SKOWHEGAN — Mark LaCasse grew up at his grandmother’s apron strings.

His grandmother, the late Florence Sterns, operated the Village Candlelight Restaurant for many years in downtown Skowhegan and cooked at the restaurant at Lakewood Theater in Madison.

LaCasse developed his own passion for cooking, but Sterns warned him of the stress and commitment of the restaurant business. She advised him never to open one of his own.

So LaCasse, 38, and his wife Kelly, 34, did the next best thing — they started selling frozen gourmet dinners at farmers’ markets in 2011. The business, called The Maine Meal, now includes frozen meal sales at the Sunday River ski area base lodge and two nearby resort hotels.

“She was married to the restaurant, and I heeded that advice,” LaCasse said.

All the food is prepared, vacuum-sealed and frozen in the kitchen of the former Candlelight on Madison Avenue, which family members still own.

His wife agreed it was the right approach.

“We decided to keep our passion for food and our passion for the local food initiative and not have the stress and overhead of owning a restaurant,” Kelly LaCasse said.

Mark LaCasse, who grew up in East Madison, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where he studied French cuisine. Kelly LaCasse, who grew up in Industry, is a graduate of the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in New York. She is the kitchen manager at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences and the Glenn Stratton Learning Center, both on the campus of Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield.

Along the way, the couple operated a tourist lodge in Nicaragua for three years and worked in California restaurants to expand on their education.

“I brought a lot of that cooking style back from the Caribbean, using coconut oil, cooking seafood and fish,” LaCasse said. “My style is really French-style cookery. I do a lot of reduction sauces, but I do try to throw in other types of cookery, incorporating an Asian taste, too; but it’s all in the French style.

“I call it a kind of French fusion.”

The Maine Meal features Maine-grown food from local farms, fishermen and producers, resulting in 16 to 20 different meal packets. There are entrees of lobster, beef, chicken and sea scallops, along with side dishes of vegetables, soups, pasta, potatoes and grain dishes. Each frozen packet serves two people, LaCasse said.

He said the business broke even in 2011. He would not project income for 2012.

An entire meal will cost $30 to $35. Preparation time is 10 to 20 minutes, from frozen package to the table. All of the meals come fully cooked with “boil-in-bag” heating instructions.

“These meals are for everyone, from people leading busy lives to new moms who don’t have the time to prepare a meal, but they still want to cook for their family,” Mark LaCasse said. “They know it’s good local food and it’s quick and easy.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367
dharlow@centralmaine.com