Chatting with a master: An interview with Chef Clark Frasier

There’s nothing quite like New England. Mind you, I am biased due to living here my entire life, but there is something really special about this region. It’s historic. Quaint.

A friend of mine constantly trumpets the virtues of the most northern state of the northeast, Maine, and with good reason. It’s beautiful, with scenery for all tastes. From a culinary standpoint, Maine is an amazing place for seafood, it’s crown jewel being the Maine lobster.

But, there is more to the Maine culinary scene than meets the eye. On the outskirts of Ogunquit, you’ll find one of the finest restaurants I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine in. Arrows, the flagship restaurant of James Beard Award winning Chefs, Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, is enchanting. The grounds, which include a garden that falls just shy of an acre, make you feel like you’re stopping by a friend’s house.

I had a chance to sit and speak with Chef Clark about his love of food, his start in the industry, and his upcoming appearance on Bravo’s fourth season of Top Chef: Masters.

Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier – Photo by Ron Manville

Foodie Journalist: Where did your love of food come from?
Clark Frasier: Like a lot of chefs, I grew up with parents who were very much in to food. I grew up in California, and my parents loved wine, loved to cook, and loved to entertain. We always had a house full of people. I enjoyed all that, but at the time I didn’t see myself going in to the restaurant business. I did work in restaurants from a young age, and enjoyed it. It was a good way to make money. I always enjoyed the strong environment and the camaraderie, but it didn’t really dawn on me that it would be a career choice, though. My parents were academics, so there was always the thought of college and what not. So I went in to Chinese language. I studied the Chinese language and ended up eating my way through Beijing. As an interesting side note: at that time in China there wasn’t really much in the way of refrigeration. You couldn’t get cheese to go with crackers or anything like that. So, I spent a winter eating cabbage! When it got to be Spring and things started to grow again, it was like, “Oh my God, these vegetables taste so great!” I never wanted to see a cabbage again! It was that Spring that kind of awakened that in me again, reminding me of having grown up in northern California. Being able to get at amazing ingredients right when they’re in season. It was a great reminder of how much I loved it.

FJ: So obviously you aren’t making the Chinese language your life’s work now. How did you eventually end up in the restaurant business?
CF: Yeah, when I came back it was like, “Ok. Great. So you speak Chinese. So do a billion other people. Now what?” [LAUGHS] One of my professors was a man by the name of Jonathan Tower and he said to me, “My brother Jeremiah is opening a restaurant in San Francisco called Stars”. At the time I kind of had this vision of opening an import/export business, but he said, “Well, why don’t you go work for him for a little while so you can just pay your rent.” I thought, great! I had always worked in restaurants growing up so why not.

It was an incredibly difficult place to work, and Jeremiah was a difficult man to work for. But, it was such an amazing group of people, and such a ground breaking restaurant. A lot of what we really take for granted in restaurants today really started there. The big open kitchen. The huge bar. The lively bar. You know before that it was kind of always a quiet, white table cloth, continental cuisine type atmosphere. Everything brought in from France or maybe Italy. Very formal. That was fine dining. Jeremiah totally revolutionized that, and threw the rest out the window! Now you go in to a place and everyone has an open kitchen. But, back then it was like, “Oh my god! What’s going on here?” Wide open kitchens. Piano playing during service. You could stop in for a hamburger or a hot dog after a night out at the opera. I mean, no body did that at the time.

FJ: In a tough working environment, what was it that made you want to keep at it and stay in the industry?
CF: Well, the team there was amazing. It was a group of really bright people. A lot of them have gone on to become really well known chefs. The starting team there was just a blast. We’d work all night, and then go out all night and all that regular restaurant nonsense. It was very exciting, and I felt really comfortable. I realized “I like doing this”. When you find something that you’re good at and it just feels natural to you, then you wonder why would you do anything else? Why should I try to become an import/export person? At that point, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

