As a child, she lived all over the world. And as an adult, she spent three decades cooking in kitchens, including opening two restaurants in New York City. And somewhere, along the way, she gave birth to her son. Now Chef Sara Jenkins has finally come back to her birthplace.
Jenkins, who last June opened her third restaurant, Nina June, in Rockport, was born in Camden. But she didn’t live there long — mere weeks after she was born, her family moved to Italy. Nevertheless, by old-fashioned Maine standards, she’s a Mainer.
“Brian Hill [from Francine Bistro in Camden] and I always joke, because he moved here when he was seven and has lived here forever, but I was born here and then moved away right afterwards, so I always joke with him that he’s ‘from away’,” said Jenkins.
Nina June is the result, and perhaps fulfillment, of a longtime plan by Jenkins to someday move back to Maine. Before opening it, she operated two restaurants in New York. Now-closed Porchetta was a food stall where she served sandwiches packed with porchetta, the succulent, Italian-style roast pork. Porsena, which is still open, is an intimate Italian trattoria that opened in 2011 to rave reviews.
Over the years, the cutthroat NYC food world grew to have less and less appeal for Jenkins. Maine’s burgeoning farm and artisan food scene, however, did; Jenkins spent much of her childhood on her family’s small farm in Tuscany, as well as many summers in Maine.
Plus, the space at 24 Central St. in Rockport — a spacious, airy dining room with an open kitchen and a back deck overlooking picturesque Rockport harbor — had become available after former tenants Saltwater Farm Cafe closed in Fall 2015. Over the winter of 2016, Jenkins packed up and moved to Maine.
“I’ve spent the past 17 years in New York, and I love it there, but we’d always come up here in the summer. Eventually I knew that I wanted to be up here. I have a kid. It’s a better pace of life,” said Jenkins. “I still go back and forth to New York quite a bit. I still have a restaurant there. I worried that I would miss city life, but I don’t miss anything. Not a thing.”
Jenkins’ love affair with food began early. She lived with her family in both Tuscany and Rome for most of her first 15 years. They also had stints in Spain, Lebanon, France and Hong Kong. Her father is journalist Loren Jenkins, a former foreign correspondent for Newsweek, the Washington Post and National Public Radio; her mother is Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a Camden native and James Beard Award-winning food writer, with whom Sara authored a cookbook, “The Four Seasons of Pasta.”
As a child and young teenager she was exposed to the foodways of countless cultures; from the small, intensely flavored mezze plates of the Near East, to the endless array of aromatic, powerfully flavored street foods of Hong Kong, to the hyperlocal, deceptively simple, storied cuisine of Tuscany — the latter of which is the food of her heart to this day.
“It’s the food I know in my soul,” she said. “It’s all about respect for the ingredients.”
At age 15, Jenkins moved back to the U.S. to attend Gould Academy in Bethel. Despite having been exposed to a wild array of flavors and textures up to that point, Jenkins says Gould Academy was where she learned to cook.
“I grew up eating in Italy. I was kind of horrified at the food they had at school,” said Jenkins. “You couldn’t even buy olive oil back then. There was nothing I recognized. I had to learn how to cook on my own. I was forced to recreate the food I grew up eating.”
Though she didn’t initially intend to become a chef — Jenkins got a degree in photography from Rhode Island School of Design — cooking ended up finding her, first in jobs in restaurants around Boston, including stints working under chefs such as Todd English and Barbara Lynch; then back in Italy, and then, finally, in New York.
It was in New York that she became known for her Italian cooking, distinctly influenced by the rustic, farm fresh cuisine of Tuscany, where it’s not the technique of the chef that matters so much as the innate understanding of the ingredients themselves.
Nevertheless, at Nina June, Italian cuisine is not always the star of the show, though house-made pasta and various risotto dishes are almost always on the menu. The guiding principle to Jenkins’ food at her Rockport restaurant is fresh, seasonal and local. Dishes from various regional cuisines rotate in and out — some days, Spanish, Turkish or Lebanese dishes may appear on the menu. There’s also some incredibly simple menu items, like a grilled skirt steak over mashed potatoes, or a simple salad of local greens.
“I don’t want to be completely chained to Italian food. I really love all of the Mediterranean,” said Jenkins. “But that is my reputation. Really, I just make whatever I want, and call it whatever I want. One of the reasons I wanted to come up here was I was just so jazzed about what’s going on as far as the produce, the cheese making, the bread making, the fisheries, all this groovy stuff.”
A recent March menu featured fresh Maine smelts, cooked in brown butter with lemon, capers and pancetta and served with grilled, house-made bread; Maine-caught hake cooked in Yemeni green sauce (a kind of spicy, Middle Eastern pesto) served with fennel and arugula; and lamb, served many different ways — braised in wine, osso bucco style, in meatballs, on and on. It’s a seasonal, often very simple menu.
“In New York, everyone is constantly focused on what’s new, what’s new, what’s new… here, people are creatures of habit. They go to their place. You really have to convince people to come. But once they come, they stay,” said Jenkins. “Tuscans are known as bean-eaters, and they are known as incredibly frugal. That can apply to people around here… They aren’t running around trying to find what’s new and what’s hot. They like what they’ve already got.”
Though it’s a stretch to say there’s much similarity between coastal Maine and Tuscany, there is one important parallel: the idea that eating local, and taking pleasure in simple things such as farm fresh vegetables, is just something that you do.
“I think a lot of the older generation here just always had gardens. Part of that is just Yankee frugality, but you can’t have a garden and raise chickens and not know how much better that tastes,” said Jenkins. “Some of my childhood memories of coming up here are of eating asparagus out of my grandfather’s garden. Eating romaine lettuce with white vinegar and sugar. That exists here. That pleasure in something unique and fleeting, and how to enjoy it.”