Hidden Pond: Heaven on Earth
I will never blurt the statement, “Couples shouldn’t work together,” ever again.
I spent a breezy afternoon on the screened in porch of Earth, the al fresco restaurant, with the dynamic duo, work and life partners Danielle and Justin Walker.
He is the executive chef and she is the director of the events and front of the house, at this whimsical yet serious eating establishment at Hidden Pond Resort located in the woods by the beach… in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Our afternoon began as an interview and it quickly transformed into a casual chit-chat about what makes us tick, kids eating habits these days–especially their 4-year-old son, Jackson, the sixth generation farm they live on in York, ME, their journey on how they ended up at Earth, future endeavors, and of course about, one of my newest favorite eating destinations, Earth.
When I got up from the table, I couldn’t help but feel inspired, slightly giddy, motivated and hungry for more.
AB: We arrived to the hotel and just missed the lunch at the cafe. The kitchen sent out a few salads from the dinner menu.
By the way…Wow.
The server explained that the menu is super labor intensive. Tell me about the kitchen, the staff, the and vibe…
JW: We prep from 8am until opening, everyday. It is intense. Five hours of just hand rolling pasta.
We don’t have a prep staff. So it makes for the food to be really personal for everybody. It is important to allow the cooks to prep all the food. Then they have ownership and pride over the food. They are actually learning and growing…and can move on.
I didn’t expect the food to be this involved. But Ken Oringer encouraged me to go for it because that was my background. And it is really working out really well.
AB: I love the snack section on the menu. Snacks are my thing. Many times “snacks” get lost in the appetizer section.
DW: I loved that you came in late last night and just ordered the wings, sitting by the fire. It is a real compliment.
That is what they are for…They are for pre dinner, cocktails, out on the deck, in the garden, by the fire, or late at night.
JW: We have put a lot of work into those snacks. It is actually one of my favorite sections of the menu. It is a place to let down our hair. Something simple, a place to chill.
They are really fun. I can take the refinement of my days at ten course restaurants and apply it to the snacks. We scrutinize over those meatballs. So every batch is consistent and perfect.
AB: You two are such a great team, in all senses. I have to ask where did you meet? And how do you make it all work?
JW: We worked together for ten years, while dating and married.
DW: Justin was actually the first person I shook hands with at Arrows restaurant, where we met.
I started about 6-8 weeks after Earth opened. And when things aligned and Justin was ready to move on from where he was working; I knew Earth was a special place and Hidden Pond was a special property. But, the addition of Justin would be the key stone. We needed Justin and we made it happen. And here we are…
JW: And we do all the events together as well… the private parties, weddings, etc. And they get better and better every time.
DW: I work the front of the house and he works the back. I couldn’t do it without him.
JW: If Danielle isn’t here, I am here. We don’t take a day off together for almost the whole season. It is the right thing to do. It works for us, it works for our family, it works for the restaurant. And we decompress on the off-season.
AB: Our dinner the other night blew my mind…the pureness of ingredients, the levels of flavor and the overall energy of the restaurant.
Tell me your inspirations…
JW: We are in it–We are in the woods– We live it. This is all I know. That everything grows outside your back door. When I come out to the garden I see: Angelica, shiso, woodruff, chamomile…
We do a lot of our own mushroom foraging. My sous chef and I foraged almost 400 lbs of mushrooms this season. We work with a professional forager who has been doing this for 25 years. There is stinging nettles everywhere and reindeer moss grows all over the property.
We support local farmers. We know everyone. It is all based on personal relationships.
DW: My father provides 400 lbs. of lobsters a week for us. He pulls his pick up truck to the back of the kitchen and drops them off every other day. You know where everything is coming from. Everyone we work with is as passionate about what they do as we are passionate about serving our food.
And we all feed off of that energy, it is really special.
AB: What would be your final meal..Your “Last Supper” per say?
JW: Oh, that is a hard question. I think it would be whole roasted fish. There is nothing like it.
DW: We are all over the map. When we are in cities we search for ethnic– Japanese, Cuban, anything goes. Messy sandwiches dripping down our arms. That is eating.
JW: When we were in France we picked up lobes of Foie gras and dijon mustard and brought it back home. When we were in Austria we ate charcuterie…
DW: It’s about where are you, find what is great, and enjoy it.
AB: Where do you see yourself in five to ten years? What is the direction of the restaurant?
DW: I never want to take two feet out of this restaurant.
I think we had those goals set five years ago to be here. We haven’t revisited it yet. It is a Labor Day thing. When the air changes in Maine.
That is the luxury of being open six months of the year. It forces us to take that time. It allows us to do other things like, travel. And reflect on the season. What worked and what didn’t.
JW: For me, it is improving on what we are doing now. And bring this to light for many more people. Doing exactly this. Keep working on it. Plate by Plate. Day by Day. Refine Refine Refine. I wouldn’t want to be any less involved. Making people happy.
DW: Well, for me it is food related. Expand what we are doing now– cheese making, beer hops, beehives, and concord grapes. And the next chapter, someone else might have to write that header for us…