Windjammer Chefs

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Meet six of the most talented cooks in Maine’s schooner fleet.

  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY: BENJAMIN MAGRO

Written by Nancy Heiser

Sarah Swan / Angelique
One hundred sausage patties sizzle in the oven. A fresh-baked coffee cake drenched with honey and topped with almonds sits on a counter. Sarah Swan, calm as the mirror of water outside, flips pancakes for twenty-five passengers and seven crew members on a kerosene-fueled stovetop.

A passenger pokes her head into the galley to say hello to the chef. Pat Weiss lives in Florida and New York and has been traveling on the Angelique for thirty-seven years. Her fellow passengers, many of whom are also repeat visitors, and the crew, feel like family. “This is my real home,” she says.

Platters get passed to the mess room below deck. Passengers descend into the snug space, ready to dive into their first meal of the cruise. Swan, 31, and a 2001 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, settles back on a bench for a chat. But just for a moment. She’s got a lunch of haddock chowder with homemade buttermilk biscuits and spinach salad to prepare.

For the rest of the week, she’s planned meals that mingle style with comfort: eggplant parmesan with Caesar salad and homemade foccacia; baked chicken with lemon and fennel, sautéed vegetables, and garlic mashed potatoes on the side. She might spike the spuds with smoked Gouda.

“I will take a recipe and add a different spice or veggies to make it unique,” says the modest chef who grew up in West Baldwin. “It’s fun to play around. I like to change it up, especially for the crew.”

Swan’s been cooking on the Angelique for seven years, which thrills Captains Mike and Lynne McHenry. “She’s a dream cook,” says Lynne. “She watches and quietly knows what everybody needs. She can cook a pork loin eight weeks in a row, and it’s never the same.”

Anne Mahle / J & E. Riggin

The day after graduating from Michigan State, Anne Mahle drove sixteen hours, woke up to the sun coming up over Penobscot Bay, and that morning started work as a mess cook on a windjammer in Maine. It was a default job, something to try while the psychology major figured out what came next. “All I knew was I wanted to travel, sail, and not have to call home for money,” she says.

Mahle met the man who became her husband — he was part of the crew — and except for a few years perfecting her culinary skills under the tutelage of a Swiss chef in Rockland and studying bread and pastries at the Culinary Institute of America, she has been sailing ever since. This is the fifteenth summer she and husband, Jon Finger, have owned and sailed the schooner J. & E. Riggin (mainewindjammer.com).

Mahle says her culinary style is a mix of the what’s new and what’s approachable, keeping in mind what her passengers will like. For lunch that might mean lobster, corn, and fennel chowder; nectarine, walnut, and goat cheese salad with a blueberry-raspberry vinaigrette; and pepper pine nut biscuits.

The chef serves dishes that lend themselves to the easy, slow, smoking heat of a woodstove. So it’s roasts instead of steaks, Yorkshire pudding instead of profiterole. Poached salmon gets a salsa of colored peppers and mango. Pasta comes with a choice of lobster sauce or black trumpet mushroom beef bourguignon. Dessert might be Kentucky Bourbon pie, tiramisu, or strawberry shortcake.

Mahle is committed to sourcing food locally as much as possible. “We have two CSA [community supported agriculture] shares and the rest we grow in our garden,” she says. That home garden is a whopping four thousand square feet. Eggs come from her own chickens.

In addition to being a licensed captain, Mahle pens a newspaper column about food and has written two cookbooks. “I happened upon a life that allows me to be fully myself,” she says.


Aimee LePage / Stephen Taber

The first meal chef Aimee Lepage of the Stephen Taber puts together at sea is a big beef stew with Vermont cheddar and huge loaves of warm bread. “The passengers are staking it out before I’ve got the lid off the pot,” she says.

There’s a reason for her choice. “I want people to know they are going to be taken care of.” She credits Ellen Barnes, the former co-owner and chef on the Taber, who trained her in the art of schooner cooking, for this tradition.

LePage, who vacationed on a windjammer at the age of twelve, tried the business world for a while after college before heading to culinary school. Cooking a communal meal for people who might not otherwise eat together jibes perfectly with her food philosophy, she says.

She says she can cook dishes like stew and haddock chowder “in my sleep,” which gives her time to prepare innovative dishes, such as fresh lemon ricotta ravioli with a sage butter sauce, the pasta and cheese made from scratch.

On wine cruises, which the Taber hosts at least twice a season, the boat anchors early. The crew sets up glasses, rinsing water, and wine bottles on deck. Captain Noah Barnes’ wife, Jane, a certified wine educator, pours and discusses nine different wines from a particular region.

LePage sets out elegant hors d’oeuvres to accompany each. For a French tasting, it might be a duck-fat sealed pork rillette with Madeira, shallots, and fresh thyme served on a toasted baguette. And, yes, she rustles that up in her tiny galley space. “I try to do that before we get under way,” she says.

A full dinner follows, with the wine region in mind. One evening, for example, LePage served a seared duck breast with saffron sherry sauce to pair with a Rioja. That came after a grilled squid salad with capers and Romesco sauce, a dish that is among her favorites. “My job is to make it all look easy,” she says.


