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How Maine's Small Plate Savvy Central Provisions Became the Nation's Darling

Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater talks with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.

Chris (L) and Paige Gould, co-owners of Central Provisions, Portland.
Chris (L) and Paige Gould, co-owners of Central Provisions, Portland.
Meredith Perdue

It's been a banner year for Central Provisions, which celebrated its first anniversary earlier this month. The restaurant has garnered local and national acclaim, culminating in the announcement this week (just after this interview) that the prestigious James Beard Foundation included the restaurant as a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in the 2015 Restaurant and Chef Awards. Husband and wife owners Chris and Paige Gould handle Central Provisions' back and front of house, respectively, with enough aplomb that the restaurant never seems to slow down.

Even this brutal winter, which seems to be taking a heavier toll on restaurateurs than ever, has barely fazed the couple. Fans don skis and snow shoes and even wield toboggans in their pursuit of the eclectic small plates and delectable drinks served by Central Provisions seven days a week.

The best part? The Goulds say they are better prepared than ever to tackle the busy summer season, even as they anticipate the birth of their first child in May, which will force Paige to take a little down time. It's obvious they have a strong relationship in and out of the workplace, which supports the entire business. The two sat down to chat about the difficulty of opening a new restaurant in a historic building, the three standing ovations the staff has received, and the way that Chris' impressive background makes him such a flexible chef and such an annoying person to watch Chopped with.

It took you a long time to get started. How was that process?
Chris Gould (CG): The process of finding a space, building out a restaurant, takes a long time, as you can imagine. We had the idea for the restaurant before we found the space, but the actual way the restaurant is designed and built is 100% based off of the building. There's ideas we had with the open kitchen concept, the small plates concept, but the design and the feel of the restaurant was conceptualized based on the feel of the space.

When did you first start talking about Central Provisions as a concept?
CG: It was two years before we opened. I'd been thinking about doing a small plates restaurant probably for seven years. I'd been working with Ken Oringer in Boston. I opened Coppa with him, which was small plates, kind of Italian pastas and pizzas. Paige worked at Toro, real Spanish tapas, you know. I was at Uni as well, which was kind of small plates Japanese. So I had a lot of exposure to that and I liked the concept of small plates—that's the way I like to eat.

In these different restaurants, I always felt a little bit pigeonholed by the genre of food we were doing.

Originally, about seven years ago when I was thinking about the restaurant I wanted to do, I wanted to do small plates French food. Then as I worked in these different restaurants, I always felt a little bit pigeonholed by the genre of food we were doing. When I was at Uni, it wasn't traditional Japanese food by any means, but everything had to tie back to Japanese food, or when I was at Coppa it had to tie back to Italian food. Here, we wanted to be able to do whatever preparation felt like it would complement the product the best, whether it's Thai or French or Spanish or Italian or a combination of a couple of them.

Some people feel pigeonholing helps hone a focus, and it can be hard to be all things to all people. How do you deal with having so many cuisines available?
CG: Getting quality product, local product is the main focus, then the genre of food kind of takes care of itself. As long as we keep the focus on high quality food, then where it's from doesn't really matter.

Paige Gould (PG): In refusing to pick a different nationality, we're just American, the melting pot.

central provisions food

Photo: Kari Herer/courtesy Central Provisions

So you get an item, and it speaks to you? How do you decide what to do with it?
CG: Yeah, for instance today, we got a pork coppa, the shoulder of the pig, and it's generally either braised or cut thin and pounded out. So we're going to do a Milanese style: pound it out thin, bread it with fresh bread crumbs, make it like a schnitzel. We'll do a nice rich hunter sauce with it, mushrooms, kind of a tomato and stock broth that you cook down to a thick, rich sauce. It's just based on the weather, what we feel would complement the product, what people want that time of year. If it were summertime, we might grill it and shred it and serve it in lettuce wraps with Thai flavors. Something light, spicy.

It's no fun watching Chopped with him, let's put it that way.

