Rob Evans is Beard's Best Northeast Chef
Big news for Maine food lovers. Rob Evans, chef and owner of Hugo’s in Portland, Maine, won the highly coveted James Beard Award last night for Best Chef: Northeast. Evans was competing against some heavy hitters – Maine’s Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier of Arrows in Ogunquit; Michael Leviton of Lumiere and Marc Orfaly of Pigalle, both of Boston; and Tony Maws of Craigie on Maine in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Two years ago I was lucky enough to spend the days with Evans at Hugos for an article I wrote for Taste Magazine. After spending twelve hours in the kitchen besides Evans there was no doubt is my mind that Evans is one of the brightest, most talented chefs in the state, if not the country. He has a passion for food that translates to something truly original — which is hard to find in the restaurant world.
Here’s an excerpt from the piece I wrote for Taste about Evans: “It's a little before two o'clock on a cloudy Saturday afternoon, and the kitchen at Hugo's is starting to get busy. There is an air of controlled intensity in the room -- a sense of anticipation for the busy evening to come. Hugo's has a relatively small restaurant kitchen-two long, narrow rooms, and a separate area for the dishwasher and coffee station. There's a fourteen-burner stove and all sorts of cooking equipment-some fancy, but most look like tools you'd find in my kitchen. Evans hands me a white apron (now I look like I fit in), but the truth is, I'm trying to make myself invisible as chefs whirl around me, grabbing fish and hunks of meat from the refrigerator. I stand next to Evans, like a kid cozying up to the teacher on the first day of school, ask questions, take notes, and occasionally dodge a hot skillet.
There are six cooks working quietly at their stations: chopping, sautéing, pre-assembling sauces. First thing I learn: organization is the key to the flow in a restaurant kitchen.
Rob Evans is a big guy. At six-foot-three-inches, he towers over everyone else in the room. With his brown mustache and gentle smile, he seems strangely calm for a chef. In the past year, his kitchen has been awarded several prestigious accolades. Hanging over the doorway that separates the main part of the kitchen from the prep and dessert room is a skillet inscribed with the words "Best New Chef, 2004. Food & Wine Magazine." Last year, Evans won his first James Beard nomination for "Best Chef, Northeast" (he lost to Chef Frank McCleeland of L'Espalier in Boston, a ten-time nominee). All in all, things are going well for Evans and his small restaurant in Portland.
On this Saturday afternoon, the Hugo's staff is preparing for a sold-out house. Evans is working on one of his special "Chef's Tasting Menu": a pre-ordered dinner of some ten to fifteen courses prepared by the chef himself. This special menu is a venue where Evans can really show off and try new things.
He chops vegetables and fresh herbs as we chat about the restaurant business. All the while, he keeps an eye on every corner of the small kitchen. He reminds me of a mother who is able to cook dinner while still watching the kids behind her back.
"This is what we need in Portland, Maine," he explains as he takes short ribs out of the oven. Short ribs-a particularly fatty, flavorful cut of meat-are generally served on the bone and can make for messy eating. But Evans trims them off the bone and transforms them into perfect rectangular shapes. He loves taking familiar foods and presenting them in unfamiliar shapes, paired with unfamiliar flavors. "The Beard nomination and the Food & Wine award legitimize what we're doing."
Evans has a built a reputation by thinking outside the box, in a manner that the press like to call "innovative." At Hugo's, I've eaten deep-fried caperberries, foie gras ice cream, and a pepper-flecked "ice cream cone" filled with a savory buffalo ricotta cheese and cherry preserves. For a special tasting menu, Evans has served a cod milt (fish semen) chowder.
"Yeah, we do weird food here, but ‘weird' is a matter of opinion," he says. "I don't go out of my way to shock diners. Cod cheeks are indigenous to Maine and are peasant food to me. Pork belly is weird for some people, but these are traditional flavors. If it's weird and I think it's delicious, I'll put it on the menu. I'm not posturing to be weird. I feel grounded as a chef."
Congratulations to Rob Evans and his wife, Nancy, and all the staff at Hugo’s.
Hugo’s, 88 Middle Street, Portland, Maine; 207.774.8538; www.hugos.net.