Slow Burn

Washington mason Pat Manley laid the foundation for some of Maine’s most iconic restaurants.

By Michaela Cavallaro
Photographed by Benjamin Magro

You may not know Pat Manley’s name, but if you eat well in Maine, you’ve likely benefited from his work. The wood-roasted mussels at Fore Street? The product of a brick, concrete, and soapstone oven designed and built by Manley. The focaccia at Café Miranda in Rockland? Ditto. Also the olive bread from Black Crow Bakery in Litchfield — and, if you’re willing to travel a bit, the pizza from the Matchbox restaurants around Washington, D.C. “Pat is a true artist in every way I can imagine,” says Sam Hayward, the chef-owner of Portland institution Fore Street. “He’s constantly thinking and adjusting his ideas — he’s practical and pragmatic, and he’s not stuck in a particular mindset. His flexibility and adaptability are what I treasure.”

Though Manley’s name isn’t well known outside the rarified world of wood-fired oven enthusiasts — chefs, bread bakers, and the occasional ambitious home cook — his reputation in his field is second to none. And his schedule reflects it: In the space of a few weeks, he’s building a pizza oven in Owl’s Head, flying to Chicago to put together a community bake oven, and running a bake oven demonstration at the Common Ground Country Fair.

A native of Connecticut, Manley found his way to Maine after an aborted trip to Woodstock. At seventeen, he knew that further formal education wasn’t for him, but he wasn’t sure what was. Then he spent much of the summer of 1971 at Maine Medical Center recuperating from a serious accident. “I’d wanted to buy some land and do the whole back-to-the-land thing, but I hadn’t done anything at all toward that end,” Manley says. “I got to thinking that maybe I should get more serious about it.”

So Manley moved back in with his parents in Connecticut. Their next-door neighbor was a mason who needed an assistant — and, presto, Manley found his passion. He worked with the mason for a few years doing high-end stone work on homes around Long Island Sound, then, in 1974, returned to Maine for good. He went into business for himself, building chimneys, stone walls, fireplaces — anything, he says, that could be made from bricks and mud and rocks.

In the late 1970s, Manley first learned about masonry heaters: wood-burning stoves, common in Europe, that burn efficiently for hours at a time without needing to be stoked. The heater itself is a box made of firebrick. When you pack it full of wood, give it plenty of oxygen, light it, and close the door, the heat that’s generated flows through heat-storing masonry rather than escaping up the chimney, as with a traditional wood-burning stove. The fire goes out after an hour or two, but the heat retained in the masonry radiates out slowly, evenly, and cleanly over the next twelve to twenty-four hours. At that point, Manley was hooked. He read everything he could about masonry heaters, and made several trips to Europe to see them in action. Along the way, he decided that his days of building chimneys were done — from then on, it was only masonry heaters and wood-fired ovens that work on the same principle.

Manley had been involved with the Common Ground Country Fair since its start in 1977, and it was there that he first met Kerry Altiero, who wanted to build a brick oven for the restaurant he planned to open in Rockland. Altiero had searched high and low for someone with the expertise to build a coal-fired masonry oven like the ones used at the Italian bakeries in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, where he grew up — he’d even called the Italian consulate in search of a craftsman. When Altiero saw Manley’s masonry ovens, he thought he might have found the right guy — even though Manley at that point had never built one. Still, Manley not only took the job, but he talked Altiero into using wood instead of coal. “It was truly a creative process — and it involved plenty of beer,” Altiero says. “We kept going back and forth, working out the details. And the oven works beautifully to this day, as it has for twenty years.”

A few years later, Hayward and Dana Street were planning to open their Portland restaurant, which they’d decided would literally and figuratively center around a wood-fired oven. So they met Manley at Café Miranda, where Altiero cranked up the oven and showed them what it could do. Unlike the Boston and Cambridge restaurants that were then the region’s primary users of wood ovens, Fore Street wasn’t going to have conventional stoves and ovens as backup for when things got busy. Instead, the kitchen staff would rely solely on a thirty-five square foot oven, a grill, and a turnspit. “Could one person work a six-foot grill plus a turnspit?” Hayward remembers asking himself. “I had all these questions that I had no way of answering — and that had major financial implications. I had to listen to Pat’s recommendations, look at his design, swallow hard, and just go for it.”

The result, of course, is Maine culinary history — and Fore Street still relies on Manley’s handiwork today. (In fact, earlier this year Manley rebuilt Fore Street’s oven, making it even more efficient.) Over the years, Manley also found a way to deploy his skills for an entirely different set of diners: Mayan families in Guatemala who were cooking over smoky, open fires. Every year since 2000, Manley has headed a group of Mainers and other volunteers who spend a few weeks in February building masonry cook stoves, known as estufas, for individual families. Over the years, the group has installed more than two thousand estufas. Though Manley is passionate about the project, he downplays the importance of his role as founder and chief fund-raiser for Masons on a Mission, the nonprofit organization he founded to do this work. “When it comes to fire, bricks, and mud, I’d probably go anywhere to build something or learn to build something,” he says.

While masonry heaters and bake ovens haven’t made Manley rich, they’ve allowed him to cobble together an interesting, fulfilling life. Even better? As a result of early uncertainty about how much he should charge Hayward, Altiero, and others, he’s got one of the best compensation packages around: Free food for life at some of the state’s best restaurants.

Michaela Cavallaro is a Down East contributing editor and lives in South Portland.