BELFAST, Maine — Delicious smells waft from the kitchen, last-minute details are managed and an endless parade of people pop through the front door to ask for a moment of Matthew Kenney’s time.
The day before the Searsport native’s buzzy new restaurant The Gothic opened last week, the swirl of activity seemed overwhelming. Kenney took it all in stride.
The 49-year-old has made a name for himself as a pre-eminent raw food chef with an international following and restaurants in cities including Santa Monica, Calif., and Miami.
He’s now adding Belfast to the mix.
Located in its atmospheric brick building on the corner of Main and Beaver streets, The Gothic will not serve just raw or vegan food to Mainers accustomed to meat, seafood and, well, heat. But the idea that food should be healthful, delicious and nourishing is one element from his far-flung, complex business empire that Kenney brings to the midcoast.
“We don’t want this to just be for gourmands,” he said from a table in the simple, classic dining room with polished wooden tables and shiny wooden floors. “We want health food for everybody. We’re creating food that is cooked, but clean, fresh and vibrant.”
The new restaurant fills the space left vacant by the abrupt closure earlier this spring of the well-regarded restaurant The Lost Kitchen. Kenney, who has owned property across the street for a couple of years, said that although he hadn’t planned to open a restaurant in Belfast, he found it hard to resist the landmark brick flatiron building that long has been known as the Gothic.
It was built in 1878, and after being used as the home of a local weekly newspaper for years, it was bought and turned into a cafe and architectural antique shop in the 1990s.
“I love it here. I prefer it here. But business is elsewhere,” he said.
His company, Matthew Kenney Cuisine, incorporates restaurants, juice bars, cookbooks, lifestyle iPad apps and cooking schools that attract students from all over the world who want to know how to make his blend of creative, flavorful and healthful food. Private chefs who train at his schools cook for high-profile clients including professional athletes, he said.
“Everything starts with the food,” he said. “We write these books, do research and test. We take high-quality ingredients, and with advanced techniques and creativity, we try to redefine food — cleaner, lighter, better for the body but still full-flavored.”
Kenney’s first memory of Belfast is dining at a local pizzeria as a child. Delicious then, it likely wouldn’t fit with his food philosophy now, he reflected with a smile. The 1983 Searsport District High School graduate, an avid hunter, fisher and outdoorsman while growing up, took an unexpected career turn when he moved to New York City after college before going to law school.
“I just fell in love with restaurants,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
He worked as a server, dishwasher, line cook and every other restaurant job before graduating from The French Culinary Institute. After working in upscale New York restaurants, according to his website, he opened a number of well-regarded restaurants such as M.A.K.E. in Santa Monica, Calif.
Kenney has been named one of America’s Best New Chefs by Food and Wine Magazine and was twice nominated as a Rising Star Chef in America by the James Beard Foundation. Along the way, he adopted a plant-based lifestyle and realized that he could help others love it too.
“I thought if somebody could prepare this food in a way that was beautiful and flavorful, it could be the food of the future,” Kenney said.
Belfast had been the place he came to write, regroup and work on recipes in a test kitchen. The city had a vibrant food scene when he bought the former Logos building, a three-story downtown brick building that had been a law firm and a restaurant.
“All the farms around here, the farmers’ market, Chase’s Daily, the best co-op in Maine, in my opinion, good wine shops in Blue Hill and Rockport; it’s evolved, for sure,” he said.
He said he’s looking forward to bringing his take on fresh, seasonal food to the Maine coast along with a team that includes head chef Jason Paul of Los Angeles and general manager Simone Powers of San Francisco. Both have have worked with Kenney in the past.
A crew was busy painting, planting, rebuilding the kitchen, finding new furnishings and a new style for the restaurant.
“We’ve done quite a bit of work,” Kenney said, declining to give a dollar figure.
The 40-seat restaurant will be open seven days a week year round, closing only for major holidays, he said. Diners can choose from a bar menu or the changing three-course menus categorized as from the land, the sea or the soil. Sample selections include asparagus with truffle, quail egg, lemon and yogurt and lobster with nettle gnocchi and summer squash.
Prices will range from $26 for the three-course menu to $60 for more elaborate offerings, he said. On Sunday night, the $36 “from the land” menu featured sweet pea risotto, with vegetables and carrot jus, organic chicken with rhubarb, chard and maple and smoked chocolate pudding with maple, almonds and orange.
Kenney may open another restaurant in Maine in a yet-to-be disclosed location. But for now, Belfast is his focus.
“It’s still an idea,” he said.