Chef Ross Florance grows myriad varieties of fruits and vegetables on his farm in Roque Bluffs. Among the fruit are the deep blue-hued honey berries. The oblong berry’s flavor is tarter, but is reminiscent of blueberries. PHOTOS COURTESY OF ROSS FLORANCE

Fresh and local: New York chef serves up sea-and-garden-to-table feasts



ROQUE BLUFFS — “Gather ye rose-buds while ye may.” That line from Robert Herrick’s 17th-century poem applies to foraging and feasting on Maine’s seasonal bounty.

Taking his cue from the time of year, and what wild-caught fish is available or home-grown vegetable is in its prime, is how Ross Florance eats and cooks for himself or others. Seizing the moment, the Roque Bluffs chef can be found catching delicate, briny creatures of the sea, foraging for mushrooms and conifer tips and harvesting berries and produce from the fields when everything is still in its glory.

A former chef at New York’s Per Se and other famed restaurants, Florance’s daily cooking and days are determined by the time of year at his Roque Bluffs home overlooking Englishman Bay. Surrounding his house are gardens that he built.

Florance captures on plate Maine’s micro seasons in his weekly Saturday night ten-course dinners with drink pairings (capacity of eight). Guests sit and watch him prepare the tasting menu.

“Translating the landscape through food,” is the goal, the chef said. The dinners “are an expression of me, of my place and the season. The meals are like love letters to this place and this time.”

Florance grows much of the food he serves his guests. The chef, who is in his fourth growing season, has planted numerous varieties of potatoes, tomatoes, fruit and more, not to mention greens.

He’s also growing celtuce, a stem lettuce, described by a South Carolina garden writer as an “ancient, trendy vegetable.”

“This used to be a forest,” Florance said, pointing to one large garden. He is trying to grow a number of berries, including honey berries. The oblong fruit has a hue and flavor reminiscent of blueberries.

But there’s more.

“I love potatoes,” he said. To that end, 18 varieties are in the ground, including early, mid- and late-season varieties. Among them are Baltic Rose, Bintje and Harvest Moon.

In a greenhouse off another garden, rows of tomato plants — from Sunrise and Bumblebee to Marbonne and Clementine — catch the eye.

Some of the seeds Florance has sown come from another chef, Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a farm-to-table restaurant, in Tarrytown, N.Y. Barber has launched Row 7, a seed company, which breeds seeds for flavor – not the usual yield, shelf life and uniformity.

Florance, himself, harvests much of his seafood. What he can’t catch is sourced locally.

“I go fishing as often as I can,” he said. That includes mackerel fishing. “There’s a local guy raising mussels that are outstanding.”

The chef garnishes dishes with care at a recent dinner.

Florence supports the fishing industry and backs the Downeast Salmon Federation and its work in research and education. The day before his newspaper interview, he had traveled to Canada with the federation.

The trip was mostly educational to learn more about sturgeon and sea-to-river fish issues, which are generally dams, he said. “The St. John River has never had a large dam in place so it still has plenty of sturgeon whereas in the U.S., most sturgeon rivers have been dammed where they are excluded from their breeding habitat.”

“There’s so many different types of seafood here that no one is doing anything with,” said Florance. That includes American unagi or freshwater eels.

Back to his culinary career.

“In middle school I knew I wanted to be a chef,” said the Denville, N.J. native. Denville is about 35 miles from New York.

An avid skateboarder, he met another skateboarder who worked in kitchens after school. “I didn’t even know that was a possibility,” Florance recalled. So the teen-ager followed suit, first working at a local restaurant for free to gain experience and skills. “A couple months in, the owner was like, ‘I can’t not pay you anymore.’”

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 2007, the aspiring chef moved to Napa Valley to work at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro under the tutelage of Chef Philip Tessier.

Florance returned to the East Coast after three years at Bouchon to work at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin in New York. Inspired by that experience and extensive training, he headed to Europe, where he worked as a stagiaire (apprentice) in world renowned restaurants across Denmark, France and Spain. They included Noma and Le Chateaubriand.

In Europe, stagiaires work for free, Florance explained. In the United States, that practice is no longer legal.

A recent tasting menu featured Acadian Emerald Caviar with softshell clam emulsion, toasted oat oil and chive blossoms.

In 2012, he returned to New York to work at Keller’s Michelin three star-rated restaurant, Per Se. He spent three years at the restaurant sharpening his craft and enhancing his creativity.

Florance also was executive chef at a financial tech company in New York called Betterment. In addition to serving meals to more than 200 employees, he taught cooking classes, led wine tastings, and hosted a monthly dining series.

Maine has always been a goal, the outdoorsman said. “I wanted to live in nature–to do whatever I want to.”

Florance’s parents introduced him to Maine when he was just a baby. “I’ve been coming to Maine since I was 6 months old,” he said. Every year, the Florance’s would camp for at least a couple weeks at the Mount Desert Campground in Somesville.

Before buying a house in Roque Bluffs, Florance came to Maine in the summer to do foraging dinners. He worked with the late Stonington seafood dealer Ingrid Bengis to raise money for Edible Island. Edible Island, which just before the COVID-19 pandemic, merged with the Health Island Project on Deer Isle, was founded by Bengis to help island young people explore culinary careers.

Florence cooked for a Downeast Salmon Federation fundraiser last spring.

The meal included moose served with pickled roses and black currant, Bar Harbor Blond oysters with an elderflower mignonette, grilled alewife with aioli and pickled celery, smoked smelt spread with chives and rye crackers and charred eel (American Unagi) with sweet potato and pickled spruce shoots.

For dinner, the menu began with charred scallops cooked with buckwheat and smoked smelt butter. Gulf of Maine halibut followed. The fish served atop a spring ragout of asparagus and fiddleheads with shellfish cream. For dessert, a pouding chômeur, a roasted parsnip purée with maple syrup, capped the meal.

Lucy Benjamin, founder of the East Blue Hill-based Lucy’s Granola has known Florance a long time. She helped him in the kitchen during Downeast Salmon Federation’s banquet.

“He’s really innovative,” she said. “His food is interesting and amazing.”

“He keeps his calm. Even when we were pushing out 40 halibut dishes at once,” she said. “I’ve seen him cook dinners for 80 people, for 40 people. He’s wonderful. He’s incredibly generous. That’s what I find.”

To attend one of Ross’s one-of-a-kind weekly dinners, contact Florance through his website at rossflorance.com. He also can be reached via Instagram. His handle is @rossflorance.

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.
Jennifer Osborn

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