PG: I feel like Chris' knowledge base is so much more vast than a lot of people's because of the different cuisines that he's had the pleasure of working in. As a result, his mind doesn't work like most people's.

I cooked for nine years, but most of my experience is French, so when I think of things, it always goes toward the French. On the other hand, he'll think of...it's no fun watching Chopped with him, let's put it that way. Whenever they have those weird Asian ingredients, he's like, "Oh, that's this, and I would make a crumble out of that," and he just always knows exactly what he'll do. So I feel like drawing from that knowledge and not wanting to pigeonhole ourselves is what has made us what we are.

You've spoken before about going through a year's worth of seasonal menus before finally opening. How many have you gone through since then?
CG: 350? I mean, there's stuff that's been on since we opened: chopped salad, tuna crudo, suckling pig, dry-aged sirloin, to name a few. But we generally run about 40 items a day and of those 40 I'd say weekly 5 to 10 of them change.

PG: There's also dishes like the bread and butter, where it's morphed several different times. When it was originally on the menu it was just farm butter with egg sauvignon on toasted sourdough, then over the summer we made it a nasturtium butter, and now it's a hazelnut butter. We switch it up.

With the buildout, there was a serious fire that happened next door. Any other challenges that popped up around opening time?

CG: Being in a historic area makes it difficult to do...anything. Just based on fire codes, the fire department wants you to do one thing, historical preservation wants you to do another, and they're generally conflicting. It had nothing to do with us, it was internal workings of the city trying to figure out how to turn a 200-year-old building into a restaurant.

Being in a historic area makes it difficult to do...anything.

After this fire happened next door it immediately became much more strict. If you built out a restaurant a year earlier, it wouldn't have been an issue, whereas all of a sudden it is, so we were the first people to go through that.

Were there any major features you were desperate to include that you had to cut because they wouldn't work in the space?
CG: The only thing that I wanted that we couldn't do was a wood-fired grill. For solid fuels like wood or coal you need a separate hood than the gas hood, so we would have had to put two hoods in, and the exhaust goes up through the building rather than externally, so there wasn't space for that. The buildout ended up costing a bunch more money because we had to do things internally rather than externally.

How'd opening night go?
CG: [To Paige:] It was good, right?

PG: I remember friends and family night more than I remember opening night, because that was first. It was great, having so many people we love and respect here to support us. I don't remember opening night either.

CG: The only thing I remember about opening night is the first people that came in sat down in front of me, and they were like, "Oh, how many years have you guys been open?" I was like, "Actually, you are the first customers ever to sit in this restaurant." They were like, "No way, looks like you guys have been here forever!" That's the only thing that really sticks out to me.

If you don't remember opening night that well, do you have a most memorable service in here?
CG: I think the three times we got standing ovations from the whole restaurant.

PG: Yeah, that was pretty intense.

CG: Somebody, like a four top, would stand up and start clapping, and then the whole restaurant would just start clapping about the food and the service and the drinks. Those nights stick out to me a lot because I've never seen that happen in a restaurant, and it's happened three times here.

PG: It's cute, he blushes.

We got standing ovations from the whole restaurant...I've never seen that happen.

CG: Yeah, it's hard to get the whole kitchen back together after that happens, everybody's kind of like...okay, well, we're still working, let's go! And our one year anniversary with Bill [Leavy] and Karl [Deuben, of Small Axe Truck and now East Ender] here was a memorable night. I think everybody had a really good time, the food was great, and it's fun to be able to step back and think about the year that we had and be able to have other people in here and support them a little bit too. A lot of people helped us out when we were opening, so to be able to give them any kind of help was nice—not that they need it.

Any changes you would've made those first few weeks?
PG: We did a good job of having a couple pre-shifts before we had a real opening, where half the staff sat down and the other half served them, then they switched. We did a lot of product knowledge and tastings, so everybody knew everything before we even opened. Through the process of our opening we got complimented several times on how smooth and how great it was, which we took as a huge compliment.

central provisions by bissell

Photo: Peter Bissell/courtesy Central Provisions

It's been a particularly tough winter for local restaurants: tons of snow, lots of parking bans, especially on weekends. You guys have been open through pretty much every storm. How are you weathering this?
CG: I think our policy of being open stems from two things. Most of our employees live within a five or ten minute walk of here, so it's not like they have to drive a half an hour to get here, and we live very close by as well.

