A chef who helped revolutionize the Portland food scene has his eye on Burlington
There’s the kind of restaurant that serves ravioli stuffed with monkfish and oxtail accompanied by pickled kumquat, and there’s the kind of restaurant that serves strawberry milkshakes and fries in paper cones. Chef Rob Evans, 46, and his wife, Nancy Pugh, own one of each. The couple purchased Hugo’s, their upscale flagship eatery in Portland, Maine, in 2000. In 2005, they also began serving panini, salads and fries at Duckfat — which features poutine made from frites crisped in the eponymous poultry grease.
In the wake of several awards — Food & Wine magazine named Evans one of 10 “Best New Chefs” in 2004, and last year he garnered a James Beard Foundation award for “Best Chef: Northeast” — both eateries are booming. Although Evans and Pugh are currently focused on building a home on 82 acres in Limington, they plan to open several more branches of Duckfat over the next few years. One of them, Evans hopes, will be in Burlington.
That may be one reason he agreed to come to town and participate in a panel discussion during Vermont Restaurant Week. Along with Essex, N.Y., farmer and author Kristin Kimball and Vermont authors Jeff Roberts and Rowan Jacobsen, Evans will field questions about how American foodways are changing in the 21st century, and Vermont’s role in the process.
When he graduated from high school in Southborough, Mass., Evans never expected to become an award-winning chef and an authority on farm-to-table dining. In fact, he was studying to be an electrician. But after six months, he admits, “It just really bored me.” One day, Evans meandered past a restaurant where he’d washed dishes as a youngster. He told the staffers about his trade school ennui, and they offered him a cooking gig. “It fit my personality perfectly,” he recalls. “I enjoyed the counterculture aspect of it: working odd hours, working weekends, the camaraderie.”
Soon Evans learned how to make simple Italian food from scratch. “It was a really different scene back then,” he says. “There were Italian restaurants and American restaurants. Fine dining in my family was going out for Chinese food.”
It wasn’t until he scored a job cooking on cruise ships in Hawaii that Evans started to see chopping and sautéing as a potential career. “It was the creative process that really sucked me in,” he says. “I [developed a] focus on becoming an accomplished chef and owning a restaurant someday.”
His big break came during a stint as head chef at a restaurant in rural Deer Isle, Maine. An enthusiastic customer wrote him a letter of reference for Virginia’s The Inn at Little Washington, and Evans “started there in garde manger and worked my way up through the kitchen,” he says. At the time, the Inn was the only restaurant in the country to hold five-star awards for both dining and lodgings.
Evans’ next big move was to try for a position at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., widely recognized as one of the greatest restaurants in the world. He packed up and moved to the West Coast even though, as he puts it, “They didn’t guarantee me a job; they guaranteed me a tryout.”
Happily, he got the job and ended up working alongside wunderkind Grant Achatz, now owner of Chicago’s Alinea. “I don’t like to throw around the word ‘genius’ too much, but if it ever applies in this business, it applies to him,” Evans says.
Achatz, who was in his mid-twenties when he became the sous chef at the French Laundry, is famous for what some people call “molecular gastronomy.” Evans prefers “avant-garde cuisine.” When Achatz moved to Illinois to work at renowned restaurant Trio, Evans paid him a visit, and they spent a week playing with food. “I’ve had a few ‘a-ha’ moments in my career … one was my week with Grant,” Evans says. “His approach blew my mind. It’s amazing how vast [cuisine] can be with imagination.”
Evans isn’t the type of chef who suspends food in front of diners on bobbing wires or places plates on pillows that exude herb-scented air. But he likes to apply touches of the avant-garde to the food at Hugo’s. “Outside of what people call chemicals — baking soda’s a chemical, if you really think about it — [avant-garde cuisine] is a point of view, a playfulness,” he suggests.
When he and Pugh purchased Hugo’s in 2000, Evans says, Mainers weren’t used to haute cuisine. “We came in at a time when food was different. Portions were huge. People didn’t really understand [what we were doing],” he recalls. “We were doing slightly edgy food, but not too edgy.” When they opened, he says, “Pork belly was [considered] weird. You had to call it ‘fresh bacon.’”
The pair started with no working capital, but they had a strong focus on food quality and service. Hugo’s scraped by until the 2004 award from Food & Wine validated Evans’ efforts. “We did really well after that,” he says. “People realized we were doing something right.”
The upsurge in business allowed Evans and Pugh to open Duckfat right across the street. After a trip through Europe, they had a hankering for perfect French fries and panini. “We thought about opening something that had a crispy hot sandwich. We couldn’t find a good sandwich in town,” says Evans.
The name was Pugh’s idea, and Evans wasn’t a fan at first: “To me, [duck fat] is something on your prep list,” he says with a laugh. “But in hindsight, it’s been a great name. People laugh about it; they’re grossed out by it, but there’s honesty in that there’s ‘fat’ in it. You come in and indulge.”
Although the pair plans to reuse the Duckfat name for future restaurants, they may offer different menus at each iteration. One might be a simple fry shack that also serves draft beer, another a butcher shop that offers housemade charcuterie. “[Restaurateurs] keep moving forward,” Evans explains. “We evolve.”
There’s been plenty of growth at Hugo’s, too. “Ten years later, we’re really happy with the space and what the food has evolved to,” Evans says. His national profile gives him a chance to put funky fare on the menu, such as pig’s-tail “jalapeño poppers” and a cod’s-head trio of cheek, tempura tongues and poached throats.
Like many of the ingredients Evans uses, the cod is seasonal and local. “I don’t want to talk about how cheap that dish is,” he remarks. “We get those heads for almost nothing, but the labor cost is huge. Nothing hits the trash. We [also] have salmon on our menu, and we dashi-cure the belly for our tasting; the skins we dry out and puff for cracklings; we make stock from the bones.”
Hugo’s isn’t inexpensive, but Evans makes it an uncommon dining experience by applying advanced techniques to what he calls “wholesome ingredients” rather than carting in opulent stuff. “We don’t have caviar and things like that,” he says. “There’s something pretentious about shipping chanterelles from Turkey because you want chanterelles on the menu. What I like about chanterelles is that they’re there for a few weeks, and then they’re gone.”
Unlike the season’s crop of wildcrafted mushrooms, Hugo’s and Duckfat have staying power. Since Evans won the James Beard award last year, both restaurants have been busier than ever, even in inclement weather. “It has definitely transformed our business,” he says. “We are very pessimistic about our winters up here; everybody jumps into survival mode.” But in 2009, “we had an amazing summer and an exceptionally strong fall, and the winter was our best winter yet.”
Although Evans and Pugh have a long way to go before they finish building their house and get back to constructing their restaurant empire, Vermonters can be comforted by the fact that B-town looms big on the couple’s radar. Last May, while in town to see Ray LaMontagne, they checked out the old Smokejacks spot.
“It was a perfect location,” Evans admits. The pair agreed they weren’t quite ready to jump into something new. Still, who knows what may happen next time they come to town?