CAMDEN, Maine — Just north on Route 1, past Camden’s main stretch of shops and restaurants sits the Whitehall. Fronted in expansive windows, sprawling porches equipped with rocking chairs, and a crisp white hue, the inn evokes thoughts of 20th century grandeur — of what it originally meant to summer on the coast of Maine.
But tucked in the back of the renovated Whitehall lobby lies Pig + Poet, where chef Sam Talbot is cooking up something new on the midcoast dining scene — and it’s not just the food.
“I love Led Zeppelin, I love Jay-Z, I love Mick Jagger [playing] real loud … we’ve gotten asked to turn down the music a few times, but you know we like to turn down the lights, we like to make the vibe because anybody can eat mussels at home, anybody can eat a cowboy steak at home … but I think that when you come here, you’re kind of stepping into something that you haven’t necessarily seen in midcoast Maine,” Talbot said of Pig + Poet, which began dishing out its locally sourced menu last month.
What midcoast Maine perhaps hasn’t seen yet, according to Talbot, is his “fresh eye on the bounty.” Talbot’s inspiration for Pig + Poet comes completely from his own lifestyle and the ingredients that are in season locally. The combination of the two, he hopes, will produce a celebration of “modern-American-Maine food.”
“[Pig + Poet] is curated for you to come step into our lifestyle. This is how I live my life. I live my life on the healthier side, I also eat fried chicken. I like to be outdoors, [and] I really like succulents,” Talbot said. “Wherever I put a restaurant, it’s really about celebrating the demographic — what is from around there and how we can best utilize it and celebrate the people who are producing it.”
The restaurant is the result of a collaboration between Talbot and Lark Hotels, the boutique hospitality company that purchased the existing Whitehall Inn. The inn, which was established in 1901, was renovated by Lark Hotels over the past winter and restored to its original name, Whitehall.
Pig + Poet’s spacious dining room, open for dinner to hotel guests and the public six nights a week, fits the motif of the facelifted Whitehall interior, maintaining a balance of rustic wood and greenery with modern design accents. The floor plan of the Whitehall and Pig + Poet flow together as an open space, allowing diners to order drinks or appetizers from the restaurant and enjoy them outside on the front porch or by the patio’s firepits.
The grounds of the renovated Whitehall inspire the vibrant and youthful vision that Talbot sees for the future of the collaboration. “This porch right here, how great would it be if you were to drive down [Route 1] on Saturday afternoon in July and see a bunch of people hanging out throwing a frisbee or drinking one of our handcrafted cocktails. That doesn’t really happen in Camden yet, does it? No, but why?”
Talbot was a semifinalist on season two of Bravo’s “Top Chef” and has since had a hand in several successful restaurant ventures in and around New York City. While opening a restaurant in midcoast Maine seems like a rapid change of pace from the likes of these career milestones, Talbot, a native of North Carolina, feels at home in Camden, surrounded by two of his greatest passions — saltwater and an abundance of quality locally sourced ingredients.
“It’s really rad to me that I can go an hour and a half before service to go pick up my ground beef and bring it back in my car and that’s our burger. I love that,” he said. “I love that my fish tacos are local whiting that were swimming yesterday.”
According to Talbot, almost all of the components making up the menu at Pig + Poet are sourced locally. From Aldermere Farm in Camden, Beth’s Farm, Bowden Farm and Spear Farm in Warren, along with Lakin’s Gorges Cheese in Rockport, Talbot is able to procure the building-block ingredients that he then elevates into menu items such as his signature fried chicken with duck fat potatoes, or a cowboy steak served with crab croutons and japanese eggplant.
“Nothing makes me more happy than to serve that kind of food, when you can say local three times for one dish for [almost] 90 percent of your menu,” Talbot said.
If he considers “local” as the primary descriptor for Pig + Poet’s cuisine, “thoughtful” is a close second. While fried chicken and cowboy steak might not appear the healthiest of dinner options, as a Type 1 diabetic, Talbot uses “modern alternative twists,” such as using chickpea flour as a substitute for white flour or grapeseed oil as a substitute for canola oil, to keep his food fantasies within the limits of his own healthy lifestyle.
“I’m not cooking for a room full of diabetics. I’m cooking for a room full of people who expect good food … If you’re eating my fried chicken, it’s going to be the most thoughtful fried chicken,” Talbot said.
With a menu based around locally sourced ingredients, the ‘Pig’ of Pig + Poet is a nod to the artisanal elements of the cuisine that are derived from local farmers and purveyors. The ‘Poet’ is an homage to poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was discovered at the Whitehall in 1912. Millay later went on to become a progressive Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
Today, it appears that chef Talbot has some shaking up of his own to do from the birch-tree papered walls of Camden’s newest restaurant, located on the ground floor of one of Camden’s oldest hotels.