Satan’s Sous Chef
Why the hell is Harding Lee Smith so successful?
by Chris Busby
Chef Harding Lee Smith is, by one measure, the most successful restaurateur in Portland. He owns and operates three popular establishments: The Front Room, a restaurant and bar that opened on Munjoy Hill in 2005; The Grill Room & Bar, a more meat-centric eatery that opened on Exchange Street in ’08; and The Corner Room Italian Kitchen & Bar, which opened a year later a few doors down on Exchange. This summer, Smith is adding a fourth jewel to his culinary crown: Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room, on Custom House Wharf. When Boone’s opens, he will have more restaurants than any other restaurateur in the city.
Smith’s success is surprising, because by many accounts, he’s also the most notorious asshole in the business. And if there’s a challenger for that title, it may be his wife, Darcy, who’s managed Smith’s three Rooms in recent years.
You can’t throw a rocks glass in this town without hitting a cook, server or bartender who has a horror story about one or both of the Smiths. And it’s not hard to find customers who’ve witnessed the chef’s tirades.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t patronize his establishments. Even Chef Smith’s most bitter critics acknowledge he’s exceptionally talented. And in this era of the celebrity chef, when outbursts by characters like Gordon Ramsay are considered entertainment, diners increasingly view awful behavior in the kitchen as a sign of culinary excellence.
Sean Slaughter worked as a waiter at The Front Room for about 18 months, beginning in 2008. “The management was really nice,” he said, “but Harding and his wife Darcy were probably two of the most awful human beings I’ve ever met in my life.”
The Smiths live in an apartment above The Front Room. Slaughter said they would “come in on a regular basis, drunk, yell at the staff, swear at the staff in front of tables … There were a bunch of occasions where Harding came in, worked, and he’d scream at us while we’re waiting on people, from the line. Several occasions where he’d come in drunk and sit at the bar, scream at the kitchen from the bar, with a full dining room there — swearing, ranting, raving.”
Slaughter was among a group of employees who sued Smith in early 2010 over complaints involving wages and working conditions. Backed by a workers’ rights organization called the Restaurant Opportunity Center of Maine, employees and organizers protested outside The Front Room for months and, on one occasion, confronted Smith inside The Grill Room during business hours with a list of grievances and demands.
The controversy divided the staff, nearly two dozen of whom signed a public letter backing their boss. That February, the dispute took a bizarre turn when a contractor named Jome Murphy, who also lived above The Front Room and had done work for Smith, squirted protesters and a cop at the scene with fox urine.
The lawsuit was settled later that year, and what Slaughter described as a tall stack of affidavits containing worker complaints was sealed as a result, sparing Smith the additional bad publicity a nasty court battle would have generated.
But bad memories are not so easily suppressed.
Slaughter said the lawsuit was prompted by an incident he and other workers did not discuss at the time on the advice of their attorney and because the employee directly affected did not want to go public. That former employee still feels that way, but Slaughter does not.
“There was one night in particular when Darcy came in drunk and went behind the bar and started shouting at the bar manager at the time, who was a really sweet girl, busted her butt for those people … but Darcy came in and screamed at her ’cause there were some tables that weren’t bussed and there were people that needed to be sat,” Slaughter said.
“This bar manager said, ‘Darcy, this isn’t the time or place,’ and went to walk by her, and Darcy shoved her, like in front of the whole restaurant full of people — shoved her — and then followed her back out into the kitchen and shoved her again,” he continued. “One of the female cooks stepped in and said, ‘Don’t touch her again or I personally will fucking kick your ass.’ So Darcy went outside, called Harding, told Harding that the bar manager had just shoved her. Harding came in drunk, screamed at this bar manager, who was already in tears, in front of the whole bar. Said, ‘Get your shit and get out. You’re fired!’”
Slaughter said the Smiths realized their mistake when they sobered up the next day and attempted to reconcile with the employee, to no avail. “That’s the reason why everybody really went after him, because we were sick of it,” said Slaughter. “There were things that happened on a daily basis that we put up with ’cause it was good money and we all really got along well. It was like a family amongst the staff. But they were like the terrible parents that we just had to deal with. After that happened, everybody was just like, ‘We can’t deal with this anymore. We gotta do something.’”
