It may come as a surprise that one of Portland’s most acclaimed dining experiences is at Mae, a pop-up supper club serving traditional Appalachian cuisine. (Possibly even more surprising: The dinners are BYOB and tucked away in the back of a Northeast Portland butcher shop.)
As thousands have discovered, however, a dinner at Mae isn’t just the sum of its dishes. Yes, the three-fat, skillet-fried chicken is remarkable (and some might argue downright magical). But the true magic of Mae lies with its chef, Maya Lovelace, who hand-delivers each course with a personal story and a dose of warmth that lingers long after you leave the dinner table.
“I feel like food is a lot more than just what is on a plate,” Lovelace says. “Food is an amazing tool for human connection, so I do my best to let any emotions or thoughts that I have about a specific ingredient or dish or memory that I have all come out. All of that helps people connect with the food in a way that makes it more than just having dinner.”
“In Portland we’re very lucky to have a food culture and a food community that is always looking for something exciting, something fresh that they haven’t had before,” Lovelace adds. “There are people here who want to engage with the people who are cooking their food, and that’s something you don’t find in a lot of cities.”
Building on that interest and her success as a pop-up chef, Lovelace is opening her own brick-and-mortar in spring 2018. The front half of the new space will be Yonder, a counter-service eatery offering Lovelace’s take on casual Southern food. Meanwhile, the back of the restaurant will continue as Mae, offering prix-fixe, reservations-only suppers several nights each week.
Lovelace’s Southern Roots
Raised in rural eastern North Carolina, Lovelace learned how to cook by the side of her grandmother, Mae. That experience fostered her love of traditional Appalachian cooking, foraging for and using ingredients native to the region and crafting the kinds of dishes that have all but disappeared from modern Southern cuisine.
As an adult, Lovelace took those skills with her to Charleston, where she cooked at the acclaimed Southern restaurant Husk. While happy working there, Lovelace couldn’t shake the desire to experience something — or, more accurately, someplace — new.
“I wanted to get out of the South because I’d lived there my entire life, and Portland was kind of as far away as I could get,” Lovelace said. “I remember getting off the plane [in Portland] and everything just smelled really good. I remember there were fruit trees everywhere just on the street, which was totally crazy to me. Seeing mountains everywhere and this clean air … I just thought ‘Wow, it’s really perfect here.’”
She rapidly fell in in love with the city’s abundant farmers’ markets, natural beauty and passion for local ingredients. Lovelace also became ingrained within Portland’s chef community, taken under the wing of local James Beard award-winning chef Naomi Pomeroy (Beast) and working at both Bollywood Theater and Tanuki simultaneously.
The Beginnings of Mae
In 2012 — just six months after moving to Portland — Lovelace learned that her grandmother, Mae, had passed away. “I was too broke to go home,” she says. Homesick for North Carolina and grieving the loss, Lovelace began gathering her late grandmother’s recipes and falling back in love with the cooking she’d been raised with.
In 2015, Lovelace had the idea to cook a dinner for her friends, calling it “Mae” in her late grandmother’s honor. At this family-style supper, she planned to not only cook the traditional Appalachian dishes she was raised with, but to also share the personal story behind each plate.
These dishes included her (now iconic) buttermilk-brined chicken, cooked using bacon fat, chicken fat and lard; collard greens braised in country ham, with pepper vinegar and bourbon barrel-aged hot sauce; sassafras sweet tea; and coconut cake. According to Lovelace, this dinner was meant to only be a one- or two-time event, at most. Those expectations were shattered, however, when she opened a public mailing list for reservations.
“I remember staring at my phone that day because I just getting all of these notifications of people signing up. I want to say that 500 people signed up before the first dinner,” Lovelace said. “It’s been a really, really crazy experience. I don’t think we expected any of this.”
Mae Makes it Big
Since that first dinner, both Mae and Lovelace have garnered local and national acclaim. (To cite a few accolades: In 2016, Willamette Week named Mae the “Pop-Up of The Year” and Eater dubbed Lovelace Portland’s “Chef of the Year.” In 2017, she was the only Portland chef nominated for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year Award.) This level of recognition is particularly remarkable considering that Mae has been promoted almost exclusively via word of mouth.
“Everybody that comes in here says ‘This friend has been telling me to come in here for so long,’ or ‘My doctor told me I should come here.’ It grew really organically,” Lovelace said. “That’s something that’s really special about Portland; that people are so excited about what’s going on that they tell their neighbor or their coworkers. We have this giant group of people lifting us up, which is beautiful.”
Dinners at Mae attract people from around the world — but Lovelace says visitors from her native South can be the most exciting.
“They love it! They’re like, ‘You should move back to the South and cook this kind of food,” Lovelace says. “The food we cook is closer to what someone would cook for you at home, and I don’t think that happens as much as it used to. Most home-based cuisines have started to fade and we’re left with the versions of them that have turned into rust. I think that a lot of people in the South miss this kind of cooking — this cooking that’s really vegetable-forward and seasonal.”
Telling the Story of Southern Food
These meals can include dishes that are so historic to the region, some of the ingredients used to make them have almost gone extinct — literally. Take the “hoppin’ john,” for example: a traditional dish of black eyed peas, rice, pork and vegetables. Instead of using commercially available ingredients, Lovelace uses Carolina Gold rice, an old South Carolina crop, and Sea Island red peas, which were thought to be extinct until someone discovered a jar of them in their grandmother’s cupboard.
Lovelace works with Portland-area farmers to grow crops typically found only in Appalachia. She also incorporates cooking practices that are central to Appalachian culture, including preservation and foraging for wild ingredients, like wild spicy greens and morels.
“We want to show people that food in the South is not this trotted out version of Southern cuisine. I know that’s a strange thing to say, but Southern food has kind of been twisted into something I don’t feel it is,” Lovelace says. “I think we’re trying to educate people. It’s been one of our missions from the get-go, because we’re kind of fighting against the stigma of Southern food as something unwholesome in a way. You know, it’s ‘too deep-fried, it’s too salty, it’s full of sugar, it’s cheap’… But to me, Southern food is what’s growing in your garden or what you can forage out of the woods, [or] what seeds your grandma passed down from her grandma. We’re trying to tell the story of that Southern food.”
The Future of Mae — and Yonder
Lovelace is ready to carry on this mission at Yonder and the next iteration of Mae, both of which are expected to option in late 2018. (Excitement has been brewing for months, with both appearing on Eater’s national list of the “Most Anticipated Restaurant Openings” of 2018.) Keeping with tradition, the supper club will be first-come, first-served to e-mail subscribers; sign up on Mae’s website.
And while the menu at Mae’s counter-service counterpart Yonder isn’t finalized yet, two new kinds of fried chicken are promised: dipped and hot. (If forced to choose between the two, Lovelace says she would pick the dipped chicken, a North Carolina specialty of fried chicken dipped in a sauce made of brown sugar, hot sauce and vinegar — but says she wouldn’t consider the meal complete without hoppin’ john, an angel biscuit and a glass of sassafras sweet tea.)
“We’re trying to bring some of those old ingredients and old Southern flavors, and show them to people here and say “This is what Southern food is!” Lovelace says. “It’s all the stuff I really love. It’s also really identifiable for people … they can see that [on the menu] and say “Oh! Southern food!” But then they can come try our version of it and have it taste completely different — like a more accurate version of itself.”