Chef Kerry Altiero Brings Cafe Miranda Cuisine to the Masses in "Adventures in Comfort Food"
"You have to be part squirrel and have a rock 'n' roll heart to work here."
Thursday, October 30, 2014 6:20 AM
"Rockland used to be known as a place where you could get a beer and a beating," recalled Chef Kerry Altiero in a recent interview over fresh focaccia at Cafe Miranda in Rockland. "If you had told me in 1993 that Rockland would be considered a center for culinary tourism and the arts, I would have said, 'Could I have whatever you're smoking?' But it's also still working class. There's always some grit in the arugula salad."
When Altiero arrived in Rockland from New Jersey 25 years ago, he came for the affordable rents, but it was that blue-collar spirit and its scenic beauty that made him fall in love with the city. In many ways, it reminded him of his own hometown in the eastern coal-mining hills of Pennsylvania. But it was not the kind of place where you could find a wood-fired pizza, red curry mussels or lobster mac and cheese. As Altiero says, restaurants in Maine were traditionally built around deep fryers, not a wood-fired oven, and you'd have the bread and butter on the table, fried seafood, burgers, and a choice of rice or potato.
However, he was determined to turn the locals on to his multi-ethnic fusion of Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, and Thai cuisine blended with down-home cooking. After working for a couple of years at the East Wind Inn in Tenants Harbor, Alterio and his former wife Evelyn discovered a deal on the Owl Benevolent Fraternal Club building at 15 Oak Street. When they entered the 75-year-old club, it was 40 degrees inside as an old man in a soiled, quilted nappa jacket sat at a table playing solitaire. The Owl Club plaque still hangs in the dining room above the window to the hot, bustling kitchen.
"If you called [the Owl Club] a gambling place, we also took a gamble to do the kind of food I wanted to do here in the midcoast," said Altiero. "As the banker told me at the time, if we were successful, we'd change the face of food in the midcoast. I think we successfully did that."
In the years since, Cafe Miranda has become a local institution and Rockland has become known as a mecca for foodies, with around 40 restaurants to choose from. Known as a place where the familiar gets hitched with the eccentric, at Cafe Miranda you can order the Woo-Tang Clam (Chinese-style broth with clams and pork strips in a spicy garlic sauce), Wontons from Spaaaace, or a PHD hotdog on focaccia. But there's also the old standbys like pot roast, eggplant parmesan, and Aunt Fluffy's Pasta. And nothing says "Rockland" like being able to pair your NASCAR Pate (smoked meat loaf) with a choice of Palagetto Chianti Colli Senesi or a 40 oz. bottle of Colt 45 malt liquor (served in a paper bag, of course).
Altiero also pioneered using fresh local ingredients long before the farm-to-table movement fell into vogue. In 2000, he founded Headacre Farm in Owls Head to provide fresh produce to the restaurant and was one of the first restaurants to begin purchasing from the Port Clyde Fresh Catch fisherman's co-op. Altiero has been an outspoken advocate for overcoming "fish racism," offering dishes featuring fish not often eaten by the locals to encourage more environmentally sustainable eating. It's an effort he admits has been challenging at times.
"When I first came here and made a chowder with pollock in it, it was like I was peeing on the side of the Governor's mansion or something," he said.A Peasant Food Cookbook for the Masses
Now for those who don't have a reservation at Cafe Miranda - and you wouldn't be the first who couldn't get one - the recipes for all of the restaurant favorites can be found in Altiero's new cookbook "Adventures in Comfort Food." At over 200 pages, the book reveals the secrets to all of the aforementioned dishes and many more. Surprisingly, most of them are actually not that complicated and the ingredients are fairly inexpensive.
"The food we make here and the food in this book is essentially peasant food," said Alterio. "It doesn't typically use a star hunk of a $20-a-pound protein. It's usually using things as components."
Reducing the focus on meat is a style of cooking Altiero learned as a vegetarian in the mid-1970s as he traveled the country racing motorcycles and searching for food that he could actually eat. It was then that he discovered the cuisines of people who can't afford eight to ten ounces of high-end protein.
"That really clued me in to the cuisines of the world that respected vegetarian food or at least had good vegetarian food," said Alterio. "If you eat everything that comes out of this book, you can get balance in a wretched-excess kind of way."
The key to healthy eating, he says, is to cook everything from scratch and eat everything, especially local produce. And for Alterio, the cookbook is just one part of a mission to break the notion that local, healthy food is only for the elites. He has criticized the local food movement for having multiple-personality disorder - "part flavor-fixated sensualist, part food-miles-obsessed localist, and part small-is-beautiful fanatic" - and argued for a more "justice-focused" direction, or as he calls it, "a trailer-park initiative."
"The high cuisine of any culture is usually the province of the wealthy or the middle class," he explained. "But when I look at the people who are suffering the most ill health effects from bad diets, it's a socioeconomic group that really needs that help."
In that spirit, "Adventures in Comfort Food" provides a number of healthy dishes that can be made fairly quickly and cheaply. However, to return to the roots before the industrialized processed food revolution took over, he noted that education is crucial. For instance, Altiero and other local chefs do cooking demonstrations once a month at St. Peter's Episcopal Church to teach people how to make a healthy meal in 20 minutes for $2 a head. In addition to the demonstration, the "Nosh n' Nourish" workshops provide the ingredients along with a recipe stapled to the bag.
In describing his approach to cooking, Altiero admits to having what he calls "punkish tendencies." He's addicted to the high-octane pace of the kitchen, and he's certainly never been afraid to push the envelope. The Cafe Miranda staff is like his band, and when the busy tourist season opens in May, it's like going on tour.
"I tell people that you have to be part squirrel and have a rock 'n' roll heart to work here," said Altiero. "When you're on this line, you can burn yourself, you can cut yourself, but you gotta keep playing. . . . If you put your heart into it, that's the kind of selfless rock 'n' roll part of it. It's hard, it's fast, it's unreasonable what this crew does, but we love it. We love the pressure, we love the adrenaline, we love the speed, the intensity. You have to put your whole being into it, and that's what you get on your f . . . . . . plate."