Head Chef in Hell
Harding Lee Smith earns a promotion
by Chris Busby
During the two months since our July issue hit the streets, hardly a day has gone by that I have not encountered someone eager to share their own account of awful behavior by the subjects of that issue’s cover story: Chef Harding Lee Smith and his wife, Darcy.
From Kennebunk to Brunswick, former employees of the Smiths’ Portland restaurants celebrated the story. No one said a word in their defense. In addition to the three unhappy customers whose letters we published last month, numerous other ex-patrons weighed in with complaints that ranged from being mocked by the chef to getting thrown out and humiliated by his wife in a case of mistaken identity. One restaurant owner told me a woman offered him a gift certificate she had for one of the Smiths’ establishments after she read the article. He refused to take it.
People who work in or for the restaurant industry were the most common source of new horror stories. I found out that Chef Smith is unwelcome at several drinking establishments downtown. In a couple cases, I was told this is because he would sit at the bar and treat the bartender like he or she was his employee — that is, like shit. But one particular incident that prompted a lifetime ban stands out among the rest.
It was 2008, around the time Chef Smith opened his second restaurant, The Grill Room, an upscale steakhouse on Exchange Street. Smith lives on Munjoy Hill above his first restaurant, The Front Room, and would often patronize (in more ways than one) The Snug, an Irish bar at the foot of the hill.
Bartender Michelle Bathurst recalls that it was early in the evening, around 6:30 or 7, when Chef Smith and a friend walked in. The pub was moderately busy, and among the customers already there was Bathurst’s friend, Saiyid Brent, a talented rapper and bartender who was renowned back then for his ability to make drinks and rhymes simultaneously behind the bar of the Old Port nightclub 51 Wharf, while a funk band laid down grooves in an adjoining room.
Brent, who is black, was there with his partner and their newborn son. He’d come in to show the baby to Bathurst, and then sat at a bench away from the bar to drink a beer and relax while the infant slept.
Smith saw the newborn and greeted Bathurst with a question: “‘So, what are you fuckin’ runnin’, a day care now, Michelle?’” she recalled. Bathurst, who’s infamous for her no-nonsense demeanor, replied, “‘Harding, just order a fuckin’ beer.’
“He ordered a couple beers,” she continued, “and then he said, ‘Seriously, what’s with the fuckin’ kid?’ And I go, ‘Here’s your two options, Harding: You can either drink your beer and shut the fuck up or leave the beer and get the fuck out.’ He chugged his beer and then he put his [glass] down.”
That’s when, according to Bathurst, Smith said, “‘Hey, Michelle, can I get some darts?’” When Bathurst told him there’s no dart board at the pub, Smith’s reply was, “‘No, I want to throw ’em at that little — “n-word” — baby’s head.’
“He said the n-word,” Bathurst said. “And I said, ‘You get the fuck out now and don’t ever fucking come back.’”
(At this point in the recording of my interview with Bathurst, a patron at the end of the bar chimes in: “Is that the Corner Room guy, that asshole?” Smith opened his third restaurant, The Corner Room, on Exchange Street in 2009. Like I said, it seems like everyone’s got a story. This one gets worse.)
Smith and his pal left, and “within 10 minutes, two cops showed up,” said Bathurst. “Harding had called and said there was child abuse going on at The Snug.” The cops realized it was a false report and left soon after.
Smith hasn’t set foot inside The Snug since, but neither has he apologized for making the racist comment and calling in a false report of child endangerment. Bathurst said his friend, who did nothing offensive that she witnessed, showed up the next day and apologized in general for the previous night’s events.
I asked Bathurst if Smith was drunk at the time. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s hard to tell with some people … I think he’s an ass no matter what. He’s one of those ‘do you know who I am?’ people … That’s how he acted. He acts very entitled.”
I titled our July cover story “Satan’s Sous Chef” in deference to comments made by current and former Rooms employees who said that although Smith can be difficult to work for, he’s not the baddest apple in the business. But having since heard many more accounts of the Smiths’ outrageous behavior — including numerous incidents at their fourth establishment, Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room, which opened on Custom House Wharf in August — I now believe Chef Smith deserves a promotion.
From birth to marriage to death, it seems there’s no sacrament Smith has not demeaned or disrespected in some way. I imagine that somewhere deep beneath our feet, Satan is smiling and licking his sinister lips in anticipation of the arrival of his new Head Chef.
An unlawfully wedded wife
I heard about the “nigger baby” incident shortly after it occurred, but had since forgotten Smith was involved until Bathurst brought it up when I saw her this summer. This, in turn, reminded me of another story I was made aware of years ago, from the early days of The Front Room in 2005 or ’06.
A bartender in town called to tell me that Smith was preparing to marry a local woman despite the fact he was not yet legally divorced from his first wife, whom he’d allegedly wed in Hawaii, where he worked for a time before returning to Maine. The tipster was upset that Smith had the gall to initiate a wedding he knew was a sham, but I never pursued the story, in part because Smith had yet to earn his infamous reputation.
