The Fiddlehead Restaurant

Written by  Melanie Brooks


Chef Mel Chaiken grew up in Tokyo, Japan, with a Malaysian mother and American father. Her tri-cultured family atmosphere helped shape her taste and skills in the kitchen. She came to Maine via Colby College, and today practices these skills six nights a week at The Fiddlehead Restaurant in Bangor.

What is your first food memory?

My first food memory is school lunch. My mom was very good at switching things up so my sister and I wouldn’t get bored. Some days we had sandwiches—the traditional tuna with cucumbers, peanut butter and jelly, or pastrami with lettuce, tomato, and mustard. Other times, we had Japanese rice balls covered in seaweed, stuffed with either tuna or bonito. Snacks were the traditional potato chips or Clementine oranges, but sometimes I got sontong (sun-dried cuttlefish strands) or mini packets of dried baby anchovies mixed with peanuts. Those are the things I remember—if I didn’t grow up with those things, I probably wouldn’t like them as an adult.


What are some of your early cooking experiences?

My mom didn’t really want me cooking as a kid, or rather, messing with her kitchen space. Whenever we visited our extended family in Malaysia, however, my aunt would always put me right to work in the kitchen. She was the head of the 10-person household, so whenever my sister and I visited, she took the opportunity to take a little break and have us help her out with some of the chores, in which cooking was my earliest cooking memory.


Any family influences on your style and taste?

All of my cooking is based primarily on my family’s cooking techniques and taste preferences. My mother is an amazing cook (although she will deny it). She mastered everything from Malay-style curries to homemade lasagna to traditional Thanksgiving dinners. She taught me that you can make any type of food you want and that you can make it taste awesome, no matter what your culinary background is. That’s what gave me the confidence to pursue a culinary profession; it helped that I had somewhat of a knack for it as well!


Where did you study or apprentice?

I have no formal culinary education. I knew, early on, that I didn’t want an office job—I need to be moving and physically doing things. Cooking food seemed the perfect job. I liked to eat food, and I liked the creative aspect of it. I worked in several restaurants, mostly in the Bar Harbor area—moving on to completing two summer seasons at the Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor. There, I met two amazing chefs that were willing to teach me all they knew culinary-wise, as well as a good work ethic, which I felt I somewhat had a grasp on. But watching these amazing chefs work, as well as my fellow line cooks and dishwashers, made me want to work harder, do better, and have fun while I was doing it.


When did you realize you were a chef?

I got the “title” of chef when I was 26 years old, working at a fine dining restaurant that has since gone out of business in the Bangor area. I was, however, far from being a chef. It took me a good three years of trial and error and developing my skills to be able to feel like one.

There are two instances in which I thought to myself, “I am now a chef.” The first was when my business partner, Laura Albin, and I opened our current establishment, The Fiddlehead Restaurant. The second is when I experiment with food and certain dishes that I am totally unfamiliar with, totally mess it up, and realize I know exactly how to fix it and make it better. Owning my profession physically, with a restaurant, and mentally, with my skills, was the caveat for me to consider myself a real chef.


What was your pivotal career move?

Opening our own restaurant. Thinking back, it was a lot more liberating than I thought it would be. Trusting your instincts, making your own decisions, and relying on a group of people that you love and admire to help you achieve that one goal. It’s amazing. It’s the third-best thing that’s ever happened to me—after meeting my fiancé and the birth of my child.


When did the Fiddlehead Restaurant open? How did it happen?

We opened on August 25, 2009. Laura and I had just gotten done working at another restaurant in town. Both unemployed (and me with a 1-year-old), we knew we wanted to stay in the Bangor area and we knew we were good at working in restaurants—we didn’t, however, want to work for anyone else. We decided to open our own place. Things just happened to fall into place, after that. We are still pretty amazed at how it all came together—but it did. We must be doing something right—we’re still crossing our fingers.


What is your favorite ingredient to work with?

I’ll discover something new (to me) one week, really like using it, and then find something new the next. What I really like are challenges—people coming in with food allergies, dietary restrictions, and/or personal food preferences. We like to make everyone feel welcome at the Fiddlehead, so when I look into my fridge and try to create a dish for people with what I have available—not just to get by, but to make the dish taste good and succeed—that makes me feel like a real chef.


You source a lot of ingredients locally. Why is this important to you?

It’s not just a trend, in my opinion. It really gets the community together—people get to know each other, and yes, it fosters a certain type of pride in the “stuff” we create because we have to “own” it, and answer for it.

For example, we can’t just blame the “big company” if our greens aren’t good—we discuss our issues with our local greens person and fix the problem, and it’s a matter of pride. People are willing to work together to make our food better and people want to create things that are of good quality and reliable items. Slowly but surely, we’re creating a little self-sufficient community that we will all be proud to be a part of.


What is the dish we have featured? How did it come about and what ingredients are used?

This is a char sui-marinated pork chop with Japanese-style fried rice and hot sesame oil. Simply, I missed the taste of Japanese fried rice, so I recreated it for this dish. Char sui is a Chinese-style marinade, mostly used with pork, so it naturally goes with the pork chop. Bringing it all together is the hot sesame oil, which mellows out the sweetness of the char sui marinade, and kicks up the flavor of the fried rice. Usually, with a dish, I start with the thought: What do I want to eat today/what do I want to make that sounds good? It’s all downhill from there.


What is your least favorite job-related task?

It’s usually the simplest things that I hate doing. The type of chores that only take three minutes—like chopping herbs or shredding cheese. Thankfully, I have a sous chef and line cook who like me enough to do it for me most of the time.


What does a perfect day off look like?

I love my job, but any day off is a perfect day off. More specifically, watching my son (now 3 years old) learn to skate and play hockey, and learn to swim. I also enjoy movie nights with my fiancé/best friend, cooking good, simple food at home, and yes, cleaning my house!


What you would want your last meal to be?

Here’s a list of what I can think of now, but believe me, there’d be a table full of food. To start: a Fiddlehead Restaurant bloody Mary. My mother’s spaghetti Bolognese, traditional Malaysian laksa, my aunt Noni’s chicken soup with potatoes and field mustard greens, and traditional Malay-style roti canai with chicken curry. Oh, and my fiance’s moose chili.


Read the Full Article at Bangor Metro