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Talking Central Provisions With Chris Gould

Chris Gould is hoping to open Central Provisions sometime around the first of next year. His international small plates concept is going to occupy two floors of a historic Old Port building (once a provisions warehouse) that he purchased during the summer. It had never housed a restaurant, so the space has been completely gutted. When it's complete, the bottom floor, which opens on Wharf Street, will have a 14-seat bar, one communal table, and drink rails along the walls, so folks can have a drink while waiting for a table upstairs, or just hang at the bar and grab a bite. The second floor, opening onto Fore Street, will have table seating, another 14-seat bar, and an open kitchen.

Gould, a Bethel native who left his post as chef at Ken Oringer's celebrated Uni Sashimi Bar in Boston to move to Portland and open a place with his wife, Paige (she'll be the GM), recently talked with Eater Maine. He's had some hurdles to overcome with waits for building permits and a fire next door that caused smoke damage and flooding in his building, but he's taken it all in stride.

Did the character of this building influence the restaurant concept?
Absolutely. The concept was always to do tapas-style small plates. But the feel and what we're putting in here in terms of the bars and the stools and the tables and the decor is totally driven by the 200-year-old building. This was built in 1828. It's one of the oldest buildings in Portland. It's survived two fires. It was originally a warehouse right on the water. There's these trap doors that go up through the floors on every level and at the top there's a wheel that they used to pull up crates and barrels from the ships with goods coming from the East India Trade Company.

What's your vision for when it's complete?
Lots of exposed brick, burlap, black steel, exposed wood, and stainless steel. Those are the feels, colors and textures. We have a blacksmith from Maine building our stools. My wife is upholstering all the stools with burlap coffee bags from the woman who is roasting our coffee in Deer Isle. She saved us all her coffee bags. We have a gentleman in North Yarmouth building our bar tops and table tops. He's amazing. He's doing it all out of heart pine from a barn they took down in Scarborough that was built in the 1800s.

You were initially targeting a spring opening, but there have been delays with building permits, then a fire next door that caused damage to your space. Has it been a frustrating process?
You know it's going to happen. You just expect it not to go as planned. Originally we wanted spring, but that was pretty much unattainable from the beginning. The sale of the building took forever. We didn't even buy the building until June. Then the building permit process was another 16 weeks through fire protection plans and everything. So then we were looking at September. Now we're looking at the first of the year, which seems like a pretty attainable goal. We're moving along now.

Growing up in Bethel, did you get into Portland a lot?
I didn't really. We'd come down once in awhile for shopping or whatever, but we didn't come down to the Old Port a lot to hang out. I didn't really start coming to Portland much until later when I was living in Boston. I would come and visit my parents in Bethel and me and my wife would stop and have dinner at a different place every time, on the way up or on the way back. Then we came up a few times and stayed for weekends.

I read that you didn't try raw fish before you were 21. Then a few years later you're one of the best sashimi chefs in the Northeast. How did that happen?
I'd been cooking and exposed to a lot of different foods, just not necessarily Japanese food and raw fish. Working with Ken Oringer and a few different Japanese chefs at Uni before I became the chef there made for a rapid learning curve in the Japanese style. Once you start learning about food and getting into cooking, it's all kind of the same. It's just replacing flavors and ingredients with the same kind of idea about food. So if you know how to cook, say, Spanish food really, really well, the skip to French food doesn't take that long. I'd already been cooking at that point for seven years, then to get with someone like Ken, it allowed it to happen really quick.

Where did you get your start in cooking?
It was at the Bethel Inn. I was washing dishes, making salads. I was 16 years old and needed a summer job. I liked making the salads and the dressings and all that, but washing dishes kind of sucked. So they asked me if I'd be back the next summer and I said, "Only if I'm cooking." They said, "Absolutely." The next summer I was working the saute station with 35 year-old guys. It was kind of crazy. I was thinking about going to culinary school and the chef there went to the Balsams and did the apprenticeship program. He told me I should check it out. — don't spend $60,000 on CIA when you can go to this place.

I did, and it was phenomenal. It's a three-and-a-half year apprenticeship program accredited through New Hampshire College and the American Culinary Federation. It's an associates program. It's great. It's all hands-on. You work in a hotel kitchen and do six months in the bakery, six months in the butcher shop, and really get a good grasp on that stuff. If you go some place like Johnson & Wales, you spend maybe two weeks learning how to butcher fish, then you move onto something else. Cooking is a lot about repetition, doing the same thing the same way every time. Two weeks isn't enough.

