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Prison Kitchen Confidential

How the War on Drugs chewed up and spit out one of Maine’s best chefs

by | Jan 3, 2021

Rob Evans (top bunk), who later gained fame at Hugo’s and Duckfat, in federal prison in the mid-1990s with his pal, Dutch. photo/courtesy Evans

 

Rob Evans has earned a mountain of press for his culinary achievements over the past two decades. As chef and co-proprietor of Hugo’s, the fine-dining establishment in Portland’s East End, Evans was nominated three times for the James Beard Foundation Award covering eateries in the Northeastern United States, and won that coveted distinction in 2009. In 2004, Food & Wine named him one of the country’s Best New Chefs. In 2005, he and Nancy Pugh, his wife and business partner, opened Duckfat down the street from Hugo’s, and more accolades followed. Chef Rob is considered a prime mover of the restaurant renaissance that’s made Portland a world-renowned food destination.

Evans also competed three times on the Food Network show Chopped, and would be a Grand Champion had judge Geoffrey Zakarian not been so nitpicky about the integration of puffed amaranth into his Abalone & Serrano Ham Scallopini with Curry Leaf Egg Sauce and Button Mushrooms. Prior to taking the reins at Hugo’s in 2000, Evans worked and studied in the kitchens of some of the most heralded restaurants in America, including the Inn at Little Washington, in Virginia, and The French Laundry, in California’s Napa Valley.

But there’s one kitchen he cooked in that’s never been mentioned by all the food magazines and TV shows that have covered his career: the chow hall inside Federal Correctional Institution, Ray Brook, a medium-security prison near Lake Placid, New York.

In the mid-1990s, Evans was incarcerated at FCI Ray Brook for nearly two years on a felony drug conviction. The story of that experience could have been penned by Franz Kafka, the Bohemian novelist and short-story writer who chronicled the absurdly cruel ways the modern state punishes people.

The offense that landed Evans in federal prison was essentially a thought crime. In a letter to his then-girlfriend’s mother, who’d unexpectedly found herself in charge of a home marijuana grow-op in Dexter, a small town near Bangor, Evans had provided tips on how to cultivate weed indoors. Nowadays that info can be found in five seconds online, and even then, in the early ’90s, there were books and magazines, all legal to obtain, that contained the same advice.

Evans, who was living and working in Hawaii at the time, never set foot inside the grow-op, never sold any of the weed, and never expected to make a dime from the operation — which, in any event, failed to produce any actual bud. He was just trying to help his girlfriend’s mom navigate a situation that both he and her daughter considered a terrible mistake.

The federal agents, prosecutor and judge charged with waging the War on Drugs saw things differently. By their tortured logic, Evans was the mastermind of a plot to sell hundreds of pounds of pot. The fact he was half-a-world away from the crime scene the entire time was not a factor in his favor; it was the factor that made the case federal.

FBI agents pressured Evans to entrap old buddies from his days, years before, as a hobbyist ganja grower in Massachusetts, where he grew up in a town east of Worcester. When the agents suspected (correctly, actually) that he’d tipped off one of his pals, they threatened him with an additional charge, obstruction of justice*, that could have added several more years to his sentence. Meanwhile, his girlfriend’s mom was facing similar pressure to implicate Evans in exchange for a lighter sentence, which she did. The government confiscated her home and put her in prison anyway.

Inside FCI Ray Brook, Evans was thrust into an actual drug ring far more dangerous than the dime-bag scene he’d been part of in his early 20s. He witnessed the devastating toll this endless war has taken on American lives — young men imprisoned for decades according to “mandatory minimum” sentencing guidelines and statutes that wildly inflated the quantity of the illicit substances involved.

The authorities Evans encountered administered laws and rules in ways that were terrifyingly capricious. It was like facing a bully who’d draw back his fist and sometimes deliver a playful pinch on the cheek, other times a blow to the nose, but never the result one expected. Between the year and a half Evans spent in legal limbo awaiting prosecution and sentencing, the sentence itself and the probation that followed, over six years of his life were consumed by dread. The ordeal caused an anxiety disorder that’s taken additional years to overcome.

“I called it ‘waiting for the floor to drop out at any moment,’ because that’s what it felt like,” Evans said during an interview last month. Long after he’d attained success, the fear undermined his sense of security, and “after awhile, that wore on me. I looked into it and found out I had residual stuff from that whole experience that I ended up having to deal with later on.”

Evans and Pugh reached out to Mainer last fall to finally make this story public. Our full interview with Chef Rob, which is much too long to print in this month’s issue, is available to our subscribers this winter via patreon.com/mainernews. It’ll be posted to our website, mainernews.com, later this year, along with additional interviews with Evans about the evolution of Portland’s restaurant industry and one of his first jobs behind the line — an experience that he says makes Anthony Bourdain’s shocking memoir, Kitchen Confidential, read like a bedtime story.

