Chef Rob Evans: Artist in Residence
Rob Evans, the highly regarded James Beard award winning Portland chef, dared to be different in a city where conventional tastes dictated otherwise when he bought a quirky eatery known as Hugo’s in 2000 and summarily turned it into an unabashed citadel of culinary invention.
“Pork belly,” Evans said to me as we sat down at a local café over coffee recently, wasn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue then--at least not for New Englanders. But it has figured prominently on the menu of this odd little corner restaurant that he and his wife Nancy Pugh started on the proverbial shoestring budget way back at the turn of the new century.
While the interior accoutrements were at first modest indeed the food was always luxurious.
“Some of my best customers have been coming weekly ever since,” Evans said.
Fast forward 12 years later and Evans dares to be different again. Call it a changing of the guard—for he has tipped his chef’s toque to his sous chef Andrew Taylor who purchased the restaurant from Evans. While Taylor will leave Hugo's as is, he plans on opening an Oyster Bar in the space next door.
Taylor has been the chef de cuisine for over three years, still under Evan’s watchful eye but, “He basically ran the show as I began to step back,” Evans revealed.
After all his hard work why would Evans consider such a change?
“After working 70 to 80 hours a week bent over a stove, reinventing regional Maine ingredients, it was certainly a passion but I found I needed a different balance,” Evans confided.
That balance has meant returning, so to speak, to his roots, to farming his 82 acres in the Western Maine woods, where he plans on raising pigs and doing “the hobby farm thing,” he said.
In the meantime, he and wife Nancy will be tending to their highly successful and popular Duckfat restaurant, which continues to delight its devoted patrons with those extraordinary Belgium fries that sizzle deliciously in gallons of duck fat--fare fit for the gods.
Ultimately he would like to open up another restaurant that would be totally different from what he’s done.
“It would be more like a New England style pub,” he mused, “a seasonal place serving local food very separate from any kind of pretention,” Evans said.
Evans acknowledges my comparison but there was a look in his eye that definitely said, “I’ll be different.”
His vision, though, centers around a restaurant of more simplistic themes like sustainability, Maine inspired ingredients and seasonality, though one would easily imagine that whatever he does it will be with inimitable style and finesse.
His plans for Duckfat are manifold, too. He talked about expansion, about making it totally a sustainable type of operation—a restaurant that goes completely green.
Duckfat at its most elemental is a sandwich shop, a place for soup, Panini, salads, fries, charcuterie, shakes, drinks and the passing sweet. That said, it’s all so very fine--a vital core in Maine’s ever-evolving gastronomic universe where everything prepared there is a work of art, loaded with nuance and flavor.
The small café-style space stays busy from midday to the late evening hours because it’s so appealing. My recent lunch there couldn’t have been better or simpler. I started with a cup of tomato fennel soup that was beautifully presented; looking like a surreal painting laced with swirls of dark green fennel puree skimming its tomato-orange surface. Every element was sharply distinct—dramatic flavors, intense, bracingly on point. The salad wasn’t merely a bowl of leaves and lettuces but rather a local harvest licked by a minimalist tingle of lemon vinaigrette, sunflower seeds and pickled vegetables.
Only time will reveal what’s next for Duckfat and Rob and Nancy Evans. But in the meantime Portland’s genius chef is still very much in residence and we’ll take what he gives us.
Next up: Andrew Taylor, the chef-proprietor of Hugo’s and the future Oyster Bar that is now in the works.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinions. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org