Chef James Haller Reflects on the Blue Strawbery
The Portsmouth food scene today is well respected, but credit for its first bright light belongs to Chef James Haller and the Blue Strawbery
The quaint Seacoast town of Portsmouth inspired Chef James Haller more than 44 years ago and now, though busy with traffic and seemingly lined with gold bricks, it continues to draw great chefs back home and others from afar. But it all started with Haller and his legendary Blue Strawbery restaurant on Ceres Street.
On a brisk December evening in 2014, Haller was in the spotlight at Portsmouth’s Seacoast Repertory Theatre as part of “Eat It Up: Food Talks!” Here was one more opportunity for the ground-breaking chef, now 78, to tell his story. It’s a story, without regret, of a life that unfolded as smoothly as a linen table napkin. The audience of former customers, new friends and fans included five top Portsmouth chefs who uphold the mantle and keep Seacoast dining superior. We all listened, rapt, as he refocused the light back to 1970s Portsmouth, when his clever cuisine put the working seaport on the dining map for all of New England and beyond. This is how it happened — the condensed version.
Unplanned, off the cuff and with no recipes — signatures of The Blue Strawbery — came naturally to Haller. He was born in a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers, raised by an adoptive stepfather and biological mother in Chicago, only to head East when he discovered in his early teens that his beloved uncles and aunts on his father’s side were not really his relatives. This heart-rending story is told in his “Salt and Pepper: The Education of An American Chef” series he did a few years ago onstage at the West End Theatre. (It’s soon to become a book.)
Haller headed to New York City at the earliest opportunity to “become a star,” but his stage aspirations ended when producers asked him to smile at an audition and two front teeth were missing. All they said was, “Next,” as he tells it. He worked for a while as a model, even getting photographed by Richard Avedon. With a natural sense for the comedic, he wrote for Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin among others, but a stint as a comedy writer for “Laugh-In” was cut short. He had just re-located to Maine.
With no income, he pondered his next move, and it wouldn’t be out of New England. As a boy raised in the Midwest, he found Portsmouth and Maine to be perfectly charming: “New England had always been a dream in my heart.” He adds that, at the time, “I was at the end of my rope, but something told me to let go.”
Haller had always liked to cook. His grandmother forgave his first attempt at 2 1/2 years old, when he mixed eggs, milk and flour in the living room. “At least he got all the ingredients right,” she reportedly said. When he decided to open a restaurant, he says, “I just knew I could do it.” In his NYC life he had discovered intriguing eateries, including Chumley’s, a former speakeasy. He also discovered Indonesian rice. “Far out, dude — rice, eggs and peanut butter sauce,” says Haller in his perfect throwback to the sixties.
Everything came together quickly for the restaurant — a perfect spot at 29 Ceres St., a former chandlery with exposed brick, rough-hewn wood beams and a landlord who agreed to a monthly payment of five percent of his gross. All the necessary equipment, tables, chair and appliances cost a mere $2,700. Meanwhile, the landlord was in the process of putting up wallboard. Haller told him to rip it out. “I was looking for a dining space, not a restaurant,” he revealed. The State Liquor Commission even changed its rules to accommodate his shorter list of entrées — the bottom limit had been 16 for lunch and 16 for dinner.
The most-asked question is: “How did The Blue Strawbery get its name?” He told the story again: “I was walking on Ogunquit Beach and a bit high. This fellow came up to me and asked why I had a blue strawberry on my neck. It was a lapis lazuli that I had been given as a gift from a guru.” The part of the story he mentioned to me only later was that fellow was an “Adonis.” He soon became Haller’s lover and partner at the perfectly christened Blue Strawbery. The misspelling was an homage to Strawbery Banke Museum.
As if it were ordained, wonderful things happened quickly at the restaurant when it opened on November 18, 1970. On a cold and snowy night in January, in stumbled six members of the press from The Boston Globe. Because of the storm and cancellations, there was room in the 40-seat dining room. The result — a glowing story with the headline, “For a Great Dinner in Boston Drive to Portsmouth.” With a marvelous butterfly effect, media from New York and even Europe were soon extolling the virtues of the creative cuisine at the Blue Strawbery, in lowly Portsmouth, NH. (To put it all in an historical perspective, Alice Waters started her famous restaurant, Chez Panisse, a year later. )
What was so different? Haller was untrained as a chef and approached the kitchen with the thought, “I am just cooking dinner for 40 people … two seatings.” Dinner started with bread and butter. Not the boring dinner rolls served at the time, but bread from a local baker who told him, “No, I am Jewish. I can’t make brioche rolls.” What he could do was a wonderful, dense pumpernickel. Haller says, “I think we were the only restaurant around that served a dark bread.” With the bread were Haller’s creative butters, blended with flavors like orange and basil.
