Portland, Maine is considered one of the “foodiest” small cities in America, according to Bon Appetit magazine, and its many restaurants are frequently featured on The Travel Channel and Food Network. Portland can brag it has some of the best restaurants and chefs in the country, and one of Portland's rising stars is openly gay chef Kate Squibb.
A Maine native currently working at The Café, above Pat’s Meat Market, Chef Squibb received mention in Portland Press Herald’s Arts & Entertainment “10 From ‘11” list, and her appearance on Food Network's Chopped was cited under “Culinary Coups” as helping to advance Portland’s food presence on national television. Kate will appear on Maine’s own 207 Kitchen this February, and be filming her next appearance on The Food Network in May 2012. Be it opening her own restaurant, driving a slow-food truck across the country, or becoming a Food Network star, one thing is for sure: Chef Kate Squibb is already great.
We spoke with Chef Squibb about her career, being on TV, and how her family is at the core of her cooking.
Interview: Wil Whalen
Photos: Sailor Moon Photography
SheWired: You took place on Chopped and appeared on The Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. How did that come about?
I’m a part of an underground chef death match here in the Portland area. We have a Godfather who runs it, who shall remain nameless. Chefs from different local restaurants meet up and have amazing cook-offs. We’d been doing this for a few years when Andrew Zimmern caught wind of it and asked the Godfather to host a death-match on his show Bizarre Foods. Everybody did some weird stuff. I did “June bugs three ways.” There was duck tureen, moose tureen, and coffee brandy whoopee pies. One of the best things I ate that day was a raw oyster, sea beans, and rose petals dish. It was delicious! Talk about an aphrodisiac! I wanted to get naked.
What have you been doing since then?
I worked at the 158 Bake House in South Portland. We received national recognition from the New York Times for our bagels. We were also featured in Bon Appetit. That put not only us on the map, but me as well.
And then Food Network called and flew you to New York for the filming.
Yes, they did. It aired six months later, and keeping that secret was a very hard thing to do. Win or lose, you can’t say anything to anyone. They friend you on Facebook, watch your page to see if you talk about the show. They’re very concerned about the Internet, because it’s the easiest place to let something slip. They had nothing to worry about with me, though. Me and computers don’t get along too well.
When did you first become aware that food was going to be your career?
When I was brought home from the adoption agency, Grandma Squibb took a look at me and said, “This girl will love her groceries.” [laughs] I really do owe it to my family, where as soon as you could see the kitchen counter, you helped in the kitchen. It was great to grow up working at Scarborough Farm and at farm stands. It instilled in me an appreciation and even greater passion for food. I learned the background of ingredients, where they come from. I was always experimenting, and my dad encouraged new meals. He was a great cook, did most of the cooking. My mom wasn’t so great. Sorry, Mom!
Was food a big part of your family get-togethers?
Everything my family did revolved around it.
How old were you when you made your first complete meal for your family?
Way too young to be slinging knives and handling hot things, but I’m sure my Dad was right there. We used to spin the lazy Susan and pick random ingredients, then make a meal. I grew up playing Chopped!
What’s your philosophy on food?
Like I said, I grew up in a large family where food was the center of everything. It kept our family close. Food brings people together, so why not make everything — from its preparation to its consumption — an enjoyable experience for everyone to share? And don’t let anyone ever tell you not to play with your food. That’s the best part! Play with your food. Learn what it’s capable of, and what you’re capable of.
How is cooking for yourself or people you know different from cooking for people you don’t know in a restaurant?
When I cook at The Café, I kind of treat it as if I’m feeding myself. I try not to get upset when I’m cooking professionally. At restaurants where you can see the kitchen staff, and the chef is yelling, the cooks are miserable — and you can taste that in the food. To me, that detracts from the whole experience.
So, there’s no screaming in your kitchen?
Well, you know it does get tense in the kitchen. I’m not going to lie. That is part of the heat of the kitchen. You know what they say, “If you can’t handle the heat...”
