Nearly every time I haul out a cutting board, I think about something Eloise Humphrey told me four years ago. Humphrey, the chef and co-owner of Bath’s dearly departed Salt Pine Social, was describing how she prepared a homemade rosemary syrup infused with cracked black peppercorns. “It’s a simple syrup in both senses of the word ‘simple’,” she said, then added with a chuckle, “Well, everything is simple when you have line cooks to help!”

Since that conversation, I’ve harbored (totally unrealistic) fantasies of hiring my own kitchen brigade to chop and sauté carrots, blitz olive oil into mayonnaise, fillet haddock and denude sprigs of thyme down to their twiggy stems. Spoiler: It’s never going to happen.

But perhaps I don’t need a prep team when I’ve got Biddeford’s Big Tree Grocery.

Opened last June as a response to the temporary, pandemic-related shuttering of the Big Tree Hospitality group’s restaurants (Eventide, Eventide Fenway, Hugo’s and The Honey Paw), the Grocery owes its existence to fuzzy work-life boundaries. In particular, chef/co-owner Andrew Taylor’s home pantry, which he stocks with his restaurants’ almost universally house-made products.

“On a personal level, (through our restaurants) is how I personally shop. My fridge at home is filled with our pickles and sauces, and my family has really grown accustomed to eating like that,” he said. “So when we started paying attention to what restaurants were doing during COVID, especially kitchens like the guys at Olmsted in Brooklyn, we also started looking at what we could offer to help people cook from home. This was an obvious and easy, great pivot.”

Visit Big Tree Grocery’s online shopfront (bigtreefoods.com), and you’ll spot versions of many of the dishes that helped establish Taylor and his partners, chef Mike Wiley and general manager Arlin Smith as some of New England’s biggest culinary hitters. There’s an Eventide-inspired lobster roll kit for four, complete with steamed, bao-inspired buns, picked lobster meat and brown butter vinaigrette ($60); Hugo’s herby, allium-propelled Maitre d’Hotel compound butter ($7/8 oz.); even a mammoth bag of Honey Paw’s signature snack: fiery, house-fried kimchi potato chips ($5).

“We try to branch out to derivations of things we do that would be easy for us to make in the Pepperell Mill commissary kitchen, but also not be a burden for the team there,” Taylor said. “Like garlic butter ($7/8 oz.). We don’t usually sell it at the restaurants, but we make our own nice house butter and whip it with garlic. Boom! There’s an approachable thing for home cooks to have in their fridge. The same for pickled red onions ($5/8 oz.), or fresh noodles that we make in-house ($7-9/lb.)”

If you find yourself thinking this sounds familiar, a bit like the other hybrid restaurant-grocery stores I wrote about in a series of columns last summer, you’re in for a shock when I tell you that – not counting cookbooks and beanies – Big Tree Grocery offers more than 100 items each week. As I write this column, the week’s tally is actually a staggering 150.

And that’s smaller than it once was. “We used to have a lot more staple-y stuff like milk, flour and eggs: stuff that at the time was a little difficult to find in grocery stores,” Taylor said. “We’ve since pulled back on that stuff because it’s easier to find now, and we don’t necessarily have the most appropriate packaging for everything. We’re not exactly a grocery store.”

Not exactly … but pretty close. Across three orders placed during the last six weeks, I’ve tried everything from par-cooked, ready-to-sear Long Island duck breasts ($14), to homemade demi-baguettes ($3), to an eight-component “Brassicas Salad” that easily feeds six people ($35). Of the two dozen items I’ve picked up at Biddeford’s Pepperell Mill (orders can also be collected at Eventide or delivered on the Casco Bay Ferry Line), precisely none have been duds.

The lobster roll kit sold by Big Tree Grocery replicates Eventide’s famous steamed, bao-inspired buns with picked lobster meat and brown butter vinaigrette. Photo by Andrew Ross

Some are even remarkable bargains. Take the $8 harissa-marinated Common Wealth Poultry Farm half-chicken that just needs 20 minutes in a 425 degree F oven, or better yet, the five varieties of superb house-made stock that Big Tree offers in quart-sized portions for $3 (duck, pork, or chicken) or $4 (dashi and vegetable). “What a great deal!” my friend, Portland-based cookbook author Mindy Fox said when I told her about my recent purchase. “Using a really good stock is important to so many dishes, and you don’t want to use grocery-store stock if you can avoid it.”

The price point is no accident. “We think of those items as affordable building blocks, tools to arm yourself with what you need to cook well,” Taylor said. “I think (Big Tree Grocery) is in competition for the people who are already going to spend a bunch of money buying really good products at Whole Foods or Rosemont. They’re the kind of people who are going to cook at home anyway because they’re cooking at home now, and they did before COVID, too.”

I laughed when Taylor described this kind of customer; it sounded a lot like me. I also wondered aloud if the shop’s open-source, mix-and-match ethos was intentional. To me, Big Tree Grocery feels like a gargantuan Lego kit – if you’re in the mood to follow directions, you can snap bricks into place and build an identical replica of the structure you see on the front of the box. But if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can repurpose those same blocks into something else, as-yet-unimagined even to toy designers back in Denmark.

“One-hundred percent. That is Mike (Wiley)’s and my whole philosophy. In our Eventide cookbook (no surprise, also available through Big Tree Grocery for $30), we said that our style of cooking could be summed up as pantry foraging,” Taylor said. “I’m not the best planner of meals, but I love to go in, see what I’ve got in the fridge and just pull stuff together. To us, the more cool stuff you have in your fridge or pantry, the better, and the better you’re gonna be as a cook.”

For now, I’ve got a freezer filled with Big Tree stocks (the duck broth is particularly good for braising root vegetables like carrots and celeriac). I’ve been storing them away with the expectation that the end of the pandemic will also signal the final days of the online grocery. But according to Taylor, my stock-stockpiling may be premature.

“A lot of people have reached out to us, saying that we hope you continue this, telling us they’ve been ordering every week, and that Big Tree Grocery has replaced their weekly trip to Whole Foods,” Taylor said. “Ultimately, we are really proud of this and think it has a future. When COVID is behind us, we could see that this might stick around for a while. We just want people to be eating better all the time, no matter what.”

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of four recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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