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From oceans to agriculture, local chef wastes not
OXFORD — Chef Stuart Littlefield can't stand to see things go to waste.
"There's a lot of good, fresh, food-grade material not being utilized," he said. "As a chef, I enjoy value-added and get into the creativity and thrill of making something more attractive than it was. ... [I've] done that well with seafood."
With years of experience in the restaurant industry, cooking in French kitchens alongside several eminent chefs, and running his own catering business in Portland, Littlefield started his own business in Oxford 15 years ago, creating gourmet seafood extracts to be bottled and sold to major food processors.
His products have even made an appearance in popular Campbell's soup varieties.
"If you pick up a can of clam chowder, and you see it says natural flavor ... that's the stuff we make," he said. "It's like putting vanilla extract into a chocolate chip cookie."
He said that the extracts not only add concentrated flavor, but they also impart a certain texture for sauces that cannot be achieved with other thickeners.
His business, called Coastal Creations, Inc., on Route 26 in Oxford employs a few full-time employees, but Littlefield says that because Maine's coast is being over-fished, the availability of by-product is decreasing.
"People who used to supply us are no longer in business, or have joined with some other company," he said.
How it's made
Littlefield operates his business out of the old abattoir building on Route 26.
According to Littlefield, the building was a slaughterhouse up until the 1970s, but he decided to take it in 1995 when the building was for rent.
Using an 800-gallon stainless steel vacuum evaporator, Littlefield takes pure stock made from seafood by-product – fish bones, crab shells, shrimp heads and lobster bodies – and reduces it into a pure and concentrated broth.
He said that on a good week, nine 4,500-pound bins get delivered to the abattoir, which yields about 300 gallons of extract.
"We use [other] products that were under-utilized," he said. "We are about taking the thing and making it beautiful, so a customer says, 'wow.'"
Littlefield sells his extracts for other chefs to use for soups, stuffed lobster tails, and cold dips, like lobster or clam dips.
"All those things need seafood flavor. ... Why would I want to make something odorless, colorless, and tasteless?" he said.
Littlefield said creating seafood extracts is a lot like making maple syrup.
"You take a flavorless liquid, you reduce it, and voilà!"
While Littlefield says his extracts show his true cooking talent, he doesn't plan on working with seafood all of his life.
Realizing that there was little opportunity to own a four-star restaurant in the Oxford Hills region, he decided he would use his equipment and appreciation for the environment toward creating something different.
"There's a lot of regulations going on about how much fish can be caught ... so I've stopped looking at oceans and have started to look at agriculture," he said. "We've over-fished the ocean, and it's catching up with us. ... Besides, I think it's natural to want to work with beautiful agriculture."
Littlefield thought that, since he already had the equipment to distill wine, he could make wine with fruit that otherwise would go to waste.
"Fruit is so perishable that in 24-48 hours it goes from selling-to-public to no-good," he said. "Where else is it going to go? When an apple grower picks an apple, and some get bruised or are off-colored, instead of throwing it out, I thought, let's do something with it."
Just as he recycled seafood products to create gourmet seafood extracts, Littlefield plans to use bruised or off-colored fruits to make uniquely-flavored wines, spirits, and liqueurs.
"I need to create," he said. "I want my own product line. ... and I figured if I can use Maine's oceans, then I can use Maine's land. We have fantastic apple orchards and beautiful blueberries here."
Before long, the 54-year-old abattoir will be producing fresh wines and other beverages with a "distinct, light taste," said Littlefield.
Littlefield said now that he has obtained the permits, his winery and distillery will soon be the fifth one to operate in Maine. He even hopes to offer "Wine 101" classes and sell some of his products right at the abattoir.
"I want all my products to be Maine-made," he said. "We want to sell an apple schnapps right out of the still. I want to take an apple and make something not only creative, but enjoyable and different. Isn't that the secret to business?"
Littlefield said he hopes to have a product on the shelves by Christmas.
DISTILLERY — Stuart Littlefield leans on one of his stainless steel tanks that he will use to make a variety of wines, spirits and liqueurs, from fruits that are harvested right here in Maine.