Get out of the kitchen.
Bingo! You have to be on your toes, be a well-oiled machine with your co-workers. Communication between the front of the house and back of the house is key.
More on next page...
Speaking of learning, did you go to culinary school?
I did not. Grandma-taught all the way.
Do you prefer to walk into the kitchen and wing it or do you make lists, buy ingredients?
I met Julia Child when I was a teenager. She came to the food stand where I worked. Her approach was first, go to the market, see what’s fresh. Next, create your concept and take your time at the market. Then go home and execute. I like to be whimsical. I love walking through open-air markets. Sometimes I get overwhelmed and create two meals.
Do you prefer the big home-style meals or the crazy stuff, like June bugs and moose puree?
I like a bit of both. During the interview process for Chopped they asked me to describe my style. I said, "Downeast Noveau Grandma!" There are some serious family recipes and classic single pot dishes that I enjoy experimenting with, turning them into something else. I like to take the roots and re-approach them.
You took second on Chopped, which many of us disagree with...
You didn’t win, but the episode seemed to be all about you. You stole the show. Your competitors seemed to really like you, as did the judges. The camera loves you.
Yeah, that was a personal triumph. I’ve been acting since I was a kid, did a lot of commercials, was a musical theater major in college. I’m very comfortable on stage and in front of the camera. So, it was like going from musical theater to the Food Network. [singing] “The hills are alive with the smell of Gnocchiiiii.”
Kidding aside, you are an accomplished singer/song writer as well as an amazing chef.
Well, thank you. Now all I need to do is find a good woman!
On the show you have no idea what’s going to happen, but I think I had an advantage because I’m comfortable in my own skin. I was completely being myself. I think that’s what people enjoyed: they could see who I was as well as my food.
We were at a local pub recently and a woman approached and said, “Oh, you’re going to be so famous!” You said something that took my breath away.
I said, “I don’t want to be famous, I want to be great!”
So where do you want this journey to take you?
I’d love to take a slow-food cooking truck and travel across America, hit up the local towns, learn family recipes. I don’t want to perfect them or change them, I want to learn them. It’s a beautiful idea to embrace family-style cooking from around the country.
When it comes to cooking, I’m all over the map! I’ve worked for a Greek chef, a Filipino chef, an Italian chef. I’ve cooked my way through Europe, Maho Bay in the Caribbean, and St. John, USVI.
[I believe] you have to taste your own food, no exceptions. You have to love elevating food to another level. Be passionate about serving it. Take pride in the fact you just created something amazing that people’d never make at home. When it comes to restaurant work, you must respect the fact that not every patron knows or loves food the way you do.
What’s your favorite thing to eat?
That’s a hard question. I love it all. If I could eat anything right now, I’d have my Grandma Squibb oven-toast some bread—she makes the best Anadama bread— and her scrambled eggs. The other thing I’d eat right now would be my mother’s chicken potpie.
It’s amazing that you get to do something you not only love, but that is deeply rooted in your family.
It’s wonderful to have it tied in so deeply in my life, yes. I feel really blessed. I love what I do and am unintentionally good at it. [laughter]
You recently lost your grandfather, who you were very close to. What was the best advice he gave you when it came to food?
He said, “Kate, take all you want, but eat all you take.” His last day, I went to see him and said, “Hey, grandpa, look! I’m still eating all I take!” For the first time in two weeks, he laughed. It was the best send-off I could’ve given him.
Do you want to own your own restaurant?
Absolutely. It wouldn’t be a job; it’d be my baby. We’d grow together. I’m ready.
What's next for Chef Squibb? Will we see you back on the Food Network?
They asked me back, so yes, in May.
I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I think opportunities will arise if I stay comfortable in my skin and keep my confidence up. [Food Network] asked me back for a reason. What’s important is I know I’m on the right track. I work as a chef in one of the foodiest cities in America. I’m competing against the best chefs in the country on cooking shows. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. And I’m loving it.