Sympathy for a fiery chef?

This Sunday, Sept. 1, marks the eighth anniversary of The Bollard, and in that time we’ve published a fair number of stories that sparked extraordinarily strong reactions, like our July 2008 piece on the then-secret relationship between Chellie Pingree and hedge-fund mogul Donald Sussman, and the November 2010 article about LL Bean heiress Linda Bean buying up property in St. George. But nothing compares to the response generated by last month’s cover story on Chef Harding Lee Smith and his wife, Darcy.

For weeks after the issue hit the streets, it seemed like everywhere I went I encountered someone with a new horror story about the couple’s bad behavior. Former employees in every town and city between Kennebunk and Brunswick felt compelled to share their experience working at Chef Smith’s Portland restaurants: The Front Room, The Corner Room and The Grill Room. Earlier this month, Smith opened his fourth establishment, Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room, on Custom House Wharf, and even before that restaurant served its first meal, tales of outrageous behavior there were swirling around the waterfront like the stench of rotten fish.

This unprecedented response prompted something else that’s unprecedented in my publication’s history: a second cover story on the same subject.

In our September issue, which hits the streets statewide this week, I delve into several additional stories involving the chef that go beyond the tales of tyrannical behavior — directed at workers, customers and bystanders — detailed in the July story. I won’t repeat them here, but as noted in the sequel, it seems that from birth to marriage to death, there’s not a single sacrament the chef has not disrespected in some outrageous fashion.

I didn’t hear a word from the Smiths after the July story appeared. Preparing for the follow-up, I contacted the chef again to request a sit-down interview and again offered to provide questions in advance. This time, he declined to even receive my queries.

I genuinely feel sorry for the Smiths, especially Harding. With the opening of Boone’s, he now has more fine-dining establishments that anyone else in Portland. The couple are expecting their first child in September. But all this good fortune has clearly not brought them happiness.

Reflecting on the Smiths’ circumstances, I can begin to understand why. Boone’s opened about two months late, and sources say it went significantly over its construction budget, which is not surprising given the amount of money and work necessary to transform the once-dumpy structure it occupies on a rat-infested wharf into a gorgeous, two-story waterfront restaurant.

It seems Smith has been strapped for cash for years. In the September story, metalsmith and sculptor Geoff Herguth — who made the cool signs that hang over the front doors of Smith’s first three eateries, in addition to many other pieces of infrastructure inside —  is quoted recounting how the chef often had to pay him in credit. Herguth received thousands of dollars’ worth of food and drink in exchange for his labor. It was a convenient arrangement for awhile because, like the Smiths, Herguth lives above The Front Room, on Munjoy Hill. But as has happened to so many others over the years, Darcy Smith’s distemper eventually caused a blow-up that left Herguth on the outs — and out about $2,500.

Kitchens can be tense environments under normal circumstances. Add a fiery, egomaniacal chef to the mix, a wife/manager with her own anger-management issues, pour in liberal amounts of alcohol and cook under high financial pressure and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Word spreads that your restaurants are miserable places to work, and though the pool of prospective employees is deep in Greater Portland, you eventually have to hire the newbies and bottom-feeders whose inexperience and/or incompetence affects the quality of your product and service.

The early reviews of Boone’s on Yelp indicate the cycle of decline has begun. “I realize they are newly open but that is no excuse for poor service,” wrote a commenter named Steve W. “Our waitress was nice but way out of her element. We assumed [this was] her first job as a waitress.”

“All the staff members looked grumpy, if not angry, which made me wonder about the management,” a poster named Brigitta K. wrote. “During this one lunch I heard 3 (!) times glass fall and break on the ground … I know this is a new restaurant, but something’s not right at that place.”

Even after all that’s gone wrong inside Chef Smith’s empire, there’s still time to make things right. It starts with two simple words we have yet to hear him publicly say: I apologize.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.