It was early October, and Bolster, Snow & Co., Anthony DeLois’ new restaurant, was scheduled to open the next day in Portland. But the restaurant’s liquor license hadn’t arrived.

DeLois had been seasoned in the New York City restaurant industry – working as sous chef at Il Buco and later as a manager for Union Square Events, part of famed restaurateur Danny Meyer’s hospitality group – and he knew this could throw a major wrench into his plans.

DeLois walked down to city hall and discovered the person handling his license was on vacation. But other city employees helpfully printed his license out, then directed him across the street to the fire marshal to make sure he was signed off on the fire code. The restaurant opened on schedule.

“That would never happen in New York,” DeLois said, where it’s not uncommon for multiple layers of government to hold jurisdiction over restaurant projects so that a similar problem would have taken at least three or four days to resolve. DeLois, who grew up in Yarmouth, offers this anecdote as one reason he’s glad he moved from New York City back to Maine. He’s one of many restaurant professionals, from cooks to owners and managers, who have settled here after working in some of New York City’s best restaurants.

Chefs and other restaurant workers find Maine life is slower paced. Restaurant work in Portland comes with less stress, fewer hours, shorter commutes, and customers who are comparatively easy to please. But business slows in winter, the search for seasonal kitchen workers can be maddening, and – despite DeLois’ experience – the bureaucracy at times can be even worse than it is in Manhattan, according to at least one relocated chef.

The restaurant industry in New York City has seen an exodus of workers in recent years, as rent and the other costs of doing business have skyrocketed. The dining culture in New York has also changed, DeLois and other chefs say, trending toward expensive restaurants backed by big corporations. For younger chefs, Portland offers opportunities to open their own restaurants and to start a family.

“This is still the place where you can have that quintessential dream of owning and operating your own place and not necessarily being part of a larger restaurant group or investment group where ultimately you’re answering to someone else,” DeLois said. “And you can open on your own terms and do it slowly. It’s so much harder now in New York where openings, you’ve got to be 100 percent on day one.”

The list of New York transplants is long. Damian Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez were working for renowned New York chef Daniel Boulud when Rod Mitchell, owner of Browne Trading Co. on Commercial Street in Portland, which supplied fish to Boulud, invited them up for a weekend tour of the area. Soon after, they moved here to open their own restaurant, Piccolo, and start a family; they have since opened a second restaurant, Chaval.

Chef Katharine Marsh, formerly of the Spotted Pig, a nationally celebrated West Village restaurant, moved to Portland last year to work at Hugo’s and decided to stay. Rich Maggi, the chef at Lazzari, came here in 2012 from the acclaimed Mile End Deli in Brooklyn. Briana Holt, whose pastries brought national recognition to Tandem Bakery, had been a baker at Pies ‘n’ Thighs in Brooklyn, which opened as “one of the most fervently discussed new restaurants of the year,” the New York Times wrote at the time.

Plenty of other cooks in Portland kitchens have also landed here after proving themselves in the Big Apple.

“A lot of what’s happening, I think – especially with my friends – all of us have gotten married and are starting to have kids and realizing that we can’t sustain a lifestyle in New York City,” said Ben Jackson, the chef at Drifters Wife on Washington Avenue. “A lot of them are looking for new places that are not so intense. You have to have more in life than waking up and going to work and working 18 hours a day.”

Jackson was lured to Portland by Peter and Orenda Hale, owners of Maine & Loire and Drifters Wife, who had worked with him at Reynard in Brooklyn. Jackson said that an average day at Reynard began at 7 a.m. and ended at midnight; as executive sous chef, Jackson often went in a couple of hours earlier – plus, he worked special events. Then he’d “come back the next day and have to do it all over again.”

At Reynard, Jackson worked with two dozen people, from dishwashers to night cooks and other sous chefs. In Portland, he has worked by himself at Drifters Wife for two years, taking care of everything from washing the dishes to writing menus. He often still works long hours, but he loves the work, and says he loves that the Hales trust him “to do whatever I want to do.”

“Here in Portland, it feels really different than New York,” Jackson said. “It’s more honest to me, for some reason. People are just cooking more honest food.”

Peter Hale had worked in nightclubs and fine dining in Manhattan since the late 1990s before moving to Brooklyn and then Maine. Orenda Hale had been assistant manager at Balthazar Bakery, and manager at Pulino’s, a restaurant on the Bowery also owned by Keith McNally (once dubbed by the New York Times as “The Restaurateur Who Invented Downtown.”)

