News, Views, Happiness Pursued

“You sell fish guts at the door!”

Chef Rob Evans and Nancy Pugh Dish About the Highs and Lows of Hugo’s

by | Mar 18, 2021

Nancy Pugh and Rob Evans on a foraging excursion during the Hugo’s days. photos/courtesy Rob Evans

“It’s funny,” Nancy Pugh said, recalling the history of her time at Hugo’s, “there’s the chef version and then there’s the wife version, the front-of-the-house version.”

Chef Rob Evans sat across a table temporarily topped with a plywood board. We were inside Duckfat, the Portland eatery the couple opened in 2005, five years after they took over Hugo’s, which is just down the block on Middle Street, at the Old Port’s eastern edge.

Duckfat was closed last month for an extended winter break. Menu pages taped to a wall bore notes from a brainstorming session with the staff. Next to those pages was a big sheet of paper, titled “Duckfat Culture,” with a list of “What’s Most Important to Rob & Nancy.” After bullet points about teamwork, positivity, support and personal growth, the paper lists “Being Part of a Trusting Environment,” and defines trust as “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something.”

When Evans and Pugh bought Hugo’s in the fall of 2000, all they had was trust in each other’s strength and ability. They certainly didn’t have any money, and though Chef Rob went on to earn many accolades, including a James Beard Foundation award in 2009, it took a decade to attain financial security. Only in the past year or two has the couple — who sold Hugo’s to a group of its employees in 2012 — felt that Duckfat Culture had evolved to the point where they can rely on the team to run the perpetually busy restaurant without them being in the building. (Pugh and Evans also have the Duckfat Frite Shack, on Washington Avenue, and its associated catering company to operate.)

This is where the front-of-the-house version of the Hugo’s story — and the story of Portland’s culinary renaissance, of which Hugo’s is a huge part — is crucial to understanding what happened. It’s great to be a genius in the kitchen who can make monkfish liver delicious, but useless if customers won’t order it. Channeling Pugh during one of their heated battles over this quandary, Evans quipped, “You sell fish guts at the door!”

As recounted in last month’s issue [“South of Heaven, East of Worcester”], Chef Rob met Nancy after a wild stint working in a hellish restaurant kitchen in Massachusetts. They reconnected in 1999, after Evans served time in federal prison on a trumped-up pot charge [see “Prison Kitchen Confidential,” Jan. 2021]. Evans scored a coveted position that year cooking at The French Laundry, in Napa Valley, but the couple had to work several jobs to make ends meet in California, including an overnight gig cleaning a fast-food restaurant. When he looks back on that period, Evans said he mostly remembers just being “tired all the time.”

The prospect of running a bed-and-breakfast in New Hampshire lured Evans and Pugh back to New England in the spring of 2000, but when that opportunity fell through they were left scrambling for work again. Chef Rob had cooked at Hugo’s, then an Irish-themed restaurant owned by Johnny Robinson, a few years prior.

“We just stopped in to say hi to him,” Evans recalled of that fateful day 21 years ago. Shortly after that visit, Robinson reached out to say, “‘Oh, I might be interested in selling,’ and we have not stopped since,” he said.

“It was just overwhelming,” Pugh recalled. “We were extremely free-spirited. … Neither one of us went to college. The [Hugo’s] thing — I mean, not even four seconds to think about it and all of a sudden we’re saying yes, and we had no idea what we were dropping ourselves into.”

The couple — then in their mid-thirties, one with a federal felony drug conviction on his record — first faced the daunting task of raising money to start operating, and paying off, the restaurant. When trying to get financing through a major lender, like Key Bank, it “was really frustrating to connect with someone we could actually talk to,” Evans said. And as his wife added with a laugh, the ability to make their pitch in person was “all we had going for us.”    

They had better luck with a local lender, Norway Savings Bank, where they got to make their case face to face with a commercial loan officer, Dan Walsh, who could personally approve their financing. Walsh is now the president of Norway Savings.  

“We didn’t own anything, we had no collateral,” said Pugh. Walsh “was hard, stern, but positive. He kept pushing back and saying, ‘Go find some money. Ring up your parents, ring up anyone.’ And we kept doing that, and we’d come back and say, ‘OK, we’ve got this,’ and he’d be like, ‘Go get some more.’”

