MY DINNER WITH KERRY
Rockland’s Cafe Miranda is a pan-ethnic, kitsched-out mainstay in a city that’s gone from “stinky fishing town” to the “arts capital of Maine.” As the restaurant celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, chef/owner Kerry Altiero sits down with Malcolm Bedell for a freewheeling conversation about food trends, fast motorcycles, Rockland grit, and the pleasures and perils of life in the kitchen.
Photographs by Michael D. Wilson
If you’ve never been to Rockland’s Cafe Miranda — “Miranda’s,” in local parlance — you’re missing out on a Maine classic. The checkered floors, the Formica tabletops, the scattered plastic flamingoes and Elvis paraphernalia — it all screams cheeky mom-and-pop joint. The voluminous menu (loaded with dad jokes) seems all but schizophrenic. The same kitchen churning out shrimp and grits, gnocchi, hot dogs, pierogies, and spaghetti? Forget picking a cuisine — is this place aiming high or low? The portions are roadhouse generous, but a farm-to-table ethos holds sway. The guy on your left just ordered a dish of wood-roasted radicchio wedges over house-made pasta with local oyster mushrooms. The woman on your right got a heart-attack sandwich billed as a “Cheese Steak Bomb.” And the kitchen executed both with a precision that belies the dining room’s zany middlebrow vibe.
Twenty-five years in, Cafe Miranda is a midcoast institution — as approachable as a laid-back luncheonette, though a table on its lamp-lit patio is a coveted summertime reservation. And chef/owner Kerry Altiero (a 2015 Down East readers’ pick for Maine’s best chef) has had a front-row seat to Rockland’s transformation from rough-and-tumble harbor town to arts-and-culture hot spot.
Malcolm Bedell, a Tenants Harbor native, was 15 when Miranda opened. He founded Rockland’s ’Wich, Please food truck (dubbed 2015’s hottest Maine restaurant by Eater Maine), manned the kitchen at South Thomaston’s Mussel Ridge Market, and runs the food blog Brocavore. We teamed up Altiero and Bedell — kitchen vet and new kid on the block, both with deep local roots — to talk Rockland, restaurant culture, and the secret to Cafe Miranda’s success. The pair started with a tour of Altiero’s Owls Head farm before heading for dinner to Ada’s Kitchen, five blocks from Miranda and the newest entry in Rockland’s increasingly vibrant downtown dining scene.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed.
I. “We’re high-performance misfits.”
MB: So where are you from, originally?
KA: Pennsylvania. Coal-mining hills.
MB: And when did you land in Rockland?
KA: 1988. I worked at the East Wind Inn for four years, and my then-wife, Evelyn Donnelly, and I opened Miranda in ’93.
MB: What brought you?
KA: I wanted to own my own building. And I almost got the place for $17,000, but I ended up paying $42,500.
MB: Damn. My parents moved here in 1980 and paid $17,000 for their house. I remember them saying that on Main Street in Rockland then, you could buy a whole building for ten grand. No one ever thought it’d be anything other than a stinky fishing town.
KA: We came through here in February, Evelyn and I, and we had no idea. We went through Rockland thinking, “Why is this place boarded up? What the hell? There’s this great harbor right here.” We’d just come from Cape May, New Jersey, where Victorian houses were a million dollars. Here, there was this Victorian for $45,000 — the mortgage would be like $300. It was insane.
KA: Twenty years.
MB: I had no idea you were growing so much for use in the restaurant. This is not a hobby — you’re in full-on production mode.
KA: We have another field in back where we’re going to start doing some more bulk production: kale, parsley, spinach, cilantro.
MB: And all these motorcycles — you’ve just been kind of getting these one at a time over the years?
MB: And you’ve got more kitchen equipment just scattered.
KA: It’s just the line-up of things to fix: steam table, coffee machine, sushi case. It’s everywhere. I’m a gearhead.
MB: I’ve noticed on Facebook that as soon as someone goes out of business and is selling their equipment, you’re right on top of it.