What drew you to Portland?
Boston's really cool, but it's a little crazy and it's so expensive. In Boston, we could never do what we're doing right now. We just couldn't do it. It's so cost prohibitive. Here, you can. We love Portland. We love Maine. It's close to a lot of farms. It's close to the mountains. It's close to the ocean. It's everything you could want.

Have you noticed a big difference between the restaurant community here compared to Boston?
It's definitely different. Here, everybody genuinely wants you to succeed. Everybody's really been helpful. They say anything you need, give me a call. Lee (Skawinski) over here at Vignola, Dana (Street) at Street and Co., Damian (Sansonetti) at the Blue Rooster, they've been super helpful. The guys at Eventide have been great. I actually worked with Andrew Taylor in Boston at Clio probably six years ago now.

It's funny, when I was thinking about moving up here and opening a restaurant, I talked with him. I asked if he had a job I could do, make salads or something, that I didn't really need to focus on — show up, do my job, and that's it. He said, "Yeah, absolutely. Out of curiosity, what are you planning on opening?" I said, "Oh, I'd rather not say." He said, "OK. We just bought Hugo's." And I was like, "Congratulations. That's awesome." And he said, "And we're opening Eventide, an oyster bar, next door." And I was like, "Goddammit." My original plan was to open, basically, Eventide. Like two years ago, my plan was to open an oyster bar. So when he told me that, we switched up our concept. It was pretty funny. And I still work over there part-time.

We posted your sample menu a few months ago, which was a summer menu. Has your planned menu for opening changed?
It's funny, I've written a full year's worth of menus now. I wrote a spring menu, then a summer menu, a fall menu and now a winter menu just last week. I put more effort into this most recent one, because this is what we'll actually be doing. I'm really excited to have a couple different types of foie gras on the menu. We're going to be getting it from La Belle Farms in the Hudson River Valley. It's in my opinion the best foie gras in the world. It's amazing, and I've eaten foie gras in 10 or 12 countries.

I'm really excited by the ability to make whatever we want and not be limited by being a French restaurant, or saying we need to have this many pastas on the menu to be an Italian restaurant. Whatever we want to get that's fresh that day we can get. There will be a few staple items, but those items will be determined by the guests. If something sells really well, it becomes your signature. With new restaurants, it takes some time to develop that rapport with guests to see what they like and what they want. A year later, you may not see one thing that was on our opening menu. I doubt that will happen, but it could.

There will be core items. On a tapas menu, if you've got 30 items, probably 10 will never change, then the other 15 or 20 seasonally change or weekly change. We'll do seasonal changes, then one or two items that will change every day. It's not like the whole menu will change every day. But as fresh, local strawberries come into season, they'll go on the menu. That season is three weeks long, so then we'll switch it out to something else. Especially in Maine, the season are really short. You can't say the spring menu for the next three months is this. It's not going to work.

The sign says, "Good Food and Strong Drink." What's the plan for wine, cocktails and beer?
The "Strong Drink" is focused on craft cocktails. Not necessarily big, strong drinks — there won't be pint glasses of Jack and Cokes — but focusing on pre-Prohibition craft cocktails, making our own bitters, moving past the infused liquors that have been the trend. We'll still do some of that, but not as the base of our cocktail program. We'll be moving into house-made bitters, aged liquors, house syrups, fresh juices. Then also working with different purveyors to bring in interesting products. You see what Andrew Volk is doing (at Portland Hunt & Alpine Club), similar to that idea.

We'll also have eight different local beers on tap from Maine and New England, then probably one on there from away, like Saison Dupont, something from Europe or out west. We'll be doing large format bottles with stuff from Ommegang, Chimay, stuff like that. We will have High Lifes though.

For wine, Chris Peterman is managing the wine program. He's very talented and very knowledgeable about wine, but not pretentious about it, which is why we selected him. He can have a conversation in shorts and a t-shirt about a Beaujolais that's perfect for drinking for this reason, at this time, with this food, but not shove it down your throat. Our wine program will be similar to what we're doing with food, having an ever-rotating wine list that complements the seasonality of the food.
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Chris Gould in front of soon-to-be Central Provisions. [Photo: Tom Minervino]

Central Provisions

414 Fore St, Portland, ME, 04101