Chef Justin Bard, aka JB
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Tell us a bit about yourself and your art background.
I grew up in Lincoln, Maine. I am a self-taught chef and have been cooking professionally for almost 16 years. I went to the University of Southern Maine for a brief stint in fine art but quickly realized that that wasn’t the path for me. I thought about going to culinary school several times but realized that I could learn all of the skills I need either on the job or through my own research. I kept my art as a hobby and use my eye for composition in my plating.
Any words of advice that have stayed with you?
Not necessarily advice, more of a mantra: “You’re only as good as the last person you serve.”
To me, it’s always striving to do better. Make sure service is always perfect, especially at the end of the night when everyone is tired and ready to clean up, unwind and go home.
We have handwritten quotes all around the kitchen on blue painter’s tape that we use for labeling. My cooks put up whatever inspires them, makes them strive to be better:
“Don’t let good enough get in the way of greatness.”
“Mediocrity is a killer.”
“If you don’t want to play that way, don’t play that way.”
“Play like a champion today.”
Tell us about your first meeting with David Gulak in December 2018, and how your lives aligned.
A mutual friend got us in touch with each other. David and Josh Sullivan, the restaurant's other co-owner, were looking to open a restaurant and our friend told them, “If that’s what you want to do, then the person you need is JB. You have to get him!” I was driving from Waterville to Brewer every day, working at Mason’s Brewing Company. The travel was getting to me and I had just found out that my wife and I were expecting our second child. When David and I first met, we hit it off. I told him that we were expecting a baby in August and he told me that our wives were both expecting, with due dates exactly a week apart. I felt like I’d known David and Josh my whole life. I knew we were on to something very special.
What has being head chef at Meridians given you?
It has given me the freedom and creativity I felt that I needed to further myself as a chef in Maine. I’m very proud of what we are doing and we really have only scratched the surface of our potential.
Does it allow you to be spontaneous with the menu?
With a menu that changes almost daily, YES. We are using what’s locally available. If I can’t get it, we don’t do it. Sure, we could order from the larger corporate purveyors and ship it in from away, but that’s not what we are about. Sometimes a menu item might come together an hour before service out of necessity to use certain ingredients or fill a void on the menu. We’ll plate one up and be, like, “Damn! Well, that works!” and it will sell like crazy. It keeps everyone having fun and on their toes.
What do you love about being a chef?
I love cooking for people. I love giving people that feeling of the best thing that they ever had. Hopefully they come back for that experience, try something new next time. And if they never come again, I want that experience to be memorable. I want people to talk about the time that they ate at my restaurant and how good it was. I love being creative and being proud of every plate that comes out of my kitchen. I cook the same way for guests at home. I want you to have good food and good drinks and forget about if you had a bad day or week or whatever. Come, socialize, eat, drink and have fun.
How would you describe your kitchen staff?
"The Island of Misfit Toys." HAHA.
I have an amazing staff, front and back of the house. We’re all a bit wacky and weird. We’ve created a family:
Sous Chef: Phil Buchstaber
Line Cooks: Dustin Edwards and Mitchell Chavez-Catron
Pastry Chef: Cassidy Tracy
Swiss Army Knife (dishwasher, prep, oyster shucker... whatever we ask): Kevin Paradis
They are loyal and have a passion to execute the vision that we have for the restaurant. I honestly don’t think I could have found a better crew.
Beyond the art of cooking, you have had to educate guests and get them to try new things. How have you achieved this?
Crab and lobster ravioli with cream sauce and borage.
Pan roasted mackerel with sunchoke latke, beet, ginger, scallion lemon-dill cream.
Smores brownie with chocolate gelato.
I like to try to take unique ingredients and incorporate them into something familiar. If there is something recognizable and “safe,” they are more apt to order it. Then, as you gain their trust, they venture out of their comfort zone to order something that they normally wouldn’t or ever have before. They know that if it’s something new, they trust that I’m going to prepare it the best way possible.
It’s 5:30 on a Saturday and the place is booked solid … What’s your GO song?
If we’re about to get rocked, even Phil, my sous chef, knows to put on the album The Big Dirty by Every Time I Die. There’s a lot of heavy metal and hardcore punk playing in the kitchen all the time.
The interior of Meridians looks beautiful. Who was responsible for the interior design? And the light fixture?
My wife, Cortney, had a big hand in the décor. She’s got an eye for design. A lot of what we did here came together very organically. Many of the materials we used were things we found. We have old doors that we found in the building on the wall behind the bar. We custom-made the light fixture above the bar to look like an old beam with Edison bulbs of varying sizes hanging from it. We took old chandeliers that didn’t match and spray-painted them metallic gold to have them pop against the black tin ceiling. We wanted it to look unique and DIY without being contrived. We talked about every piece and every square inch and then talked about it again. We are all very pleased with the final product.
What would be your last meal?
Doesn’t matter what the meal is, as long as I’m eating strawberry rhubarb pie at the end of it. My grandmother would make me one every year for my birthday when she was alive. It remains my favorite to this day.
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John Clay, aka Farmer John, farm manager
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You talked about growing up in Philly with plans to teach special education but that took a big turn when you opened a small catering business in Brooklyn, NY. How did the catering company launch your love for growing?
Food is one of those unique things in this life that we humans all share in common. While we need things like air, shelter and water in the same way we need food, food stands out in the same way that love stands out—as essential to promoting our fullest understanding of what it is to experience life.
