PINE chef Justin Dain Talks Career and Collaboration

October 31, 2013
by Scott Kearnan

From autumn leaf peepers to weekend skiers, this is the time of year when lots of Bostonians set their sights on northern New England resorts and tourist towns. Naturally, PINE Restaurant in Hanover, New Hampshire, is enjoying an especially lively season, says executive chef Justin Dain. But business has been brisk at PINE since it opened seven months ago, part of the last phase of substantial renovations to the Hanover Inn. The historic hotel, surrounded by shop- and cafe-filled streets and overlooking the picturesque Dartmouth College green, has transformed from a traditional New England charmer to a more contemporary version of itself, adding more urbane decor and its new restaurant, which wouldn’t feel out of place in Downtown Boston.

No surprise. The inn tapped Hub-based restaurateur-chef Michael Schlow (Via Matta, Barrio Cantina, Tico) to create and conceptualize PINE, and he continues to consult with Dain on the development of new menus. We talked to Dain, who earned his early chef stripes at the Boston Harbor Hotel, about his career and bringing city sophistication to the quintessential New England countryside.

You're originally from Vermont. What kick-started your love for cooking? 

When I was 16, I was a busboy at Stowe Mountain Ski Resort. One day one of the guys in the kitchen called in sick. We’re not talking crazy food: it was one of the guys who flipped burgers and made fries. They asked me to help out, and I was hooked from the beginning. I just wanted to learn more and more. I knew it was what I wanted to do from the first day, and I never looked back.

Working with local farms, in-season products and organic, GMO-free ingredients is important to you. Is that rooted in your growing up in the country?

My dad owned a small farm growing up. So it was always of interest to me to be using the products around us. That’s another reason why I came back up here [to New Hampshire]. I love this area: its cheeses, meats and the produce. In the winter it can be hard, but when I’m working on the menus I’m always trying to think: how can we use what’s local. Growing up in Vermont with a graduating class of about 90 people, at least eight friends had families who owned farms. It’s just in the air. You see it first-hand, you talk about it and it’s just a part of your life, what you grew up with.

How did you come to Boston Harbor Hotel, and what did you learn there?

I went there for a New England Culinary Institute internship in 2002. I just wanted to get in a little city life and understand that side of things. There’s a lot of talent in cities, and a very forward-thinking mentality. So I worked at Boston Harbor Hotel for six years under chef Daniel Bruce. I started as intern at what was then Intrigue Cafe...[Eventually] I was sous chef for three years at Meritage. That was my first experience in really understanding the kind of attention to detail that it takes to take care of it all: diners coming through, tickets being fired. And I was young, just 24 years old. But chef Bruce really took me under his wing. He pushed me really hard and made me understand a good work ethic. It was a huge thing. I wouldn’t be here without him and the way he pushed me.

What was it like to collaborate with Michael Schlow on PINE? 

It was great. Once they announced he’d be behind it, I decided to work in all his restaurants for a couple weeks here, a couple weeks there: Radius, Via Matta, Happy’s, which is now Barrio Cantina. I’d work for two days at a time, running down from Hanover so that I could see the world through his eyes: understand where he comes from, the details of how his kitchen runs, and embrace his world, thoughts and knowledge. That’s important when you’re trying to collaborate with someone, and it was really beneficial for me to understand when I was going to be writing menus for his go-ahead.

How do your styles differ, and how do they combine for PINE? 

It's a great question. So much of my background was really based at Meritage, a wine-based restaurant. We cooked our food around what’s good with wine, what flavors pair well, everything like that. Michael’s thought process was different. He does a lot of Mediterranean and Italian food, works with different spices. I wasn’t accustomed to that: I’m a little more refined French and New England. But you see the collaboration in the cooking. Things like rosemary- and thyme-marinated olives with tiny almonds, crostini with mascarpone, Marcona almonds with smoked paprika. There’s a lot of stuff you don’t see here in the Hanover area. It’s not your average restaurant up here, your steak and potatoes place.