Chef Ali Waks Adams likens Willie and Chet’s, her pop-up restaurant, to the spontaneous, ephemeral excitement of having a crush.
“A good dinner can take away some of the outside bad stuff,” Waks Adams said. “It’s temporary, it’s a panacea—but it’s a beautiful one. It nourishes.”
Willie and Chet’s opens once every two weeks, and Waks Adams rarely ever offers the same item twice. She operates the restaurant—which is more of an event than anything else—out of several local Brunswick establishments including Vessel and Vine, Dog Bar Jim: The Coffee Shop and most recently Iris Eats, a petite cafe in Harpswell.
For Waks Adams, the pop-up form reflects the serendipitous nature of her cooking.
“Whimsy is my favorite thing besides serendipity,” Waks Adams said.
Although she has often makes menu items for the first time on the day of the event, her strong memory for tastes and honed culinary skills mean nothing ever goes catastrophically wrong, save for the one time she burned a batch of pudding.
The concept for the pop-up restaurant began as an idea for a food cart that Waks Adams considered opening with her sister-in-law seven years ago. Both women shared a fond affection for their gustatory adventures with their grandfathers—named Willie and Chet, respectively—which they sought to reflect on a menu.
“We all have these very special memories of afternoons with our grandfathers,” Waks Adams said. “Your grandfather is taking you to go buy pickles and eat herring—that’s awesome. It’s like this world of an old man.”
After two-and-a-half years as the executive chef at the Brunswick Inn and a series of brief stints at several other local establishments, Waks Adams opened Willie and Chet’s in April 2020 out of Dog Bar Jim on Union Street.
“It is this quirky, interesting, old-fashioned food adventure,” Waks Adams said. “I felt like there was a distinct lack of joy and fun in the world. Everything was so serious and dire and I was like, ‘Why don’t we just do something kind of wacky and fun with our food?’”
The concept for Willie and Chet’s began with sandwiches, which Waks Adams views as a vehicle for excitement and intrigue. However, her actual menus know few bounds and tend to reflect whatever her latest whimsical obsession produces.
On Wednesday, February 9, a red neon sign spelling the word “Magic” illuminated the entrance ramp to Iris Eats. Inside, Waks Adams packed pickled daikon, carrots, bean sprouts and jalapeño, braised daikon and cilantro atop thinly sliced beef poached in pho broth and oven roasted beef, all encased in a baguette slathered in garlic butter. She called the sandwich the “Pho Shizzle.”
The neon sign—a nod to Waks Adams’ father who had a similar one in her house growing up—shone brighter as the evening set in, and customers sauntered in and out of the cafe to pick up their orders.
The February 9 pop-up marked the return of Willie and Chet’s after a year-long hiatus. The menu included a mochi poutine, the Pho Shizzle and a vegetarian alternative called “Rock out with your Broc Out” which contained charred broccoli paired with miso anchovy butter and pickled radicchio.
“It’s so appropriately weird,” Waks Adams said in reference to the mochi poutine. Her poutine retained the familiar foundational flavors of the Canadian comfort food—salt and umami—but incorporated Waks Adams’ signature flair. She bathed chewy nuggets of mochi in gochujang gravy that, because of the Korean fermented chili paste, glowed nacho-cheese orange. She had never made or tried the mochi poutine prior to the pop-up.
“My wife and I ordered one of everything,” Mitchell Stein, a volunteer at the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program (MCHPP) where Waks Adams serves on the Board, said. “The Brunswick restaurant scene has gotten a little pedestrian. I get very excited when [Waks Adams] talks about the things she tries, the different foods she blends together.”
Most of Waks Adams’ customers know her by name as a result of the production’s community roots. Some know the chef from MCHPP, where she cooks and serves two lunches per week. Others followed her from Dog Bar Jim, where she previously held the pop-up and makes breakfast sandwiches two days per week.
“Having a talent like [Waks Adams] both in palate and in mind—in my tiny kitchen was a major turning point for my vision for [Dog Bar Jim] and beyond,” Ben Gatchell, the owner of Dog Bar Jim, said. “It forged a bustling two-way street of ideas. It also founded one of my favorite friendships that I have today.”
If the theme of Waks Adams’ menus are bound by anything other than whimsy and serendipity, it would be locality. She purchased the beef for the Pho Shizzle from the family-owned Topsham butcher shop L&P Bisson & Sons, the vegetables from several local farms at the Brunswick’s Winter Farmers Market and the baguettes from Hootenanny Bread (which can be found at local farmers markets including the Brunswick Winter Market).
As the weather improves, Waks Adams hopes to transition Willie and Chet’s from pre-ordered pickups back to live orders, in part because it will increase the community mingling that occurs outside her kitchen.
Willie and Chet’s will return on Wednesday, February 23 and every second Wednesday at Iris Eats. The menu, based around the theme “I lived in Seattle for a while in the ’90s,” will include a black garlic teriyaki chicken sandwich and Mac & Kimcheese. Preorders can be made on Willie and Chet’s website.