Russell Brackett graduated from Lincoln Academy in 2008. In 2021 he became the school’s head chef. Not bad for a kid from Jefferson who started his culinary career as a dishwasher at Schooner Landing.
While it wasn’t the most glamorous job, Brackett liked working there. Summers were busy and he thrived in the high intensity atmosphere.
He liked the food, too. One day when he was hungry he fried a piece of haddock for lunch. He’d seen the cooks do it plenty of times. “You pull it out when it looks good,” he said. When the fry cook called out, Brackett was drafted. And he hasn’t stopped since.
His next job was at Reunion Station. He soon realized that better restaurants had better pay and to get into those restaurants he would need experience, an internship. Reunion Station owner Dale Feltis wrote him a recommendation and he enrolled in a six-month course at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont.
With education came the internship he needed. He started at The Inn at Ocean’s Edge in Lincolnville, driving more than an hour each way. Shifts started at 9 a.m. and finished up around midnight. It made for a long day, but he was determined to cook at a higher caliber.
Brackett didn’t just gain skill and experience at The Inn at Ocean’s Edge. He met his wife Jillian, a fellow intern, there, too.
His culinary education continued with a stint at Morse’s Sauerkraut. There he learned about charcuterie and worked with Andrew Flamm, who co-founded Maine Street Meats, an emporium of international and local food in Rockport.
According to Brackett, cooks don’t typically stay in a restaurant longer than three years. By then they’ve learned everything the restaurant has to offer and it’s time to move on to the next spot.
Brackett was true to that pattern. He moved to Cincinnati for a couple of years, cooking in restaurants of increasing quality and complexity. But he didn’t care for the humid Cincinnati summers. He missed the familiar rhythm of the seasons in Maine.
Fortunately, Jillian Brackett landed a cheese-making internship at Appleton Creamery. “She wanted to learn how to make cheese and I was going where she was going,” he said.
While Jillian Brackett learned how to milk goats, Flamm invited Russell Brackett to work with him at Maine Street Meats. Soon he was learning to bake bread, still one of his favorite pastimes.
The couple lived in a no-frills cabin at the farm, with no insulation or running water. Despite the hardships, the experience caused a shift in their mindsets. They became interested in agriculture and the local food circle. They bought a small farm in Cushing.
Between married life and the demands of the farm, Russell Brackett came to the realization that he didn’t want to continue the traditional “hard-knock path” of the line cook where “you start as a dishwasher, work your way up through the stations as a line cook and then eventually you’re the sous chef somewhere and then eventually you own your own place.”
He wanted job security. He wanted benefits. He wanted a life outside work.
When Lincoln Academy restructured its dining service in 2016, he responded to an advertisement. All the learning he had done at restaurants, his knowledge of baking, butchery, and fine dining, helped him secure the job as sous chef under Mikael Andersson. Five years later, he replaced Andersson, who is now the nutrition director for the Five Towns Consolidated school District in Camden and MSAD 28 in Rockport.
Russell Brackett and his small staff serve over 600 meals five days a week – breakfast and lunch to the regular student body, and dinner to the residential students, many of them from abroad. They serve the residential diners on weekends, too.
“I can’t cook (your) grandmother’s gnocchi,” he told the strong contingent of students from Italy. But he can offer them chicken parmesan.
Being the head chef at Lincoln Academy is a new challenge for Russell Brackett. There’s more paperwork, more decisions to be made. Consistency is key when cooking and reliability is key when hiring staff.
Menu planning is more complicated – state nutritional mandates must be met, and making a delicious cookie from 51% whole wheat isn’t easy.
“You can’t just give kids kale and quinoa all day. It has to taste good and it has to look good,” Russell Brackett said. “If it doesn’t look good you can’t get it into their mouth and if it doesn’t taste good it doesn’t stay there. (Students) aren’t getting nutrition from something they’re throwing away.”
Jillian Brackett also works in the kitchen at Lincoln Academy. She often cooks the dinner service where the nutritional mandates are a little more relaxed.
According to Russell Brackett, “The running joke around here is you could cook steak all day long, beautiful rib eyes. And the minute Jillian comes in and makes chocolate chip cookies everything you’ve done no longer matters. They’re still kids at the end of the day.”
He does have opportunities to flex his fine dining muscles occasionally. As part of the job, he caters banquets and fundraisers at the school. And occasional “dressed dinners” with tablecloths, an oyster bar, bacon-and-mushroom-stuffed chicken, flounder with sauce Américaine.
But in his home life he enjoys simpler food. The Home Kitchen Café in Rockland is a favorite restaurant.
Russell and Jillian Brackett live in Bristol Mills with their 20-month-old son Fletcher. They are renovating the Sears Craftsman home built by Russell Brackett’s great grandfather, Louis Cameron.
Along with the house they gained his great-grandmother’s recipe box, a treasure trove of comfort foods. “There’s a lot of recipes in there,” he said. “You can tell which ones are the good ones because they have all the oil and marmalade stains on them.”
Perhaps the students at Lincoln County will have a chance to taste Dorothy Cameron’s recipe for macaroni and cheese.
“I was working in some pretty nice places in terms of plated dinners,” Russell Brackett said. But he’s gone from $50 plates to meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and broccoli.
“I get more satisfaction out of this than the high end stuff. It’s more relatable,” he said.