BAR HARBOR — Chef Bobby Will was in line at the airport last summer, heading to Bar Harbor, and he was panicking: his bag had been flagged, and security officials were slowly pulling out items, one by one.
But it wasn’t contraband or a pocket knife he was worried about them finding.
“I’m sitting here like this,” says Will, eyes wide, motioning to his ring finger, mouthing the words like he did that day.
“There’s a ring! Finally he got what I was saying and took my toothpaste or something like that, said it wasn’t regulation size.”
Will’s business partner and fiancée Kimberly Kraus laughs.
“I would not have noticed a thing. I was tying my shoes and I was completely ignoring you.”
Getting engaged in Bar Harbor (on the Village Green, no less) was important to the couple.
“This town’s a big part of our life,” Will says. “I always wanted to come back here.”
And now they have. Raised in Massachusetts and New Jersey, respectively, Will and Kraus fell in love with Bar Harbor after Will worked at Fathom, a restaurant that closed in 2015. But this time, instead of toiling away in someone else’s kitchen, Bobby (whose Instagram handle, @bigbabybeef, matches his knuckle tattoos) will be running his own.
And it won’t be any ordinary kitchen. The New York Times, reviewing Saltaire Oyster Bar, where Will was executive chef for years, hailed his ability to pull together “unexpected yet harmonious flavors,” and that is precisely what he has done at Salt & Steel.
Yes, there will be lobster, and yes, it will be poached. But it will be served with a vadouvan curry butter and ricotta gnudi. There will be rigatoni with Bolognese sauce, but the pasta will be made from scratch in-house, topped with Maine hake “sausage” and San Marzano tomatoes. Gulf of Maine monkfish is paired with a celery root mousse and compressed apple salad, and Jonah crab with squid ink gnocchi, Fresno chili peppers and Sorrel chimichurri. Dessert is bittersweet chocolate cake with caramel “soil,” rhubarb custard and pistachios.
As the Times put it, “you get the idea.”
“I’m not labeling myself into one particular cuisine,” says Will, who describes the menu as “elevated coastal Maine cuisine.” It will be “flexible,” says Will, and (despite what his knuckles may imply) very vegetarian-friendly.
“We’re letting the ingredients dictate what we do with the food.”
Will and Kraus are sourcing from more than a dozen farmers and fishermen around the area for the medium-sized plate menu.
“It’s not just a gimmick,” says Will, who chafes a bit at the farm-to-table label and craze.
“The quality of the ingredients is better.”
He acknowledges that it costs a bit more to commit to serving local food, both for the restaurant and the diner. But that money is spread throughout the region.
“It’s right here; it’s supporting the local economy. We want to be really part of this community. We want to do our part to give back.”
Will was raised by a mother who worked as a nurse and a father who worked as a chef in the fishing town of Gloucester, Mass. His parents’ busy schedules meant that cooking for his six siblings often fell to him. With that many mouths to feed, says Will, “You live on a budget. When you catch that striped bass at Plum Island you’re cooking that striped bass.”
But the added responsibility didn’t bother him. Frugal living also meant eating those “weird cuts,” says Will, which no one wanted.
“I was eating liver and sweetbreads when they were 99 cents per pound.”
He remembers in vivid detail the first meal he served his family, the one that cemented his desire to be a chef.
“I made a meatloaf once, and I made it from scratch,” says Will. “It was just a simple meatloaf, but my mashed potatoes were better than some of the things I’ve seen professionals make.”
“I was really proud of that. That was the first time I actually cooked for my family, a real meal. It just made me think about wanting to take cooking seriously.”
Kraus, on the other hand, is new to the world of restaurants (apart from eating in them, that is).
“It took a little bit of convincing for me,” says Kraus, on the move to Maine after a decade in Manhattan, where she worked for a stock brokerage.
There’s been a steep learning curve, says Kraus, who is co-owner and general manager of Salt & Steel.
But nerves have been largely kept at bay by the mountain of tasks they’ve tackled since arriving in February: menu planning, ordering, hiring, stocking, painting and on and on.
The space, which was previously Mache Bistro, was well set up for their needs, says Will, although the couple have changed a few things around. Kraus learned to upholster, re-covering all of the chairs. They repainted, hung new artwork (black-and-white photographs of the island by artists from Harborview Studios on Swan’s Island) and switched out some of the kitchen equipment to better suit their needs.
Will has been involved in the opening of several restaurants and the two have a solid local staff, including local sous chef Brandon Sanders, who has worked at Project Social, Coda, Fathom and Leary’s Landing.
“He’s our hookup to everything,” says Will.
Head bartender Rick Scully moved from Block Island, R.I., where he was bar manager at an inn that won awards from Wine Spectator Magazine more than 14 years in a row, and sommelier Brad Haskel consults with restaurants around the country on their wine lists.
Even with that kind of team, they’d be crazy not to be a bit apprehensive, says Kraus. “There’s a lot on the line.”
But they’re hopeful the community will see the value in what they’re selling.
“People are more conscious up here about what’s going on with their food,” says Will. “You are what you eat.”
For more information or to book a table, call 288-0447 and visit saltandsteelbh.com.