Chef Smith dismissed the lawsuit at the time as “frivolous” and brushed off Slaughter’s complaints as the grousing of a disgruntled former employee. But that logic is circular and faulty — the working conditions he allegedly created caused employees to be disgruntled and leave his business in the first place.
Hannah Walker was 20 years old when she was hired as a waitress at The Grill Room in 2010. “I wanted to work for a place where I believed in the food and work for someone who is a great chef,” said Walker, who added that she “hadn’t heard anything bad about Harding” before she got the job, despite ample press coverage of the lawsuit and protests. She soon realized this was not the restaurant for her.
The “defining moment,” she said, happened when a customer ordered a piece of meat cooked medium rare. Chef Smith “does his steak the traditional way — rare is a cool center,” Walker said. “We had this whole script” explaining to customers what to expect.
When the dish arrived, the customer said the steak was too undercooked for her liking, so Walker brought it back and informed Darcy Smith. “She was livid,” Walker recalled, and yelled at the kitchen staff to fix it, but the re-fired steak was still too rare for the customer’s taste. Informed of this, Darcy “rips it out of my hand and brings it back to the table. She goes, ‘Did this fucking idiot tell you how this steak was supposed to be cooked?’
“The woman was shocked,” Walker recalled. “She said, ‘I’m sorry, she did. It’s just a little underdone for me. It may have been my fault.’ [Darcy] starts telling the woman how real food is supposed to be made. The table ended up saying they wanted the check and would never come back ‘because of how you just treated us and this poor girl,’” said Walker. “It was horrible. I was in tears.”
“There are endless examples like that of Darcy coming to my table,” Walker continued. Meanwhile, Chef Smith would be in the kitchen throwing tantrums of his own. “The energy around the kitchen, around the expediting station, was extremely tense, extremely negative. Customers catch onto that … Probably 50 percent of the customers who came in were like, ‘What’s going on? Why is this man so difficult?’ … The mood was awful and you could see that customers were affected by it, for sure. Sometime you’d be across the room and you’d hear him yell or scream.”
Walker said she was routinely “mortified” by the Smiths’ behavior, but she was a student at the time and “the money was great,” so she tried to ignore their tirades. She eventually transferred up to The Front Room, where the atmosphere was less tense. (Numerous sources made the same remark, attributing the difference to the fact Chef Smith has spent considerably less time there since he opened his restaurants on Exchange Street.)
Walker said she was fired by Darcy Smith after being blamed for the dirty condition of the floor one morning. She had lasted 13 months, which she called “an extremely long time” to work for the Smiths. Aside from a few favored employees, most people make it “four or five months, if that.”
Gerry Foster did prep work in the Grill Room’s kitchen shortly after it opened in 2008. He lasted about two months. “I don’t eat shit sandwiches, man,” he said. “That’s something I’ve never been good at.”
“The crew was great,” Foster said. “Harding was awful. He would scream at everyone for no reason, calling people names and demeaning people on a regular basis.” Chef Smith exhibited what Foster called “classic bully behavior.”
“He never said anything to me in person,” said Foster, who attributed that to the fact he’s “quite a bit bigger” than Smith, “but he would definitely say things to women, or men who were smaller, or a customer.”
Or a parking attendant.
Sean Slaughter’s sister, Sharon Slaughter, worked as an attendant in the parking garage next to the Nickelodeon movie theater on Temple Street. She said Chef Smith, who had a monthly parking pass, routinely loaned his pass to employees of his Old Port restaurants so they could use it to exit the garage out the back gate without paying for the ticket they pulled at the front entrance. This went on for about six months, she said, and probably cost the garage thousands of dollars before management got wise and deactivated Smith’s pass.
The day Smith realized his pass wasn’t working, he blew up at Slaughter, screaming, among other things, “‘Do you know who the fuck I am?’” and calling her a “fat dyke,” said Slaughter, who is gay and acknowledged that she’s struggled with her weight over the years. (Slaughter’s immediate supervisor has since died, and other managers at MHR Management, which operates the garage, declined to comment about this matter.)
