Photography and Story by Lindsay Sterling
Here is the story of how Krista Desjarlais became one of the greatest chefs in our fair land, cooking at a little restaurant in Portland, Maine, called Bresca on Middle Street. The story really starts in a small village called Pärnu – Maa in Estonia, a northern European country across from Denmark and Sweden and next to Russia. In the late 1930’s a young couple there transformed a derelict farm into a dream of vitality. They had horses, sheep, cows, turkeys, dogs, pigs, geese, and abundant gardens abutting the Baltic Sea. He caught smelt in the ocean. She breaded, fried, and pickled them. She made bread with grains they had grown. The children plucked geese, sending soft feathers in the air. They witnessed a pig hanging, their parents making sausages, and their father putting them in a smokehouse he’d built himself.
One of the children, Maili, was three years old in 1941 when Germans came through the village. She hid in the root cellar while they stole her family’s hams, grains, pigs, chickens, and a horse. In 1944, though, hiding wouldn’t work again. Instead of being done in by their communist countrymen, the young family packed the wool suits the woman had made by hand, and left that night in a rowboat. Paddling away from the shore, they left everything behind, including their favorite horse which watched them go from the beach.
The family made it to an island in the Baltic Sea where they encountered a sailboat, called Juarka, filled with other escapees headed for Sweden. Young Maili, just six years old then, had awful seasickness on that trip, and then scarlet fever. On land, her family split, Maili all by her self to face death with nurses who babbled Swedish in a quarantined hospital wing, the rest of the family to a refugee camp. As Maili saw her own spirit depart, she heard Estonian coming through the window. Her parents and brothers and sisters were calling to her. Her father had found a job as a farm hand.
After waiting eight years in Sweden for a visa to the United States, and a ship ride that seemed as long, in the winter of 1952, the family arrived in New York City. Maili became a young woman, living with her large family in a ground floor apartment with a closet-sized kitchen. One time, a man she liked arrived for a date. He walked into a strange smell and sight. Maili’s mother was at the stove stewing a whole pig’s head and feet, allspice, bay leaf, onion, and carrot. While the young pair were on their date, Maili’s mother finished the head cheese by skimming the broth, pulling tiny morsels of meat off the bones, adding gelatin, then putting the mixture into molds and refrigerating it. Later the family would eat fine slices of chunky cold cuts, dipping bites in horseradish or mustard. The suitor never developed a taste for this head cheese, but he did keep coming back for Maili. The two, Maili and Mike, would become Krista Desjarlais's parents, who now live in the West End of Portland.
Krista would go onto have a wildly exciting cooking career outside of this family story, with stops in Connecticut, Maine, New York, Aspen, Rome, and Las Vegas. She has opened twelve restaurants in her life. Once she was in charge of a team of 70 cooks. But when asked how she became such a great cook, her first thought was of her mother. “She’s Estonian. Everything was made from scratch.”