The coastal view from the main dining room at the Cape Arundel Inn in Kennebunkport is quintessentially Maine. Renovations by the inn’s new owners have preserved the large picture windows that frame the landscape of rocky gardens and ledges with a backdrop of sea and sky. It is an ideal restaurant setting for a cook whose cuisine has consistently been at the cutting edge of fresh and place-specific food: Chef Pierre Gignac.
“It is easy to be in a place like this and want to cook the best of what we have to offer. We have the world’s best seafood here in Maine and we have so many fisherman and farmers out our back door and many here in the Kennebunks. I have always liked to take full advantage of that in my food,” said Gignac as he took in the view.
Gignac was the chef and owner of the venerated 98 Provence on Shore Road in Ogunquit. The long-established French restaurant sold in 2012 and permanently closed its doors this past autumn. Gignac had historically been both an advocate and marketing resource for local food producers. Farmers across the seacoast knew that he had a deft touch with their products and 98 Provence was their platform.
“At 98 Provence, we made food that people loved and felt connected to. I was able to bring classic French techniques to the kitchen and expose people to great locally produced ingredients,” said Gignac. “We worked with so many people over the years and had many great relationships. I helped customers taste the foods that Mainers were producing.”
George Carpenter, a long-time farmer and collaborator of Gignac’s, explained the impact that a chef like Gignac has on the food industry: “For years, farmers in Maine have grown things like giant cucumbers and tomatoes. They grew whatever they wanted not knowing if it would sell. It was always a gamble. Fine cooks could not use those types of things. With chefs like Pierre, I learned to go back to the farmers and suggest that they grow produce like arugula, herbs and rocket.”
Now chefs have specialty ingredients that are grown close to home: profitable for both the producers and cooks.
Carpenter co-taught with Chef Gignac at the Stonewall Kitchen Cooking School in York and is the owner of Farm2Chef, a local food-to-restaurant brokerage that provides chefs like Gignac with fresh custom produce like specialty greens, mushrooms and cheeses.
The reciprocity in which farmer and chef teach and communicate with one another makes an impression that reaches beyond the restaurant dining experience. Diners who taste unique ingredients then in turn, ask for these ingredients at their local farmer’s markets and then try their hands at growing the produce themselves.
“Ten years ago, very few people grew their own heirloom produce. And now it seems everyone has an heirloom plant in the garden. It has a trickle down effect,” said Gignac.
After 98 Provence’s closure, Gignac’s students (he was both a private chef and instructor), along with his suppliers and devoted customers, awaited the day when a new culinary venture would present itself. His expertise led to a trusting relationship, both with his customers in the creation of masterful food, and with his producers to communicate his supply needs.
Good news arrived for all parties when Gignac took the helm at the Cape Arundel.
“I have been given carte-blanche to create the kind of meals that I would want to eat. I will use more Asian and Italian influences on Maine produce and seafood. It is more than I have ever done before,” said Gignac. “I will find what is available here in Kennebunkport, talk to farmers and fishermen and see what I can create. I know what combinations taste good and I like to introduce guests to that experience. I am looking forward to it,” said Gignac.
Ocean at the Cape Arundel Inn is now open Wed-Mon through the Christmas Prelude season. The restaurant is home to a newly built bar, complete with a tapas menu and custom-crafted cocktails. Dinner will be served nightly. www.capearundelinn.com, 28 Ocean Avenue, Kennebunkport, Me 04046. Tel: 207-967-2125.
Kristin Fuhrmann Simmons is a writer, blogger and pastry chef. She lives on the seacoast with her family and spends most of her time cooking, eating and thinking about her next meal.