Harding Lee Smith, Chef, Restauranteur
From Server to Youngest GM: How Passion Drives the Corner Room
The Corner Room is a restaurant like any other in Portland, Maine. Except for one thing: it’s part of The Rooms empire, owned by chef Harding Lee Smith. And these Rooms all have one thing in common: they thrive on quality. After all, you don’t get voted the Best Italian in Portland on the Portland Phoenix Best Of list, if you aren’t the best.
But to be the best, you have to have quality employees to run the show smoothly. Enter Kate McDonough, the General Manager at the Corner Room. Last October, taking over the position at 23, Kate became the youngest general manager in Portland.
How do you become the youngest manager in Portland? By loving every aspect of the restaurant you work at, and building a mutual respect between the staff and management. If you can’t put yourself in your employee’s shoes, they’ll never respect you. But if they do, then things run like a well-oiled machine. It took some time to get there. Kate started at the Corner Room in July of 2012, where she first worked on the floor, while also juggling being a full time student in the fall. Fast forward to becoming assistant manager, and then in March becoming manager.
Being manager means being in charge of the family that is the Corner Room. When everyone is passionate about what they are making and serving, the connection is clear to see. Though it’s a lot of hard work, she says it’s definitely worth the opportunity to share with Portland what a great restaurant has to offer them. With high quality service and people that love the food, drinks and the overall experience that they are selling, there’s an ease that comes from that knowledge, shown by every employee.
As the manager, she has intimate knowledge of the menu. Kate’s favorite part: the specials that are created each night, because she says that the chef, Greg Wilson, is a food genius and his opportunity to utilize seasonal favorites and creativity when creating the menu is always great. But she’s also got a list of her top 3 favorite dishes, which is only fitting if part of your job is trying the food! 1: The homemade ravioli, 2: anything with whipped ricotta, and 3: any specials that feature the short ribs.
One thing that makes Kate very special is that her job as manager actually is giving her field experience for graduate school. As a college graduate, her major was in psychology, but she is not interested in moving forward in a clinical setting. Working in a restaurant hands on as a manager gives her insight into industrial psychology, which is a field focused on the psychology behind building a business, plus advertising, and how to make sure a business continues to stay successful.
Though there is certainly a culinary boom in Portland right now, she’s right when she says that there is a stigma associated with working in a restaurant. But with her experience, she can show that the restaurant industry isn’t just an intermission period for people who don’t know what they want to do. For some, especially those at the Corner Room, they love selling food, wine and the overall beautiful experience that is eating out in a great restaurant!