KA: My son, Evan, and I, we do blacksmithing. We have this metal-and-hammer thing — like, I made these out of old pieces of pipe and stuff. So, you know, there are things you do that feed you that are not the kitchen. The work is great, and it’s my heart and my soul — and I guess you know this, because you’re one of us.
MB: Well, I’m getting there.
KA: Well, the restaurant is the primary thing, but the people I admire in this trade invariably have something else they’re doing — whether they’re artists, composers, songwriters. So this is mine: the mechanics. I fix all the equipment, or I go out and do wheelies. That’s what feeds me. Because when I’m in a restaurant, I’m talking, I’m interacting with people. This is my fortress of solitude.
MB: Well, because the work kind of swallows you otherwise, right? Because you have to eat and breathe it every second, and sooner or later, it’s all that’s left if you don’t have something outside of it to put yourself into.
KA: It can burn relationships.
MB: Look, I got divorced this year, and the business was a big part of it. And you and I have talked about this before, that if you don’t naturally get it, why we do what we do, it’s hard to explain it to someone. I know you’ve mentioned that you’ve burned through a couple of relationships yourself.
KA: Two marriages, to great people. Brilliant, smart.
MB: I can’t tell you how many of our conversations were her basically saying, “I don’t understand why this is so important to you. I don’t know why it matters and is all-consuming.” And I can’t explain it.
KA: I can’t either. It’s like trying to explain to someone who doesn’t do this how, after 20 miles, there’s no internal dialogue. You can’t understand it. And as a line cook, it’s the same thing. I used to tell people the whole world could be on fire outside, and all I’m doing is making your plate, bub. And I mean, it’s not just us — it’s artists, it’s lawyers, it’s everybody who has a driving passion. Hey, you want to hear this thing?
170 miles an hour. Little bit of heaven.
MB: Oh man. It is a meditative act, right? Clears everything right out. I’ve done a lot of things, and I’ve certainly done things that have made more money than the food business, but I’ve never had anything that’s swallowed me up the way it does.
KA: It does. When I was a racer, that did the same thing. That’s how I met Evelyn, who owned Miranda the dog. We had this dream of a restaurant we wanted to do, and we needed a name, so how about Cafe Miranda? We got married in ’82, and I think we made it to 2009. It was a great ride. Our son, Evan, is 24. And Evelyn’s one of my best friends. We go motorcycle riding.
MB: It’s interesting that you were drawn to the food business, which I think a lot of people assume is a very people-oriented thing — even though most of the people I know who’ve made a living behind the line are not the most people-y persons in the world.
KA: And we tend to like risky behaviors.
MB: That’s true. I’ve learned that I like people more than I thought I did. And I’ve learned this as a result of feeding them and making them smile. But if someone’s not naturally drawn to people, I wonder why they start doing this.
KA: In a way, it is communication. Because of that plate, even if you can’t talk to them, they’re still in your head. When people come to Miranda, they’re in my world for two hours.
KA: Donna Summer.
MB: You live in a version of your restaurant. I get it.
KA: Yeah, that’s the thing. Miranda is not a concept — it is who we were, Evelyn and me. And for years, I was a line cook, did stuff with my hands. I didn’t start this thing because I thought I was going to be a chef. I needed a job. I was racing, and I got a job as a dishwasher, and a guy had burned himself. So they said can you cook a steak? And I loved the speed and loved the equipment. I took a class at a community college in methodology, and here I am. I’ve always worked in fine dining, except for a hotel stint. And you know those stories you hear, that guy on TV who wrote Kitchen Confidential?
MB: Anthony Bourdain.
KA: Yeah, I lived that era in the ’80s. When you went to work at 3:30, worked until midnight, hit the bar until 2. Then you slept till 7, went to the beach, slept again till 3, took a shower, went to work. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
MB: Well, there’s something validating about that life, because if you can show up and have it together enough to perform, then what’s the issue, right? It’s this self-perpetuating thing where you’re able to say, it doesn’t matter how much I drank or whatever else I did last night. I’m showing up, and I’m getting it done, so what’s the problem? The trouble is, then, 40 years go by. How old are you now?
