MACHIAS — From the single green chili pepper that hangs from each window valance to the oils and woodblock prints that adorn the walls, the Artist’s Cafe lives up to the name Susan Ferro gave it when she opened her doors in September.
Ferro’s menu is as interesting and as her decor. Based on as many fresh ingredients as the season permits, last week’s dinner menu included Shrimp Etoufee, Crab Cakes with Lemon-Rosemary Risotto, and Thai Curry Chicken. A recent special was locally raised rabbit stuffed with Italian sausage. Lunch features such offerings as Monet’s Garden, a vegetable and feta cheese sandwich with vinaigrette dressing, and The Surrealist, a grilled Swiss cheese sandwich on anadama bread with fresh garlic and dill butter.
Ferro, a painter and former contract designer who moved to Washington County from Boston 10 years ago, acknowledges her food is not typical Maine fare.
“I’ve had people tell me they don’t know what they’re eating, but they like it,” Ferro said. “There’s a real cross section of people who come in here.”
Ferro’s transition from a Boston designer to Machias restaurant owner included a stint as an organic farmer in the Washington County town of Pembroke. Ferro said farming makes her 16-hour restaurant days look like “a picnic.” The “hard-core work” of growing food left her dedicated to buying locally grown produce, she said.
When Ferro sold her interest in the farm, she moved to Machias and began “scrambling around” looking for something to bring in money so she wouldn’t have to leave Washington County. Ferro said she’s been painting all her life and has sold everything she’s ever done, but has never been able to make a living from her art. Moving to Maine has been good for her painting, she said.
“Washington County gives you an access to downward mobility that you never thought possible,” Ferro said. “It’s hands-on everything and it gives you the freedom to be poor.”
A short time after moving to Machias, Ferro said the “Great Spirit” intervened in her life.
“I don’t know if I even believe in the Great Spirt, but it hangs out up here,” she said. “There’s so little going on that you really notice the strokes.”
The former owner of a restaurant at Machias’ Ferris Wheel Emporium asked her to take over the luncheon place. Ferro said she did that for three years. The experience whetted her appetite for her own place because she’d always wanted to do dinner. When the emporium closed, she decided to start her own restaurant.
Ferro began cooking as a child, making mud pies and garnishing them with leaves before graduating to the more appetizing dishes she learned from her Sicilian father. She started watching Julia Child on television and following her directions. Ferro said she couldn’t believe what happened to her mouth when she ate one of Child’s creations. A European bicycle tour followed and Ferro said she basically “ate her way across France and Italy.”
“They care so much about their food over there,” she said. “I went to holes in the wall that had wonderful food. I can’t imagine what they think about the way we eat, and I’m always nervous when I serve someone from Europe. I think they must starve while they’re here.”
Ferro said she took some lessons from “a master Thai guy” in Boston and learned the basics of Thai cooking. Since then, she’s been “playing” with Thai seasonings. Ferro said her style of cooking is based on putting “the essence” of ingredients, such as cheese, on top of a dish so people get a burst of flavor and not an overload.
Obtaining the loan to begin her business and refurbish the 120-year-old house that is home to her restaurant was not easy. After being rejected by local banks, Ferro said she discovered the Eastern Maine Economic Development Corp. They have a special program for women in business, she said.
Ferro spent three months preparing the restaurant, which lies just off Route 1 across from the University of Maine at Machias. Her long days begin at 7 a.m., when Ferro stops at the grocery store for last-minute items before starting on one of her many unusual soups. Assistant chef Sue Kurylo comes in to work with her on dinner, she said. The Artist’s Cafe employs six other people.
“There’s such an abundance here in Washington County,” Ferro said. “We have all this ocean stuff and all these beautiful fresh vegetables to play with.”