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Top Chef Cooks Up Ways To Cut Costs, Not Quality

Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street Restaurant in Portland, Maine, was a James Beard award winner for outstanding chef in 2004.  To draw in diners in a tough economy, Hayward makes fish cakes and beans that are about half the cost of fancier items on his menu.
Daniel E. Davis for NPR
Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street Restaurant in Portland, Maine, was a James Beard award winner for outstanding chef in 2004. To draw in diners in a tough economy, Hayward makes fish cakes and beans that are about half the cost of fancier items on his menu.

Because of the recession, top restaurants across the country are trying to cut costs without compromising quality. According to the National Restaurant Association, 80 percent of America's fine dining establishments reported that their earnings for the first half of this year were significantly down from last year.

But in Portland, Maine, Chef Sam Hayward, a winner of the James Beard award in 2004, says one way he's keeping business up is by offering lower-priced entrees that still feel special.

Making Haddock Cakes

In his kitchen at Fore Street Restaurant, amid the sounds of ovens and fans, and the murmurings and gurglings of pots and pans, Hayward makes a meal that harks back to the traditions of Maine — cod cakes and beans.

But on this day, Hayward uses haddock, a close relative to cod and a favorite of Mainers, to make the fish cakes.

"The beauty of haddock in the last 10 years or so is that it's one of the success stories of regulations — and it's come back," Hayward says.

Because it's more plentiful, haddock is not only sustainable, it's also cheaper than cod or tuna.

Hayward spoons some of last night's mashed potatoes into a bowl and adds an egg, stirring them into a silken emulsion. He pulls a just-off-the-boat haddock filet out of a bowl of ice and begins poaching it on his enormous wood-burning stove.

On The Side

While this simmers, he starts working on an unusual, fancy dining accompaniment to the fish cakes: the New England cheap staple — beans.

"This particular bean was grown on farms owned by the lumber companies up North, and was one of those bean varieties used to feed the lumberjacks that worked on the North Woods all year long, and usually four times a day," he says.

In a pan where he's already caramelized some onion and garlic, Hayward adds plump, dark brown Maine marifax beans, two kinds of pepper, a dash of malt vinegar and plenty of Maine sea salt. As the beans simmer away, he pulls the haddock off the stove, flakes it by hand and adds it to the potato-egg emulsion. He throws in some fresh chives, summer savory and parsley, and begins forming fat, soft fish cakes, which he then rolls in finely shredded brioche crumbs. He adds them to a pan lined with a thin film of olive oil.

"I keep it low because the brioche will tend to scorch very quickly because it's got egg in it," he explains.

Half The Price

A few moments later, the golden, puffy fish cakes come out of the pan and are plated next to the earthy, brown beans and some sliced, almost translucent, fresh turnips.

They're delicious.

Hayward says he'll offer his fish cakes with beans at a price point in the mid-teens, which is about half the cost of the fancier items on Fore Street's menu.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Caitlin Shetterly