PG: We also make sure they feel comfortable coming in, because if they didn't we wouldn't ask them to.

CG: And then I think us consistently being open during snow storms, so there's no question of, "Will they be closed or will they be open?" We're generally open, so we've been fortunate to be fairly busy when it's snowing.

PG: We have a fair amount of locals nearby that'll come out. During the blizzard, Juno, we had some people snow shoe in from the East End, we had two girls toboggan in, somebody skied in. Everybody gets a little cabin fever when the storms hit, and it's fun to have a destination and something to go and do.

With the general manager (Paige) about to give birth, how are you preparing the restaurant for that absence?
PG: We took on another manager who has taken over my day shifts. I'm going to be shifting into the back of the front of house, so I'll be managing all the bills, payroll, all the really fun stuff that everybody wants to do. It's basically taking two steps forward so I can take ten steps back, making sure everything is done exactly how we want it to be done. Even the smallest things like making sure our tip-out sheets at the end of the night are streamlined, and fixing little things so there's no question and therefore no mistake because everything is on point.

It's basically taking two steps forward so I can take ten steps back.

We've been really lucky with having a great management team. Justin Duwalt, Patrick McDonald, Ian Driscoll, and our newest hire, Courtney O'Neill, are all fantastic. They're not only extremely positive people, they're fun to be around. They always seem happy to come to work, which makes me happy.

You've accomplished a lot in a year. What are your goals going forward?
CG: I think first and foremost is to maintain that level of service and food that we've been able to strive for and hit the first year. We're still learning every day: better, quicker ways to do things, both front and back of house. I imagine this summer coming up is going to be busier than our first [Paige knocks on wood], so we're trying to be prepared for that. Last summer I thought I was adequately staffed and we were much busier than I thought we were going to be. I spent the whole time playing catch up. This summer I have a better idea of what the flow of guests will be like.

PG: But the nice thing is, now that we're established and people know who we are, it'll be a lot easier to get staff, because last year we were nobody.

CG: And trying to hire staff mid-summer is impossible. Everybody's looking for a job right now. The goal is to get ahead of that and have our staff in here with two months of training by June. So we're looking for seasonal cooks!

central provisions ext

Photo: Kari Herer/courtesy Central Provisions

Any new concepts in your future—a new restaurant, even?
CG: Not in the immediate future. We have a bunch of events this summer. We're doing Out Standing in the Field, Lamb Jam, Portland Symphony Orchestra dinner, countless off-site stuff. Tavern Road in Boston is having their two year anniversary party and me and a few other chefs are doing a dinner for them. As far as new concepts or anything like that, we're going to make sure this is perfect before we step out of it.

PG: One thing we're striving to do is more beer dinners. We had two, one with Allagash and one with Foundation, but we're looking to do more of those as well. Another part of me stepping out of my position is I was doing all the beer buying, and that's something Courtney is now taking on. The way we do our beer dinners, we don't sell tickets, we just do a supplementary menu that's optional. If you want to get food, get the beer to pair with it, great. If you don't, okay. It's a little bit more easy breezy.

Does it feel like it's been a year?
CG: A couple people asked me that on our one year anniversary night, and my answer to that was, it doesn't seem like it's been a year at all, but at the same time it seems like I've been doing this here for ten years. It seems like it went by very quickly but at the same time I can't remember before it.

It seems like I've been doing this here for ten years.

PG: I don't know, when January hit I kept on thinking of where we were last January and how it was a much different position than what we're in now, because we were both jobless trying to get this together. To be as well received as we have been is a fantastic blessing that we're happy for. I have no concept of time, so I'd agree that it seems like it hasn't nearly been a year but it's been way more than a year.

Central Provisions

414 Fore Street, , ME 04101 (207) 805-1085 Visit Website