James Haller reflects on the Portsmouth restaurant scene he helped create
Portsmouth restaurant pioneer James Haller, whose Blue Strawbery on Ceres Street set the tone for the city's growth as a dining destination, is returning to lend his presence to Portsmouth's fall Restaurant Week, which starts Thursday. COURTESY
James Haller is noted for recipe-free cooking. His 1976 "The Blue Strawbery Cookbook" (Harvard Common Press) is subtitled "Cooking (Brilliantly) Without Recipes."
Haller's non-recipe for fish chowderPORTSMOUTH— For 16 years, James Haller delighted the palates of restaurant patrons at the Blue Strawbery with decadent and inventive meals — created without using recipes.
Haller went on to write about food, but not about recipes. In fact, the subtitle of his 1976 book, “The Blue Strawbery Cookbook,” is “Cooking (Brilliantly) Without Recipes.”
In spite of all that, he offered up a simple recipe for fish chowder during a recent interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader:
“It's real easy … make a chowder. Start with bacon and potatoes and onions in the pan and instead of boiling them in water, boil them in white wine, just enough to cover,” he said.
“Then add a can of condensed milk; I learned this in Canada. Add your fish that you want to add, plain white fish is enough .... Sprinkle some dill across the top and that's it. It makes a wonderful, creamy fish stew.”
Haller said the secret is using white wine instead of water for the boil.
“The taste difference is so wonderful and that to me was probably the secret to most of my cooking. I cooked with wine more than water,” Haller said. “Yet if I say so myself, the food was pretty good.”
— Gretyl Macalaster
Almost 50 years later, Haller is known as the grandfather of "new American cuisine" and of the Portsmouth restaurant scene. He built the Blue Strawbery Restaurant on Ceres Street with two partners from a small start-up "dining room" to the city's star restaurant. He spent 16 years in the kitchen there before moving on; the restaurant itself continued for another nine years before making way for a new generation of restaurateurs.
This year, more than 50 restaurants in and around Portsmouth will participate in the fall event from Nov. 7 through Nov. 16, and Haller is taking part in the festivities.
"It had been so untouched from the early 18th century and even part of the 17th century, so there were wonderful buildings that are still there, and the waterfront is still there," Haller said.
The restaurant was named in honor of Strawbery Banke Museum, which had just begun its efforts to save some of the city's historic homes.
Haller said he is impressed by what Portsmouth chefs are doing today.
"As Portsmouth restaurateurs in the 21st century, we are so aware of the debt we owe to James Haller for putting Portsmouth's culinary scene on the national map," said Massimo Morgia, owner of Ristorante Massimo and Upstairs at Massimo's on Ceres Street.
A full list of participating Portsmouth Restaurant Week restaurants with links to menus can be found at www.restaurantweekportsmouth.com.