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The Maine Attraction: Chellie Pingree Cultivates Her Own Food Capital

The Maine Attraction: Chellie Pingree Cultivates Her Own Food Capital
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

NORTH HAVEN, Maine — Should she ever tire of battling opposing lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Rep. Chellie Pingree could always kick back and indulge in one of her favorite pastimes: shaking cocktails for the pleasure seekers who pour into her farm-to-table restaurant each summer.

“I am always telling people that it’s good to have a backup career when you are in Congress. And being a bartender isn’t really that different,” the Maine Democrat shared during a candid discussion about her blossoming dining empire.

Still, the three-term lawmaker insists she never planned on becoming a hospitality maven.

“When I bought the inn, I really intended it to be more of a community project to help create a few jobs . . . and make sure that it was easier for people to find lodging when they had a guest coming,” Pingree said.

The Maine Attraction: Chellie Pingree Cultivates Her Own Food Capital

But her budding portfolio, which includes the critically acclaimed Nebo Lodge and its larder-filling sibling, Turner Farm, appears to be steadily outperforming her modest ambitions. She currently employs about 70-plus people (predominantly women) in a community comprised of around 300 year-round residents.

How this fledgling restaurateur managed to become the toast of her floating-in-Penobscot-Bay town is no big mystery.

She planted the seeds for this unexpected success decades ago.

Putting Down Roots

A native Minnesotan, Pingree first became acquainted with North Haven after relocating here in her teens. Her passion for living off this newly adopted land only intensified after a collegiate dive into human ecology.

“I love anything that has to do with food and farming,” she said of her abiding connection to the historically productive island.

That bond was bolstered by an early bid that yielded marketable produce, as well as a sheep-rearing operation that spun off into a prosperous knitting enterprise.

The budding businesswoman eventually found her way into local politics. But she never lost sight of the things — or places — that really mattered to her.

Nebo Lodge, for instance, had fallen into disrepair after nearly a half century of irregular use.

Pingree knew it well, having lived next door to the mostly forgotten Victorian-style home (“some ‘summer family’ owned it,” she said) while serving in the state Legislature.

“It was kind of like a big old boarding house,” Pingree explained. “I rented it for a week once for a staff retreat. And I said to the woman, ‘This is such a great place, if you ever decide to sell it, let me know. I’d hate to see it not preserved.’”

Time marched on, as did Pingree’s priorities.

Then, one day, fate intervened.

“A couple years later she called me up and said, ‘I want to sell it.’ And I said, ‘Oh no. What was I thinking?’” she recalled.

The self-doubt proved fleeting.

“I live in a small town. There’s a lot of tourist traffic in the summer. And there really wasn’t much available for people who wanted to spend the night,” Pingree posited. “It just seemed like someone should do something about it.”

Her mind made up, Pingree said she raided her 401k, hit up the bank for a mortgage loan and gathered together a trio of like-minded investors committed to a full restoration effort. The months-long renovation, a herculean effort that ensnared Pingree’s entire family, culminated in the nine-bedroom haven that stands today.

About a year after the glorious resurrection, Amanda Hallowell, whom Pingree says she’s known “really her whole life,” proposed taking things even further. “You guys just have this little breakfast kitchen here. Would you be interested in trying a restaurant?” Pingree said Hallowell floated. “And I said, ‘OK.’”

The Maine Attraction: Chellie Pingree Cultivates Her Own Food Capital
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Running the Tables

A mostly self-taught chef, Hallowell learned the ins and outs of commercial cooking at Swan’s Way Catering in neighboring Lincolnville. She’d also experienced inn life firsthand, having grown up around the Pulpit Harbor Inn and Restaurant her father had operated on North Haven years before.

Although she’d never run a restaurant solo prior to taking command of Nebo, Hallowell presumably bet that her collective life experiences had carefully aligned to make just such an opportunity happen.

That gamble appears to be paying off in spades.

The seasonally attuned toque has garnered rave reviews from national press (Bon Appetit, Food & Wine) without alienating regional supporters (Yankee, Maine Magazine). The multiplier effect of media love has exponentially raised Nebo’s profile and continues to elevate Hallowell’s ingredient-driven cuisine.

Hallowell has also benefited from another shrewd investment on Pingree’s part: marrying financier S. Donald Sussman.

Per Pingree, her eco-minded mate fell in love with a distressed property that had been passed down for generations between two North Haven families, and proposed rehabilitating it. By 2008, Sussman had staked his claim to what has become the resurgent Turner Farm.

That plot of meticulously restored land has since spawned a prolific supply chain that not only fuels Nebo’s kitchen, but also disperses its Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association-certified organic wares to sustainably focused restaurants on neighboring Vinalhaven and gourmet retailers in Massachusetts.

Pingree said the dedicated farmhands expend a lot of effort attempting to ensure that the crops peak during the limited time (May through October) the lodge and farm are open to the general public.

“Everything is to try and get the season to happen as early as possible so we can get the best price and have all the ingredients while the people are there. Because it doesn’t do us a lot of good to have too many bushels of tomatoes in October and November,” Pingree said.

The farm encompasses three acres of plantings (including 16,000 square feet contained within permanent and movable grow houses) and 30 acres of open pasture. Spoils include: artichokes, arugula, basil, beets, bok choy, blueberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, cucumbers, eggplant, decorative flowers, herbs, kale, assorted lettuces, melons, microgreens (15 varieties), onions, peas, bell peppers, poblano peppers, raspberries, shallots, spinach and summer squashes.

The technological marvel Pingree appreciates most, though, is the rows and rows of carefully nurtured tomatoes. “Having a tomato for most of the summer isn’t a surprise to people living in Maryland. But it’s a huge gift in Maine to have a tomato in June or July,” she said.

In addition to what’s coaxed from the soil, the farm is home to scores of Freedom Ranger chickens, hard working Oberhasli goats (they supply up to 56 gallons of milk each week, which the on-site creamery whips into fresh chevre), a handful of Jersey cows (fresh milk, yogurt) and dozens of inquisitive Tamworth pigs.

Hallowell estimates she gets around 90 percent of her produce from Turner Farm. “Our biggest wish list is for more local fruit, but we are very lucky for what we do get,” she said. Additional supplies are sourced locally from Foggy Meadows goat and sheep farm and the Crown O’ Maine Organic Cooperative.

Other goodies are worth bringing in.

“I have no interest in excluding exotic ingredients and regional specialties from our repertoire,” Hallowell said, billing olive oil, aged Parmesan and gourmet chocolate as routine imports.

Eating local is such a priority, though, that a few years back, the Nebo crew began hosting semi-regular, family-style dinners in the elegant barn overlooking Turner Farm. The now-weekly affairs draw the epicurious to the island every Thursday night; interest in both dining experiences is so strong, in fact, that Pingree now charters a private boat to whisk patrons back and forth to North Haven four times a week.

Juggling this thriving dining empire is a full-time job unto itself. Which is why both Pingree and Hallowell have surrounded themselves with equally passionate intimates.

Pingree said her eldest daughter, Hannah, the former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, now serves as the “general manager of everything.” Hallowell, too, keeps things in the family, retaining younger sister, Jessie as sous chef and for baking duties.

Things branched off a bit this summer when Pingree’s younger daughter, Cecily, a documentary filmmaker, and Jessie teamed up to establish Calderwood Hall Pizza.

“It’s pretty much all connected,” Chellie said of the locavore network steadily spreading across her hometown.

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