When the trees shed their leaves and the days grow short, we yearn for a chance to slow the pace of our hectic lives. But for most of us, taking it easy is not an option. Especially during the holiday season. According to Mike Jerome, one of the owners of a little soup shop in Portland called Kamasouptra, that’s what makes the act of eating a bowl of hot, steamy soup so appealing.
“People don’t enjoy their food the way they should. We’re on the run all the time, eating just to fuel up,” says Jerome. “Because of the coordination of bringing a spoon from the bowl to your mouth, you have to slow down.”
Kamasouptra is the brainchild of Jerome and his friend Drew Kinney. They moved to Portland after successful stints as chefs in a 5-star restaurant, the Driskill Hotel in Austin Texas. The idea to concentrate on soup came from their time working at a popular eatery called The Soup Peddler in Austin. They figured if people would buy soup when it was 95 degrees in Texas, there was no reason a soup shop couldn’t succeed in Portland. Jerome and Kinney invited Jerome’s sister, Sarah Jerome, to become partners with them and be in charge of the financial side of the business.
“We came here thinking we’d make soup and bake bread,” says Jerome, an earnest-looking 29-year-old with only the trace of an accent to hint at his growing up years in Scotland. “We just thought this town needed soup. It’s the dream come to fruition.”
At first, Jerome and Kinney made their soups in big batches and sold them to restaurants, but they decided last April to open the rustic-looking food stand on the second floor of the Portland Public Market to retail customers. After kind of a quiet summer, business has picked up to the point that there are often lines of people waiting patiently to order from the nine daily soup choices written in chalk on the board in front of the stand.
“I’m a huge fan of Kamasouptra. It’s a perfect lunch,” says Stacey Vaughan of Portland. She’s a regular customer and one of Kamasouptra’s 375 fans on Facebook. “I love their wide selection of unique soups. Butternut squash maple is my favorite. Plus you get this wonderful chewy roll as the perfect dipping companion.”
Joe Dunbar, who works in downtown Portland, is also a regular customer and he recommends Kamasouptra to anyone looking for a “yummo” lunch. Two of his favorite flavors are the beer and cheddar soup, and the grilled cheese and tomato soup soup.
“But each flavor has something different and unique to offer,” he says. “So you can never go wrong there.”
On one recent day, customers’ choices included both the beer and cheddar and the grilled cheese and tomato soups, along with cock a leekie soup, maple-roasted butternut squash soup (smooth and creamy with a slight kick to it), roasted zucchini soup, and the signature Kamasouptra chili. A bowl of soup costs $5.50 and comes with a huge roll made from Portland Pie pizza dough. Eight of the nine soups on this particular day were either vegan or vegetarian and four were also gluten-free. The vegetarian chili, among the most popular, consists of black turtle and red kidney beans, corn, roasted red peppers, pablano and jalapeno peppers, cumin, chili, fresh lime, and cilantro. It sits on the stove for a good 6-8 hours, Jerome says, before it’s ready to be served.
“There’s a lot going on with that soup,” says Jerome as he takes a break from stirring the giant pot that provides a side show of sorts for customers. “Now it needs to mellow out.”
Speaking of mellow, Jerome may be as passionate about soup as Seinfeld’s infamous “Soup Nazi” was, but he is far from a fuhrer when it comes to his customers. The soup maker encourages dawdling, questions, and conversations about their soup. Kamasouptra even takes suggestions.
A laid-back style doesn’t mean Jerome and Kinney aren’t painstaking about their work. When they first moved to Portland, they would leave their day jobs and work all night cooking soup to deliver to their wholesale customers in the morning. Jerome and his wife just had a baby, but he still puts in 12-hour days. “I just love it,” he says.
While they enjoyed their time as chefs in major restaurants, they are happy to be concentrating all their time and energy on a small segment of their former lives. They buy fresh produce from the local farmers market every Wednesday in Monument Square and from farms such as Snells in Standish and Carlin’s Family Farm in Windham. Jerome is a fan of the book “The Exaltation of Soup,” and the author’s website, Soupson.com, which dispenses not only recipes but wisdom about the art of making and eating soup.
“In restaurants, soup is never the focus. It’s usually made from whatever is left over,” says Jerome. “Doing just soup means we’re focused on it.”
With winter upon us, Jerome says he, Kinney and his sister are actually a little nervous about keeping up with the demand for their soup that the weather will undoubtedly bring. The fact that they’ve been written up in the New York Times and that they came in second in the recent People’s Choice chowder contest for their clam chowder (wonderfully creamy without being too thick) have only added to the buzz about their soups.
“We’ve been bulking up orders and working a few extra hours,” says Jerome. They have plans to incorporate game meat from local hunters into their winter recipes, moose, venison, and maybe even a bear stew. “There’s no boundaries, no limits, to making soup. Your imagination is the only limit,” Jerome says.
But while they work to keep up with the growing demand, Kamasouptra’s goal is still a bowl of soup their customers can relax with.
“It’s a warm bowl in your hands on a cold day,” says Jerome. “It’s cozy.”