If you do a search for the best lobster rolls in the country, you’ll find a series of food blogs and websites and traditional newspapers focused on one state in the country, Maine. If you dig a little deeper, there’s one place that’ll consistently pop up: The Clam Shack in Kennebunk, Maine.
Owned and operated by Steve Kingston, The Clam Shack is the oldest operating seafood market in the state of Maine. The “Shack”, as it says out front, has been in business since 1968, producing the best lobster roll in the country. And there’s great beer to drink alongside it.
Kingston’s lobster roll has been featured atop “best of” lists in books and traditional print media outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, as well as online food publications like Serious Eats and Eater. The Clam Shack has appeared on The Food Network and was named by The Steve Harvey Show as the best lobster roll. He’s the personal lobster chef to the Bush family (yes, those Bushes).
We sat down with Kingston, the proclaimed “King of the Lobster Roll,” over his award-winning lobster roll and a couple pints of Allagash White to talk lobster, food media, serving seafood to two Presidents (and an infamous international adversary), and, of course, what kind of beer goes best with Maine’s best dish.
Are you from Maine?
I was a summer brat. We lived out at Goose Rocks Beach, which is this absolutely beautiful beach in Kennebunk. We were in a very humble cottage. Now there are million dollar homes on the same street that we used to stay on. We’d go to the beach every day.
I started working in the restaurant business as young kid in town. I went to school at Bates [in Lewiston, Maine]. At some point we came back here and we never left.
You started a life on the beach making lobster rolls.
Well, it’s funny. When you get to these vacation places and you live there, you take them for granted. You don’t go to the beach as often as you do when you’re on vacation.
Tell me about the start of the restaurant business.
I had a friend who was doing a fresh-squeezed lemonade cart, a buddy of mine that I used to ski race with. I thought, “Shit, I could do that in Kennebunk.” I told my dad and he thought I was nuts. I had a good waiter job at one of the nicer restaurants in town and he said, “You will still owe me the exact amount of money you paid me for school last summer.” At the end of the summer, I’d made five times what I did at the restaurant the previous summer.
Then, there was the old timer right around the corner and he was selling off his [ice cream] equipment as he was retiring and he offered to sell it to me. I’d done some odd jobs for him and he’d seen me around town squeezing lemonade. And so by my junior year in college, I owned a lemonade stand and an ice cream shop.
What year was this?
How much has this area changed since then?
Insane. Not like crazy insane, but there seems to be so many more people. Way more restaurants.
How long has the Clam Shack been here?
So the market had been here a long time, but all these roadside lobster shacks were popping up all over the place. They built the shack [out front on Route 9], rented it out to a guy named Richard Jakes and he started doing the gig and it became, locally, very popular.
And when did you begin running it?
I was doing a suit and tie job – we still had the lemonade cart and the ice cream stand – and I was coming over the bridge and saw someone on a ladder hanging a For Sale sign. I thought, “Holy shit.” I spent the next few months trying to put a deal together and fortunately it worked out.
So at one point, I’m cooking lobster with Secret Service over one shoulder and the KGB over the other.”
And this time in history kind of coincided with a fair amount of food blogs, websites, columns.
Food media started to explode. Selling to the Bushes, having a great lobster roll – if someone is going to write an article on selling lobsters and Maine, and they stumble across a guy making lobsters for President Bush, they usually at least reach out to you.
So having really famous clients helps business?
[Laughs] It doesn’t hurt. You’ll have Secret Service coming in here, escorting Mrs. Bush. It’s quite a scene.
Anyone else famous come in for a lobster roll?
One of the really cool ones was [Boston Bruins legend and NHL Hall of Famer] Bobby Orr. I remember Rick Fox and Vanessa Williams were here once and I called my wife all excited and she was juggling the kids and she was making dinner or something and she couldn’t care less.
Any great President Bush stories?
We had this one dinner, maybe ten years ago. 43 [George W. Bush] was having some issues with Putin. And so they invited him out and some other dignitaries out to Walker’s Point [the home of the Bush Compound in Kennebunk]. They asked me to cook lobsters for them. So at one point, I’m cooking lobster with Secret Service over one shoulder and the KGB over the other. We packaged them up and raced them over and I think they went from the cooker to the being plated in, I think they said seven minutes.
We’d also, at the end of the annual August vacation, have the Secret Service, who we came to know quite well, come visit on their last night of detail. So right before they flew back to D.C. or wherever, they’d come out here, sit on the back deck, have some seafood, and tell some great stories.
They want something light that is going to go down easy as they sit on the porch or in the front.”
Tell me about the award-winning lobster roll [Note: Kingston veers away from the traditional Maine-style. The Clam Shack serves a pound of lobster meat on a freshly baked roll with either butter, a swath of mayo, or both. Seriously. Google it].
I inherited this recipe, but I think we really focused on making it better in some little, more subtle ways. When I got here, they were doing it similar to the way we do now: cooking it in salt water. They were using these same rolls from Reilly’s Bakery [from nearby Biddeford, ME). We were left off a Top Five list for lobster rolls because we didn’t use the traditional hot dog bun, so I thought maybe we should switch, but my wife convinced me to not worry about style and concern myself more with how it tastes.
It’s less about the changes that it is really being militant about the quality of ingredients: the fresh daily lobster, the rolls. Even the butter is high-quality, locally-made butter from Kate’s. You can actually taste the difference.
The bar for what’s considered food in the country is getting lower and lower. I’m not a food guy, I’m not a chef. I make simple food. The ingredients do the work, so long as you respect them and are willing to pay for them.
Let’s switch to beer. What kind of beer goes best with a lobster roll?
I’m probably a bad person to ask because I’m pretty simple. I love a cold Coors Light, but we always have Shipyard on tap here. I like the idea that they’re local, they grew up right around the corner. We always have Allagash White on tap.
And people always want a beer with their seafood. It’s that summertime connotation.
Summer ales. They want something light that is going to go down easy as they sit on the porch or in the front. We have summer ale from the moment we open until the moment we close [Mother’s Day to Columbus Day]. People don’t want to drink a pumpkin ale with their lobster roll. They’re in Maine. Hopefully it’s warm out.
Even at the end of the season, when people come here, they’re trying to prolong the summer, to stretch it out that much further. They always want a summer ale.