Sam Hayward Came to Appledore Island a Bassist. He Left a Chef.

Cooking for hungry students and researchers in the ’70s, he learned to love seafood that other chefs ignored. Then, he kick-started a culinary revolution.

By Will Grunewald
From our June 2023 Island Issue

The James Beard Foundation named Sam Hayward the best chef in the Northeast. Critics hailed him as the East Coast’s answer to Alice Waters, who famously popularized farm-to-table cuisine in California. Fore Street, the restaurant Hayward cofounded 27 years ago, set the bar — and continues to set the bar — for the Portland food scene, inspiring a generation of chefs who turned the city into the culinary capital of New England by building menus around local, seasonal ingredients.

man in kitchen
Sam Hayward in the Shoals Marine Laboratory kitchen in 2017, during the annual Take a Bite Out of Appledore retreat. Photo by Mark Fleming, courtesy of Yankee.

But before all that, in his 20s, he was toiling away at his first kitchen job, in the dining hall at Shoals Marine Laboratory. The lab, on Appledore Island, offshore from Kittery, is an ecological-research outpost run by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire. From 1974 to 1976, while Hayward was lugging 50-pound sacks of sugar up the rocky shore from the supply boat and slinging three square meals a day for upwards of 100 voracious eaters, he was also absorbing an understanding of the Maine ecosystem that has guided his career ever since. Now, every summer, he heads back to Appledore to cohost Take a Bite Out of Appledore, an eco-culinary retreat, with researchers and other chefs. “It’s those same old early mornings and late nights again, and for an old guy like me, it’s pretty exhausting,” he says. “But I’ve always felt like I belonged on the island.”

How did you first wind up at the Shoals lab?

I was living in Ithaca, New York, and working as a musician. I had studied classical music, on double bass. But like a lot of members of my generation, I was seduced by all the cultural effects of the war, the counterculture, rock ’n’ roll. I ended up playing sort of American roots-based rock in some bands that were pretty successful. It was a good time, but it wasn’t a way to plan a life, and I wanted to make a change. Then, one morning in February of ’74, a Cornell hotel-school student who’d taken a few music lessons with me asked me, “You like to cook for a hobby, don’t you?” And I did. So he said, “Why don’t you chuck all this and come spend a summer on an island off the coast of Maine?” He was going to be running the lab’s kitchen, and that offer was pretty irresistible. My wife was interested in going too. She’s retired now, but she was a registered nurse, and the Shoals lab always needed to have a nurse on staff, so it worked out that we both landed jobs.

What were your first impressions of Appledore?

For starters, it’s quite different from the porcupine spruce-covered islands that you often see. It’s barren and rocky and there are no real trees. It has thin topsoil. The shoreline is mostly granite ledge, with a couple of big tidal pools. It has a huge bird population during the summer. There are thousands of gulls, and they’re crapping on your head and trying to raise their clutches of eggs, so it gets a little frenzied — I can hear those birds in my sleep. We all learned to walk with a stick over our heads or wear a coat with a hood that you could flip up really quickly, because the birds would dive-bomb you if you ventured too near their nest. So there’s an energy about the place that’s quite amazing. Part of it is the wildlife, but it’s also the commitment of the students that come out there, living in rustic conditions, with only one food source on the island, and that’s the lab kitchen.

Lots of hungry mouths to feed?

It was really busy. There could be anywhere from 60 students plus 20 or 25 staff, up to 100 students. Just think of what’s required to fuel them with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. The students are all college age or slightly older and working really hard, very physically, all day long. It’s an intense place. To do anything out there requires a lot of fortitude. In the kitchen, there were usually three to five of us, and we would start working at 5 in the morning, getting breakfast ready. Then, we’d immediately flip over to lunch, and we’d usually get out of the kitchen around 10:30 at night, after cleaning up. But we were young, and we loved being there. And the workhorse of the kitchen was this big thing called a tilt skillet. It’s a stainless-steel pan that’s 5 feet long and 2½ feet deep. You can braise chicken for 150 people at a time with it. You can steam lobsters in it. You can use it for pancakes and eggs. I can’t believe it, but it’s still there.

And your menus involved cooking a lot of what the scientists were studying?