KA: I’m 62. There came a point, as I started getting older, when I was having some personal problems, and I found my attitude going bad. And what I mean by that is I started barking, like all those people I said I’d never be. I said, “Okay, what’s going on here?” And I had to change myself.
MB: I made a 15-year-old girl cry last year. I found her in the dish room, sobbing. And I had to take a step back and go, “This is a really young kid.” I didn’t yell at her, I was just stern, and I wanted her to do what I needed her to do, and she fell apart. And I thought, man, you have to stay a human being, and you have to treat other people like human beings — and treat kids like kids, you know? You take good care of your employees, don’t you?
KA: Not only is my staff realizing my dream, they’re the interface with my customers. They’re everything. That’s what my dad told me — he was in business. He said, “You take care of your employees first and customers second. And you’ll get taken care of as a matter of course if you take care of the other two.” It is absolutely true, and it’s not some sappy family bullshit — these are high-performance employees. We’re high-performance misfits.
II. “Don’t use the hipster word. Don’t say cosmopolitan.”
MB: I want to go back to 1988, when you started as head chef at the East Wind. You’ve told me before how you were doing things there with, say, mandarin oranges — endemic to the early ’80s — or Chinese noodles or whatever, stuff that nobody around here had seen before.
KA: And sriracha, you know? And I was making my own kimchi. Why do you think I had to have my own place?
MB: Did people think you were nuts? If you were doing stuff that everybody thought was crazy, how was it you were successful?
KA: At East Wind, I ran both my menu and the traditional menu. So I ran the seafood casserole and the baked stuffed haddock, all of that. And I said to the owner, Tim, “Look, your clientele is aging and dying. If you want to get anybody younger in here, you’ve got to do something.” Then, you know, I served a black-bean fritter with an avocado thing or seared halibut with — I remember distinctly — grilled scallions, pickled ginger, wasabi, soy on the side. And Tim — a great man, I loved him, he took a flier on me — he said, “You’ve ruined this fish!” But I was coming from Cape May, which was this pioneering food town in the ’80s.
MB: I guess here, that must have been like food from Mars.
KA: Plus, here I am with two different color Converse high-tops, a ponytail, riding my motorcycle. I brought a boombox into the kitchen and played Lou Reed.
MB: My recollection of this place at that time was that this kind of thing wasn’t necessarily embraced.
KA: Well, it’s about trust and integrity. You can be as weird as fork around here, I think, if you do something with integrity. I mean, I had this reputation for new-age food that nobody here was doing. There was the Belmont in Camden that was doing very classy, upscale French-ish food. There was David Grant , who’s one of the real culinary pioneers in this state. The guys at Arrows in Ogunquit in the ’80s , they were doing farm-to-table, all of that.
MB: When I think of food around here then, I think of Dave’s in Thomaston — the first place I remember as a kid where grown-ups could smoke cigarettes and stack clamshells at the same time.
KA: It’s almost hilarious that you could smoke in a restaurant. It’s insane.
MB: If someone was doing that now, you would call the police! It would be the end of the world. I wonder, though, in some ways, if there wasn’t a bit more diversity back then. And what I mean by that is —
KA: You talking gentrification?
MB: No, not really. But I can remember three Thai restaurants in town when I was young. I can remember Chinese places that were shaped like pagodas. There were a couple of steak places, a Mexican place. In some ways, I feel like in our climb to become more —
KA: Don’t use the hipster word. Don’t say cosmopolitan.
MB: I just wonder if there are fewer options than there were before. Do we need another oyster bar with a wood counter? Do we need another taco place? With so many steps forward, in some ways, it seems like there were more options then. Sure, the food was universally worse, but —
KA: That’s a great perspective. I mean, Miranda is a diner on acid — that’s what I was told once. I always wanted a diner space, and we have kind of a mid-century modern look. But we do all of what you just said: Thai, Chinese, Mexican. So I agree that gentrification in modern food leads to sameness — everyone wants esoteric ingredients, ridiculous procedure. And I see more ego than I see heart.
