When a renowned Maine chef opened a lakeside snack bar, her admirers followed. Get the scoop on Gloucester’s Bresca & the Honeybee, plus recipes for shrimp burgers, spicy mayo, blackberry chip ice cream, and more.
By Julia Clancy
Apr 06 2020
Herbed Shrimp Burgers : Sweet Soy Chili Mayo
A note from the editors: Since this story was published, chefs and restaurants around New England have been changing their operations in light of COVID-19. Please call in advance or check their websites for the latest updates.
The oldest structure on Maine’s Sabbathday Lake is a 600-square-foot clapboard shack painted butter yellow. It sits on a piece of land first used by the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing—better known as the Shakers—for a private swimming hole in 1783, the same year that Great Britain conceded American independence. Beyond the shack—past the picnic tables and pool noodles, across the basin of the lake—you’ll find only modest houses with spare lawns. There are no mammoth waterfront estates, or billboards, or speedboats upending the peace. And it’s here, in the old yellow shack, that one of the state’s most lauded chefs “blew up my career,” as she puts it, to run a snack bar.
Before coming to Sabbathday Lake, Krista Kern Desjarlais had spent decades in the restaurant business, training in such top kitchens as Gotham Bar & Grill, Le Cirque, and Guy Savoy. In 2007, she opened a restaurant in Portland called Bresca, and over the next six years she racked up accolades and was a frequent James Beard Award semifinalist (and in 2011 a finalist) for best chef in the Northeast.
“We were a big deal in a small space,” she says. “It was all happening, and at the same time I was falling apart physically.” At 43, Kern Desjarlais was pregnant with her first child and still clocking 18-hour days in the kitchen. She suffered chronic migraines. And not long after her daughter, Cortland, was born, the family moved from Portland to New Gloucester, meaning every double shift was capped by a 40-minute commute home.
“The industry is so hard on everybody,” Kern Desjarlais says, “and we’re not a fairy tale. I shut Bresca down. I got myself home. I got things together with my family.”
Meanwhile, she discovered that a seasonal snack shack right down the road from her home was in need of a new owner. She closed Bresca in May 2013 and opened Bresca & the Honeybee that Memorial Day weekend.
The move may have left Portland foodies scratching their heads, but Kern Desjarlais was too busy making shrimp burgers and homemade ice cream to pay any mind. As for her menu, “I thought about what my mother packed for picnics when we were kids. It wasn’t frozen burgers or cheese fries—it was homemade food.”
Seven years after shuttering Bresca, Kern Desjarlais is overseeing another big deal in a small space, albeit one with a walk-up order window and a three-acre dining room of woods and shoreline. Ingredients are sourced from local farms and Kern Desjarlais’s sizable garden. Ice cream is churned in small batches from local milk, and Cortland, now 9, often helps out at the order window, serving up flavors like blackberry chocolate chip and Sorrento lemon into lacy cones. Almost everything is made from scratch: The “Pig in a Blanket” hot dog is wrapped in homemade brioche, and sandwiches come on fresh-baked sourdough. Even the spreads—herb-packed pistachio pesto, roasted red pepper relish—are house-made.
Kern Desjarlais has also added a second restaurant to her portfolio: In 2016 she opened the Purple House in North Yarmouth, a 1950s cottage turned bakery whose season runs October through May. Her Montreal-style wood-fired bagels fast became the new cult carb, and in 2017, Bon Appétit named the Purple House one of the 50 best new restaurants in the country.
Kern Desjarlais makes it all work by keeping a limited schedule. Her hours are Thursday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. As with Bresca, she has found that when the food is good, customers will work around your hours.
“Many people in this industry are talking about getting healthy,” Kern Desjarlais says. “I don’t think I’d still be in this career if I had ‘stayed the path.’ Focusing on my health and my family—that’s what helped me maintain and stay in the business.”
Between Bresca & the Honeybee, the Purple House, and parenthood, Kern Desjarlais is undeniably busy. But she has achieved what few chefs would have thought possible 10 years ago: success on her own terms. The art of enduring as a chef, or even as a lakeside snack shack, is about knowing when to hold steady … and when to blow things up.