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Northern Union’s Chef Romann Dumorne Discusses Comfort Zones in an Uncomfortable Time

Chef Romann Dumorne, of the Northern Union restaurant and wine bar in Ogunquit, is a grams guy. At the front end of his menu development process, he gives himself the creative latitude to navigate seasonal ingredients and tempt his diners out of their comfort zones, but when it comes to putting the food on the plate night after night, precision is the name of his game. He writes his recipes down in painstaking detail, in grams, to facilitate the repeatable results that help connect him to his customers.


Chef Dumorne sat down with Edible Maine editor Christine Burns Rudalevige to chat about how his background, culinary style, and penchant for precision helped him weather the inhospitable conditions 2020 has thrown at the hospitality industry. Note the conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


Q: What’s your 60-second personal history?
A:
I had an awesome childhood, growing up with Haitian immigrant parents in Brooklyn. You know why living in Brooklyn is so awesome? Because you see so much diversity. I’ve never faced any kind of culture shock when I’ve moved around the country because different kinds of people living different kinds of ways is just what I know as normal.


Q: What’s one of your earliest taste memories?

A: Oh man. It was okra. I remember my mother making a soup with it and me having to eat it and then running to the bathroom to throw up. I don’t cook okra. Ever.


I don’t cook with celery either, but I don’t have as clear-cut a reason for that. Even in my mirepoix, I use celeriac, celery root, instead. I love pretty much all root vegetables. That is what I am looking forward to cooking in the fall. I’ll probably push them onto the menu early, actually. Oh yeah, sweet potatoes and butternut squash. I puree them, or salt-bake them. And I’ll bring back the rabbit and the fall lamb.


Q: Are there family- or food-centric neighborhood gatherings you miss in this time of limited-capacity events?

A: It might be a Caribbean thing, but every gathering is about food. Easter and Christmas can be just like a normal Tuesday night. My grandmothers lived with us, so all my cousins were always around. Everyone would bring in their pot of something. Creole black beans and rice. Lots of pork belly. You’d just sit and eat and talk. So, I guess I miss Tuesday nights.


Q: What job do you credit as having the biggest influence on your culinary style?

A: Probably not that short stint I had at Hooters… Seriously, though, my time at the White Barn Inn pretty much gave me the bones for how I cook now. But when I moved to Maine 13 years ago and started working at the Barn, I was so focused. I cut out a bunch of things—the hard partying, the drinking, the drugs. I was focused completely on the task. I was learning the craft. I could not have asked for a better teacher than what I found in Chef [Jonathan] Cartwright. Classic, fundamental underpinnings but pushing those a little with modern techniques, like sous vide, some foam sometimes, maybe. I don’t use a lot of [molecular gastronomy] chemicals, but again, I like the accuracy of modern cooking. Everything is measured.


Q: As a restaurateur navigating the COVID-19 situation, what have you been able to hold steady for your customers?
A:
When we decided to reopen, we wanted to downsize the menu for lower overhead but still give guests the consistency that keeps them coming back. When we first opened Northern Union, you know the building is more of a house than a wide-open space, so the different, smaller rooms made it like a home. We had to change that up a bit, but we also opened the front garden for seating. The feel is different, of course, and we pared down the menu, but we didn’t cheapen the quality of the food. During such a crazy time, it’s comforting to go to a place that you know you like from past meals there and get what you expect.

Christine has lived in many places, including Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, England and France. But her professional world has consistently been grounded in just two: in journalism and in the kitchen. Throughout her 30-year writing career, she’s covered sports, politics, business and technology. But for the past 10 years after completing culinary school, she’s focused on food. Her words and recipes about eating locally and sustainably have appeared in publications from The Portland Press Herald to Fine Cooking. Her award-winning cookbook Green Plate Special (link is: https://www.amazon.com/Green-Plate-Special-Sustainable-Delicious/dp/1944762140) was published in 2017. When she’s not laboring over a cutting board or a keyboard, she’s learning from her two semi-adult children, a community of food-minded friends, hundreds of productive Maine farmers, thousands of innovative chefs near and far, and her 30,000 honeybees.

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