Bresca Day: An Interview With Owner/Chef Krista Kern Desjarlais

by chubbywerewolf on 7 December 2011

Bresca Portland on Urbanspoon

I’ve gone on record a number of times as having said that the single best food experience I’ve had in my five years in Maine was a dinner I ate at at Bresca a few years ago. The memory of that meal—honeycomb and pecorino, shaved brussels sprouts (with toasted walnuts, Parmesan, Pecorino and olive oil) and the most amazing red wine braised beef cheeks I’ve ever had—has achieved epic status in my mind. So much so that you’d think that return visits to the restaurant would fall victim to the law of diminishing returns. But they really haven’t. Each of my half-dozen or so experiences at Bresca (beef cheeks or not) have been remarkable, eye-opening culinary experiences.

Needless to say, the announcement earlier this year that Bresca owner and Chef Krista Kern Desjarlais would be launching a lunch service—dubbed Bresca Day—was something that elicited a tremendous amount of excitement in me. Translation: I stood in my living room and danced in my underwear to the tune of Kesha’s “Tik Tok” for a solid three minutes. (Hey, nobody ever said that excitement had to be pretty!)

I don’t think I’m alone, either. Well, maybe in the “dancing in your underwear to Kesha” department, I am. But in terms of a slightly more sophisticated brand of anticipation, I’m clearly not. I’ve heard as much “chatter” (online and offline) about the opening of Bresca Day as I have any Portland restaurant opening in the last two to three years. With so many people talking about the new lunch service, I felt that I had to get to the bottom of things.

Despite a very busy schedule, Chef Kern Desjarlais graciously agreed to sit down with me in advance of the launch of Bresca Day and answer some questions. Over the course of a very enjoyable hour or so, we discussed Bresca’s roots, the “celebrity chef” culture so pervasive on television these days and the ability of your average toddler to out-demolish even the most crazed high-on-bath-salts lunatic. Somewhere along the way, we also managed to talk about Bresca Day. I can neither confirm nor deny rumors that several minutes of the interview may have been spent by a teary-eyed Yours Truly, begging for a lunchtime version of those braised beef cheeks. But here’s what I can tell you…

Bresca Day will offer lunch on Wednesday and Thursdays (beginning today) from 11am to 2pm. Chef Kern Desjarlais says that the menu and hours will be limited at first, but she will consider expanding, depending on demand, staff availability and other factors.

Chef Kern Desjarlais said that one of her reasons for starting the lunch service was that, ike many small business owners, she’s wary of getting into a position where she’s just treading water. “[The dinner service] has been five years of standing in the same spot, every night,” she says. “I want to do different things with Bresca… I don’t think any of us got into business to stagnate.”

The dinner service, she said, can also be physically and mentally grueling. Chef Kern Desjarlais runs the kitchen with just one other chef at her side. That means that she’s often working three stations at one time, turning out as many as 150 plates—each of them executed with a high degree of precision and detail—in a single evening. The addition of the lunch service not only allows her to ease off on dinner a bit (she has, for the time being, reduced dinner from five nights a week to four), it enables her to create meals that will still be delicious without requiring as much along the way of time and “a million little touches.”

In addition to making the pastries that will be sold as part of the lunch service, Chef Kern Desjarlais—who spent more than ten years as a dedicated pastry chef—will bake the bread used for the sandwiches she prepares. Her experience as a baker will prove valuable in other ways as well. “Sandwiches definitely extend out of a baker’s mind. With pastry, you’re building layers and textures in a small, compact environment. Its very similar to a sandwich.”

Mimicking the construction of layers with her hands, Chef Kern Desjarlais elaborates. “If you think about a layered dessert,” she says, “A lot of times its creamy, crunchy, salty, sweet, acid… and you get this delicious thing. A sandwich is much the same way.”

Chef Desjarlais says that she isn’t looking to compete with what might be called the “Coke and turkey sandwich” type of offerings sold at many of the city’s lunch spots. Rather, she’s striving for more of the European feel that has become one of the hallmarks of the Bresca dinner service.