FJ: And now here you are at Arrows, and really it is an amazing set up you have here. You have been here since when? Early 1990s?
CF: 1988 actually. Mark Gaier and I left Stars and wanted to open a restaurant in Carmel. There were a ton of people interested in backing us, but once they’d see the cost involved, at the time it was like a little over a million dollars, things always seemed to fall through. It was really depressing. Well, Mark used to live out here, and he kept on talking about Maine. For me, growing up a kid in California, I remember thinking, “Where the eff is Maine?” [LAUGH] But, he kept talking about it. So, we took a trip out here just for fun, his brothers lived out here. We came by this property completely by chance. Some friends of his actually bought it, and they had been running a couple of restaurants at the time. They called us one day and said, “Hey, do you want to buy Arrows?” We said, “Sure. We’ve got, like, $50 to spare.” So they just said, “Well, if you aren’t really doing anything solid right now, why don’t you just lease it from us for a season and see how it goes? Then we’ll give you the option to buy.” The nice part of being young is that we had the flexibility to give it a try. We packed up the car, raised enough money to lease it for you a year, came out here and that was that. But, there was a lot to do. It was sort of dark and cold.
FJ: Yeah, that’s the trade off of being in this area!
CF: I know, right! But, that was it. So we set to work on it. With every year that passed we made it better, a bit more beautiful.
FJ: It’s really a beautiful grounds you’ve created here. It’s amazing!
CF: Thank you!

FJ: Do you feel that what you’ve been able to do here, with the garden and everything you have on site, really sets you apart from other restaurants?
CF: Well, we started the garden in 1992. We started it because we couldn’t find what we really wanted to use in our kitchen. We came from the Bay Area where you could get pretty much anything you wanted, and then we get out here, and it just wasn’t the same. Things here have changed quite a bit around here, but in those days… there were some local folks growing stuff, but it wasn’t necessarily what we were looking for.

The thing about gardens is that you really have to have someone willing to do it, otherwise you end up like other restaurants that say they have a “garden” which ends up being just a weed patch with some herb plants. So there was a person that worked with Mark and was a good friend that said, “Look, I don’t really know a ton about gardens. I’ve taken care of my own garden, so if you want I can give it a try.” So we came out and we rototilled this front portion [by the pebble walkway near the restaurant], and that was the garden the first year. Then we realized we needed to at least double it if we really wanted it to work. Then we tripled it. Then quadrupled it. Then we realized that if we wanted to extend the season we’d need to build a greenhouse, so we did that. So this garden here is probably one of the most densely used restaurant gardens you’ll ever find. It will produce most of the product you see in the restaurant here. And, as we get deeper in to the summer, we can also produce for our other restaurant, MC Perkins Cove. Having the garden really ensures for us that we’re getting great product, and that’s key. So many people ask, “Well, do you save money?” No.
FJ: Right. Just the amount of work that has to go in to maintaining it has to bring a cost.
CF: Exactly. It’s huge labor. We have one guy that is a full-time guy, and he has some other part-time workers that some time become full-time depending on how busy things get.

FJ: So coming up at the end of July is the fourth season of Top Chef: Masters. You and Mark were invited to compete. Mind if I ask a couple of questions?
CF: Sure! Go ahead.
FJ: What was the overall experience like? Can it be likened at all to working in a regular restaurant kitchen?
CF: The pressure on the show is certainly akin to the kind we feel in our restaurant kitchens. That said, at our restaurants we do our best to avoid a lot of the chaos you see on the show. With the right team work, we try to create a smooth, functional flow in our kitchens; we even like to have a bit of fun back there!

FJ: There is an interesting angle that comes with both you and Chef Mark being on the show. The two of you helm three restaurants together as partners – what was it like to now be in a situation where you would compete against someone that you are so used to working with?
CF: At first it was quite strange and a bit of a challenge because we’ve been collaborating for over 27 years! Occasionally we couldn’t resist helping one another out. Once we were on a team together which was a real relief during the competition. The hardest part wasn’t competing with one another, but not being able to collaborate on techniques, taste and simply bouncing ideas off one another.

FJ: Looking forward to seeing it! So now, my final question: we talked a little about your love of food and how you got started. With that comes memories and experiences that people like to think back on. Is there a particular food memory that stands out for you?
CF: There are so many, it’s tough to pick one. My experience with working and living with Mark has actually been really interesting. HIs family is from the mid-west, so going to his mom’s house was always really different. He’s one of seven kids, so it’s very different from how I grew up as an only child. When we’d go over there, his mom would basically kick us all out of the kitchen, telling us to go make drinks or something. So then there would be Mark, myself, maybe one of his brothers and his parents. On the table, though, would be this enormous pile of food and she’d be like, “Do you think six chickens is enough?” [LAUGHS] I’d be like, “Are you kidding me?!” It was really cool, and I enjoyed that a lot!

Chef Clark Frasier is chef/co-owner, along with Chef Mark Gaier, of Arrows Restaurant, MC Perkins Cove and Summer Winter Restaurant. Both will be competing on season 4 of Top Chef: Masters premiering July 25th on Bravo.

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