Catering in a place like NYC gave me the chance to see the magic of food in action. We catered for companies in Manhattan where the work culture was much like you would expect, with people hurtling through life at breakneck speed. The clichéd burned-out worker was in my face on most nights as I catered these events. However, something would happen as I watched people eat our food: They slowed down. They tasted new things. They savored for a moment. Responding to one last email seemed to dissipate from their minds.
I would watch as people turned to look at their colleagues with a hope in their eyes that they too had escaped to somewhere else, even if just for one tiny bite. I was already in love with cooking food and serving it but now I had to go deeper.
Our rooftop garden in Brooklyn was pitiful to start. Which makes sense because we had no clue what we were doing. However, we soon learned that plants really do want to live and before we knew it we were growing a whole lot of food in a very small place. My appetite to learn how to grow became overwhelming and that’s when I told my business partners that I would be heading off to learn what our ancestors had spent millennia trying to figure out as well: Grow food and nourish a community.
Where did you go from the catering company?
After deciding to pursue a life in agriculture I moved back to my home state of Pennsylvania. I found a two-year apprenticeship program on an organic farm outside of Philly.
While at the Pennsylvania farm, you worked with Greener Partners, an education program for inner-city youth. Tell us about your experience.
Greener Partners was, and still is, an incredible nonprofit that works to create access and education based around food. I applied for and was accepted into their apprenticeship program that was geared towards helping to foster the next generation of organic farmers.
The average age of the American farmer is somewhere around 65, which means young people are turning away from the land and the profession. The reasons for this are many but Greener Partners had taken up the mantle of getting a generation trained up. GP also has a program targeted at bringing a full food experience into the classroom. We would bring our mobile farm right into the parking lot for students to experience what it’s like to see the soil our food is grown in. By mobile farm I mean a 20-foot-long trailer that had slide-out garden beds built into it. It was a revelation for most of these kids to see that a carrot comes from the soil and not from the corner store.
After my apprenticeship ended I was hired to be a manager/educator for Greener Partners. This allowed me to spend my summer in the fields growing food and teaching my apprentices, while spending the winter months visiting classrooms and teaching hands-on cooking lessons.
When did you move to Maine?
While I absolutely loved my work in Pennsylvania with Greener Partners I was never able to get rid of the feeling that the type of agriculture that I was practicing didn’t line up with my values. I am a reader and researcher. In college I studied history and I was able to carry that passion for study over to my newfound love of agriculture.
As my understanding of ecology grew, I found that there existed a cognitive dissonance within me. Just practicing organic growing methods was not enough. There had to be a better way. That’s when the concept of Permaculture (short for “permanent agriculture”) become an all-encompassing topic for me. The philosophies that Permaculture employs spoke not only to my rational side but they struck at the core of the spiritual resonance I was seeking when I sought communion with the land. I knew that I wanted to work somewhere that was attempting to live these values in action. That’s when I looked north.
My family has a cabin in Maine and I spent my summers there. In 2015, I began searching for farming opportunities across New England but focused on Maine.
This is when I met David Gulak. He and his farm manager at the time had spent several years establishing a small but thriving farm on a back plot of land that most other farms thought of as unusable. David’s excitement and passion were obvious from the start. It was impossible to not get drawn in by the oasis they had created and I was eager to apply my skill set to improve the place even more.
What is Permaculture?
Note: It would be impossible and hubristic to think that I could explain what permaculture is within a few sentences. Permaculture is practiced in thousands of ways across this planet and my meager attempts at explaining may be very different from how others would attempt.
The easiest way to begin is to think of it as a form of agroecology—the idea that we as humans have the ability to observe the complex systems that operate in nature and then to figure out how to work within or with that system. This requires a new mind-set from the grower.
The term Permaculture was coined by two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, in the late 1970s. Their attempt was to bring together many indigenous ways of growing from around the world and to integrate them with a scientific and westernized understanding of agriculture. Permaculture has evolved, and will continue to, and I would encourage anyone interested to spend some time looking more deeply into this expansive and fascinating topic.
You talked about the serious topsoil problem that the world is experiencing: We’re losing it with all the tillage. What are the implications?
Large-scale agriculture (including organic) works in opposition to natural forces. The submission of the land to the will of the farmer has become the dominant form of production. From a purely economic and efficiency standpoint, this is understandable. Most farmers are aging and scraping by to make a living, without trying to understand every nuance of their farm’s ecology.
I don’t blame them for the situation we find ourselves in. However, I do blame the system—Big Ag and the government—that forces farmers into repeating year after year many demonstrably damaging practices. One of the largest issues being the loss of precious topsoil at the rate of over 30 billion tons a year. This devastating loss is due largely to overtillage and the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides.
Thomas Jefferson is credited with saying “We exist simply because of six inches of topsoil and mere fact that is rains.” Whether he actually said this or not, the sentiment is an undeniable one. Studies in the UK have indicated there is only enough topsoil for another 30 or 40 years before total depletion. Couple that with an accelerating climate change and you have a massive crisis.
My point is simply that our heritage and wealth is our soil. Along with clean fresh water and air there is nothing more essential than living and thriving soils.
You recommend Charles Eisenstein’s book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. Why?
The problems of the world can feel too daunting and overwhelming for many people. I appreciate Eisenstein’s work because of his focus on the small. Not all solutions that change the course our society and world will be large. It will also take the millions of small, unnoticed and never-praised work and acts of the people. I found Eisenstein’s book to be thoughtful and compelling. I needed that, as it was too easy to fall into a moral and ethical nihilism that served nothing other than wallowing in some kind of morass. Reading the poems of Wendell Berry and the writings of Charles Eisenstein acted (and still do) as a balm and inspiration for the work that I do each day.
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