“I think about when I was in Paris and the tiny little places [I'd visit] during the day,” she says. “You’d go and get a really simple sandwich, an amazing little pastry and a cup of coffee or tea… You could just chill out, have something good that’s really tasty and inexpensive.” (Everything on the Bresca lunch menu will be $10 or less.)

Even as Bresca Day should appeal to foodies seeking thoughtfully-prepared meals, Chef Kern Desjarlais—mother to an 18 month-old—says that she wants the lunch service to be family and child-friendly. In addition to some tweaks to the furnishings and tableware designed to evoke a more relaxed daytime vibe, the menu will offer options, like pastries and hot chocolate, that kids can enjoy along with Mom and Dad.

So what’s on the menu, exactly? Aside from the aforementioned pastries, Chef Kern Desjarlais is planning salads, sandwiches and perhaps some dishes like sweet and savory tarts and flatbreads (bear in mind that Bresca Day is starting with a limited menu, so not everything will be available right away). No soup, just yet, but its not out of the question in the future.

Bresca Day won’t seek to appeal to any specific dietary preferences (such as vegan or gluten-free — Chef Kern Desjarlais says that if its a dish that happens to be delicious and appeal to certain dietary sensibilities, so be it) but there will be a number of options—such as salads—that vegetarians can enjoy. “Lunch is a really great time to eat that way. Its really energy-inducing.”

That said, meat eaters won’t be left out in the cold, either. One of the probable mainstays on the menu will be a baguette featuring a maple sugar and spiced pork shoulder roast with kimchi, herb mayo and basil. (How excited am I about that one? I’m queuing up the Kesha now.)

Chef Kern Desjarlais is also planning to offer a shaved-ham sandwich with mustard butter and gruyere cheese. Guests will have the option of adding an egg, if they like. If her oven cooperates, she is hoping to serve it on a red wine roll, an idea which she says appeals to the Old World baker in her. And for opening day, she’s working on a beet-cured gravlax dish garnished with traditional elements like cream cheese, red onion, cucumber, shallot, dill and pickled beets.

Many of the menu offerings at Bresca Day will be served at room temperature and using a luncheon-style presentation so that diners who might otherwise be intimidated by the notion of something like a savory tart or a gravlax can see how good it looks before ordering. “The regular guy, on his walk down to [his usual lunch spot] might see it and say ‘Oh, maybe I should check them out for lunch.’ Its going to be out, so they it will either look delicious and they’ll want it, or it just won’t be in their bag.”

As far as how things unfold with Bresca Day, Chef Kern Desjarlais is taking it one day at a time. “Dinner is our bread and butter, essentially. I’ve got to make sure that stays strong and where it needs to be, while making [the lunch service] great unto itself. I just have to see if it can happen in the way I hope it will, and in a balanced way for myself.”

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Tyree December 7, 2011 at 3:19 pm

Dining tonight at Bresca and really looking forward to it. It was a pleasure meeting you at Bar Lola last night. Hope you enjoyed the dinner and I’d love to get your feedback sometime. Best.

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EverySingleWebsiteWantsMyName! December 7, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Bersca is hands down my favorite restaurant in town. Fore street is great, the Back Bay Grill is great, but Bresca is absolute tops in food, service – everything.

I work in Westbrook, but I kid you not, I plan to take vacation specifically so I can get lunch at Bresca.

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Malcolm December 9, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Outstanding post, as always, CW. We were introduced to the pleasures of Bresca just last night, where we enjoyed one of the best meals I have yet had in Portland. The notion of a lunch service is thrilling, and the proposed sandwiches you describe sound exquisite. Chef Kern Desjarlais seems to be intent on delivering exactly the kind of lunch service that is somewhat lacking in town, and I can’t wait to try it. Also, I wish she were my friend.

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shel February 1, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Is Bresca Day still happening? I tried to go today about 12:45, but the sign on the door said closed :(

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chubbywerewolf February 1, 2012 at 3:50 pm

@Shel, I had the same experience last week. I believe (but am not 100% sure) that they are re-opening for lunch after Valentine’s Day.

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