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South of Heaven, East of Worcester

Chef Rob Evans on the kitchen from hell where he learned how to cook and how not to run a restaurant

by | Feb 18, 2021

A couple months ago, when I met with Chef Rob Evans, of Duckfat and Hugo’s fame, to talk about his time in federal prison on a trumped-up pot charge (see “Prison Kitchen Confidential,” Jan. 2021), he mentioned his first restaurant job, an experience akin to the scenes described in Anthony Bourdain’s wild memoir, Kitchen Confidential. Chef Rob was willing to tell that tale, too.

Bourdain and Evans started cooking around the same time (late ’70s/early ’80s) in the same state, Massachusetts. This was well before the dawn of the celebrity chef or the visionary menu. American fare consisted of steak, chicken, pork, veal and fish, either grilled or baked, or battered and fried. Clams casino and shrimp cocktail were considered classy cuisine. Tiramisu could get you laid.        

And it was great — the atmosphere, anyway. Evans likened the place where he worked to The Village Café, the beloved Italian-American restaurant at the foot of Munjoy Hill that fed Portland families for 70 years (see “It takes The Village,” The Bollard, July 31, 2006). Behind the kitchen door, however, things were definitely not family-friendly.

This restaurant was in the suburbs east of Worcester. Evans, who worked there for three years in his early 20s, declined to name the town or the eatery, out of respect for the owners, though the owners themselves had less than zero respect for one another. It was established by an Italian couple, probably first-generation immigrants, who handed it down to their two sons. The one who ran the kitchen, we’ll call Dicky. The one who ran the bar, we’ll call The Prick, for reasons that will soon be obvious.

This is the second in a series of interviews we’re doing with Chef Rob. In a future installment, Evans will talk about his post-prison path through some of America’s finest restaurants, the flowering of Portland’s culinary culture, how the pandemic is impacting the industry and what its prospects are in the years ahead. This account has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

— Chris Busby

 

This restaurant was near my hometown. I had washed dishes there when I was younger — the classic 16-year-old looking for a job. Then I ended up bussing there, too, and getting tips. It was kind of like my first job. My real first job was dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant, and that was terrifying. I was 15, I didn’t understand anything they were saying, they’re choppin’ chicken on a wooden, like, stump, with a cleaver, yelling at me in Chinese. That didn’t last long.

This was my first regular job that I stuck with, had a schedule, going to school and working on weekends, all that. Then I went to a trade school. My family were electricians: my uncle, my cousin. I went into school for that and I did not care for it at all. I got out of school and did electrical wiring for maybe six months with my cousin. I just don’t have the head for that type of work.

We touched a little on my legal issues with motorcycles [in the first interview]. I had gotten arrested for going 140 miles an hour. This was back in the day when those crotch rockets were just coming up, so I had purchased my first Kawasaki — fuel-injected, Kz 1000 — and had no control over myself whatsoever. My mom wanted me to see a psychiatrist and everything else. My poor mom. I just terrified her through my youth on motorcycles. I was on a hometown [road] where the speed limit was 40, at 2 a.m. in the morning. Lunatic. I don’t ride like that anymore, by the way. I still ride.

So I lost the license and I was thumbing to see this girl I was dating who moved to Long Island. I walked by the back door of this restaurant on the way there. The chef, Dicky, and his brother owned the place. Dicky’s like, “Hey, what you doin’?” They’re out back smokin’ weed, of course. I told him what I was doing and that I didn’t have work. He’s like, “Oh, you’re lookin’ for work? Why don’t ya come here? I’ll teach ya how to cook.”

And it was as simple as that. I was like, “OK.” I thumbed to Long Island, saw this girl, came back and started in that kitchen as a cook.

This restaurant was your classic American restaurant, Italian themed, with fried seafood and steak and stuff like that. What was cool about it, with hindsight now, was they made everything from scratch. I still draw on some of that for what I do today. It wasn’t one of these Sysco places. They took great pride in cooking, so I think I was fortunate in that way, as simple as the food was. Back then, where else did you go? If you didn’t go into the city or to Europe, that was kind of what people were eating back then. Maybe there’s a little French restaurant here and there or something.

It covered the gambit. I learned sauce-making and developed knife skills and eventually worked my way up and was working on the line, then ended up head cook there at the end of it. So I learned a lot there — how to keep your head through service and all that stuff. But the level of dysfunction. My mom, when I worked there, was just beside herself. She knew it was a bad influence, and it absolutely was.

I would start to notice things, like roadkill in the freezer. There’d be a gopher there, scraped off the road. They would wrap these things up and send ’em to people that pissed them off. Imagine you get a thawed-out, dead gopher in the mail. It’s some sort of message. It’s very creative. Where do you get that idea from?        