Sources say the would-be bride was a bartender who previously worked at RiRa, on Commercial Street, before becoming the head bartender at The Front Room. They also say she was pregnant with another man’s child when she and Smith got together, but accounts differ as to whether or not she was aware of his marital status before their “wedding day.” (I was unable to locate or contact this woman to corroborate the sources’ accounts, so her name is being withheld.)
A contractor I’ll call Bill — who spoke on condition of anonymity due to concern his comments could provoke retribution by the Smiths that would affect his family’s livelihood — attended the “wedding,” which was held on Peaks Island. “It was quite a big wedding, quite an elaborate ceremony,” Bill said. “There were no dollars spared on that one.”
According to Bill, from the invitations to the “I do’s,” there was never any indication the ceremony was anything short of a legal marriage. “We later discovered that the wedding was a complete sham,” he said.
Bill said the bride’s family was wealthy, and that her father invested money in Smith’s business. This could not be confirmed, but if true, it seems to fit a pattern — Darcy’s mother is also said to be an investor in the Rooms, according to multiple sources.
If Smith arranged a fake wedding to receive money, gifts and a business investment, that would be a despicable act even by his low standards. But without comment from the parties involved, it’s impossible to know if the “bride” was fully aware of the situation and, if so, if she and Smith considered the “wedding” more akin to a commitment ceremony, following which Smith’s divorce paperwork could be completed and their marriage paperwork signed and filed.
The officiant was Barry McEvoy, a local bartender who also worked for Smith during the early days of the Rooms. Several sources questioned his authority to perform the “wedding,” but McEvoy is listed as a notary public in state records, and most likely held that authority at the time of the ceremony. (The work phone number listed for him in the Secretary of State’s database is the number for Gritty McDuff’s on Fore Street, where McEvoy tended bar for years prior to being hired by Smith. Reached on his cell phone during research for the July story, McEvoy said he would call back, but never did. Subsequent attempts to reach him last month were unsuccessful.)
In any event, the “marriage” did not last long. A source who knew the bride but refused to speak for attribution said the bartender named her child after Smith despite the break-up.
It should be noted that Bill also has an ax to grind with Smith. He claims the chef stiffed his company for thousands of dollars’ worth of work performed at one of his restaurants. In this claim, Bill is not alone.
Sculptor and metal-worker Geoff Herguth did extensive work at Smith’s first three restaurants, including, most notably, the signs. He made the reflective oval sign at The Front Room, the silver bull at The Grill Room, and the fork with dangling pasta strands that hangs above The Corner Room’s front door.
Herguth has been more than Smith’s contractor. He’s also his neighbor, having lived for many years in the same Congress Street apartment building where the Smiths reside. He would not go so far as to say he and Smith were “friends” over the years, but said he was “a pretty good acquaintance” at the time.
Herguth said Smith was strapped for cash at various periods during the construction of the first three restaurants, so he sometimes got a check for his work and other times accepted credit that was added to a magnetized gift/credit card he could use at The Grill Room and The Front Room. Since he lives above The Front Room, the credit deal came in handy, but the arrangement came to a (literally) screeching halt around the time The Corner Room opened.
Herguth said Smith informed him a few days before the restaurant’s big opening that a substantial amount of additional work was necessary on a stainless-steel range hood. Herguth said no one had mentioned the issue before, and he doubted the adjustment was really needed for the restaurant to pass inspection, but he hustled to get the job done and managed to pull it off with an hour to spare before the door opened to the public. Some further work would have to be done on the hood to address aesthetic issues, but Herguth said he told Smith he would finish the job and presented him with a bill for the labor most recently performed — a little over $2,000.
“He said, ‘I don’t have the money,’” Herguth recalled, “and I said, ‘OK, I’ll take this in trade,’ knowing something’s better than nothing.”
Later that week, he walked into The Front Room at lunchtime and saw Darcy sitting at a table with some employees, apparently having lunch. Herguth said he handed the card to her and politely asked if she could update it for the latest amount he was owed.
“She starts screaming, ‘Can’t you see I’m in the middle of a meeting?’” he said. “I just tossed the card on the table in front of her and excused myself.”
Herguth said he never saw the card or another dime from the Smiths again. Including the follow-up work he subsequently performed with others at The Corner Room, Herguth figures he’s out close to $3,000. “I didn’t press the issue with a mechanic’s lien or anything like that because I had so many other friends that were involved [in work for the Smiths] and didn’t want to stir the pot,” he said. “I got burned for my profit … If it was twenty-five thousand, yeah, there would have been repercussions, but I got over [losing] twenty-five-hundred bucks.”
Herguth obviously doesn’t patronize the Rooms anymore. “I walk by [The Front Room] every night, because I live next door. When I moved in, it was an empty storage space. As far as I’m concerned, it still is.”
All things considered, Herguth estimates that Darcy’s blow-up cost the Smiths more than they saved by shortchanging him. “I have friends who don’t go in there anymore because he stiffed [me] for a bill,” he said. “I’ve cost him more than he’s stuck me for.”