Kevin Heenan claims to have the distinction of being the first person hired and the first person fired by Chef Smith when he worked as a sous chef at The Front Room. “It started off good,” he said. “It quickly went sour.”
Heenan, who’s 36, first met Smith, 44, when the older chef was working at Mims Brasserie, a Portland restaurant that’s since closed. Like Heenan, Smith attended Deering High School. Another classmate at Deering described Smith as preppy, studious, almost “nerdy,” but when Heenan met him 10 years ago, he said Smith was a Deadhead.
As detailed in a remarkably lengthy and uncritical profile in the Maine Sunday Telegram last month, Smith studied hotel management at Boston University and subsequently took classes at the Culinary Institute of America’s California campus. He worked in restaurants in Boston, California, Hawaii and Italy before returning to Portland about a decade ago.
Smith was fired from Mims over what was characterized in the Telegram article as a “power struggle” with the owner, then hired as a sous chef at Back Bay Grill, a position he left about six months later to start The Front Room.
The hippie chef Heenan met at Mims was not yet the hotheaded chef Smith went on to become. “There’s a center in there that is good,” Heenan said of Smith. “He just chooses not to use it sometimes.”
Heenan said he witnessed Smith transform shortly after The Front Room opened. “When we opened up, it was like gangbusters. We had like lines out the door. Often, the fans weren’t working, it was smoking up the building, we had to open up all the windows, but people were lovin’ it,” Heenan said. “He saw the fuckin’ money comin’ in and he was just like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna be this certain way. I’m gonna be this douche-bag chef. All that niceness, that center, left. I saw the moment.”
Heenan’s account of Smith’s behavior dovetails with those of numerous other sources: confrontations with customers, heavy drinking, mistreatment of employees — especially female employees. “The worst thing about him was the misogynist attitude towards the girls there,” Heenan said.
Another chef who worked at The Front Room in the early days — who spoke on condition of anonymity, having already had one unpleasant run-in with Smith after leaving his employ — recalled seeing Smith throw a piece of fish he deemed overcooked at a female chef, hitting her on the back. “In front of customers, he literally threw it right at her back and basically just continued to belittle her while she was on the line until she was basically in tears and couldn’t even finish. Like, she walked off the line,” the chef said. “Same way with servers.”
In the kitchen, Heenan said Chef Smith’s “classic move was huckin’ a fuckin’ sautee pan right across the line, a hot one. You just had to be ready for it.” Heenan’s worked in several Portland restaurants alongside some of the city’s most celebrated chefs. Kitchen workers will sometimes toss a hot pan around in a playful way, but “the way [Smith] did it, that’s not part of the game at all. I don’t know why he did it — he was angry. He was an angry guy.
“He’s a bad-ass chef,” Heenan continued. “I’ve worked side-by-side by a lot of fuckin’ guys who are bad ass, but you’ve got to have the whole package. You can’t just be bad ass, egotistical. There’s a give and take there, there’s some modesty that needs to happen, and at the end of the day, you’re serving smiles, people are paying for this food. Be grateful.”
“I feel like he honesty believed he’s Portland’s Gordon Ramsay,” said Foster, the prep cook at The Grill Room. “That not only is it OK, but it’s something people are attracted to — him screaming at people.”
That’s one theory people in the industry bring up to explain how Smith has succeeded despite his attitude. Here’s another: “A lot of people are out of the loop and don’t know what’s going on,” said a former Grill Room waitress who requested anonymity due to concern the Smiths could retaliate. Others are aware of the issues but not concerned enough to forgo a good meal. “It’s like going to Wal-Mart,” the waitress said. “I know what they stand for and I still go to Wal-Mart. If it doesn’t affect you personally…”
In a smaller town, the Smiths’ antics would almost certainly doom their business before it grew. But the greater Portland area is large enough, and so inundated with visitors who’ve never heard of Chef Smith, that word of mouth alone can’t make a dent in his customer base. And as Smith well knows, there’s a deep pool of people, especially young adults, eager to get into the restaurant business and make the kind of money his places enable them to make.
