Jason Casey, Havana’s new executive chef, is ready to bring his unique twist to a growing brand.
The title of executive chef is no small honor, especially at a restaurant like Havana in Bar Harbor. Tucked into a lime green building on Main Street, the restaurant has earned notable praise in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Fodors, and Frommers. But Jason Casey, Havana’s new “CEO of the kitchen,” shows no signs of intimidation on opening night of the 2010 season—though his excitement is undeniable and infectious.
Chef Jason Casey’s time in Bar Harbor will actually be brief: He’ll be leading the team at Havana’s new Portland location after it opens in late summer. While the original Havana restaurant is still influenced by its longtime chef Aaron Horvath, who left this year, the new Portland location is a chance for Casey to bring his unique vision to the table.
“I think my background will allow me to put some really great flavors and menu items together,” he says. “I’d like to add more breads ” (Havana is known for its fresh-baked cornbread featuring a new ingredient each day.) “Goat might even make its way to the menu,” he says. “I’d like to add a new twist to things.” The young chef has infused his own ideas from day one: One of his specials on Havana’s 2010 opener, for instance, is a Cuban coffee-crusted tenderloin served with a classic demi-glace and Latin-inspired Rioja reduction sauce.
Casey is a graduate of New York’s Culinary Institute of America, part of a class that has produced several TV reality chefs, including the classmate who gave Casey the Top Chef jacket he wears on opening night. After graduating from CIA, Casey worked in upscale restaurants in New York City and Hawaii before his most recent gig as a private chef for clients who happen to summer on Mount Desert Island.
While Casey was already very comfortable with Bar Harbor and Havana’s owners, Michael Boland and Deirdre Swords, who are longtime friends, he felt the need to get back into the pace of restaurant cooking—so he spent a month at the high-end NYC restaurant Beacon with his mentor, Waldy Malouf, to get his chops back.
“I come from an extremely organized background, and I hope to bring that philosophy into the new kitchen,” Casey says. “ I have a number of goals. I want the front and back of the house to know the flavors of the food. It’s hard to sell something if you don’t know anything about it yourself—it’s like a car salesman knowing nothing about the car he’s trying to sell.” He also wants the restaurant’s signature “Nuevo Latino” flavor to be evident before any food is served. “I’d like to have the waitstaff greet each guest with the phrase buen provecho [enjoy your meal], which is sort of the Latin equivalent to bon appetit. It gives me a warm, welcome feeling when I hear it.”
While many executive chefs tend to be serious and reserved, Casey is both meticulous and emotional in his approach, something he attributes to his Puerto Rican and African American cultural roots. “Both of my very ethnic grandmothers lived with us for a time, and they influenced the household cooking quite a bit,” he says.
His grandmothers influenced the family’s cooking style, but he credits his father with getting him interested in cooking. Every Sunday morning, Casey’s dad would wake him up early, along with his brother and sister, and together they’d conjure up something delicious. Eventually his siblings chose to sleep in, but Casey stuck with it. “After a while, I was the one who woke my father up,” he recalls.
Though Casey was brought up in the Bronx, his six summers in Maine inspired him to take on a Maine culinary icon for his debut cookbook, The Lobster Cookbook: Maine, Myself and I. Published in 2009, it features some innovative interpretations of Maine’s favorite crustacean, though most are more time-consuming than the traditional boiled lobster.
For Casey, time and effort are never something he’s stingy with, whether in his own kitchen or at the restaurant. Almost every item on the menu at Havana is made in-house, with a few choice exceptions, such as the seasonal sorbet and ice cream made by the Mount Desert Ice Cream Company. The stocks and sauces Casey uses are made from scratch, and his methods involve no shortcuts.
“For me, cooking has never been a job. It’s something I really want to do,” he says. “I don’t mind the effort it takes when you know something beautiful is going to be on that plate.”
Chef Casey’s Moqueca
Serves 1 as entree, 2 as appetizer
1 teaspoon dende oil
1/4 Spanish onion, sliced
1/2 shallot, sliced
1/4 pablano pepper, diced
1 garlic clove, sliced
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1/2 cup fish stock
1/4 cup tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon lime juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil as needed
1/2 lobster, par-cooked
2 ounces crabmeat
First heat the dende oil over medium high heat. Add in the onion, shallot, and pablano pepper and sauté for 1–2 minutes. Add the garlic and tomato paste and sauté until caramelized (golden brown). Pour in the fish stock and be sure to incorporate the caramelized vegetables by stirring vigorously. Allow the pan to come to a boil and reduce until slightly thickened.
Next stir in the diced tomatoes and coconut milk and return to a simmer. Add the mussels, clams, shrimp, lobster, and crabmeat. Once the shrimp are cooked and the mussels and clams have opened, season with the lime juice, salt, and pepper, and remove pan from the heat. Plate, by applying one large scoop of the cilantro parsley rice pilaf in the middle of the plate. Next, with a slotted spoon carefully arrange the seafood and sauce around the rice. Finish with cilantro parsley oil.
1 tablespoon oil
1/4 Spanish onion, diced
1/4 cup rice
1/2 cup chicken stock
Pinch of salt
1 ounce cilantro parsley oil
In a small pot, sauté the onion in the oil over medium high heat until caramelized. Add rice, chicken stock and salt and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Once done, add cilantro parsley oil and mix to a uniform color.
Cilantro parsley oil: 1 bunch parsley, 1 bunch cilantro, 6 ounces olive oil. Blend all ingredients until smooth.