John Conte. [Photo: Ralph Raffio/Facebook]
John Conte, cook and proprietor of Conte's 1894 in Rockland, makes one thing abundantly clear in the August issue of Down East magazine: he does not want to be called a chef. The soon-to-be septuagenarian kitchen master of "Maine's nuttiest, kitschiest, most confounding place to snag a delicious, bountiful, Italian-style meal" says this to Ralph Raffio, the writer of the awesome profile (Raffio also writes the Mister Meatball blog):
"Chefs today are nothing but a bunch of punks," Conte growls, a pair of big steel tongs in one hand and a hot iron pan filled with sea scallops and shrimp and salmon and a rich garlic sauce in the other. "I hate chefs. They think they invented the stove. ... You insult me when you call me one, you know. ... And I'm a fishmonger, not a restaurant operator. I buy fresh fish every day and then I cook it for whoever shows up here at night."
Conte's is only open three hours a day, but it's open every, single day. There's no sign, no web presence, no credit cards accepted. The portions of fresh seafood are massive and the prices absurdly low. You really must go read the whole thing, but for now here are some other gems from Raffio's article:
· "Though Conte's stated operating hours go to 8 p.m., visitors risk going home hungry by arriving later than 7:30ish. Why? Because the man in the kitchen, an iconoclast if ever there was one, might simply decide that he has already had quite enough excitement for one evening."
· "Neat freaks should probably steer clear of Conte's. In 2002, while operating at its original location on Rockland's waterfront, then-harbormaster John Trumble charged that Conte's rough-and-tumble appearance was 'detrimental to development' of the city's harbor."
· "Entrées are so large that they come on serving platters, not on plates. Much-sought-after take-out containers aren't held out back with other supplies; they're stacked right inside the dining room for easy access."
· "Conte works 365 days a year. The last time he had any time off was during a hospital stay — and that was five years ago. The man hasn't eaten in another restaurant for around a quarter century."
· Conte, on the food portion to price ratio: "If it was about money, I'd need to have my head examined. Don't you think I know that? People are hungry, and I feed them the best way I know how. That's it."
· Conte, on his stove and dog: "I love my stove the way I love my dog. ... And you know what? I really love my dog."
· "Chefs Today Are Nothing But a Bunch of Punks" [Down East]