One part Julia Child, one part Anthony Bourdain with a dash of Frank Zappa, chef Kerry Altiero is the kind of guy you want to have a beer with. In his friendly, anything-goes Cafe Miranda, that beer is accompanied by a smorgasbord of fresh, playful entrees like fried tomatoes, honky tonk eggrolls and deconstructed nachos. He was nourishing people with farm-to-table cuisine “before it was the thing to do.” Altiero’s first cookbook “Adventures in Comfort Food” comes out this spring. We catch up with the two-time winner of Portland’s Harvest on the Harbor to share a meal, a laugh and talk shop.
Who: Kerry Altiero
Restaurants: Cafe Miranda in Rockland
His take: “We are a diner on acid.”
Memorable quote: “Everyone who works for me is a squirrel with a rock and roll heart.”
You’ve been cooking for 30 years, what do you think of the competitive food TV craze?
My first question is ‘Why don’t I have a TV show?’ I’ve been here in the state of Maine probably longer than most restaurants and restaurateurs. The Back Bay Grill and Street and Company might be two of the only other ones. Everyone around here has a James Beard nomination and for some reason we get passed over. I think it’s because it doesn’t look like we take ourselves seriously. Which is great, because we don’t.
So you don’t follow celebrity chefs or trends?
The ego on the plate and the fashion and trendiness that’s happened to food is similar to music and fashion. It takes it to another place. Now is that a good place? Not my call. I think they should have a competitive plumbing show.
You opened in downtown Rockland in 1993, long before it was cool and bought a building. Was that a gamble?
Yes. The common wisdom was you came to Rockland for a beer and a beating. It was a rough town, a lot of gangs.
Why did you take that gamble?
It was a curious combination of tenacity and ignorance. Ignorance to do it, tenacity to keep at it. This building was a gambling hall for 70 some odd years.
And you turned it into a farm-to-table restaurant augmented by your 17-acre farm in Owls Head. Have you always been ahead of the game?
It’s what we’ve always done. My Italian grandmother told me in the 80s “Kerry, this is nothing new, it’s just the way it used to be.” That’s what I was used to doing.
Did you learn from her?
Yes. She would go out with a weeding fork and we would walk down the sidewalk and she would dig out the dandelions to make dandelion salad. And I would ask her, ‘Grandma, why don’t you go over there to the other side of the street?’ And she would say, ‘That’s where the dogs go.’
That’s funny. What’s up with the flamingos all over the place?
I am big on camp and kitsch.
Is that reflected in your cooking?
We are totally serious about the food. We are not serious about ourselves. Also, we are playful. This isn’t life or death, it’s effing food really. The self-indulgent raging chef person, they don’t work here. I don’t understand how people in my trade find that acceptable.
Growing up in the coal mining area of Northeastern Pennsylvania, how did you find your way to chefdom? Who inspired you?
Julia baby, back in the day. There I was, I’m a 17-year-old vegetarian living in a cultural wasteland and I get those books. That was a window into a world I had no idea existed. A world of art and beauty of all these things. It transported me somewhere else. Then I was reading M.F.K Fisher’s “Consider the Oyster” and I was like, wow this is something I could be very good at maybe.
Thriving for two decades in a fickle industry, you clearly are. How has Cafe Miranda maintained its success?
A lot of my contemporaries are doing beautiful work that is more like chamber music. We are a three-piece rock band turned up to 11. It’s robust, not pretentious, accessible, big flavors, big textures and enough food because we feed you, not fool you.
Indeed, you specialize in massive portions. That sausage plate that just sailed by is $9?
We’ve always looked at being accessible to everyone and serve handmade food that you used to get at a diner. We try to keep it real. The elitism of food didn’t start today. They chopped Marie Antoinette’s head off for being a wiseass about food.
What’s your signature dish?
I don’t believe in that. How many times can you play Freebird and really mean it?
True, but is it hard for people to decide on your wide-ranging menu of Thai, Mexican, Asian, barbecue, Italian?
Why do we do a billion things on the menu? Because we can. It is part of our mission statement. But it’s not about just the plate that you get. We create an experience here. This is like going to the movies. For two hours you are not in your world. You’re in ours. Being a restaurateur is about the experience. It’s not just what comes through the window.
And you don’t have any windows. Your open kitchen dates back to 1993. That was very forward thinking.
We also have the oldest, continually operating wood-fired oven in the state. The guy who built mine built Sam Hayward’s like five years latter. This was the first one.
What’s going to be the culinary trend of the future?
Depends on how the economy goes. The food of the nation is a reflection of the administration. Look at the Clinton years. Great food, renaissance all that stuff … Then came the economic crash and everyone said “can I get some mashed potatoes and comfort food please? I need a burger.” What high-end restaurant had a burger and fries five years ago? Now everybody does.
With competition mounting in Maine how does a veteran like you stand out?
If you put your heart and soul into it, nobody can compete with you. People will get what we are up to, they get our integrity. It’s a relentless pursuit of excellence, not perfection. Perfection is an endgoal. There are no end goals in love and life and work.