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A New Chef in the House: Jennifer Mantica

Date: June 20, 2022

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Written by Teresa Piccari

Creativity doesn’t end in the classroom, on location, or in the print shop for the students who come to study at the Maine Media campus. It continues at the Dining Pavilion, as they come together to break bread in the community and talk about their discoveries, ideas, breakthroughs, and accomplishments. 

Jennifer Mantica, who recently joined Maine Media as Chef, brings an ample supply of her own creativity to the table. A native of Albany, she earned her bachelor’s of professional studies in baking and pastry arts management at the esteemed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. 

“I got all of my savory cooking schooling from Melissa [at Primo]”

Mantica completed her externship at the celebrated Primo Restaurant in Rockland, ME. “I came up to Maine to work with Primo. After I graduated, I returned and worked there for eight years. I started as a baker; worked on garde station in charge of cold and hot appetizers; and then I got trained on the pasta station,” she noted. She also worked upstairs in the counter room, where locals flock when Primo offers premium Maine oysters at value prices. 

“I got all of my savory cooking  schooling from Melissa,” she added, referring to Chef Melissa Kelly co-founder of Primo who has been twice honored with a James Beard award as Best Chef in the Northeast, and has received several Outstanding Chef nominations from Beard, as well.

Following Primo, Mantica spent nine months helping to launch North Beacon Oyster in Rockland, as chef de cuisine. Eventually, she migrated to Nina June in Rockport Harbor. She began as sous chef and, after three years,left as chef de cuisine.

In the Kitchen

I sat down with Mantica in the dining room early one Monday morning, as she was getting to know her new kitchen and a few MFA students. She invited the students to come right up and give her their personal requests for breakfast – not something she will be able to do when campus is buzzing, but a special way to treat some lucky students. 

A day later, she served a fabulous reception buffet for an art opening featuring the MFA students. If this was any indicator of what is to come, students are in for good food this 

summer. As to how her fine dining background will be infused into her cooking at Maine Media, the chef said she likes clean, simple, fresh food, and locally-sourced, as available. “Not too complicated. I will set up the buffet so people can build a composed dish, like I would put together in a restaurant.  That’s how I’m building my menu,” she said. 

At dinner she is planning two entrees, a protein and a fish, rounded out with a salad and vegetable side dish. Lunch will highlight a soup and salad or soup and sandwich duo. “I’m going to streamline breakfast as a continental offering. Eggs, a protein, a nice fruit display, yogurt, granola, for example. Fresh-cut fruit, cooked eggs, and a morning pastry, like muffins or coffee cake,” she said. 

Cultural & Culinary Influences

Mantica, 34, hails from a large Italian family and learned to cook from her mom. “My mom always baked, and so did her mom. We were always trying new recipes and cooking together. I love the artistry of baking and pastry with all the display pieces, and breads and chocolates. All holidays are focused around what we’re eating and who’s making what. It’s a big celebration.”

The chef wants to create that spirited sense of community through food at Maine Media. During her first week, she organized menus by geographic region. Featured were a Middle Eastern themed dinner with roasted salmon and 7-spice roast chicken, and a rice and lentil dish with caramelized onions. Seasonings included sesame seeds, sumac, a Lebanese spice that is both savory and sweet, cinnamon and all spice. She did a shaved cabbage salad with lemon and cilantro, tahini and yogurt sauce. For dessert: Persian love cookies. 

Looking forward, Mantica is planning a spring minestrone; sandwiches of mozzarella and mortadella; and a peri peri Portuguese chicken. Another day will be crispy black bean and cheese tacos with Mexican street corn salad and pickled jalapenos. 

Students will also be treated to Friday Night Lobster, as the school has offered in the past. “I would love to have other traditional Maine food, like baked beans and brown bread on those nights,” she said. Friday evenings are a chance to bring the campus community together to show and celebrate the new work created throughout the week.

Shifting Gears

As the chef writes a new chapter in her culinary career at Maine Media, she observed, “I wanted a change. I love the restaurant business but I wanted to step away and work on my personal life a bit. Maine Media will offer me more freedom, in terms of time and hours. I’ll have weekends off. I was ready for a lifestyle change, kind of a reset,” said the chef, about her decision. 

Mantica was attracted by the creative vibe at Maine Media. “It seems fun and different, and I love how artsy it is,” she noted. She may even have time to reclaim her earlier interest in watercolor painting, as she settles in here.

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