Khristine and Zac Leeman plan to open Sundrenched in the former Morse’s Cribstone Grill in mid-May. (BILL SNELLINGS PHOTO)

Zac Leeman is coming full circle.

As a 13-year-old, he washed dishes in the iconic restaurant at the Bailey Island end of the Cribstone Bridge.

Fast forward 25 years and Zac, with a couple of decades of culinary experience under his toque, is returning to the same Bailey Island restaurant where he worked as a kid. This time, he and his wife, Khristine, will be running the place.

The Leemans plan to open Sundrenched in mid-May. Most folks, though, will call it “Cribstone” or “Crib,” said Zac. For 11 years, Kathy and Sheldon Morse managed the restaurant that has been around for decades. Morse’s Cribstone Grill closed permanently last August.

“Zac brings some really unique skill sets and we’re excited to help a local native come back,” said Realtor Rob Williams, who has owned the building for 14 years. “I used to work for (Zac’s) great-grandfather in high school as a scuba diver doing some anchor and propeller work.”

Williams, who also owns Harpswell Property Management, said the restaurant has been around for at least 60 years.

At 38, Zac is fulfilling a chef’s dream — to return to his hometown and open a restaurant of his own. He’ll be in the kitchen and Khristine will be in the front of the house, greeting guests and making them feel welcome.

Gastronomy is in the couple’s blood. Zac climbed the culinary ladder in Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, South Carolina and St. Thomas. The Mt. Ararat High School graduate has been a cook, sous chef and executive chef, and has opened multiple restaurants for other people.

Khristine’s family owned a wine and cheese shop in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and she later managed multiple restaurants.

Sundrenched initially will be open five days a week through Oct. 10. There will be seating, including at the bar, but no table service. Customers can order at the window. The menu is a work in progress, but “there will be lots of classics and something for everyone,” said Zac. Once licenses are obtained, wine, beer and mixed drinks will be available.

“I’m really excited,” Zac said. “These are my stomping grounds.”

The Leeman family’s roots go back at least four generations on Bailey and Orr’s islands. Zac’s great-grandfather was Walter Alden Leeman, nicknamed “Dumpy.” Zac’s grandfather and father share the same name but go by “Aldie.”

“Our goal is to feed the tourists and locals alike,” said Zac. He’ll be off to a good start. His parents live across the street from Island Candy Company on Orr’s Island. His grandmother lives in Brunswick and there are plenty of other relatives close by.

Zac attended Johnson & Wales University’s culinary arts program in Providence, Rhode Island. His first real foray in the kitchen was at Colorado’s Snowmass ski resort; he took a chairlift to work from a condo on the slopes.

Zac returned to Maine and for several years was a cook and corporate trainer for Applebee’s in Brunswick. In 2006, he moved to Minnesota as sous chef for the upscale W.A. Frost and Company in Saint Paul.

“I didn’t think the chef I was working for was ever going to leave and I wanted to be an executive chef and see if I was made to be an executive chef,” he said.

He eventually moved on and launched Tavern 4&5 for the Nova Restaurant Group in Eden Prairie, a dozen miles southwest of Minneapolis.

“It was the first time I had ever opened a restaurant,” said Zac, who was also the executive chef. His signature side dish? His own version of Tater Tots. These weren’t your frozen Ore-Ida potatoes from the grocery store. His taters were homemade daily, and by the time he left the restaurant, he had made “miles” of the popular menu item.

“I don’t think I’ll ever make Tater Tots again,” he said with a laugh. “It was a huge undertaking because the demand was so high.” But never say never, and Zac said maybe he’d make them as a special at Sundrenched.

Restaurant workers often keep an eye out for new challenges and it was no different for the Leemans. One November the couple vacationed in St. Thomas. Three months later, Zac was hired as executive chef of Oceana Restaurant & Bistro and Grande Cru in Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Khristine later joined him and worked for the same company.

But even a tropical paradise can get old. “I was running three restaurants at one time. I had no beach time, no family time,” said Zac. “I had nothing except work. It was time to move on.”

Khristine wanted to give the Charleston, South Carolina, area a look, so they moved back to the mainland and Zac took charge of the kitchen at Cantina 76 on Kiawah Island, some 25 miles from Charleston. The couple stayed there for nearly two years.

The goal of having their own restaurant kept nagging at them. But where?

Khristine didn’t want to go back to Minnesota. “After living around the ocean, I can never be landlocked again,” she said. “I need the sea air and sky. Minnesota is beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but never again.”

Maine, where the couple often vacationed, beckoned. They headed north, trading palm trees for pine trees. They worked briefly and then the pandemic hit.

Zac has been commercial fishing with his dad on the 100-foot trawler Francis Dawn and counting the days until he and his wife’s dream of running their own restaurant comes true.

This time the couple plans to stick around Harpswell — at least for a while.

Connie Sage Conner is a retired editor of The Virginian-Pilot. A Harpswell resident, she serves on the Harpswell News Board of Directors.