Evans, who turned 57 last fall, said his time in the slammer “wasn’t something that I hid from people. I always thought it’s a nice piece of a story, with Hugo’s, but it wasn’t relevant. … We got a lot of press there at Hugo’s over the days, and it never came up. But it’s a piece of it.”

Hugo’s, under original owner Johnny Robinson, was one of the first proper chef jobs Evans got when he was released from a halfway house in Lawrence, Mass., in the summer of 1995. Goose Cove Lodge, a seasonal restaurant and vacation destination in Deer Isle (now known as Aragosta at Goose Cove), also plays a key role in Evans’ story, which doubles as the tale of how he fell in love with Maine.

Both establishments hired Evans despite his felony conviction. Now that he’s a boss, when Chef Rob meets a job applicant with one of those telltale gaps in their résumé, he readily opens up about his past. “If they did time, I would bring it up, we’d talk about it,” he said. “I think there’s always a connection there.”

Evans is coming forward now for two reasons: he wants the public to more fully appreciate how the drug war ruined lives in years past, and how it continues to crush people today. By speaking out, he hopes his story will further the movement for true drug-law reform, including an end to arrests for possession, the release of people currently incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses, and the expungement of drug convictions for those already released.

These criminal records punish ex-cons in many ways long after they’ve paid their debt to society. For example, the felony on Evans’ record didn’t derail his career, but that’s only because Pugh is part of the business. When the couple applied for a liquor license for Hugo’s, they had to state that Evans was a minority owner, rather than an equal partner, because Maine law prohibits ex-felons from being licensed to sell alcohol, a ban that remains in effect for life.

Any chef with a similar record who aspires to open their own place is effectively barred from operating a viable dine-in restaurant in Vacationland.

Rob Evans’ Maine friends in a photo they sent to him during his incarceration. Evans said the support of friends and family was crucial to his well-being in prison. photo/courtesy Evans

A Spoonful Weighs a Ton

In the early 1980s, small-scale home cultivation of marijuana really took off, thanks in large part to the magazine High Times, which printed tips and had a section in the back containing advertisements for seeds and equipment. Ed Rosenthal, a columnist for the magazine, wrote the Marijuana Grower’s Handbook, published in 1985, which was also hugely influential.

Like millions of other teens and young adults, Evans and one his friends, then in their early 20s, tried their hand at growing a few plants. His account of the precautions they had to take back then seems farcical in hindsight, because today their grow would be perfectly legal (provided they smoked it themselves). But at the time, obtaining the proper light bulb and decent seeds required spy-like stealth and cunning.

Their initial efforts were disappointing. “We didn’t know what the hell we were doing; everything was scraggly,” Evans recalled. They had one light on a single track in a room in his friend’s girlfriend’s house, “which was a no-no back then, to grow in your own house, because it could be confiscated,” he added. “But it was so small. We were just like, ‘No one’s gonna know. Scraggly plants, no harm done, what could they do? Are they gonna arrest me for failing at this?’”

The pair’s luck improved when they scored some seeds from Amsterdam via the now-legendary Sensi Seeds bank. “Instantaneously, we were professional growers. They all germinated,” said Evans. And the strains they grew — classics like Skunk #1, Skunk #2 and Northern Lights — were revelatory, producing buds with a smell and potency far beyond that of the dirt weed from California and Mexico more commonly available in the 1970s.

“It became like a hobby with me and my friends,” Evans recalled. “It was nothing like we were making revenue or had some empire going on. It was fun.

“But it was also illegal,” he added. “It sketched me out. I maybe did it for a couple years. I moved on from it, because it did make me kind of nervous.” His friend wanted to continue and establish a larger grow-op, but Evans bowed out, let his buddy keep all the equipment, and moved to Hawaii with his girlfriend from Maine. The young couple planned to buy some land on the Big Island and make a life there cooking on cruise ships and oil rigs.  

Then one day a letter arrived from his girlfriend’s mom. They were shocked to learn that she’d become romantically involved with Rob’s old pot-growing pal, and further outraged to find out he’d convinced her to set up a grow-op inside her home in Dexter. They pleaded with her to reconsider, but she was in love (and, also, married to someone else, which further complicated things in the years to come).

Not long afterward, Rob’s friend was approached by a man in a park in Boston who gave him some life-changing news: Jesus Christ is the savoir of the world and all who believe in Him shall have everlasting life, etc. His born-again buddy abruptly ended his sinful affair with the woman in Maine and left her with a grow-op she had no idea how to manage.