They would do little stuff like that. Like, the Health Department would come and they would just mess [with them]. I mean, the Health Department comes — now, as a restaurant owner, I’m alert, I’m asking, “What do you need?” It’s like the cops in your kitchen. Not there, though. She’d have her digital thermometer and they’d throw it in the stock pot when she wasn’t looking and just laugh as she looks for this thing. Send the sous chef out with salmon heads and he’d put salmon heads under the seat of her car. That was a big one with them: stashing fish heads in people’s cars. Then you know the math there — two days later, you’re like, What the hell?

They’d do other stuff, too — get six people to pick up the back of a car and put the rear wheels in two milk crates, then get six, eight people to pick up the front, put it on milk crates. Then you come out of the bar or out of work and you’re stuck with having to find eight people.

The other brother would be sober in the bar, just crotchety as fuck, just a miserable son of a bitch. And he would pride himself on that. He was a self-proclaimed “cocksucker,” or “prick.” This was a big one they would throw around: “Yeah, I’m a prick. Now what? Now whaddya got for me?” At one point he unloaded his gun into a customer’s car, ’cause they got into some argument.

In his truck he had a 10-inch cock painted on his dashboard. It said “prick” under it. Who does that? When he was drinking, he’d be nicer, but when he was sober, holy shit. Bona fide prick.

So I am 19 at this point, and I’m like, This place is cool as hell. It’s slightly terrifying. I think the reason I didn’t run terrified is the chef, Dicky, was always good to me. I think, too, I was looking for a father figure. What an awful dude to have as a father figure, except he was good to me and he’d teach me stuff.

Then he had his cronies under him, his chef de cuisine — he’s probably 28 and just mean. When Dicky was there and I worked under him, it was great, because he kinda kept some sort of [composure] even though he was pretty edgy himself. When he was gone and his chef de cuisine was there, it was hell. He would throw, literally, pots and pans and dishes at dishwashers, take ’em out back, physically scream at ’em. He’s drinking Millers all day long, so he’s intoxicated most of the day. And I’m a new cook here and I’m working right next to him. He would just belittle, berate, hate me for days on end ’cause of somethin’ I did.

He used to throw a pan in a 500-degree oven and then place it on your station without telling you. You’d grab it and you burn your hand and he’d just laugh his ass off. Or he’d come up from under, between your legs, with a two-ounce ladle, and grab one of your nuts and pull you back and laugh his ass off. This wasn’t just me. This was this guy’s style of cooking. He was mean-spirited. Eventually they had to let him go because he split some kid’s head open with a plate that he threw at him.

I called in sick one day and he came to my house and knocked on the door, told me to get into the kitchen. Some of that was good for me at that age, some of that hard-edged, cooking like a pirate, as they say. But then, with hindsight, it’s like, “Oh my god.” It was just so dysfunctional.

That bar was a hoppin’ bar. You would have all the townies in there. The chief of police would come in to drink and Dicky would come in the kitchen — they’d call me Bobby back then — and go, “Bobby, hide the roaches! Hide the roaches! The chief of police is out there.”

It was a family operation, so Dicky’s divorced wife was working there alongside his girlfriend. The parents eventually stepped out. I was there when all of them were running it, and then the brothers took it over. His mother was tough — I bussed tables under her and she was terrifying.

Dicky would call his mother a slut and they’d go at it. She’d be right back at him, like, “Fuck you, you cock.”

“Yeah, well you’re a cunt. Get the fuck out of my kitchen!”

The father would come in, on a cane. Dicky’d say, “Hey, you old fart, hurry up and fuckin’ die so I can sell this fuckin’ place.” You write it off as a family dynamic, under pressure. But it was glaringly off.

A lot of people are like, “What got you into cooking?” My first response is, “Eating.” And that was cool about this place: you could eat anything you wanted. The fact that I could sit down and eat a lobster for lunch, I thought, Wow, this job is golden for now.

The second response is the counterculture of cooking, which is there in all restaurants. I think [Bourdain] coined the term “pirates.” What does it mean to be a pirate in the kitchen? It’s hard livin’, hard drinking, working hard, long hours, just raging.

I was just telling you how I learned how to work the line and all that. I learned how to work the line under the influence. That was a big thing there. You could drink all day long, you could smoke weed while you’re working, and if you fell behind they’d cut you off. That was the punishment: “Alright, no more cocktails!”

It would be 10 a.m. in the morning, Dicky’d be juicing oranges for Stoli Screwdrivers, hittin’ the cup of coffee with Sambuca, smokin’ a joint before we all get started. Drinking is part of the culture. I think even more so than the lifestyle of a rock star, in a kitchen it’s just constant food, drink, and drugs, as well. Not just at the end — all day long.

Some places allow it and they function well. A lot of places allow it and it’s a shit show. We don’t. None of this stuff translated into any of the style we run our restaurants at now. But a lot of restaurants are like that and it works for some people. I respect how they can manage that. And then other places, it’s truly dysfunctional to be able to do that all day long and manage people.

