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Traveler's Taste

A Maine chef adds twists to his teacher's traditions

DAMARISCOTTA, Maine -- It's one of the great paradoxes of cooking: When chefs are serious about food, they like to have fun with it.

So it is with Stephen Richards, who presides over the kitchen at Backstreet Restaurant on the Damariscotta River. His menu offerings testify to his joy of cooking: shrimp cocktail tempura-style, fried in airy batter and perched on a martini glass of spicy-sweet mai ploy sauce ($8.50); Worcestershire-glazed bistro steak, twice-roasted potatoes with blue cheese and chives, soft garlic fondue, and shallot demiglace ($20); grilled very rare tuna with roasted-pepper tarragon butter, Great Eastern mussels, and whipped potatoes with chives ($20).

Those familiar with Norman Van Aken's ''New World Cuisine" will recognize the Latin and Asian influences in such dishes. Richards acknowledges this, adding that his dishes are grounded in ''classical preparation." As an example of the classical touch, he cites the method of his mentor, chef Christopher Russell, of Christopher's Boathouse in nearby Boothbay Harbor.

''He starts with the best possible product and does as little as possible to it except to ensure that it's perfectly seasoned and beautifully served," Richards says.

The presentation of his own dishes -- fanciful, spare, modernist -- echoes the ambience of the room. Lined with windows overlooking a tranquil stretch of the river, the room is painted a deep red, allowing vibrant paintings by local artists to pop out against a dark background. Art exhibits change monthly; the menu changes four times a year; the river changes every time the light shifts.

Richards, 29, learned his trade the old-fashioned way. He went from high school directly to the working world, gaining hands-on experience in kitchens -- many of them at resorts and country clubs -- from Maine to Florida. Then, in Boothbay, many years and a few miles from where he started, he got what he calls his ''big break," working for Russell.

After eating at Christopher's Boathouse, Richards was so struck by the quality of the food that he applied for any job available.

He started as a line cook, to learn from Russell.

''I owe my career to that man," says Richards, who stayed on at the Boathouse for four years, eventually becoming chef de cuisine. ''When you work under such high standards, you become obsessed with perfection."

Richards has succeeded in two other goals: ''I try to provide a decent portion without overfilling, and to keep prices modest," he says.

Though Backstreet has been in business for nine years, Richards has dramatically changed the style of cuisine during his 2 1/2 years in the kitchen, and it has attracted a following. Downtown, three people urged us to eat here. ''They have a chef, and we really want to support him so that he stays," a shop owner confided.

Owner Julie Adams, Richards says, has been supportive. ''Cooking is a lot more fun when the owner has faith in you," he says.

Backstreet Restaurant, 17 Elm St., Damariscotta, Maine. 207-563-5666. Entrees $13-$20. Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.- 8:30 p.m; Friday-Saturday; 11:30-9.