Over the last ten years, Annemarie Ahearn has created a business integrated with her family home.
We spoke with her about the idyllic location, her cooking school, and the work that goes into maintaining it.
Can you share more about your background? What might a stranger be curious to learn about you, or what might give them context into who you are today?
When I was a little girl, I was very social and didn’t like to play on my own. I’ve built a life and business where I am surrounded by friends, family, and students every day. As they say, food brings people together and thankfully, I’m right in the middle of it.
What motivated you to start Salt Water Farm?
A desire to become a true country cook, the ability to connect with the land and sea, and a longing to build a business that fit seamlessly into the greater arch of my life.
What is Salt Water Farm about in three words?
"Instinct, resourcefulness, pleasure."
What has the cooking school taught you about yourself and your creative and professional process?
Patience. I have a tendency to jump into things. After ten years of running the school, I see tremendous value in the cumulative work that has gone into each season: growing a student body, developing a compelling curriculum, and building a physical space that feels like a permanent home.
What about starting Salt Water Farm has changed or informed your approach to making and being active more generally?
I wouldn’t say that it’s changed my approach to making, but rather disciplined it. Years in the kitchen at Salt Water Farm have given me the confidence to know, without any doubt, that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’ve developed confidence as a business owner, teacher and a cook. And the daily tasks of the school and the farm satisfy the engine inside me that has a hard time shutting down.
What do you love most about cooking?
Two things really. I love how visceral it is: touching all of the senses. The smells alone keep me at attention for hours on end. And I love what it calls for in the final act: a gathering of people to share food and conversation, something that has been so important to people for millennia.
Describe your environment in colors, shapes, smells, hues:
Blues above and below, winding green paths, wild flowers in soft pastels, creeping thyme and lavender, quince and apple blossoms, white caps on a windy day, salt laden fog, glittering beach stones modeled by time, slick seaweed in deep greens, earth that is black with nutrients.
How is Salt Water Farm different than your typical farm or cooking school?
Well, to be honest, there’s no place like it. For one, it’s our home and the students are our guests in the most traditional sense of the word. The farm, which is more of an elaborate vegetable and herb garden, is managed by my father and me. On a typical day, my dad is moving earth in his tractor and I’m digging up weeds in the garden or watering seedlings in the greenhouse. We have invested heavily in non-traditional perennial plants: Sea buckthorn berry, aronia, beech plums, elderberries, and honeyberries. My father has plans to make an amaro product with them one day.
As for the school, what really separates us from other recreational cooking schools is our approach. I maintain that cooking is an instinct more than it is a learned skill. I encourage my students to make decisions in the kitchen using their gut, rather than relying on “what they’ve been told.” Of course, I’m there to course-correct if necessary, but it’s so important that we believe in ourselves at cooks.
“The students are our guests in the most traditional sense of the word.”
Do you have a particular project you are working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on my second cookbook. Both of my books are divided into chapters that represent the months of the year and I actually write the January chapter in January and the May chapter in May, etc . The text and recipes are truly an extension of my stream of consciousness as the seasons turn. It feels like a kitchen diary and the recipes are precisely what I’m in the mood to cook when I test them. It’s a wonderful format.
What is something you have recently rediscovered?
Mexico City. My parents lived there before I was born and we went back to visit their friends when I was young. I have rediscovered the city with my husband and daughter and we try to spend at least a few weeks there each year. It is the opposite of Maine in February, which is when we like to go, in just about every way and the smells of the street food and the colors of the market make me swoon. Little by little, I’m working on my Spanish.
What is something you leave to spontaneity?
Believe it or not, there is no food in my house. I love to wake up, look out the window and feel my way into a menu for the day. Then I head to all the local shops to see what’s good and new and build a menu as I shop. Even at the cooking school, we often add a dish to each class that has no recipe and simply takes advantage of an abundant harvest or a special delivery.
What advice would you give to someone who is new to cooking and the farm industry?
So many folks have passed through Salt Water Farm over the years while in the research and development phase of starting their own food/farming/education-based project. My advice is this: In a world that seems to be changing very quickly, this is a line of work that will always bring you joy and remind you how special it is to be a creature of this earth. It’s not the most profitable enterprise, but it pays in other ways, and for me, makes life feel quite full each and every day.
Annemarie was photographed at Salt Water Farm in Lincolnville, ME
Photos by Greta Rybus
Words by Annemarie Ahearn
Salt Water Farm