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Salt Water Farm Keeps Maine Food World Buzzing

Salt Water Farm. Credit: Annemarie Ahearn

Salt Water Farm. Credit: Annemarie Ahearn

“Let me just finish up what I’m doing, and then I’m going to step outside and talk to you. Give me 30 seconds.” I had called Annemarie Ahearn on the phone on a recent Friday morning. She sounded breathless. Whirlwind. And who can blame her? Slightly more than a month ago, Salt Water Farm, Ahearn’s cooking school and food garden in Lincolnville, Maine, underwent a major growth spurt, opening a new venue at Union Hall in nearby Rockport, Maine.

Not that I was surprised. I’ve never known Ahearn to be anything but busy. She has always come across as almost bionic, with a storehouse of energy to match her penchant for innovative food entrepreneurship. She invited me to stop by when I was driving south along the Maine coast just after the first December snowfall of 2010. A long email correspondence had preceded, sparked by shared interests and about a half degree of separation in the Northeast’s food and farm world.

That wintry day, we perched at Salt Water Farm’s wide island and sipped tea, looking out across the terraced garden beds and over the pristine bay. Back then, long hours and full weeks were devoted to establishing a cooking school celebrating traditional cooking methods and regional products in her custom-built kitchen, a beautiful open space in a former sheep barn on her family’s property. Becoming profitable was proving challenging, Ahearn explained to me, but she seemed enlivened by the challenge of running her own business and the tight-knit nature of the mid-coast Maine community to which she had moved after several years of cooking, writing and working with the food cognoscenti in New York City. And she was full of ideas for the future.

Only a few years ago running one site may have felt like a logistical feat to Ahearn, but these days, she has a whole lot more ducks to keep in a row. The month-old cafe and market at Union Hall, the latest iteration of Salt Water Farm, is open for three meals a day, five days a week, and for brunch on Sundays. Breathless indeed!

The view from Salt Water Farm. Credit: Annemarie Ahearn

The view from Salt Water Farm. Credit: Annemarie Ahearn

Nearly two years of planning and work went into the expansion, including a loving restoration of the Union Hall building itself, a historic building that sits on the edge of Penobscot Bay. Ahearn cast a wide net, searching for the best of the best to helm her stoves and manage the restaurant. She told me she couldn’t be more pleased with the team she found, including Chef Justin Barrett, a former architecture student who cut his teeth cooking in New York before moving to Vermont to delve more fully into all stages of food production and preparation; and Andrew Kesselring, a native of Kansas City, Mo., who began working in restaurants in Nashville, Tenn., before going on to bicoastally hone his front- and back-of-the-house skills at Chez Panisse, Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Frankie’s Spuntino. Most of her team moved from either New York or California to join her in Maine. “It’s been insanely busy, with everyone working such long hours, helping everyone find housing and trying to integrate them into the community,” she said.

The restaurant’s concept is bold and deeply rooted in tradition. The food is simple and identifiable, meant to showcase Maine’s burgeoning smallholder agriculture and artisan scene. “We came out of the gate with this concept that we would serve one meal each night, with a few sides, like a supper club,” Ahearn told me. “We put a mission statement on the back of the menu explaining that what you’re eating is what was harvested nearby today, or maybe yesterday. That this is a progressive, sustainable restaurant.” But there was some pushback, with customers expressing a desire for more flexible dining options. The staff quickly responded by slightly diversifying the menu and putting out a variety of small plates and tastings, including foraged items from land and sea.

Ahearn has more plans for Salt Water Farm

As if opening a restaurant weren’t enough to keep her busy, Ahearn kept moving and shaking in a number of directions.

While working on Union Hall, she hired Jen Porter, former manager of Turner Farm on North Haven (an island in Penobscot Bay), as a farm consultant to help envision the farm’s expansion, and then brought on a farm manager, Dana Crane, who has grown the gardens in Lincolnville nearly threefold and is bulking up the site’s agricultural capacity by putting in a fruit orchard and beginning to utilize tractors and season-extension techniques to increase the farm’s efficiency and output.

Asked what the biggest challenges have been, she explained, “reworking with very small farmers. We’re not buying anything except salt, lemons and olive oil — you know, things you can’t harvest in Maine — from commercial purveyors. We have no waste, literally no waste. The goal is to build relationships so that a year from now, they can start making investments on their end to increase production, but in the meantime, it’s us taking the risk.” Still, she was quick to articulate that the challenges have in no way swallowed her and the staff’s excitement and successes. “The food has been outstanding since the day we opened. And I’m really excited about growing the cooking school, which is easier now that there are more eyes on us and we have a bigger audience.”

For Ahearn, the vision of Salt Water Farm has always been one of cooperation and community, and the business’ growth is helping to manifest those plans. “This space is just so conducive to collaborative events with other like-minded people,” she said, citing a recent dinner with Maine cookbook author, radio personality and Zester Daily contributor Kathy Gunst and an upcoming event with Dogfish Head brewery as examples. “Plus,” she added as her dog began to bark in the background, beckoning for her attention, “The view from the deck is crazy beautiful, and our chefs look out over the water from the stove.” I laughed, “Not like those windowless, cramped kitchens in New York?” I asked. “No,” she responded thoughtfully. “These guys have all worked at the model places that are great, but fell short of the ideal.” But, she concluded, “We’re trying to make it happen here.”

Top photo: Salt Water Farm. Credit: Annemarie Ahearn

Zester Daily contributor Sara B. Franklin considers herself a storyteller and cook foremost. A graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, she's farmed and worked as a writer, researcher, policy advocate, educator and baker in Massachusetts and New York. She's currently working on her first cookbook, an exploration of the foundations of Brazilian cuisine with Rio de Janeiro-based Teresa Corção,  and is a doctoral student in the food studies program at New York University.