Hell’s kitchens in Portland, Maine

The cover story I wrote for the July issue of The Bollard (which hits the streets this week) poses some uncomfortable questions for the so-called “foodies” in Maine who support our nationally renowned restaurant scene and have elevated chefs to the status of rock stars in recent years. These discerning diners increasingly demand vegetables that are locally and organically grown, but what if it’s not the farmer but the chef who’s creating a toxic environment? The same diners want to know the animals they’re eating were treated well, but what about the cooks and servers? How important is it that the humans are treated humanely?

The subject of the story is Harding Lee Smith, the entrepreneurial chef who will soon have more fine-dining establishments in Portland than anyone else. Smith opened The Front Room on Munjoy Hill in 2005 and soon followed with two more restaurants on Exchange Street: The Grill Room, an upscale steakhouse, and The Corner Room, which specializes in Italian fare. His fourth place, Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room, is expected to open soon on Custom House Wharf.

Smith is not only the most successful restaurateur in town, he’s also the most notorious. His reported hotheaded traits are nearly matched by his wife, who’s managed his restaurants in recent years. Sharon Slaughter, a former parking garage attendant in the Old Port who found herself on the receiving end of an especially ugly outburst from the chef in 2011, called the pair “the dynamic duo of just being rude and obnoxious.”

Chef Smith is “not exactly the nicest guy in the world,” Slaughter said, which is actually one of the nicest things any of more than a dozen sources said about either of the Smiths during my research for the story.

How do the Smiths get away with their awful behavior? One big reason is that (yours truly excepted) no one calls them on it. Egregious case in point: the astoundingly lengthy and puffy profile of Chef Smith by food critic Meredith Goad published on the front page of the Maine Sunday Telegram on June 2.

In her gushing novella, Goad glossed over the one big battle between Smith and his staff that previously got press: the 2010 lawsuit and protests by numerous Front Room employees who claimed unfair wage practices and abusive working conditions. Smith gets to characterize the suit, which he settled out of court, as a “publicity stunt and/or ‘cash grab,’” in the Telegram piece. The plaintiffs don’t get to say anything at all.

“There have always been rumors around town that he has a volcanic temper,” Goad wrote, “but it’s hard to find anyone who will talk about it publicly.”

If you’re a food critic more comfortable digging into Chef Smith’s delicious dishes than digging up facts, I suppose that could be a challenge, but I had no problem finding employees and customers willing to discuss what really goes on at the Rooms. The kitchens and bars of restaurants throughout the Portland area are staffed with scores of former employees who quit in disgust or were fired in a rage. Many of them were willing to speak on the record about the tirades and other nastiness they experienced, but a few were not, for an obvious reason: They’re still intimidated.

Chef Smith dismisses their accounts as the carping of “disgruntled ex-employees,” which is a convenient dodge for someone in his position. By this logic, anyone can create a hostile work environment that aggravates workers until they quit or you fire them, and then you can declare yourself immune to their criticism because they’re unhappy and no longer work for you.

Journalists do have to be wary of the source with an axe to grind who was fired due to his or her own misbehavior or incompetence. But when one meets source after source after source who worked at different establishments at different times but have similar horror stories, you soon realize all these people aren’t part of some grand conspiracy or mass delusion.

One of the most troubling aspects of this story is the extent to which bad behavior in the kitchen has come to be seen as a sign of culinary excellence, a la Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” But there’s an important difference between being demanding and being demeaning.

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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.