MB: I lived in Los Angeles for a year, and there was this place called Chili John’s, just a hole in the wall with a giant horseshoe counter and orange vinyl chairs around it. They do one thing: they make chili, and they’ve been doing it 50 years. When I think about my goals and dreams in this business, that’s what I want to do: be the place that does one thing really well and becomes an institution. And I don’t care about your white subway tiles and reclaimed Edison bulbs, because that to me doesn’t have the —
KA: All that will pass. People will get suits that fit them instead of being one size too small. They’ll get pants that reach their shoes. I’ve seen every trend in food. I remember when everybody discovered balsamic vinegar. Back in the ’80s, it was raspberry vinegar and walnut oil. It was like everybody just discovered France.
MB: Of course, the flipside is that in a food scene in a big city, you have enough volume to do just that one thing.
KA: Yes. That’s why food trucks don’t exist here.
KA: Sorry, I forgot who I was talking to.
MB: But the problem is what if you dump all your money into one concept and then go, “Oh shit, now I’m just making chili for the rest of my life.”
KA: For certain people, that’s okay.
MB: Do you get bored? Or when you feel bored, do you just throw something new together?
KA: Well, when you have a menu with 150 things —
MB: Is that really what you’re up to? You’re famous for Miranda’s huge menu.
MB: Why’s that?
KA: Because how do you figure out how much stuff you need? I’m going to serve 200 dinners. Do I need 200 chickens? Or do I need 80?
MB: But why isn’t that hard when you have 150 items?
KA: Because you don’t have a lot of anything, you just have a little bit of a lot of things. It’s easier to manage, which goes against every precept in our business. So what if we run out of one thing? There are 149 left! Don’t run out of onions. Don’t run out of salt. Don’t be an idiot. The Miranda crew understands that concept, and they do it with heart. There’s a method to my madness. I was in the garment business as a production person —
MB: Wait, when did you fit that in?
KA: It was somewhere in the motorcycle-drugs era, early 20s. This company would hire another company to make a garment. They’d give the materials — the thread, the cloth, the belts, whatever. And if a guy said, “No, I can’t make that,” then they’d send me in, and I’d show them the sequence. I’m a systems guy. That’s why Miranda works. And I always say that if you get better and faster, you get more money. That’s the way our business works. It’s a meritocracy. It’s not like the Coliseum, but it’s a meritocracy.
KA: I can see the billboard. “F’d up parts of your life? Be a chef! You have a chance!”
III. “Too much grit in this arugula, baby.”
MB: There has to have been a time when you thought, “We’re not going to make it. We’re done.” My guess is when the place burned.
KA: That was when the gods were so trying to get my attention.
MB: That must have been devastating.
KA: That’s when I started realizing there are some things you can’t rock your way out of. I was in Reno, Nevada, with my son, and I got a call at 8 p.m. that said, “This is the alarm service. We’ve detected a fire at your place.” And I thought it’s somebody smoking upstairs. But they said, “No, sir, flames have been seen in your building.”
. . .
Holy shit. It still does it to me. That was 2007. I’d been in business 15 years.
MB: What was the extent?
KA: The kitchen was pretty much trashed. The dining room was there. The surfaces were bad. The furniture was out in the street — I saw pictures from Reno on the Courier’s website. We did the rebuild in six weeks and one day and reopened.
MB: That’s amazing.
KA: It was like a big animal was running after me trying to eat me. I mean, when something gets injured that has a personality — your dog, your cat, your grandmother, whatever — afterwards, the life can seep out of it easier than if everything was fine, you know? Miranda was injured, and I was worried. But do you know what I thought gave us a really good chance? CMP shut the power off, so all the refrigeration went down, and insurance was going to cover all the food, all the beer. So the night after the fire, the staff had a party. They put all the ducks on the grill and opened all the beer, and I’m in Reno, and they’re calling me saying, “Hey, we’re having the party!” They took the spirit, and they —
. . .
I can hardly talk about it. They took the spirit and held it close.