I don’t think the food suffered as a result. They were really hard-ass on that, too. If a customer complained, that dish came back thrown at you. So you stayed on your game — for fear, probably. It was a place too that prided itself on making waitresses cry. Very macho.

Everyone kind of accepted what was going on there. And restaurants are like a home. That’s when you really establish your culture, is when you can establish it as a second home for people. People who don’t jibe with whatever the culture is, they don’t last. Even in that place, that fit certain people’s styles. It probably attracted a lot of people who had some drinking problems, or whatever: “Oh, I don’t have to wait till I get out of work to drink!”

It’s so off. I don’t know how a restaurant like that would survive today. They’d be sued and everything else. Then again, I remember we had a guy whose left hand was messed up, some birth [defect], and he couldn’t use it. That guy was there for five years. But they would berate this guy. He didn’t give a fuck, though. I think he liked that it was open and people were teasing him about it. That guy could roll a joint with one hand. He would drink all day, as well. So again, people find their home, and the people that don’t jibe with it wouldn’t last.

It was like 14-hour days, five days a week. They’d stick you in there at 10, they’d close at 10, you’d clean up. And then you’d be drinking, too, late at night, and many times sleeping in the car and just waking up and going in again.

It’s probably a good time to bring in the cocaine conversation. That wasn’t there when I first got there. I’d never even seen it before. But about a year into it, it became a thing there, a lot of it, all the time. It hit the town. This is now mid-’80s, so it’s the height of it.

Dicky hired his coke dealer to be in the kitchen with us. This guy never cooked; it was totally like cover. This guy would come in with like kilos of “pink Peruvian” — that’s what they’d call it. He’d lay out what they called gaggers, like gram lines, and we’d go downstairs [to snort it]. It helped you get through a 14-hour day shift, for sure. And then at the end of the night he’d take a chip off and give you one to take home. He was extremely generous with it. It was nothing to him.

But there was also a melee of personalities coming in, bikers. There was this one dude, he was 300 pounds. He could have been a Hell’s Angel. He wasn’t. He’d walk in the kitchen — he’d have the Harley-Davidson suspenders — and he’d go out in the bar. It just terrified Dicky when this guy came in. He was a terrifying dude.

I fed him lunch one day, and the bartender came into the kitchen and he’s like, “Ah, he wants to talk to you about his food.” So I go out there. His food was cold, and he was giving me a hard time about it. I’m just clueless to how bad-ass this guy is, and I start sassin’ him: “Oh, you’ve gotta eat your food faster.”

He goes, “Let me tell you somethin’. When I come here, I want my food hot. OK?”

I go back in the kitchen, then Dicky comes in after me. “Jesus Christ, Bobby, what the fuck are you doin’ out there? Holy shit! He’s gonna come back and burn my restaurant down because his peas were cold!” What their relationship was, I don’t know, but he ended up kidnapping someone and sawing through his bicep with a fucking hacksaw. Ended up in maximum-security prison as a shot-caller. This guy was like a regular fixture. He’s just walkin’ in the back door. Obviously there was some connection with, I don’t know, blow.

The coke dealer — oh my god, he was awesome! We’d just hear his voice and we’d be like, “OK, candy man’s here!” He was a super-nice guy, super high-energy. I ended up being friends with him. Not after I left there. That was the one time I was even involved with doing cocaine, because after that I could never maintain what was happening there, this generous doling out of the super-pure cocaine, which I’ve never even seen since then. I don’t think [the brothers] were involved in dealing at all. They just attracted that vibe and gave these guys a place to hang out.

The personalities there, it was intoxicating, just being in their culture at that young age. The bartender there, I used to go to Dead shows with him. He’d seen like 250 Dead shows. He’s the type guy you go to a Dead show with and he brings a notepad to write down the set lists. But he’s also a guy that could do like two hits of acid, an eight-ball of blow, some mushrooms, and go get a steak. He was a super-nice guy too. But he was just a party guy, impervious to any substances he took — he was the same guy all the time. I saw my first show with him up at Augusta. We drove up to Augusta, got our room right next to Bobby Weir.

Outside of that one chef kind of roughhousing people and throwing stuff, it wasn’t violent. I never saw anything. The gun unloaded into a car — I guess that’s violent. All of it hints to violence, but not actual people being beat up or fights.

I left there and — weird, right? — I followed that [mean] chef out of that restaurant, because that’s all I knew. He was going to this new restaurant and I needed to get out of that place. Maybe I was there too long, or just the obvious reasons why I had to get out of there, and I ended up following him to this restaurant called Reflections. That’s where I met Nancy.

 

In the next installment, Evans and his future wife, Nancy Pugh, move to California, where Chef Rob worked at The French Laundry and the couple cleaned a fast-food joint at night to make ends meet, before moving back to Maine and taking over Hugo’s. To read the full interview with Chef Rob about his dystopian experiences in federal prison, subscribe to Mainer at patreon.com/mainernews.

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