Rob Evans, with his wife, Nancy Pugh, is the chef-owner of Hugo’s and Duck Fat restaurants in Portland, Maine.
Samantha Hoyt Lindgren: How did you start cooking?
Rob Evans: I went to trade school to be an electrician and did that for six months, but I was completely bored. One day I was walking by a restaurant in Southboro, Massachusetts, where I had washed dishes and bussed when I was younger. The staff were out back, hanging out, and they asked me what I was doing. I said, I’m doing electrical but looking for something else, and they said, “Hey, you want to cook for a while? We’ll teach you to cook.” It was your typical American Italian restaurant with veal parm, steaks, chops, and fried seafood. Two Italians owned it and, now that I look back, it was a good place to be. We were doing stocks, all our own sauces, cleaning our own fish, chowders, everything was from scratch. I was there for four years.
SHL: What position did you start in?
RE: Fry cook, working the fryolator.
SHL: How many times did you burn yourself?
RE: Lots of bad burns—I think I did the most physical damage to myself there. It was a crazy place. From frozen road kill in the freezer sent out to people who pissed them off, to getting drunk and unloading a gun into a customer’s car. Lots of alcohol. You were allowed to drink as soon as you walked in the door at 10 a.m., all day long. Unless you couldn’t work and drink, and then you were cut off from drinking. But they didn’t care as long as the job was done. My mom always hated that place. She thought it was a bad influence, but it turned me on. I loved the multitasking, it was different every day. I loved that it was always changing, high energy—there was no clock-watching. Two things kept me there: the crazy dysfunction of the atmosphere, and eating.
RE: Eating. I could eat prime rib all day. You could just eat whatever. It was very novel for me at that age. I could eat more then than I can now.
SHL: After a few years you ended up on cruise ships. How did that happen?
RE: I found out it wasn’t that difficult to get onto cruise ships. Housing and insurance were included in the job, so all your money got put in the bank. It was an opportunity to save money. When I got on a ship I discovered there were chefs from all over—Europe, Southeast Asia. A cruise ship is basically a hotel on the ocean. I got my foundation there, working with classical food. Also, I loved the fact that there was teamwork on the ship.
SHL: What other positions did you have?
RE: Saucier, head breakfast cook, assistant breakfast cook, pantry, grill. And then my last position was garde manger, one of the higher paying jobs. You did all the displays for the buffet, all the captain’s vip parties, hors d’oeuvres, ice carving, all that foundation work.
I told a little white lie to get that garde manger position. I told the union guy that I knew how to carve ice when I had never carved ice in my life. On the boat the sous chef liked my honesty and taught me everything he knew.
SHL: When did you go back to cooking on land?
RE: I came back East to Goose Cove Lodge in Stonington, Maine. I went for the chef position, but I was not qualified at all. I never went to school so I always took jobs to push myself, to get into something where it was a bit above me. I tell my guys the same thing: if you’re clean and you listen and you’ve got good knife skills, watch for a month, you’ll get the hang of it and fit right in. I didn’t get the job. The owner hired an older guy, but he had a heart attack, so she called me in a panic a week before they opened.
My first chef position really hooked me on cooking. I couldn’t stop thinking about food. Being able to immerse yourself in something like that was really what hooked me. I could feel this momentum building up. There was food, food, food talk all the time, and I just loved it.
At Goose Cove we did harvest meals every fall. I had no idea what a tasting menu was, but we did these harvest meals. They were one seating, and I loved them. This is what I’m cooking, you guys come in and I feed you. The mood was great; everyone was sharing the same flavors. There was more room creatively because you had to consider the dynamics of service. I met a woman at one of these dinners who referred me to The Inn at Little Washington. Two weeks later I got an invitation to come down for a tryout. I got the job, packed up, and moved everything down to The Inn. At seven dollars an hour, I thought I finally had a chef’s wage, I was making money. After a year there I started thinking about the French Laundry. I went to [chef] Patrick [O’Connell] and told him that’s where I wanted to go. He wrote me a letter of recommendation, which he normally doesn’t do, and made a call for me. Before I left, Patrick told me, “Thomas [Keller] does things different out there.”
