There is a reason some places reach icon status. And it has nothing to do with Google algorithms or Facebook boosts. Often it has less to do with what’s on the menu than the people behind it.
On Bailey Island the icon is Cook’s Lobster House.
You can’t get fresher crustaceans in the state than here. The busy wharf where a dozen lobstermen unload their catch all summer long is steps from the kitchen. With only two owners in 60 years, continuity is engrained in its mahogany interior. But this story is not about their culinary prowess or staying power, though it started out that way. Even during a busy work week, life sometimes hands you a gift wrapped in a seeming misfortune.
Last Friday while on assignment at Cook’s the story changed suddenly.
As manager Mary Coombs walked me around the wharf where ferries of tourists will soon dock in anticipation of boiled lobster dinners, I saw a perfect video … rustic restaurant located on a spit jutting into Garrison Cove, tides boiling through The Cribstone Bridge, painted signs “Cook’s” and “Lobster” … Boom! My camera flew through the air as my leg sunk to the knee in a hole in the dock. Ow!
Focused as I was, I didn’t see what was underfoot. But I did see my iPhone arc through the air and land “Splat,” four feet down in the icy water. Here’s where it gets good.
Coombs, a Bailey Island native who has worked at Cooks for 12 years, snapped to attention. After asking me if I was OK, she dashed around the wharf looking for a net to fish out my phone. Talk about a first responder.
The white-haired book keeper just showing up for work, jumped in to assist. Within two minutes Cook’s chef Dakota Brown, inside the bar planning a new wine and pan-seared scallop pairing, had caught wind of the situation. They quickly determined whose rowboat was free. Minutes later, the chef was paddling out to save my submerged waterlogged tech.
Still stunned, I watched the scene unfold from land. Armed with a rake and a hook, the chef tried to hoist up the phone. Wrong tools. Repeatedly Brown dipped his bare hands in the frigid water. They grew more and more pink. He shook off the frostbite and plunged them back in.
From land, Coombs and the bar manager encouraged him and handed him other props. A basket tied with a rope. A rock to weigh down the basket. Next came gloves.
They struggled and tried, and tried and struggled. It must have been 15 minutes later when he said “I’m going in.” I protested this wasn’t necessary. That my phone was likely dead on arrival mattered little. “Oh, I am getting this out,” assured the steely chef. “Just don’t mind if I strip down.”
Standing in boxer shorts on a cold, foggy day, he plunged without a second thought into the briny and shot up, convulsing like a chilled seal, with phone in hand. “Hurry up Mary” the others shouted as Coombs ran down the dock to cover the chef with a sleeping bag she culled from her car.
She handed me the phone, and said “Now we are putting it in rice.” A resourceful iPhone hack I thought. I left with my visuals and recorded interview slumbering in a bag of rice. It was a long shot and a long day.
Though I wasn’t able to restore the phone or photos, I gained something more important.
To be meshed with the community of a small fishing town, experience the communitarian nature of these people was a wonder. Though I had just met them an hour before, they acted as if my phone was their phone. My distress, their distress. They didn’t stop to contemplate the outcome, they dove right in to help.
What makes Cook’s thrive and survive is not the fish or the coleslaw, or even top reviews on Yelp. It’s the surety that all are in this together. It takes a high degree of teamwork to serve 180 pounds of lobster on a July day.
When Cook’s Lobster House opens for the 60th year on Thursday know that this is more than a dining stop. It embodies the spirit of this community and the best of Maine.