“People got fired all the time for nothing, for just small, little things,” said a former waitress at The Front Room who was not comfortable speaking on the record. “I remember him yelling — I think at a chef — in the background once: ‘You think you’re not replaceable? Because you are replaceable! There’s a million of you that can do it! You’re never gonna amount to anything! You’re just a piece of shit I found on the side of the street!’”
Smith has publicly acknowledged his anger-management issues before. ”I definitely know that I have a fiery side,” he told Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz during the fox-piss fiasco of 2010. “That’s one of the things that makes me successful at what I do. In the kitchen, we work very hard and I am somewhat of a perfectionist at making things right. Sometimes your frustrations get the better of you, and I definitely have lost my temper now and again … [Y]ou do your job, it’s a great place to work.”
A current employee and a former employee, both of whom declined to speak on the record, echoed this sentiment: If you work hard and keep your head down, you won’t have a problem with Chef Smith. And everyone’s got their own level of tolerance for this type of behavior. “I’ve worked for people who’ve been a lot worse than he was, I guess,” the former employee said. “I never felt like it was unfair. I never felt uncomfortable.”
“He’s an asshole,” said Aaron Shoudy, a chef who worked at the Grill Room and The Corner Room, “but people make him out to be worse than he actually is.” Shoudy said he’s worked for meaner chefs in New York City. “You can’t take it personal,” he said, though he added, “it definitely seems to bother others.”
From Shoudy’s perspective, Darcy Smith is “really the major problem. She drank too much and tried to run the business drunk.” Shoudy said he was fired after he and Darcy Smith had a disagreement, Chef Smith demanded he apologize, and he refused.
In interviews with over a dozen former employees, the same tawdry stories kept coming up. Restaurant workers are notoriously hedonistic, and who can blame them? Working long shifts ensuring strangers have a good time, many feel the need to have their own fun — on or off the clock. The amount of drinking, drug use and sexual shenanigans at the Smiths’ restaurants is probably no more egregious than what takes place in many other bars and restaurants in town, but the scores of disgruntled ex-employees delight in dishing the dirt. “In the restaurant industry, his reputation is less than dirt,” the former waitress said of Smith.
My plan was to interview workers first and then sit down with the Smiths to get their response to specific complaints and allegations. But Portland’s restaurant scene is insular and gossipy. Word quickly spread that I was working on this story, and among those who got wind of it was, not surprisingly, Chef Smith.
When I spoke with him by phone in mid-June, Smith said he was wary of being interviewed for what he had been told was going to be a “smear story,” but agreed to meet at Boone’s on June 17 for an interview. That morning, he texted to say he would not be able to meet but would “try for later in the week.”
Days passed and our deadline loomed closer. I texted him again on June 20. “I’m sorry we haven’t been able to get together,” he replied with his thumbs, “but I’m hearing from people around town that the story you are working on is based mainly on conversations with disgruntled ex-employees and anonymous sources who have an axe to grind with my wife and me … so I’m not sure I want to participate in it now, especially since Darcy is 6 and a half months pregnant and I’m not interested in having her subjected to this. Why don’t you send me a list of questions you have and I will respond to them appropriately.”
Late on the evening of June 21, I e-mailed Chef Smith a list of 22 questions that ranged from the relatively benign (“Do you still consider yourself a Deadhead?”) to the more probing (“Was alcohol a factor the night you fell into the harbor last winter?” Smith was rescued last February after he slipped off his boat while checking its lines in the middle of the night during the big blizzard that month.) I asked him to respond to specific allegations made about him and his wife by Slaughter and others.
His reply arrived the morning of the day this issue went to press:
“With three busy restaurants to run, another getting ready to open, and preparation for a major charity event tomorrow, I simply don’t have time … to respond to your 22 questions, most of which are based on totally false accusations. It is also very clear where you are going with this story, and I frankly have no interest in dignifying it by talking with you further. Darcy and I are proud of our restaurants and the way we treat our employees and guests. This is not an easy business, but I believe our contributions to greater Portland in terms of jobs, economic impact and the high quality food and beverages we serve to our many loyal customers every day speak louder than anything you may decide to put in your paper.”
It’s telling that Smith cites money and good food as paramount values. It’ll be up to readers and eaters to decide if he’s right.