Above: Rob Evans in the kitchen at Hugo’s. Photograph by Russell French © 2006
SHL: Was Patrick O’Connell a big influence on you?
RE: Huge. It was like finishing school, in a sense. I really felt comfortable with food at that point or I wouldn’t have gone for the Laundry job. The Laundry gave me the thumbs up to come for a tryout. No guarantees, but I packed up everything and moved to California. Thomas interviewed me himself. He came out and said, “So, I haven’t had the best luck with Inn at Little Washington hires, what makes you different?” But he gave me a tryout and I got the job, and that was my last job cooking for someone else.
SHL: What position did you work at the Laundry?
RE: I was commis most of the time, and I was moving up to the line. I was thirty-six at this point, and that’s when cooks start doing the math. How much longer am I going to do this? Am I going to be an insurance salesman? Am I going to be a line cook? Am I going to open up my own restaurant? What am I going to do with this cooking career? An opportunity came up in New Hampshire to run an inn. I was a nervous wreck about giving my notice to Thomas—I hadn’t even been there a year. But when he heard I was going to open up my own thing, he gave me his blessing.
SHL: So you moved back East …
RE: That gig fell through, but I had fallen in love with Maine through Stonington, and I knew I wanted to live here. Me and Nancy were basically living out of the back of the truck—we’ve got a mattress, we travel to friends’ houses, and we camp. Trying to figure out what’s our next move. We came up to Portland to look for an apartment and ran into Johnny, my friend who owned [the original] Hugo’s. I had worked for him seasonally, in between cruise-ship gigs. We were talking, told him our situation, and he asked, “Do you want to buy Hugo’s?” I worked three months for Johnny. We worked out financing through him and the bank, borrowed a few thousand from my mom, a few thousand from Nancy’s mom, and got the keys to a restaurant. September of 2000, we got the keys, and there’s absolutely zero money in the bank, nothing.
SHL: And now you’ve been named Best Chef Northeast by the James Beard Foundation!
RE: Which is great, but we haven’t really had the time to revel in the win. We are always looking at what is not working with the business, trying to fix things that need tweaking. We know it’s a big deal to win this award, but the past ten years have passed in a nanosecond so we are still moving forward. Winning doesn’t change who we are, doesn’t make us super-polished. It adds more pressure. Our goal is to make Hugo’s accessible to all demographics. When the summer is over we will reflect on what’s happened and what it means for us.
SHL: What part of your menu turns you on the most?
RE: The tastings. I like cooking everything, but I think the orchestration of tasting menus is what I most get jazzed up about. It’s like writing music, if I can use that analogy: They are like music, meaning they start light, they can have lows, highs, contrasts. With our tastings, people don’t see a menu, so they trust us. Our customers seem to love it; there’s a certain What’s going to be next?
SHL: So the person who orders the tasting menu is your favorite diner?
RE: Yeah. I have some regulars, like Herman. Herman’s a single guy, ex-power lifter from Belgium. He eats alone, because he feels that conversation distracts from eating. True foodie. He gives me projects. One was all egg, one was the parts of a cow, one was all pig, one was all umami, one was all offal. He just got back from Singapore, where he said he enjoyed rubber textures, like cartilage. Everything is boiled over there, nothing’s crisp. And I’m a crispy freak, I love crispy things, and he knows I do. So he thinks this will be a good challenge for me.
SHL: You mean he asks you to make a particular menu just for him?
RE: Yeah, he’ll come in to the bar and we’ll talk about it. Next Friday he’s coming in for what we’re calling Herman’s rubber menu. It’s a blast. If I had a dining room full of Hermans I would throw the menu in the trash, and we’d all have a good time.
SHL: This brings me round to molecular gastronomy. What do you think of that term?