Linda Lee / Heritage

Linda Lee, 64, has prepared food for windjammer passengers longer than anyone else in the Maine fleet. She started as an assistant in 1967 and moved to head cook in 1972. Twenty-nine years ago, she and her husband, Doug, launched the Heritage, a boat the two built to resemble a century-old schooner. At the time, they had two children under the age of three.

Lee, a licensed captain, cooks with ease and skill. She takes careful inventory pre-sail so by the end of the trip she’s used up everything. She adapts traditional recipes to make them healthier, cutting down on sugar and butter. Put a blindfold on her and she can still put her hands on any of the items stored in the hidden bench compartments.

Lee was something of a pioneer in the galley. She remembers foggy days on shore (pre-GPS) when she’d experiment with yeast breads, pie crusts, and cheesecake from scratch — then novel items on a windjammer cruise. She creates her own soup stock and recalls tossing out the bouillon one cook-in-training wanted to use. “I got tired of all the expensive mixes and canned soups that were salty,” she says.

The first dinner on the Heritage is usually the traditional lobster bake on the beach. After that, it might be chicken breasts with olive oil, tamari, and herbs. Haddock poached in white wine, parsley, pepper, rosemary, and butter for dinner becomes a lunch chowder the next day, perhaps served with “two-lady” bread — a rye with olives and rosemary.

On the final morning, Lee puts out “a big, fancy brunch” on deck, with the intent of emptying the boat’s pantry. You might find stuffed mushroom caps, strata, pasta salad, sliced ham, deviled eggs, bread pudding, blueberry buckle, fruit salad, maybe even a big apple pie. There are always sticky buns, big and yeasty, to fill in the cracks.

“People are fascinated to see how the leftovers show up,” says Lee.


Pam Sheridan / Victory Chimes

Two soups simmer on the diesel-fueled French flattop stove on the Victory Chimes: a cream of mushroom and a curried vegetable with pork. Pam Sheridan will offer both for lunch, along with potato scones, tomatoes with basil and mozzarella, and a turkey salad. The passengers are already on board, finishing up breakfast.

Sheridan sweeps her hand across the relatively spacious kitchen of the largest boat in the windjammer fleet, capable of carrying forty-two passengers and a crew of nine. “This galley is like playing restaurant,” she says. Just don’t call her a chef, she admonishes with a grin. (For the record, her official title is chief steward.)

The first night’s dinner is always lobster, cooked on deck and served with corn and coleslaw. On the last night, she’ll serve a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. In between it’s comfort food, and plenty of it. Chicken Marsala, hot Italian sausage, mac and cheese — a lunch that one passenger told her was the best he ever had. “I told him he ought to get out more,” she quips.

She nods toward the oven, a giant appliance with a cooktop that’s all heat. “We call her ‘the beast.’ Cap says she has two temperatures: incinerate and off.” She laughs.

Sheridan, 59, a Bangor native, has worked in restaurants most of her adult life (you’ll find her at the Bag & Kettle at Sugarloaf in the wintertime). She beats a chocolate-chip brownie batter with vigor, glancing up at a recipe from the Victory Chimes cookbook that she plans to update. She gives a nod to the gentleman who has just rung the galley bell after breakfast. It’s a passenger’s way of complimenting the chef — uh, cook.

Chef or cook, Sheridan loves to play restaurant. She’s been at it since 2000, when she came aboard to fill in for two and a half weeks. “I forgot to leave,” she says. And despite her breezy, unpretentious style, she takes her role seriously. “You can’t control the weather or wind, but you can control the food.”
Paul Dorr / Nathaniel Bowditch

Above the traditional icebox, one that still uses ice for cooling, Paul Dorr has tacked a photograph of his parents when they were young. His mom, in bandana and apron, labors in a boat’s galley; his father, a member of the crew, assists.

Much of Dorr’s family, going back to his great, great, grandfather, worked on schooners, many as captains. He and his brother, Owen, captain of the Nathaniel Bowditch, ended up sailing for a living, too. Dorr, 51, is a gentle bear of a man, with a neat mustache, chef whites, and Crocs, and ocean-blue eyes that lock you in with friendliness. 2012 marks twenty-seven years he has worked on windjammers, his seventeenth as chef.

He is one of the lucky cooks in Maine’s windjammer fleet who has two wood-burning ovens. Rarely is one empty. He’s up at four in the morning, putting logs on the fire, shaping bread by 4:15, prepping for lunch and dinner. Then, he says, “for thirty to forty-five minutes I’m flipping blueberry pancakes and keeping an eye on the bacon.”

The menu board reads Beef Wellington and sautéed green beans — it’s the final meal Dorr prepared for a trip that’s just ended. Tonight, after new passengers board for a weekend sail, he’ll serve curried chicken with several toppings: roasted peanuts and coconut, pineapple, sliced banana, diced green and red peppers, chopped hardboiled egg, and his own mango chutney.

For dessert, guests will get to scatter the toppings of their choice on Dorr’s homemade ice cream, creating exotic sundaes as the resourceful chef uses up leftovers.

Coffee is king on the Bowditch. Dorr brews a custom blend from Rock City Coffee Roasters in Rockland. “We wanted a coffee we could rely on all summer,” he says. “There’s always hot coffee.

“It surprises people how good the food is,” he adds. “Most people are expecting diner food. But it’s not Potato Buds anymore. We’re serving roasted fingerlings.”

Nancy Heiser has written about food for many national and regional magazines. She lives in Brunswick.

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