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Dina Avila

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Maya Lovelace: Bringing Southern Storytelling and Flavors to PDX

The chef mixes local produce and Southern inspiration at Portland restaurant Mae

Maya Lovelace is a natural storyteller. At her year-old Portland, Oregon concept Mae — a convivial twice-weekly pop-up — Lovelace delivers each dish to the table with anecdotes that reveal windows into the menu, and by association, the trajectory that led her from her native North Carolina to the precise moment she’s standing beside your table. Lovelace’s voice takes on a wistful timbre when speaking about magical quality of finding jars of pickles under the beds, jams under the sink at her grandmother’s house in Hickory, NC.

She jokes about the sheer amount of food that’ll soon arrive, relying on diners’ expectations of hyperbole to really surprise them when minutes later, literally an entire cast-iron skillet of Carolina Gold risotto appears. Later, she’ll hesitate just the right amount of time to create the perfect setup while describing the provenance of the lettuces, the drizzle of buttermilk that arrives in the form of a "kil’t" salad. There’s a brief pause as diners wonder about the name, before Lovelace expertly goes in for the punchline: "… and then, you just kill it with hot bacon fat."

If these tableside interludes sound like family-dinner banter, that’s because Mae is designed as an extension of the meals cooked by Lovelace’s grandmother, for whom the restaurant is named. Lovelace describes those memorable dinners at Grandma Mae’s a "circus of insanity," a never-ending "barrage" of food complete with multiple pound cakes for dessert. "I did get a chance to cook with her a little bit — I do have the fond, stereotypical Southern memories of my grandma teaching me how to make yeast rolls, standing on a little step-stool," Lovelace says. "But it was mostly the emotional assault of, ‘Let me cook for you, let me feed you, I love you so much.’ So while she inspired me to cook, she more inspired me to feed people."

That inspiration lead Lovelace, at age 17, to cook at a handful of Atlanta vegetarian and vegan restaurants before moving to Charleston, where Sean Brock happened to be a regular at the Italian restaurant where she pumped out plates of shrimp and butter beans. In 2010, Brock hired her away to be an opening line cook at Husk. After one and a half years, Lovelace, considering a move to Portland, completed a weeklong stage at Naomi Pomeroy’s restaurant Beast — after which she was promptly offered a job. Lovelace stayed for two years, moving into the position of sous chef, before departing to "do a little more soul searching" and find her own way.

I do have the fond, stereotypical Southern memories of my grandmother

"I didn’t really know what my food was," Lovelace says. "And I started thinking back to the fact that six months after I moved to Portland, my grandmother Mae passed away… So when I was trying to figure out what to do, it was the first thing that really made sense, having an opportunity to pay her back for what she gave me."

Lovelace consulted her grandmother’s recipe box, Brock-recommended cookbooks, and family members in Appalachia, and translated all that into two services at the 24-seat Mae: a more casual option highlighting Lovelace’s buttermilk-brined fried chicken, and a 10-course "Southern bacchanalia" that combines her love for Southern dishes with Northwest produce. Think dishes like roasted zucchini with tomato cornmeal gravy and a peach and raw corn salad with the unexpected addition of chrysanthemum greens.

The latter comes as a result of her partnership with Dan Sullivan of Oregon’s Black Locust Farms, who collaborates with Lovelace to plant items like butter beans and greasy beans that are otherwise difficult to find in the northwest. "He’s allowing me to transport those things across the country," Lovelace says, while Sullivan often recommends the produce that he has on-hand. "We end up with a cool mishmash of things because he’s so fantastic."

Elsewhere, Lovelace is steadfast in her importation of Southern ingredients like Anson Mills grain and Benton’s country hams, and in the conversations that involve explaining benne seeds and cucumber Benedictine to Portland diners. "I knew I wanted to make really tasty Southern food that knocked the pants off of everybody. Part of making it that good is explaining the origins of it," Lovelace says. "You have to be ready to talk about it, to be an educator… You have to be comfortable educating without being super preachy."

Which brings us back to the stories. In the style of her grandmother, Lovelace’s goal is to the provide the "emotional barrage" that comes with an onslaught of lovingly cooked food, and she wants to make sure the diner knows it. Lovelace sidles up to the communal table, where mostly empty plates of biscuits and pimento cheese are languishing before the next course. "Is there anything I can get out of your way?" she asks. There’s another pause as diners anticipate the coming information, which arrives in the playful tone of a half-veiled threat, half-delicious promise: "We’re about to smash you up."

Find the full list of 2016 Young Guns here

Erin DeJesus is Eater's reports editor.
Maya Lovelace is the chef and owner of Mae in Portland. Image taken at Black Locust Farms by Dina Avila.
Editors: Dana Hatic and Sonia Chopra
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
See all Young Guns coverage here.

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