Rob had learned how to separate plants by sex and clone them back in Massachusetts, so he reluctantly sent her that fateful letter describing the process. For ease of calculation, he used the round number 100 to illustrate the amount of water and nutrients the plants should have.

His girlfriend’s mom, a woman we’ll call Elle, who was about 40 at the time, made the mistake of showing the grow-op to someone, who then told someone else, and suddenly Maine Drug Enforcement agents were at her door. They found the immature plants and the letter from Evans containing that round number.

To the feds, this arbitrary figure was hard proof that Evans intended to grow 100 plants. Each plant, even a tiny seedling, was considered under the law to have the potential to produce a kilo (2.2 pounds) of pot — a ridiculously large yield, especially for an amateur operation. So Evans was ultimately convicted of conspiring to sell 220 pounds of marijuana. Had he based his calculations on a scale of 50 plants, Evans thinks he would have served only half as much time behind bars. In the end, he was imprisoned for a purely hypothetical harvest; the actual number of pounds produced was the roundest numeral of all: 0.

As a first-time offender convicted of a non-violent crime, Evans expected he’d be sent to a minimum-security facility, basically a “camp.” FCI Ray Brook is not a camp. It’s technically a “medium security” prison, the place inmates in low-security facilities are sent when they misbehave, and to which violent prisoners locked in maximum-security institutions are returned if they behave themselves there.

Rob was assigned to share a cell with a short but muscular “alpha male” from South Boston, who was doing 25 years for armored-car robbery and ties to the Irish Republican Army. His brother and brother-in-law were also at FCI Ray Brook, and they were operating a drug ring out of Evans’ cell.

“He’s got weed, heroin — which is the drug of choice on the inside — cocaine being smuggled in,” Evans recalled. His cellmate was also “edgy as fuck … the most bad-ass dude I’ve ever freakin’ met.” And he had several good reasons not to trust Evans.  

“He’s asking me if I want to smoke [weed],” Evans said. “I’m not wanting to do any drugs. … Now he’s feeling sketchy ’cause I’m saying no. I had hair down to my back before I went into court, and I shaved it going into prison, so I had this cop look going on, too. He’s like, What is this guy? Is he a plant?

Evans declined to help his cellmate smuggle drugs in from the yard, and the story of how he’d ended up in prison — for writing a letter — seemed as bullshit to this tough guy from Southie as it did to Rob himself. He faced a crazy conundrum: it seemed the only way to survive his prison sentence for growing hypothetical weed would be to consume real drugs inside prison. (No spoilers here; the full interview reveals how he got out of that jam.)

Most of the other inmates Evans encountered were also doing serious time, including “lifers” convicted of murder and a former C.I.A. agent, a Greek convicted of selling secrets to the Turks, whom he befriended. The old spy would always say to him, “‘Evans, you’re a good kid. You don’t belong in here.’”

Rob certainly agreed. Early on, he went to his prison case manager to ask if he’d been sent there by mistake. He was informed that a “percentage” of non-violent first-offenders were assigned to FCI Ray Brook to do yard work and other tasks outside the gate.

“So I’m here to mow the lawn?” Evans asked, incredulous.

“Basically, yeah,” the case manager said.

Rob called his lawyer, who told him the transfer process would likely take at least two years, so he may as well stay there for the duration of his 25-month sentence. He earned enough “good time” to get out in 21 months, followed by four months in the halfway house and three years of probation, during which time he was prohibited from traveling outside Maine and subject to random drug testing, among other hassles large and small.    

The prison, which had about 1,000 inmates, was hyper-segregated, divided not only by race but, this being a federal facility, by city — “Baltimore, New York, L.A., they all had their crew,” Rob recalled. “Jamaican crew, China, Canadian.” Caucasians like Evans comprised a small minority of the population, about 9 percent. “As a white guy in America,” said Evans, “I had a better chance winning the lottery than ending up in federal prison.”

During the first few weeks inside, “I start connecting with people and seeing the disaster of that whole minimum-mandatory thing,” he said. “My crew was all the Deadheads, and there were a lot of kids in there for acid. Twenty, thirty years [for] selling a sheet of acid on Dead tour.” Like the imaginary kilo-yielding seedlings that put Evans away for years, these young people were doing paper time — sentences based not on the amount of actual LSD confiscated, but on the weight of the perforated blotter sheets to which it was applied.

Likewise, “crack had a different [sentencing minimum] than cocaine, so it was racially motivated,” said Evans. “You had a lot of kids in there from inner cities. You always think, ‘Oh, people selling crack, that’s gang.’ It’s not like that. It’s just a lot of kids who were poor and it was a way to make money, and then they got caught up in stuff. There are good kids in there doing twenty, twenty-five, thirty years, non-violent drug [offenses].”

