SERVINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY

interview CHEF ALI WAKS ADAMS

KERRY ALTIERO is the owner-chef of Café Miranda in Rockland, Maine, an intimate, multicuisine restaurant known for its gorgeous wood-oven focaccia and menu full of everything you’d want to eat from perogies to dan dan noodles, all made in house and with local goods.

With a wicked sense of humor, Altiero infuses Café Miranda with fun and joy, offering menu items like his Old Skool Skwid (calamari with banana peppers, spinach and marinara), the Hot Mess (a house-smoked brisket sandwich) and Auntie Fluffie’s Pasta (with caramelized onions, cauliflower and Elvis parsley).

Altiero is many things, among them an author, a motorcyclist, a mentor and a philanthropist. His work with organizations focused on children, food security, homelessness, addiction and recovery is invaluable
to his community. As an advocate for local food and the practice of sustainability, Café Miranda has been recognized as an environmental leader by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Altiero was declared Hospitality Maine’s Chef of the Year in 2019, as well as 2015 Down East magazine Maine Chef of the Year, winner of the Maine Lobster Council Lobster Chef of the Year, Harvest on the Harbor Top of the Crop: Best Farm to Table Restaurant.

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Clockwise from top left:
Owner-Chef Kerry Altiero.
Red Curry Mussels.
Auntie Fluffie's Pasta.
PhD Hot Dog.

How long has Café Miranda been open? And how has it changed for you since the beginning?

Today, as I type, is our 28th anniversary. Due to COVID-19 we have been closed longer than ever in our history. Longer than it took to recover from a fire in 2007. Let’s go from the start... Miranda started as a dream in the early ’80s with my co-founder Evelyn Donnelly. We wanted what Miranda has become: A local, reliable, inventive, welcoming, casual
with a multiethnic menu, open kitchen with a wood-fired oven and
great staff restaurant. This was in the ’80s, all to come into reality in 1993.
We bought a farm in 2000 as well. I would like to think that Miranda foreshadowed the current trends in modern food. Except for the precious part. Our food was and is robust, let’s say.

In my 39th year(!) in this business, the changes (pre-COVID-19) to Miranda and the industry have been huge. I started cooking pre
Food Network/chef “stars.” There were no “trendsetters” other than
the few nouvelle cuisine chefs, or the on-the-margins vegetarians/vegans/weird diets and so on.

I am grateful that my abilities as a cook have influenced the Rockland renaissance, enabled me to leverage my brand to help causes such as homelessness, addiction and recovery and food insecurity, among others. This part is big as it speaks to my core values and the founding values of great food, enlightened management, compassion and some whoop ass.

Tell me about your Italian grandmother. What was Sunday dinner like at her house?

Constance Altiero. Nona. Among my first memories are that of a small child reaching up to feel the flour on her pasta-making board and her stern admonition, “Kerry, do not eat the raw macaroni.” Yes, I still have that hand-cranked pasta machine right here with me. There would be the ever-present pot of sauce, the arguments on who makes the best garlic bread and the usual cacophony of Italian Americans showing how they love each other by yelling at each other. Oh, and the food! Dandelions picked from the sidewalk, antipasti, salami, homemade canned “cow-chow”, wine bottles in the woven baskets, pieces of my skin in the cheese from the grater, pizzettas with anchovy and tomato, squid, eel, and, and, and biscotti or pizzelles with demitasse. Hmmm, just got what I call nostalgia hungry. Memories of food, these are the things that drive me and create those memories for my customers.

Looking at your menu, your excitement and food knowledge is palpable, you are so widely inspired: What was the last thing you ate that had you saying “Wow, this is something new”?

In our trade new is overrated. Not to dismiss, but esoteric ingredients, complex technique and ornamentation is not our style. I look for heart in cooks and food. I write a blog, Food & Petrol, where I drive around sampling various establishments here in Maine and when I travel. Weirdly, it seems to include a lot of hot dogs. Yes, HDOC—Hot Dogs of Character. Decidedly not highbrow. Many of these spots are not vying for a James Beard Award, but crank out food that they care about with heart and technical competence. A good dog is often better than an ego-laden $40 plate. The actual question of the “wow” thing? H.J. Blake’s for Goodness Sakes in Belgrade Lakes put the toppings ON THE BOTTOM, under the dog. Genius. The toppings don’t fall off. Yes, that impressed me.

COVID-19 has had such a devasting impact on the restaurant business, it’s difficult to see any positives, but looking forward can you speak to anything that could be considered a silver lining?

Yes, we have been knocked down. What do we do when we get up is the question. For me and Miranda there has to be a sea change. To that end, my son Evan, his GF Merritt Becknell and roomie Mike Ambrosino started a new business in April called Pizza on the Street (POTS)—wood-fired slab pizza and salad, brick-oven pasta dishes and desserts—utilizing one of our mobile ovens. We serve curbside, no contact from the patio at Café M. Yes, we started a new food service business in the middle of all this. And it is working! POTS will most likely become a brick-and-mortar spot in Rockland this fall and we look to license the concept if it has legs.

As for Miranda proper: The past few years have been a period of growth into catering with mobile ovens, lunch and supper seven days a week, staff expansion and community involvement. From where I sit at my Headacre Farm today, I don’t see the volumes for a year or really two. That said, I plan on a smaller, more efficient, culinarily innovative business. If the industry recovers and those volumes present themselves, we shall see.

A genuine silver lining exists here in several more ways. Working, making food (with me in the dish pit, mostly) with my son as we ensure the survival of our Miranda has to be the biggest. Long-time family friend and employee Amanda D has joined us in managing, another plus. The other is me. Getting back into the food on a daily basis is why I started this and will be how I approach the future. We have had many great eras in our 28 years and when Miranda reopens it will be the best one ever. Experience in life will shape the food that I and my kick-arse crew will make. Faves from past menus, new combos with whimsy and craft. Cool, eh?

In a period of massive unknowns, we go to our motto: “Because We Can.” ’Nuff said.

What is your favorite bit of kitchen business? For some chefs it’s folding towels, others sharpening their knives, arranging their mise en place or jumping in the dish pit. What’s your daily bit of chef zen?

I love coming into Miranda first each the day: humming fridges, smells of last night’s garlic, charred bread and wood smoke. Ready to rock the day. Then the last part of the day, when I hear and smell the same things, I leave saying, “Thank you, Miranda.”

If you could go back and relive cooking one meal from your past, which one would it be and why?

Oh, easy. The place I was working on the Jersey Shore in the mid ’80s was reviewed by the New York Times food writer on Labor Day. “The shark dish with orange and poppy seed (it was the ’80s) had nice flavor and the texture of a dishrag.”

What would your last meal be?

Why go there? How about tonight? Wood-roasted Italian sausages baked with oregano, garlic and olive oil marinated with chunky onion and peppers, rigatoni and tomato, focaccia, salad and an adult beverage!


Café Miranda

15 Oak Street
Rockland, Maine
(207) 594-3024
cafemiranda.com

 

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