Jef Wright, who replaced Emil Rivera—a force in the Portland restaurant scene—brings a new perspective to Sur Lie, including a Southern flair, having worked for many years in Atlanta. Wright moved to Maine not to cook but to work on his family’s seed farm, yet after eight years out of the business he returned to the prestigious position as the executive chef at Sur Lie in Portland.
How does it feel to be back in the kitchen? What made you take time away and what made you come back?
It feels great to be back in the kitchen after eight years. I feel like I
When we took over my wife’s family’s seed company, Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester, I thought I would work there for a few weeks, but it turned out that the seed company needed a lot of attention. All of a sudden, it was eight years later. I was little nervous about it at first so I took a line cook job, to make sure that I could still do it.
Your culinary influences are so interestingly diverse—what connections do you see between French and Spanish food and Southern cuisine?
I suppose it is a bit diverse but it doesn’t feel that way. I think that my love of French cuisine came from the ideas of the old-school French chefs doing things the proper way. I love classics and the emphasis on technique. I love the idea of how pretentious and austere French cuisine can seem. It’s the other side of the coin to what I love about Spanish and Southern cuisines. With Spanish cuisine, especially pintxos and tapas you have something so simple that can be incredibly delicious in just one or two bites. With Southern cuisine you have such humble ingredients transformed into amazing dishes. I love combining those opposing ideas and playing them off each other. I like things to be surprising.
Coming from working in restaurants in Philly, New York and Atlanta, do you see a difference in the way you cook for Portland diners—are they more responsive to different flavors, ingredients?
Portland diners are awesome. I’ve been pretty amazed at how open people are to trying different things. We got monkfish liver in just for us to play with in the kitchen; I honestly had no intention of even trying
to sell it. We put it on the menu just to see and it sold out in two nights. The octopus is one of our top-selling dishes. It’s super cool to know that we can always try new things and people will be excited to try it out. At Sur Lie, we also have the benefit of not really being constrained by one cuisine or style. That really gives us a lot of creative freedom.
Is there a dish on your menu that you consider a signature dish?
There’s not a Jef Wright signature dish on the menu yet but there is definitely a Sur Lie signature dish, which is the sweet pea hummus.
It was a dish from dear sweet Emil Rivera, the previous chef here, but it has become a dish of Sur Lie. It’s the only thing that Krista Cole and
Tony Alviar, the owners, asked me to keep on the menu when they offered me the job.
I have a hard time with signature dishes because I always get bored and want to change things. I know that’s not always fair to the diners who want to have something that they loved last time and now it’s gone, but the upside is that there’s always something new to try.
Which Maine ingredients are you excited about for the spring and summer seasons?
That’s a tough question. My favorite Maine ingredient is potatoes for sure. I think potatoes are a very underrated ingredient.
My favorite spring ingredient is ramps. I’m not sure if anyone is growing ramps in Maine; if so, call me. We had a great farmer in West Virginia growing ramps for us and he retired, so that was it. It’s pretty sad, we’ve lost a number of bean varieties as well due to the fact that there was mainly one farmer that kept it going, who got old, retired and no one takes over and keeps producing it.
You must have a garden, what are you growing?
Surprisingly, I don’t really garden. It’s an incredibly time-consuming hobby and with the restaurant, the business side of the seed company and two kids, my schedule is pretty full. What I do like to grow when I have time is the quickest stuff that’s going to have the most impact flavorwise so I’m always going for fresh herbs. Super easy to grow too. Fresh herbs in a dish can really make it a game changer. My favorite is probably dill but as soon as I say that I feel bad for all the other herbs that I love.
Do you cook at home? What five things will we always find in your fridge?
Now that I’m back in the restaurant industry I cook a lot less at home because I’m not usually there for dinners and with two young kids a lot of what’s in the fridge is for them. We usually have hard boiled eggs, a pot of cooked meatballs in sauce and a pot of pulled chicken. Lots of salad greens. We try to keep cooked proteins around. My wife and I are both the type of people that just won’t eat if we have to put any work into it. If there isn’t something I can eat cold out of the fridge then I’ll just eat a whole box of Cheez-Its. Unless I’m going out to dinner to enjoy a meal as an experience I actually hate eating. It feels like such a waste of time to me. Chewing is so much work.
What is your desert island playlist?
Cold War Kids. That’s it. Everything by the Cold War Kids. It’s basically all I ever listen to.
Is there a kitchen tool (besides your knife) you prize above all others? And speaking of knives, what kind of knife do you favor?
I have quite a few tools that I would probably pick over my knife and I’m very particular about them. These are things I have on me all the time at the restaurant and often even when I’m not there.
A mini offset spatula: Ateco brand, wood handle.
A spoon: I used to collect spoons so I have thousands but my particular favorite that I usually carry is a standard size small soup spoon. I mostly use it for tasting everything. It's got a slightly deeper than average bowl and more of a tapered point. It's great for making rochers (food molded into an elliptical shape, like a quenelle). Either that one or a standard Kunz spoon, which is great for tasting but terrible for rochers.
A bowl scraper: Essentially just a small thin piece of plastic but it comes in handy for so many things. I keep one in my back pocket at all times. It’s 4.5 x 3 inches—the bowl scraper, not my back pocket.
A Field Notes brand notebook: They’re small and slim, perfect for keeping in your pocket. Mine is right next to my bowl scraper. The notebook gets filled with prep lists, order lists, to-do lists, menus ideas, recipes—especially while they're being worked out. I carry it at all times not just at work so everything goes into it.
Also, a Kuhn Rikon original peeler and an Ateco cake tester (with the blue top).
My everyday knife is a Suisin Inox Gyuto. It’s pretty inexpensive, easy to sharpen and has a super thin and light blade. It's great for doing fine knife work.
My favorite knife that I own is my Corian-handled Nenox Gyotu. I love the white handle but there’s also something specific that I love about the angles on the Nenox knives. It’s another super thin and light blade. That’s kind of my thing.
What do you love about being a chef?
The best thing about working in every kitchen I’ve ever been in is the camaraderie and relationships that you develop when you work those long hours with people through such stressful conditions. Being the chef you get to be the one setting the tone of the kitchen. I also really like teaching.
What is your best kitchen prank, either one you’ve played or has been played on you?
I like doing fake phone calls and convinced Greg, one of our cooks, that I was on the phone with Andrew Ross, the food critic for the Press Herald. I was saying some pretty terrible and awkward things (nothing inappropriate, I’m very classy) and I think Greg was starting to worry about my mental health and our future. I love the fake phone call, it’s a harmless prank. My daughter has actually started doing it too and she’s gotten so good at it.
Are there any words or phrases you find yourself using all the time?
I find myself yelling, “Shut up!” a lot, both at work and at home.
What are your guilty pleasures?
I consume an absurd amount of potato chips, bourbon and gummy bears, but I don’t feel guilty about It. So, I guess it would be Dashboard Confessional and Taco Bell.
It’s 4:45 p.m. on a Saturday, the place is booked solid. What’s your GO song?
I make Robert, one of our cooks, sing “Cotton Eye Joe” to me either that or “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale. We don’t have music in the kitchen so we make Robert sing.
Is there a technique or a dish, or a cuisine that you have yet to master but have always wanted to?
I wish I was better with a pastry bag and just pastry in general. I love the precision and detail of it. I always thought I would be pretty good at it if I took the time to focus on it.
What would your last meal be?
Probably Taco Bell. You would definitely not mind dying after that.
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