Absolutely. We’d host a kind of lobster bake for each class that came in, and people would forage for different marine snails, like periwinkles and whelks, and we’d harvest clams and mussels from under the rockweed. It was a sort of island experience, a New England experience, an ecological experience. Day-to-day, the kitchen was tasked with preparing as many of the species from the water as the students were studying. We kind of got a reputation among some fishermen from Gloucester. They knew we were interested in stuff that they normally threw overboard — the bycatch, the less charismatic species. They’d stop by the island on their way back into port and offer us the top of the catch. Then, the students would form a kind of filleting brigade. They called their gross morphology class — part of their physiology of marine organism. Often, we would open the stomachs of the fish to see what they were eating. Who’s eating what out there? It was that direct, visceral manifestation of an ecosystem that really nailed me, really got my attention.

So you learned about a lot more than how to run a kitchen.

It was the conversation, the culture, the air that we breathed all around us. It was new and exciting to be in this environment with people who were acutely aware of, and studying intensively, the various granular parts of the ecosystem — the interplay of ocean, land, and air. One week there might be an oceanographer talking about mapping the seafloor. There might be a couple of ornithologists talking about the migratory birds, or there might be a phycologist looking at seaweed. Their skill and understanding and experience was really compelling. It made a huge difference in my own worldview and the things I’m interested in — what the ecosystem has to do with cooking. It informed my work for the rest of my life.

What kinds of seafood did you work with on Appledore?

We were always more than happy to experiment. Back then, there was no market for things like urchins, which came up in lobster traps sometimes. We’d buy monkfish, when there was no market for it. Some of the other groundfish — hakes, wolffish, whiting, herrings. We could pick it all up for dirt cheap. There was one fish, cunner, that I had trouble with only because of its structure. They’re really bony, and they have thick, heavy scales. A couple of the cartilaginous fish like skates and dogfish were hard to deal with. You can’t keep a knife sharp because their skin is like sandpaper, and if they weren’t scrupulously fresh, they threw off an ammonia odor.

How would you prepare them?

In those days, in part because of the program my hotel-school friend had established in the kitchen, a lot was based on classical cooking — largely French technique, established in the 18th and 19th centuries to allow big, fancy hotel kitchens to produce a lot. I was really interested in French haute cuisine as well as household cuisine. So we tried to make all of the products we were using fit into that program. I might have made an l’Armoricaine sauce or something like that. But over the course of the three years I was there, I got more interested in American cooking and regional cooking, and that’s only grown over the course of my career. I’d rather find a New England idiom to almost everything I cook. What we later established at Fore Street was, to an even greater extent, to use local and regional products whenever possible.

Once you had your own place, did diners respond to that approach?

In the ’80s, when I took over my first restaurant, 22 Lincoln, in Brunswick, my impression was that New Englanders were kind of squeamish about weird seafood. New England was sort of white bread at the time. And so haddock, cod, and swordfish were the standard fish that you’d see in markets. But I also think I was in the right place at the right time. I think the audience was gaining experience from travel and from food magazines. The culture was ready for more interesting and varied seafood when I brought those experiences from Appledore to the mainland. In Brunswick, I would regularly do urchins, and nobody I knew of was doing urchins. We did sea squirts and sea cucumbers. Some of it was experimental. But a good restaurant has to be experimenting, or else what’s the point? Even to this day, somebody will be moving out of an apartment and into a senior-living place in, say, Charleston, South Carolina, and come across an old menu from the Brunswick restaurant and send me a note saying, “Look what I just found from one evening in 1986!” Somehow they kept it, and that’s really touching.

When you go back to Appledore now, what strikes you?

Things have changed out there since the ’70s. Some species aren’t as abundant in the intertidal zone as they used to be. We used to be able to harvest enough mussels for an entire feast in an hour, just lifting up the rockweed at low tide. And the mussels aren’t there right now. I don’t know if that’s because of green crabs or some other phenomenon, but it’s a surprise to me, because they were so plentiful. But there’s still a bell buoy between Appledore and Star Island, and that was always the most lulling nighttime sound. We were living in an old Coast Guard house from before World War II that had been barely renovated for staff, and I can remember that feeling of deep rest and deep comfort, going to bed at night and hearing that buoy. The sea is on every side of you. There’s bioluminescence in the water when you’re swimming or jigging for squid at night. The stars are overhead. The mainland is visible but not intrusive. There’s a sense of containment and security that I don’t get anywhere else.

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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