RE: Everything’s molecular if you really think about it. I’ve played around with it and was fortunate to get an early briefing from Grant [Achatz]. I worked with Grant at the Laundry. He was sous chef while I was there. He was twenty-three or twenty-four and just amazing. Working like he’d been cooking for forty years, no wasted movements, smooth, confident, paced, just what you would find in a seasoned chef. He ended up doing a stage at El Bulli that changed his whole vision and food, and he eventually opened Alinea.
The big thing that I think people are missing when they talk about molecular gastronomy is the point of view it’s coming from. It’s a study of food. It’s looking at food and saying, okay, what can we do with that? Breaking boundaries and creatively going from where food was here to … wow!
SHL: So for you molecular gastronomy is technique?
RE: Yes, yes. Grant said it once: “They’re not making any new food, it’s all there, we all know what it is, what we have left is technique.” Fresh, local ingredients, really quality ingredients, excite me, but I really like technique. You know, finding new techniques, every now and then we discover one on our own.
SHL: What term would you use to describe the way you cook?
RE: I would say “New American Cuisine.” Hugo’s is definitely a seasonal restaurant, that’s why we like cooking up here. Maine and New England have given us all we need, at least 80 percent of our sources. It keeps getting higher.
Thirty years ago you had to get someone from Europe to run a five-star restaurant in the city, or you had to go to Europe to learn. In the last twenty years or so, with the farmers and with great American chefs, there’s plenty of talent. Farmers and fisherman are fueling it, and there’s a market for free-range this, organic that, and naturally raised this, so all of it’s working together.
SHL: How do you source your ingredients?
RE: To begin with, the farmer’s market. We now have people growing stuff for us specifically. We’re one of four restaurants New Auburn Organic Farm in York County deals with. They’re experimenting with raising truffles, bay trees, and figs. Outside of that we rely on Crown of Maine from Aroostook County and the folks we know through the farmer’s market. We also have a fisherman bringing us whelks.
He saw us use them on [The Travel Channel’s] Bizarre Foods. He said they pick them off traps and throw them back in the water since no one wants them. But then he saw we were using them, so he brought us a bucket.
SHL: You have a second restaurant, Duck Fat. How did that come about?
RE: Two things brought about Duck Fat. First, we got the Food & Wine award in ′04 (Top Ten Best Chefs) and our business just took off, and we made money. That’s the first and last time we made money …
Second, we had taken a trip to Europe, and while we were in Amsterdam we had these fries. Nancy and I, we were eating them and thinking, Wouldn’t this be cool in Portland? We ended up opening a shop that served the little street foods we enjoyed in Europe: panini, Belgian fries, gelato. The Duck Fat French fries were an amuse bouche at Hugo’s. People were just flipping out over them.
SHL: So the restaurant’s doing well?
RE: Yes, it’s doing well—that’s our nest egg, Duck Fat. We look at doing a few more of those and hopefully that will allow me to open up my hobby restaurant. All tasting menus, just twenty seats. I’d love to sell chairs. Instead of buying food, the chair will cost you two hundred dollars for three hours. Along with the chair comes three hours of food.
SHL: Do you enjoy eating out?
RE: I often joke I will enjoy any meal as long as there’s salt on the table. When I’m out spending money at a restaurant, I keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to be the chef who’s tearing a meal apart. The real story comes out on the ride home. I wish I could bug my customers’ cars, because then I would really find out what they weren’t happy with. Of course, when I’m over at someone else’s house and they’re cooking for me, I’m always happy.
SHL: What do your parents think about what you’re doing?
RE: Oh, they’re thrilled. For the first ten years my Mom asked, “When are you going to get a real job, you were so creative as a kid?” And then, when I went to Goose Cove, that’s when she started to say, “Wow, this might be a legitimate career choice.” Now they are ecstatic, I own my own business, sometimes they get to see me on tv or in a magazine, and that just thrills them to death. And I ended up in New England, so I know they are happy about that.