STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — Settling in to a table in the enclosed sun porch of The Hichborn with a cup of fragrant tea and a plate of lavender biscotti close at hand, restaurateurs Kirk Linder and Charlie Zorich are happy to talk about their journey from Oregon to the coast of Maine.
Like all the best stories, it is about much more than simply getting from point A to point B. For Linder, 48, and Zorich, 43, their tale began with a search for a simpler life, and ended when they fell in love with a house, a community and the small family farms that dot the fertile fields of Waldo County. A few weeks ago, the couple opened their 24-seat, modern farm-to-table restaurant in a historical, Italianate home that was built in 1849 by shipbuilder Nathan G. Hichborn.
Now, diners can linger over meals carefully prepared by Zorich and served in the lovingly restored home, and if they think that there’s something special about the experience, well, they are not alone.
“Every day we wake up and think, we live here. We’re living in a dream,” Zorich said. “We’re trying to create an experience you don’t get every day.”
A long search
For the couple, the dream began a few years ago when they tried to buy a small inn with a nice restaurant on the west coast. Linder, an artist, landscape designer and graphic designer by training, had spent about 10 years managing a construction company. But he knew he didn’t want to do that work forever. And Zorich, who had grown up in the Pacific Northwest and whose earliest memories centered around food and cooking, was busy working in a big destination restaurant and gastropub on the Washington coast. He was doing more managing than cooking, and wanted a change.
“It was time to assess what’s important,” said Zorich, who received formal cooking training at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Oregon.
But their efforts to purchase the inn were unsuccessful, and they eventually switched their search area to New England. At home in Portland, Oregon, they searched online for bed and breakfasts that were for sale, and made a short list of their favorites to check out in person in the winter of 2017 (that list didn’t include The Hichborn). They bought a van and drove east, spending time at the inns from their list they liked the most. They almost purchased a property in Kingfield, but it didn’t work out, and they drove, dejectedly, to regroup in western New York, where Linder’s family lives.
“I was just very defeated,” Linder said.
But Zorich optimistically went back online to resume the search, and found a listing for the Hichborn home in Stockton Springs. Previous owners had restored the property, and ran it as a bed and breakfast. It closed in 2008 at the beginning of the Great Recession and had been on the market for almost a decade. When the couple came to see it, they knew right away that it was special.
There was a lot of history there, for one thing. The Hichborn House, as it has long been known locally, was the showplace of a shipbuilder, who produced schooners and barques on the waterfront in the then-bustling town. Nathan G. Hichborn ran for governor of the state of Maine on the temperance movement’s platform (he didn’t win), and the house was the first in Stockton Springs to have indoor plumbing installed in 1906. With a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, along with six bedrooms and five bathrooms, it was a lot of house, but Linder and Zorich were OK with that.
“You don’t ever own a house like this,” Zorich said. “You’re stewards of it while you’re here.”
Starting from scratch
Once the sale was finalized, they packed up their west coast lives, drove east in the van once again and got to work. They leaned away from the idea of opening the house as a bed and breakfast, finding that it made more financial sense for them to focus on the restaurant. They customized the kitchen, installing a 1974 Vulcan range they found on Mount Desert Island, and started getting to know the community. They found farmers, artists, craftspeople and friends all around them, and learned that while Stockton Springs is not as busy or well-known as other area communities such as Belfast, it is rich in possibilities.
“It’s such a cool little town,” Zorich said. “Everyone was like, ‘Why Stockton Springs?’ Well, why not Stockton Springs? There’s all this amazing food. And there’s not many people doing things with the local stuff. We thought we could come here and do what we do, on our terms, and people would hopefully dig it. We want to be part of the local, sustainable food economy.”
And they are wild for the raw ingredients they have found here. They work with farmers every week to see what is in season and fresh, and build their menus around that. A chalkboard in the covered porch lists the names of the farms where they are sourcing their produce, meat and more.
“What’s amazing around Maine and Waldo County specifically … is that people here have grit. They’re so passionate about what they do,” Zorich said. “You can definitely taste the terroir. You can taste the soil, you can taste the earth, in the greens and the radishes and everything.”
It’s easy to prepare good food with such good ingredients, he said, adding that about 90 percent of the food he cooks is sourced from Maine.
“I’m not reinventing the wheel,” Zorich said. “It’s quality ingredients, well-executed. I want to let the ingredients do the talking, and a lot of time, less is more.”
One recent menu featured choices such as ravioli made with Peekytoe crab, ricotta, scallions, thyme and rainbow peppercorn; kohlrabi and garlic scape fritters with greens and curry aioli; and Goose River ribeye with new potatoes, carrots and chimichurri. They offer raw options such as oysters or halibut crudo prepared with arugula, radishes, lemon and sea salt. For dessert, Zorich bakes treats such as a goat cheese tart with chantilly and strawberry gelee, lemon olive oil cake with mascarpone and strawberry jam, and flourless chocolate cake with cinnamon, ancho chile and port.
The restaurant has been a hit with locals and others who are looking for somewhere special to go, according to artist Peter Walls of Stockton Springs.
“We’ve just been thrilled to have them here,” Walls said. “They’ve been great to have as neighbors … and Charlie’s good. Just watching him in the kitchen, making pasta, he knows his stuff, and everything’s delicious.”
Building the dream
Linder and Zorich are still settling in to their space. They practically bubble over with ideas, such as turning one of the gracious rooms into a dedicated whiskey bar and opening a private dining room for special events. They have found that living over the restaurant is working out for them — short commute home, they quipped — in part because the home is so large that they have their own space to relax away from the business.
They want to find ways to be part of the community and want to keep the restaurant open year-round, because serving local customers is a critical part of their business plan.
“If you don’t really have local people, you don’t have a business,” Zorich said.
The restaurant is still in a growth period, and it is still easy to make a reservation for dinner. But they feel good about where they are now and good about their future. The business name of the company they formed is “Make Good Time,” a phrase that resonates for them.
“That’s been our motto since we decided to go after our dream,” Linder said. “Live your best life. Live your best right now.”
Zorich chimed in with his own version of their philosophy.
“Make good food. Feed people. Live a simple life,” he said. “Go see the world.”
The Hichborn is open for dinner from 5-9 p.m. Thursday to Sunday evenings, and it’s located at 10 Church Street in Stockton Springs.
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