But I’m at the restaurant in Reno with my son, who was 12, I think. I’m having a burger and he’s having spaghetti and meatballs. And I’m saying, “I don’t know, Evan. Maybe we had a good run.” Then he takes a bite and looks at me and goes, “Man, we do way better work than this.” And I thought, ha. Okay. Let’s go.
So we came back, but man, it got close. We came home and went in, and there was the cleaning company, cleaning our velvet Elvises like they were the freaking Mona Lisa. And I thought, “Okay, we’re going to be fine.” But it was hard for a while. We almost went out of business.
MB: I mean, every place almost goes out of business, right? Restaurants have the worst failure rate of any industry. And in seasonal Maine? I mean if you get five years out of a place, and no one lost insane amounts of money, then that was pretty —
KA: But they do lose money. People go in just for the glamour of it. They think, “I want to be involved in a restaurant and bring my friends in.” But I always tell people, yeah, come in at 2 a.m. with a dustpan and a squeegee, that’s the glamour part.
MB: Clean a deep fryer and then talk to me about glamour.
KA: Oh my god.
KA: When I opened up in Rockland, I thought this is the place I should be. Because everybody can weld, everybody can drive a backhoe, everybody knows how to drive dump trucks and boats and motorcycles and Chevys. I thought everybody here is like me. I’m in the right place.
MB: Is it still like that? Or is it now all coffee shops and pottery studios?
KA: No, that’s just souvenirs. That’s what you see because that’s what’s public. The underbelly is not that. What’s going on with arts and restaurants in Rockland, yeah, all that stuff will exist. And part of the thing is when people go somewhere that’s not like where they came from, they bring stuff, and then it becomes like where they left. But with Rockland, it ain’t gonna happen. There’s too much grit in the salad. Too much grit in this arugula, baby. It’s a working-class culture. The lobstermen, the people who work in the garages, they’re the underpinnings of what this is. And the winter keeps out the riffraff.
MB: I spent the last year-and-a-half working in Spruce Head at a place where they let me do pretty much what I wanted, menu-wise. But I remember talking to a girl I worked with about the notion of opening a place on Main Street in Rockland. She was a part-time waitress, part-time house cleaner, married to a fisherman. And I remember her saying, definitively, “I would never go anywhere on Main Street.” I said, “What? This place where you live, with all this stuff going on, all these new places — it’s all off-limits for you? Why?” And she just felt somehow that most of these places are somehow not for her. But why? You only want to go to the Walmart? You only want to eat at McDonald’s?
KA: Are we going to talk about elitism in modern American food? All right, let’s go there. There is an elitism to the farm-to-table crap. And I mean, there are $8 beers here where we’re sitting. So I think there is a healthy skepticism. But if you hang out long enough, you get respect.
MB: I think one of the things Miranda has done really well, and it sounds like it was by design, by making a diner on acid, is that you find a way to get somebody their spaghetti and meatballs and get them confident in what you’re doing, and then you feed them something crazy you’ve come up with.
KA: Well, I’m not trying to be elitist. And I don’t think modern American food is trying to be elitist, but the middle class and the upper class eat well. I’ve always said that there should be a trailer-park initiative with all this farm-to-table crap — meaning that the people who really need this food can’t afford it. They’re not buying $3 onions. So for me, part of my mission is to serve accessible food for everybody.
Ultimately, I don’t care what somebody’s style is like — you’ve just got to be a good cook. And if it’s your dream, you have to have the volumes necessary to balance your worksheet. That’s all.
MB: Oh, that’s all? I thought it was going to be hard.
KA: Yeah. I mean, all the madness that I’ve been through, has everything turned out the way I wanted when I was in it? No. I didn’t get the girl. I didn’t get all the things I wanted. But am I really great right now? Yeah. I’m not sure how I can reconcile both views, but here we are after 25 years.
It’s almost pumpkin time. I get up at 4 o’clock in the morning. You get what you need?
MB: Oh yeah, I think so. One last thing: how do I last 25 years in this business?
KA: Don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re only making food.