PORTLAND, Maine — When Scales opened on the Maine Wharf in March, there was substantial buzz in the foodie community. But amid the barrage of tweets, Instagram images and shoutouts to co-owner Sam Hayward, the actual chef cranking out the lobster dishes was largely invisible.
When you meet Scales executive chef Mike Smith, it’s hard to imagine how that could be. His large frame, confident manner and bright tattoos don’t exactly say shrinking violet. Overseeing this large, multiplex kitchen that serves 145 in the winter and 200 in the summer, demands acute presence of mind and skill to navigate the flow.
“You are an air traffic controller is basically what you are. You have to be able to think very quickly,” said Smith.
The 32-year-old Old Orchard Beach native is no stranger to seafood, restaurant life or hard work. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, worked in Boston and Napa Valley, yet his path to the helm of this kitchen began earlier, and closer to home.
At 14 he was hired as a dishwasher at Joseph’s By the Sea in Old Orchard Beach. “At first I hated it. Standing up, getting dirty, getting wet. But you get acclimated to what’s going on,” he said. “I learned to love it.”
For the next few summers, till he was 17, he returned and quickly graduated from dishwasher to top spots in the kitchen. “I always loved food and that was the fancy place we would go to as a family,” he said.
Now Smith is in charge of Portland’s newest fancy dining place located in the tourist hub where hordes will descend this summer. Owned by Dana Street, who also owns Portland’s Mediterranean seafood restaurant Street and Co., and Sam Hayward, the James Beard winning chef behind Fore Street, Scales’ reputation precedes it.
“I was humbled to sit in a room with Sam Hayward and Dana Street. Growing up in Maine, Fore Street is the quintessential Maine restaurant,” said Smith, who interviewed for the job in August and was hired in October.
The menu at Scales, which features a raw bar, seafood, chowders, stews and steak, is Smith’s creation. “Sam Hayward gave me a base menu and I went from there. I knew we had to have a lobster roll [and] had to have fried clams,” he said. But Smith, who worked for six and a half years for celebrity chef Ken Oringer at Boston hot spot Toro, was eager to add his stamp.
“People come to Maine and expect lobster and clams. But places like Central Provisions are taking it in a new direction. I’m trying to do both of those things at the same time,” said Smith. “Yeah, we have lobsters, we have steamers, but we also have these other things that aren’t New England classics that we would like you to try,” Smith said.
Fried squid with cherry peppers, salt and pepper fried sunchokes and a new take on fish stew are chief among them. Fried po boy sandwiches and soft shell crabs — “things that we get excited about” — are in the works.
Street, a Massachusetts native who envisioned a cross between Durgin Park and the Union Oyster House for his new venture, is intent to “keep what’s classic, classic.” That means lobster rolls are not sporting the trendiest ingredient, but are tweaked for today’s sophisticated dinner.
“He adds a riff, as in jazz, [to classic New England fare],” said Street, who is also a partner in Portland’s Standard Baking Co. No surprise that Scales’ pastry department is full fledged.
The lobster roll starts with housemade buns. “We cut and griddle the buns, cook lobster meat in a combi oven, which doesn’t overcook lobster,” Smith explains. “We cook the claws and tails separately. All the moisture goes back into the lobster. We heat it up in melted butter that’s been emulsified. It’s delicious.”
Smith’s fish and shellfish stew is a departure from the traditional clam chowder his mother made with leftover steamers from family clambakes. “We use fresh squid that has not been frozen (it still has the ink sack in it), clams and mussels and tomato fennel broth,” he said. “It’s based on cioppino or bouillabaisse. We add chili butter and serve it with grilled bread. It’s fresh and kind of spicy, it’s all about the flavor you get out of the seafood. It’s served in a big awesome cast iron pan.”
Moving back to Portland in 2014, Smith worked at Duckfat in the front of the house, but soon missed the creativity of cooking for an audience. In Scales’ huge, shiny new kitchen, he’s back where he belongs.
Hayward is impressed with Smith’s “raw talent,” drive and poise under fire. “We think a lot alike. We talk the same way about food,” said Hayward.
“With his strength of personality and skill, I’m surprised how young he is in both his breadth and depth of knowledge,” said Hayward. “We are happy to have him on board.”
Although this top post would seem like a dream job for a kid from Old Orchard Beach, his real dream is to run his own place. “You can’t keep a guy like that down,” said Hayward.
To be sure, overseeing a powerhouse, marque spot open seven days a week on the water is high pressure. Smith, who is quick with a smile and keeps a jug of iced coffee by his side, was cut out for this role.
“I am very humbled to be able to do this job,” he said. “To be back home, it’s a labor of love.”