Kerry Altiero, 56, left his wallet on the roof of his car recently and drove away, leaving behind his license, debit card and cash. But it wasn’t too long before a man drove up to the restaurant he owns in Rockland — Cafe Miranda — and handed him the intact wallet. The man had seen it on the side of the road, stopped, picked it up and taken the time to find him.
“That happens all the effing time around here,” Altiero said. It speaks to the integrity of the people in the place he lives — the midcoast — where people still do word-of-mouth deals and nod to strangers on the street. That quality of place and people is transferred to the food.
Now Altiero is aiming to bring his food with local ingredients to a broader scene. He will compete against two other chefs at the 10th annual Maine Lobster Chef of the Year cook-off event, organized by the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, on Oct. 25 in Portland.
Lobster lovers will taste a sample, that must contain Maine lobster, from each chef — Mackenzie Arrington from The Dutch in New York City and Melissa Bouchard from DiMillo’s on the Water in Portland are also competing — and then vote for their favorite. And an independent panel of judges will sample the recipes and score each one on taste, plate presentation and originality.
Altiero used to race motorcycles, which, believe it or not, requires traits similar to those needed by chefs, who deal with hot and sharp things. “That kind of adrenaline junkie is what we are as cooks, and if we’re good enough, maybe chefs,” he said.
He started Cafe Miranda in 1993 when no other restaurants in the area were branding themselves as local foods operations. He and his staff like to joke about food competitions — why aren’t there plumbing competitions? he said — but he understands the larger point: Maine must raise its lobster profile across the U.S. and the world.
At a time when fishermen continue to land more and more lobster, the market must be expanded. Doing so will require a number of efforts, including events like this one that will draw the attention of hundreds of people across different states.
Altiero is a prime spokesman for lobster in his region. “When you look at what lobster does to the midcoast, we are the lobster capital of the world. We’re not like of the U.S.; it’s of the world,” he said. “It’s a quality product, brought to market by quality people … That’s what Miranda has, too. It’s honesty, integrity and performance.”
Altiero and his ex-wife, Evelyn Donnelly, opened the restaurant on Oak Street at a time when the midcoast didn’t have the type of food they wanted to serve — locally grown, diverse. Primo soon after came along and, later, Suzuki’s Sushi Bar. Altiero has seen Rockland change. “It’s like a teeny little Portland,” he said.
But the fishermen remain the area’s middle class, the backbone of the economy. “When they’re hurting, it hurts everybody, the car dealer, the restaurants, everybody,” he said.
He includes lobster in a number of recipes — such as lobster tacos and lobster mac and cheese — and he buys it fresh from Jess’s Market on South Main Street. The point of the menu is to provide something for everyone, from skate punks to billionaires, Altiero said. You can buy a burger and two beers for less than $20, or you can buy a $50 bottle of wine with a $14 saffron risotto appetizer and a $23 main dish of intergalactic pork, which comes with stir-fried sweet potatoes, corn and spinach, red coconut curry sauce, cilantro and lime.
Cafe Miranda has more than 150 meal choices, including Thai, Mexican and Italian — available for lunch and dinner seven days a week, with a brunch of Sunday. Staff make the pasta, buy the fruits and vegetables locally, and bake their signature foccacia bread in the state’s oldest continuously operating wood-fired oven. Many of the veggies come from Altiero’s own farm. (He said, “Put your money where your mouth is, but put it where your feet are too.”) He employs up to 20 people in the summer and 12 to 15 in the winter.
So what will he serve at the competition? The recipe is called Harvest and contains local corn, tomatoes, parsley, garlic, homemade pasta, olive oil and lobster. “It’s delicious,” he said. “Crunchy, flavorful, it’s like the taste of the harvest.”
People should broaden how they think of lobster. It doesn’t just need to be steamed and eaten with butter. It’s a versatile, high-end protein that is low in fat, big in flavor and supports the local economy. Educating people about lobster will be one goal of the competition, Altiero said. That, and, “I would love to kick some butt.”