The menus were inspired and different each night. Without a fixed menu, Haller was able to shop the market and then decide what to make, much like chefs do now for their specials.
One day, missing an ingredient, Haller added root beer to the mix. “The patrons applauded. I thought to myself, ‘It’s just root beer.’” Another memorable dish is his Quail 52, a quail stuffed with lobster, dressed with champagne, truffles and Velveeta Cheese. “It was written up real good — don’t underestimate the power of Velveeta,” Haller says with a wink, adding, “Eventually, I knew we had made it when I saw a Rolls-Royce parked out front.”
Haller’s recipe for success is revealed in his signature work, “The Blue Strawbery Cookbook: Cooking (Brilliantly) Without Recipes.” It sold 80,000 copies and Haller is working to get it reprinted. He has all kinds of wisdom to share, saying, “Don’t be afraid to cook, if it doesn’t come out, call it something else.”
Yes, he can be a bit irreverent.
Haller seemed humbled by the adulation of the five attending chefs, each a twinkle in their fathers’ eyes when Blue Strawbery first made headlines. “Portsmouth has become exactly what I wanted it to become,” he said.
Later, in an awkward embrace with Chef Evan Mallett, he quipped, “I’m not tall enough for this hug,” Mallett shot back, “You are tall in stature around here,” adding, “I am not a pioneer like James, but lucky to have the world’s cuisine at my fingertips.” Mallett owns and runs the Black Trumpet Bistro at 29 Ceres St., the former home of the Blue Strawbery. It’s one of Haller’s favorite places to dine — despite the ghosts.
Also present for the evening’s discussion was Matt Louis of Moxy, Gregg Sessler of Cava, Mark Segal of Tinios Pro Hospitality Group and Evan Hennessy of Stages at One Washington in Dover. All share a wonderful sense of camaraderie and cooperative spirit, helping one another with staffing and missing ingredients.
The consensus that evening was that the town was at a tipping point — more dining seats than residents, and without more parking spaces and a lid on spiraling costs, it will take hard work — or, as Matt Louis put it, hard work and dedication to the “best goddamn food we can make.”
Where will Portsmouth be in 10 years? Time will tell. Big money is coming to town and corporate chefs are not able to be as creative. Still, Chef Gregg Sessler said, “As expensive as it is to operate here, there’s no place I’d rather be.”
After the event, a variety of attendees thanked Haller or shared memories: “My parents loved your restaurant” and “I dined there once and thoroughly enjoyed it” and “My family bought Marconi’s where you purchased fish.” He graciously thanked them. I didn’t notice any tears.
“Should I slow down?” asked Haller as we walked to Ristorante Massimo for a final nightcap. It’s evident he has plenty of energy for more projects as I ramped up my pace.
Massimo Morgano and Chef Jethro Loichle had put out a taste of their flavorful Italian foods to enjoy. My thrill for the evening was to see how honored Loichle was to meet the legend himself. Haller enjoys the recognition but seems quite surprised people remember after all these years.
We are all glad the torch was carried on, and so gracefully at that, by the current array of talented Seacoast chefs.
Le fin? No, Haller continues to cook. Find his pop-up meals with Chef Patrice Gerard at The Wellington Room once a month. Call for the dates: (603) 431-2989.
James Haller Timeline
- Chef/Owner, The Blue Strawbery, 1970 to 1986
- Chef at Canterbury Shaker Village, 1988 to 1991
- “The Holiday Chef,” a series for Channel 11, 1975
- Television appearances, Channel 5 Boston, 1975 to 1985
- Hospice work, 1983 to 1993
- Awarded Wellness Award from Canada and the Robert Pope Foundation, 1995
- The Granite State Award, 2000
- Performances at ACT ONE, at the West End Theatre, of “Salt and Pepper Cooking: The Education of An American Chef,” 2010 to 2013
- Pop-up dining at The Wellington Room, 2010 to present
- “The Blue Strawbery Cookbook,” 1976
- "Another Blue Strawbery Cookbook,” 1983
- “Vie de France: Sharing Food, Friendship and a Kitchen in the Loire Valley," 2003
- “What to Eat When You Don’t Feel Like Eating,” 1994
- “Food and Fitness” with Rick Ferreira, 1996
- “Simply Wonderful Food,” 2006 (Written while he was undergoing prostate cancer treatment)
- “Cooking in the Shaker Spirit” with Chef Jeff Paige of Manchester's Cotton, 2006
- To come, “69th and Normal,” a “memoir of sorts,” he says.