NO, REALLY – THE CITY NEVER SLEEPS

Orenda Hale recalls that when she and her husband arrived in Portland and opened Maine & Loire, they would work from noon to 7 p.m. only, so she could sleep in – she was pregnant at the time; they never worked until midnight as she had in New York, and she ate dinner with her husband every night. That schedule “created a slowness that was different from New York,” she said.

Many New York transplants find this step on the brakes a welcome change.

For DeLois, moving to Portland was a matter of relieving himself of the stress that comes both with his profession and with daily living in the city that never sleeps. In Portland, he has fewer customers, and they are easier to serve. DeLois no longer has to manage serving 300 meals a night on multiple floors.

“I can touch every table in a night of service,” he said. “Even if we had 100, like over New Year’s, I can get to every single table and make sure everything’s OK, and our chef can, too. He makes a point to talk to every table. You’re not turning and burning. You’re trying to create more of an experience for everyone that comes through that door.”

Anthony DeLois at the bar of his restaurant Bolster, Snow and Co. DeLois, a fourth-generation Mainer, moved back to open his own restaurant after living in New York City and working in the restaurant industry there. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

It was the same for Noah Talmatch, who has worked in the restaurant business for 40 years – 18 of them in New York City, where he once owned Ice Bar, a popular Manhattan nightclub. When the traffic and stress didn’t seem worth it anymore, he traveled around the country looking for a new home where he could go into business with his brothers. Portland, he said, seemed “an obvious choice.” Now he is co-owner of the Timber steak house on Exchange Street and The North Point on Silver Street.

Talmatch says he gets a lot more done in his work day in Portland. “At one point (in New York) I was running several restaurants at a time,” he said, “and you’re spending most of your day in transport. You’re walking from one end of the city to another, or taking a train or a cab.”

If he needs a plumber or locksmith, he can hire one right away, pay four times less for the job than he would in New York, and know that the job will be done well. “The work ethic here is a million times better than New York City,” he said.

A harder adjustment has been dealing with Portland’s City Hall. Unlike DeLois, Talmatch has found it “poorly run and mired in bureaucracy.” In New York, Talmatch said, in his experience it takes a week and a half to get a restaurant building permit, compared with two months in Portland, where restaurateurs have to fill out “incredibly redundant” forms. When Talmatch opened North Point, he said he had to visit City Hall’s permitting department 36 times; also, his Portland restaurants have to go through the onerous process of getting liquor licenses annually, unlike in New York, he said. “Considering how much money restaurants contribute to the local economy, wouldn’t it be better to assign you a case worker to take you through the process?” he said.

COLD CLIMATE, WARM HEARTS

Still, the good Talmatch has found in Portland has far outweighed the bad. He says living in the city has transformed him personally.

Just after he signed the lease for The North Point on Silver Street, his first Portland business, the New Yorker stood outside the bar and restaurant and watched a drunk man walk up the block towards him. Talmatch’s first concern was that the man might fall in the North Point stairwell, and he would get sued before his business ever got off the ground.

The drunk did fall, into some nearby bushes. Talmatch said about 10 people came running out of the sandwich shop next door, pulling out their cell phones, all calling for help.

“And I thought, ‘Wow. I have such a cold heart,’ ” he said.

Talmatch now lives in an Old Port loft, a two-minute walk from work. He stops and talks with people on the street, and jokes with the postman.

“The people of Maine are just so honest and genuine, and that’s what really appealed to me the most,” he continued. “There’s a sense of community here.”

Restaurateurs who have moved here from New York say the customers are different, too. Sansonetti says that Mainers, curiously, appear to be more adventurous eaters than New Yorkers. When he worked at Bar Boulud, Sansonetti put Mediterranean sardines and Maine herring on the menu, but they were tough sells. When he opened Piccolo, he served sardines “and we couldn’t keep them on the menu.”

“I would say overall that the dining public up here, to a really surprising extent, they’re more open to certain things than I think people give them credit for,” Sansonetti said.

The Hales say that folks in Portland weren’t quite ready for the concept of their wine store, which sells only natural wines, but it’s not because they aren’t as sophisticated as New Yorkers. They just hadn’t been exposed to natural wines yet.

“In New York,” Peter Hale said, “people just drink what they’re told by a blog or a famous person.”

And Maine diners are, again, just nicer.

A New Yorker sitting at the bar, de-stressing after work, is “very needy emotionally,” Talmatch said. He expects a drink in his hand within two minutes. Ask him to scoot down a seat so you can sit next to your friend, and he’ll likely reply with a graphic suggestion for what you can do with the olives in that martini you’re drinking.

A Mainer, Talmatch said, would just smile and move.

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