CAMDEN, Maine — It takes some grit and knowhow to follow in the footsteps of the sexiest chef alive. But Dirk Yeaton, a compact culinary powerhouse who trained in the Army, is meeting and exceeding that challenge at the Pig + Poet.
“I don’t want to serve a meal where I have a certain number of perfectly configured dots in a constellation around a plate with a flower petal and half a quail egg,” said the new chef at Whitehall’s flagship restaurant. “I want you to look at a plate and say, ‘Jesus, that’s beautiful,’ take a bite and say, ‘Aw, man, that’s so good. My mouth is doing a happy dance.’”
Settling into the executive chef position at the 1-year-old seasonal restaurant Pig + Poet at Whitehall, Yeaton has one thing on his mind: flavor.
“Taste my food, it speaks for itself,” he said.
The veteran chef trained with Sam Talbot, who launched the restaurant, in New York this spring.
In May, Talbot announced he wasn’t returning to the Camden hotspot. But the sizzle hasn’t left the pan, and Yeaton is winning fans fast.
“Guests are saying the food is better this year,” said Barry Hunter, general manager of the modernized 1901 inn. “Our chef has an amazing palate.”
With history permeating the rebuffed woodwork, the inn that launched poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s career and was featured in “Peyton Place” doesn’t have to offer this level of cuisine to attract crowds. But the euphoric mood of locals and vacationers gathered under the Edison chandeliers last week are glad it does.
“The food is more accessible and people are happy. That’s what’s going on,” said Hunter.
Yeaton who last cooked at the Adair Country Inn in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and who was the grill sergeant for Murphy-Goode winery in California, is no stranger to Maine. Years ago he owned the now-defunct Blue House Cafe in Portland, Hogzilla Catering and cooked at The Portland Club.
Moving on to create food and wine pairings for Kendall-Jackson refined his playbook.
“I believe in enhancing flavor through simplicity,” said Yeaton, “but we reserve the right to shake it up a bit.”
The Pig + Poet’s menu has been revamped snout to tail. Yeaton brought a smoker with him and on a recent morning positioned legs of lamb on the grill. As the meat, which will be braised and tucked into a handpie with spicy tzatziki and cucumbers, slow cooked, he surveyed a tray of pig ears, a new hot bar snack.
While the past regime was known for fried chicken, Yeaton’s entree, served with smashed fingerling potatoes, smoked collard greens, a black-eyed pea puree and hot sauce is a nuanced shift.
“I don’t walk in anyone’s shadow,” said Yeaton.
Though his motto is keep it simple, there is nothing simple about the flavor explosion in his summery dishes such as compressed watermelon salad. Served with a citrus avocado puree, strawberries and basil on fresh greens and perked with raspberry balsamic, it’s like a one-stop trip to a farmers market via fork.
Pan-seared halibut paired with with sunchoke-creamed basmati rice with citrus-infused beets, is an example of his “farm fresh without being precious,” style. Nothing effete.
Citrus, which the chef uses liberally to coax out flavor from fish and local vegetables, is one secret weapon in his changing menu. Another is his secret chili dust. That’s sprinkled on barbecued oysters, served with lobster butter from the raw bar.
He doesn’t come with handlers, a cookbook, a gazillion Twitter followers or a Food Network buzz, but Yeaton delivers the goods.