Life is cheap, but Harding’s cheaper
Herguth may shake his head in disbelief these days over the fate of his gift card, but he’s even more astounded by a few gift cards Chef Smith never gave.
Herguth is one of many people who told me Smith never properly thanked the three men who rescued him from Portland Harbor when he fell off his boat at DiMillo’s Marina in the midst of the massive blizzard last February. The Portland Press Herald reported that Smith was “securing lines to his sailboat” around 2:30 a.m. “when he slipped off the dock and into the water.”
Reporter Leslie Bridgers noted that while discussing the incident a few days later, Smith “seemed fairly unfazed,” but she added that “those who were involved with the rescue described a frantic scene and a potentially grim outcome.”
One of the rescuers told the paper it took as long as six minutes to fish Smith out of the 40-degree water. Smith himself estimated he may have been in the drink for as long as 10 minutes total, and was quoted saying he was “pretty much out of it” as soon as he fell in. He lost much of the use of his arms and legs in short order. Loss of consciousness would have been next, promptly followed by death, had the marina workers not happened to be around at that time to hear his yells for help over the howling wind. Police described Smith as “severely hypothermic,” but he was hospitalized only briefly before being released later that day.
The buzz around the waterfront for months afterward was that Smith had not even thanked the people who saved his life. “The fact that the guy didn’t give every one of ’em a five-hundred-dollar gift certificate to any of his restaurants,” Herguth said, trailing off in disbelief. “I mean, come on, at least 500 bucks.”
I called marina manager Amanda St. Peter — who’d called 911 that night — and asked her about this incident last June. She declined to comment on the record. The two young DiMillo’s employees who rescued Smith, Frankie Quattrucci and Andrew Holt, likewise declined to comment on the record.
St. Peter had noted that Smith was still a customer of the marina, and one can readily understand a rescuer’s reluctance to appear unhappy about not receiving thanks or compensation for their good deed. But aside from a call to one of the rescuers, a month after the incident, to say “thanks,” my research uncovered no evidence to contradict claims that one of Portland’s most successful restaurateurs essentially did nothing for the people who saved his life that night.
I had hoped the July cover story would prompt the Smiths to do some soul searching, to take stock of all they’ve accomplished, appreciate their good fortune, and perhaps apologize for having stepped on so many people on their way to the top. The couple is expecting their first child this month. Chef Smith now has more restaurants than any restaurateur in Portland, and by all accounts, they continue to be popular; by most accounts, they continue to serve great food.
But no dice.
To the contrary, people on the waterfront are now buzzing about the Smiths’ almost sadistic defense of the parking spaces they have in the lot off Commercial Street that serves their new restaurant.
Well before Boone’s was ready to open, Chef Smith was seen yelling at members of a band who had the temerity to pull into the lot for a few minutes so they could unload their gear for a Casablanca Cruises gig. When the musicians (who declined to comment, no doubt fearing the loss of future gigs) drove their vehicles back into the mostly empty lot to load up after the show, Chef Smith berated them again until, according to an eyewitness, one of the stockier guys threatened to kick his ass and throw him into the harbor — at which point, like most bullies, Smith backed down.
Darcy Smith, just weeks from giving birth, has also been seen yelling at delivery drivers and others who pull into the lot for quick errands. In mid-August, Boone’s had a handicapped-licensed van equipped with a wheelchair ramp towed from the lot. The wheelchair-bound passenger was seen waiting for several hours to have the vehicle returned. (In the Smiths’ defense, a Boone’s employee did stop into at least one neighboring restaurant to ask if the van’s owner was there, though staff were too busy to check; on the other hand, witnesses said there were empty spaces for Boone’s parking at the time the van was towed.)
Carol McCracken, whose Munjoy Hill News blog is published online by the Bangor Daily News, ate at Boone’s the first day it was open. She described Chef Smith in an August 10 post as “surly” and “snarly” as he oversaw staff from behind the chef’s station, and panned the food as bland and overpriced.
Before leaving, the grandmotherly McCracken summoned the gumption to ask Smith if he had given up drinking. Like one of last month’s letter-writers, she suspects alcohol may be a factor contributing to the chef’s bad attitude.
“‘Why should I?’ he glared back at me, eye ball [sic] to eye ball,” McCracken wrote.
Neither of the Smiths said a word to me after the July story was published. As I prepared to write this one, I called Chef Smith’s cell number, got his voice mail, and was told by the computerized voice that his mailbox was full and could not receive messages. So I e-mailed Chef Smith and requested an in-person interview. I also offered to provide questions in advance that he could answer in writing.
His reply arrived the next day, and is printed here in full…
“Hello Chris: we are having a great summer and have no interest in speaking with you.”
Now that summer’s winding down and the tourists are leaving, the Rooms will wither or thrive based on the patronage of locals who may or may not care how the Smiths treat their workers, customers and other members of the community. Satan has his influence, but Chef Smith’s fate is really up to you.