Interview with Coastal New England Rising Star Chef Evan Hennessey of Stages at One Washington – Dover, NH

by Meha Desai
April 2014

Meha Desai: How did you get your start in the industry and where have you worked professionally as a chef?
Evan Hennessey: I started cooking professionally when I was 20. I went to school at the University of Kentucky and I played lots of basketball and didn’t go to enough classes. After two years, they asked me not to come back and I needed a job. So, I got to cooking at a place I had a summer job at the year before. And there, I worked my way up through the ranks in the kitchen before finally going to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu at the Atlantic Culinary Academy. When time came to choose our internships, I chose 43 Degrees North. I ended up staying there for several years—starting as intern and ending up as executive chef. Then I left to open another restaurant, the Dunaway. During this time, I would use any down time or vacation time I had, to stage in places in New York and Chicago.

MD: Which kitchens did you stage in and what did you learn from them? Do you take stagiers in your kitchens now?                
EH: I spent a lot of time staging in New York and Chicago. I spent time at Trio, Per Se, Café Boulud, Aureole, and in Boston at Clio. Per Se and Trio were two of my favorites. I learned how to build flavors and how to cook correctly. I also learned the family element of being in a kitchen—how everyone is key. At the end of service, everyone would sit and talk about their day and what worked and what went wrong. This is now part of my philosophy here [at Stages]. We do that everyday. We have more of a corporate management style.

We take a lot of stagiers in our kitchens. It’s a great way to learn and meet people in the industry.

MD: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?                                          
EH: Absolutely. Without a doubt. It teaches you how to be professional and key elements of technique. It teaches you to show up on time and it’s a great resource. You have access to so much! Whether its cooking, interning, or even just reading. But its like being in a kitchen—you get out of it what you put in to it. In the long run though, it helps you to grow faster. We hire people both with and without culinary degrees, but for me it’s good to see a degree. It shows a certain amount of commitment.

MD: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?                        
EH: Grant Achatz. I got to cook right next to him! The way he conducted himself, spoke volumes to me. The way he was as a leader, his entire kitchen philosophy. He taught me a lot. I’ve tried to adopt a lot of his cooking philosophy in my kitchens. Also, Richard Rosendale. His training regiment, intensity, focus, and dedication really inspired me when I was preparing for the Vitamix Challenge at ICC 2013. While at ICC, I finally got to meet him! And it was incredible. We are still in touch. He’s been very kind and he’s been teacher to me now.

MD: What question gives you the most insight into a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen?
EH: I like to ask them where have they’ve traveled and what their favorite place is. It helps me to see what sparks interest, if they’re ready to go back somewhere. It also helps to see them light up, and that’s the passion I want. You should want to come back in here. We can teach you how to cook, but the passion has to come from you.

MD: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?                                    
EH: There’s a lot of commercial and modern cooking out there. And there’s a lot of celebrity status for chefs. People these days skip the classical training and techniques to get to the fancy modern cuisine. I say put down the tweezers and get the basics right. You have to learn how to cook food before you can manipulate food.

MD: What ingredient do you think is underappreciated or under utilized?           
EH: Salt.

MD: What are some of your favorite flavor combinations?                                                    
EH: These days we’re using a lot of herbs and salt in desserts.

MD: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?                                                               
EH: We can’t do without spoons in our kitchen, but machine wise I would have to say our Cryovac. We’ve learnt how to do a lot of things with it, like pickling and preserving, so it’s really important!

MD: What are your favorite cookbooks?                                                                                 
EH: Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras, Under Pressure by Thomas Keller, Alinea by Grant Achatz

MD: What is “American Cuisine?”                                                                                          
EH:
American Cuisine is an evolving trend. It has gone from comfort food to hyper regional. What we do is a sort of modern New England cuisine. We source regionally but we use modern techniques. People like Sean Brock are diversifying the American tag and regionalizing it. That’s great. We have so much here—Mediterranean, Italian, Asian—everything gets clubbed as American. I’m a fan of regionalizing and paying attention to what’s important to different parts.

MD: Where do you like to go for culinary travel?                                                                     
EH: France. My wife and I traveled to the Loire Valley and Paris seven to eight years ago. I saw huge pride in their culture and it really inspired me. Seeing that pride and dedication invigorates and inspires you. It makes you want to do more and be more.

MD: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry?                                     
EH: The Farm to table idea. It trended, evolved, then trended again. It’s in its nth evolution now. So many farms are opening up, close to us. It’s difficult to be seasonal, but a resourceful cook can make it happen. You prep for it—pickling and preserving beforehand. It was important in this region once and now it’s coming back.

MD: Who would you most like to cook for?                                                                            
EH: Julia Child. I would serve her a raw seafood dish, something from New Hampshire waters. It would be simple and honest and I think she would appreciate that.

MD: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?                                           
EH: I’d be an animator for Disney or I’d be working with animals.

MD: What is success?                                                                                                                  
EH: I want to take a community as small as this one and push it on to the national level. I would love to make people aware that we’re here as a culinary community to be taken seriously. I want another restaurant, not too soon, but eventually. And I would love to diversify my culinary projects—have a bistro, a high-end concept, and so on.