in the wintertime.
“We want to be different, and we want to challenge ourselves,” he said.
Cyr is looking forward to having all that bounty close at hand, and turning it into delicious dishes to serve his customers.
“To me, it’s my ultimate opportunity as a chef,” he said.
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