While in town for the 2014 Kennebunkport Festival, I had the privilege of having chef Jonathan Cartwright prepare lunch for me. This is a big to-do considering that Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star The White Barn Inn Restaurant is only open for dinner and the staff’s focus is on preparing the evening’s plates. But at a last minute’s notice (Cartwright received the request for me to dine there about three hours before I showed up), the talented toque and his team whipped up something pretty special — lobster pizza, minestrone soup, lobster salad with aged vinaigrette and a flourless chocolate cake with a scoop of black currant sorbet.
Once I finished off the sweetness presented to me in the last course, I sat with chef Cartwright over a glass of Pommery Apanage champagne and did what any journalist would do given time with the well-known Brit — ask away. Here, the down-to-earth culinary artist talks about his love for Kennebunkport, the pressure he feels to maintain The White Barn Inn Restaurant’s Five-Star, his go-to ingredients and so much more.
What type of experience is created here at Four-Star The White Barn Inn?
We are definitely a culinary experience. We base a lot on our restaurant. Within The White Barn Inn, we have a [Four-Star] spa, we have wonderful rooms, and we have wonderful service. It’s a place to relax and be yourself — you can be loud to a certain extent, but really, it’s an escape from the stress of the big cities and the hustle and bustle.
[Kennebunk’s Lower] Village has so much to offer as well. So, you can do as many things as you like and you have this beautiful thing called the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean can be very tough during the wintertime, but it can be very kind during the summertime. You can go out on a boat, you can go out and see whales, and you can go fishing. We also have bikes, so you can go on a bike ride around the coast. And there are great pubs and shopping. So, there is something to do for everybody. My kids love the beach here, and I can’t think of a better place in the world to bring children than to Kennebunkport, Maine.
It’s cold here. It’s sophisticated. It’s very serene. Of course, you always have to be aware of dangers. But here, you have to worry more about Mother Nature. It could be very dangerous and people underestimate the power of the ocean. But the beaches are well kept. And you will get a great night of sleep. You are in the middle of a town, but at 9 o’clock, no one is making any noise. You have no difficulties sleeping because it is so peaceful. I don’t think there is any place better to sleep than Maine, and I’ve been to a few good sleeping places.
What else do you love about this area?
You go farther north in Maine and there are so many places to explore because Kennebunkport is close to big cities like Portland. Acadia National Park is a little bit of a trek, but it is beautiful up there, and it is so quiet. I always say how lucky I am that as a little boy from Sheffield, England, I have been to some beautiful places in the world.
I have found a home here in Kennebunkport. It’s very easy to settle into, being an English person. It’s seasonal to cook with, which I love. When I was in Puerto Rico, it was very hard to cook in the winter. It was hot and sunny. How are you supposed to do Christmas dinner when the snow is not falling down? That’s why I love the Northern Hemisphere. It is very beautiful. We have great farmers, great foliage, great fishermen, great product to work with and a great setting to serve in. It’s as close to perfection as you can get.
You’re at the helm of a Five-Star restaurant. How does that make you feel on a day-to-day basis?
It is a great honor. I think for me the most exciting thing is the team effort that goes into producing that kind of level. Chasing that level of performance was great; it was a dream. Once you get it, holding onto it and maintaining it is a lot of pressure. I don’t want to put pressure on the rest of the team. I want to build excitement that we are striving to be one of the best in the whole country. The country sets the world standard. It really does. It has a big stage. America is a melting pot of everything and a lot of the world looks to it. Now, with everything the media has done with standards, grades and accolades, what we have has made us a world leader. We are the leaders in many industries and are admired by other countries. People want to come to my kitchen from many places in the world to learn what we are doing in America. That’s what I want to show to the team. It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also a lot of excitement as well. I think working with Forbes Travel Guide is great — the people working at Forbes Travel Guide come in and have an exact way of measuring levels of performance and coming up with guidelines. If you want to get in the game, you need to measure the game. It’s just like anything. I am a cyclist and would like to race again. If I think I’m fast, then I need to get in a race. With culinary arts, I think we are good. But how do we know that we are good? We got into the race, we got into the game, and now we are at the top.
I’m very proud to be among others that have received the same accolades. It’s tough and challenging, but fun. That’s the most important thing. Life is fun. It’s short at times, but it’s got to be fun. Sometimes you miss out on things, but you have to bounce back from that. Interacting with Forbes Travel Guide is fun, consistent and really challenging. It gives us the energy to keep going and wanting to be better each year.
You mentioned in a recent interview with Maine magazine that you get enjoyment out of classic ingredients and combinations. What are your go-to items in the kitchen?
Of course in Kennebunkport, Maine, you’ve got to go with the lobster. Many classic chefs would say that we serve too much lobster here. I think if we served a lobster dessert here, we would be able to sell it. No doubt about it, people come to Maine for lobster. I like cooking fish, and we have wonderful fish and scallops. We have some quirky laws with trout — seafood and agriculture are well governed. We have wonderful forages. I love when fiddleheads and Maine blueberries are in season. It is a great time of the year. It’s a very short window in Maine, and I think that is why I appreciate them so much. Every year feels like a new child being born. It’s very exciting. The Maine lobster is famous in this area and we elevate it with simple cooking. Love and care is important, but we have a great product to begin with. Once you have a great product, the things to do are care for it and not smother it. You need to make sure that flavor comes through and get it as fresh as you can for the customers. Everyone comes looking for lobsters in Maine and we have a slight advantage because we have them on our doorstep.
How fresh, for instance, was the lobster I had for lunch today?
I would say that it came off the boat yesterday afternoon. They sorted it last night and graded it because normally purveyors buy it from the boatmen and fishermen that work very hard on it. Then, we buy a certain size and a certain quality. You can get soft-shell or hard-shell lobsters. In summertime, they go into a shedding season so it is harder to get the hard-shells. Personally, I like the hard-shell because of the firmness of the meat. I love it in late October and early November, when it is done shedding from the summer and it increases its size. They produce a nice, hard shell for when the waters cool down again. The shell is not too hard to break open and you have this beautiful, firm but sweet flesh inside to eat. For me, that is the best time to eat lobster. There is never a bad time for lobster. People love shedders as well. For me, the texture is just not there. You lose a little bit of the detail when they break out of their shells. But, people will fight me on that. Some people really want shedders.
We have great fishermen around here. They have to go out in tough weather, especially in the wintertime. They work hard. Did you know that 100 years ago, they had to write a law in New England not to serve prisoners lobster three times a day and seven days a week? Now, it is a king’s dish instead of a peasant’s.
Maine also does a fantastic job with sustainability. We measure what we catch and we also have to release the lobsters if they are pregnant females. If it is too small, we also have to release it. It’s very hard when you get individuals in one business, and you try to govern it. This shows that they are all passionate and really care about what they do.
Photos Courtesy of The White Barn Inn