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Clark Frasier Talks About 25 Years at Arrows

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Clark Frasier (right) and Mark Gaier of Arrows. [Photo: Ron Manville]

Twenty-five years ago, Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier packed up their belongings in California and headed to Maine, settling in Ogunquit, where they opened Arrows and pioneered a farm-to-table philosophy. The on-site Arrows garden provides much of the produce for the restaurant and its sister spot, MC Perkins Cove, which Frasier and Gaier opened in 2005. The two James Beard Award winners competed on Top Chef Masters last year and plan to open MC Medici in Boston this fall.

To celebrate the quarter-century mark at Arrows, an anniversary gala is planned for Sunday, Sept. 22 featuring culinary luminaries like acclaimed chef Jeremiah Tower (a mentor to Clark and Mark and the first chef of Chez Panisse, considered a "father" of American cuisine), renowned pasty chef Jim Dodge and former longtime Bon Appetit editor Barbara Fairchild, along with many others. The gala begins at 6 p.m. with hors d'oeuvres and champagne on the front lawn, with a tour of the gardens to follow, then dinner in the remodeled Arrows dining room. A few tickets remain ($149 for dinner, $195 with wine) and can be reserved by calling (207) 361-1100.

Frasier recently spoke with Eater about the past 25 years, current trends and the "secret" to staying relevant.

Is it exciting to see how far the farm-to-table concept has come?
Absolutely. It's really great, but it's almost become irritating because you hear it so often. That's the good news, that people are really paying attention to it and a lot of people are actually practicing it. It's a wonderful thing. The further we get away from our industrial, pre-packaged food society, the better. So, yeah, it's great. Very gratifying.

When you left California 25 years ago, did you imagine that the move to Maine would be permanent?
Yeah, it's one of those things where when you're young, in your 20s, you don't really think about that. It was like, if it works out, great. If it didn't, maybe I'd end up in Chile. Or China. Or wherever. But 25 years has gone by real fast. It feels like just yesterday we were packing up to come out here sometimes. And sometimes it seems like a million years ago.

With all the changing trends in the restaurant world, how have you managed to stay so relevant and successful?
We've always just done what we enjoy doing. It's always been a really personal expression, unlike a lot of other restaurants. You know how some restaurants are like, let's start a French bistro. Then they plan the menu, plan the decor, and that's it. Arrows has always just been a very personal expression of Mark and myself and the talented group of people that have worked at the restaurant over the years. It's always been about what we wanted to do, a personal expression of where we've traveled, where we ate, what we're excited about. That's been kind of the secret. It's not a formula or a corporate undertaking where everything has to be safe and work out nice. It's just been what we've wanted to do. I think people respond to that.

If you could rewind 25 years, is there anything you'd do differently?
You always look back and think, 'Oh, if I had done this or I had done that,' but as far as Arrows goes, there isn't a whole lot I would have done differently. It's been wonderful, it continues to be wonderful. It's a beautiful place that gets more beautiful every year. I have no regrets about things. You can't do it that way. My personal philosophy is that you need to look forward and do your projects, do exciting things. That's the best way to live, not looking back.

What are your goals for Arrows for the future?
We did a big renovation and redecoration of the restaurant that's been very exciting. There's a whole new look in the dining area and at the bar. There's a new table cart service, a sort of dim sum service that's been very well received. Our menu is more like we were doing years ago — different food but a similar concept. That's also been very well received. Moving forward, we want to continue in that vein: a little more casual, which is the way people all over the world are going. In the garden, we hope to do more specific gardens, like we did an Asian garden a few years ago. An Italian garden, a French garden, that sort of thing. And just make the restaurant more special and more beautiful each year. Keep it fantastic, just as good as we can make it. That's the plan for Arrows.

You mentioned going back to what you were doing years ago with the menu. Is that about giving diners more options?
Definitely. It's always been a personal expression and we got excited for a number of years about tasting menus, which were always optional but kind of dominant. I think Mark and I have both become less enamored of that style. We're personally kind of tired of it, though it is still popular with a lot of people and we still offer that option — we're happy to do whatever people want to do — but there are a lot more options for guests. They can create their own tasting menu, or order a more a la carte menu. Just a lot more free and more expressive of who we are, rather than a formal, uptight feeling.

Are there any current food or restaurant trends that you'd like to see fade away?
I think molecular gastronomy can be fascinating and great theater, but I find it essentially antithetical to farm-to-table. I don't mean that things all have to be rustic. I just mean that I like to sit down and have dinner with friends. Nothing is more wonderful than a great dinner party with friends. That was the idea when we created Arrows: you're in a friend's home — hopefully a wealthy friend's home — and you're enjoying a beautiful dinner, but it's food, it's dinner. It's not theater. So I'm not a big fan of that movement. I think it's interesting. I think some of the people involved in it are brilliant and fascinating, but it leaves Mark and me cold.
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37 Ogunquit Road, Cape Neddick, ME 03902