The one crime that cut across all racial lines was bank robbery. The inmate Evans is pictured with on the cover of this month’s issue, a dude named Dutch, was in there for robbing a bank.

Dutch “refers to himself as a professional Hobo, as he lived his life homeless and on trains,” Evans wrote in a note accompanying the picture. “He was very comfortable in prison and seemed content with ‘3 hots and a cot.’ He was doing 10 years for robbing a bank with a note. Someone told him it was easy and he walked away with $5,000. Cash. He spent it all on high-end camping gear, then had all of it stolen that day (karma?), so he tried it again and got caught.”

Money laundering was also a common crime among the convicts at Ray Brook. “I sum up the federal system [by saying] it’s mostly made up of people who screwed the government out of money: either laundering, tax evasion, racketeering — making money through drugs. I’m in that category,” Evans said. “There’s money being had that [the government’s] not getting, and most of the people in there you could trace that back to.”

Rob Evans and Nancy Pugh (right) catering an event in 2018. In addition to Duckfat and the Duckfat Frite Shack, the couple run Stone Garden Catering from the Frite Shack’s Washington Avenue location. They sold Hugo’s in 2012 to three of the restaurant’s employees. photo/courtesy Duckfat

(Actually) Legalize It 

This insight also explains the current status of the drug war in America. Yes, in Maine and 34 other states you can now legally buy weed at a licensed retail shop and/or medical dispensary, and you can grow a limited number of plants at home for personal consumption. But if you sell so much as a joint without giving the Tax Man his due, you risk incarceration and financial ruin.

In Maine, unlicensed sale of under a pound of reefer can still land you in jail for a year. Get caught moving more than 16 ounces without giving the government its cut and you can be imprisoned for up to 30 years, under some circumstances. Mandatory minimums have been reduced and reformed since the ’90s, but the draconian sentences that shocked Evans three decades ago are still being imposed today.

Maine was exceedingly slow to implement the sale of non-medical, “recreational” marijuana. Voters approved such sales through a citizen initiative in 2016, but retail shops have only recently begun to be licensed to operate. The growers needed to supply this side of the market haven’t had time to legally produce enough product to meet the demand, resulting in low supply and high prices at the few recreational pot shops allowed to open thus far.

As the Bangor Daily News reported in late December, “high prices and inconvenience may drive black-market marijuana for years,” depriving the state of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of tax revenue while maintaining a thriving underground network of small-time growers and dealers, all of whom remain subject to arrest and imprisonment. According to statistics compiled by the FBI, over 545,000 people were arrested nationwide for cannabis-related crimes in 2019, more than all the arrests for violent crimes that year combined.

In a historic vote last month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act. The MORE Act removes cannabis from the federal list of controlled substances and erases low-level federal convictions and arrests for pot. The two Democrats who represent Maine in the House, Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, both voted to approve the MORE Act, and Pingree was an original co-sponsor of the legislation.

The MORE Act’s prospects in the Republican-controlled Senate are slim. A bill called the STATES Act, introduced by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Cory Gardner (R-Colorado), would effectively let states that already allow medical and recreational pot sales to continue to do so free of federal interference. But it stops short of full federal legalization and would keep pot on the Drug Enforcement Agency’s list of Schedule I controlled substances, which also includes heroin, acid and ecstasy.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins opposes marijuana legalization. Her office did not respond to a request for comment on her position regarding the MORE and STATES acts. In a statement provided to Mainer, Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said, “I believe that the current federal regulation structure of marijuana is detrimental to the public good and that it is in need of significant change.” King said he supports the STATES Act but made no mention of the MORE Act in his statement.

As a senator, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris sponsored the MORE Act in that chamber, and President-elect Joe Biden, once a strident drug warrior, has softened his position over the years. The American Prospect noted in November that Biden now supports decriminalization and the expungement of marijuana convictions, but still opposes full legalization, which the MORE Act would achieve.

“I think they’re afraid to admit defeat in the War on Drugs,” said Evans. Although expunging his felony drug conviction wouldn’t materially benefit him now, “there would be some justification,” he said, “because I always felt there was something off with what I was charged with, and [what] a whole bunch of other people [were charged with]. For them to clean that slate, there’d be some validation there.”

Congress “taking it off the list of controlled substances is a big move,” Evans added. “I mean, what are they doing? Why is it even on there? It’s a drug scheduled in a category that says it has no medicinal or other purpose. … It’s what America needs right now for medicine. I don’t smoke anymore — I don’t use weed, for the most part — but this is medicine for a very angst-out culture, before COVID and long after.

“Thank God it’s profitable,” Evans quipped, “or the government would never even entertain it.”

*In the print version of this story, we incorrectly reported that the charge Evans was being threatened with was conspiracy; it was obstruction of justice.

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