“There’s a part of that that I really thank him for,” Pugh continued. “I watch a lot of people play the Vegas chip thing, where they just get handed money, and we were watching everything, watching every penny we spent. … It was true old school — enough money to get in the door, buy some food, pay some staff, pay Johnny. You felt that you had to earn it. You owed the people that you love money back, so you weren’t just spending six thousand dollars on a lamp.”

“We bought that restaurant for the price of what some people now spend just on branding alone,” Evans added. Two respected local restaurateurs — Dana Street, of Fore Street, and Eddie Fitzpatrick, proprietor of Pepperclub — also helped the couple by writing letters of support to bolster what Evans called, with a chuckle, “the mysterious character loan.” And Craig Foster, a business advisor the couple met through the mentorship program SCORE, guided them for years — he “pretty much has become our adopted dad,” Pugh said.

The bank had good reason to be cautious, if not downright suspicious. “We were doing really risky food back then, for what the town was used to,” Evans said. “It was pre–small plate. We were doing small plate and tasting menus and we battled that for a long time — people coming in, thinking, Oh, the portions are small. Not understanding, Well, you’re getting five of ’em, not two.”

The food on those small plates also confounded local diners at the turn of the century. “We were serving pork belly,” Chef Rob said. “People were so confused. Like, ‘Is it guts?’ So how do we sell it to people? At one point we called it ‘fresh braised bacon.’ No one would even get it. The word belly scared everyone. Now you can get that at every restaurant.”

“I’m in the front,” Pugh said. “I’m kind of letting him do his thing, but the menu is just way too esoteric. It was really our biggest argument back in the very beginning days, because I remember looking at him going, ‘Your family would come in here and be like, What the fuck is that?’ My dad, his dad. It was all these words on [the menu], there were different style techniques of cooking.”

“One of my friends came up [from Massachusetts] and I served her monkfish liver,” Evans recalled. “At the end of the night she goes, ‘Just don’t ever serve me fish guts again.’”

“We kind of came up with an agreement: Let me sell it and you cook it,” Pugh said. “So at least the people wouldn’t walk in, stand at the host stand, look at the menu and walk out. ’Cause that was what was happening. It was getting people to sit down, and I figured that once they did, it’d be the best chowder they had … it would be the best cod they had, because the flavors were familiar. When you sat down and you ate chicken, it tasted like the best fuckin’ chicken you ever had. So we’re not gonna call it a galantine.”

“The biggest thing … was we just stopped calling it French this or that, which a lot of chefs felt tied to,” Evans concurred. “It’s ‘cod, carrots, potato and thyme.’”

Besides the small plates and strange food, a third element handicapped Hugo’s in the early days: the fact the dining room looked like a hoarder’s attic. This was a holdover from Robinson’s dozen years at the helm, and though he packed up his kitsch in early 2001, another year would pass after that before Evans and Pugh could afford a loan to remodel.

“When you’d walk in, you honestly couldn’t even sit at the bar,” Pugh said. Robinson “would collect trinkets and antiques, and the place was packed. Every shelf. Anything and everything — from those ceramic Christmas trees with the lights on the ends that everyone’s mother had, to little characters from Alien, to busts of James Joyce. Different lamps and beads.”

“We had a dining room that looked like you’d just dragged it out of the dump. So it was all bizarre,” continued Pugh. “You could not have had chairs that were more disgusting. It was the metal-framed chairs that you’d see in church, with the puffy back and the puffy bottom, and that old yellow foam inside. But it was so old that when you sat on the cushion it would push air out, and the foam started to deteriorate like freakin’ ten years ago, so the yellow, like, poofiness would come through the air, and you’d see this — I called it ass mold.”

There was one definite upside to Robinson’s knick-knack collection: “it covered up the holes in the wall,” Pugh said.

Chef Rob had resumed cooking at Hugo’s during the summer of 2000, and his talent had caught the attention of Street and his celebrated chef, Sam Hayward, who earned his own James Beard award in 2004. The buzz around town was such that the first night Hugo’s reopened under new ownership, in September of that year, “we got onslaughted,” Pugh said. “We did like a hundred and thirty people.”

“Then winter came, and the reality of what Portland was like twenty years ago,” Evans added. “This city is lively in a pandemic compared to winter when we opened.” He described the first five winters the couple spent running Hugo’s as “dark.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, Pugh noticed an influx of talented chefs coming to Maine from New York, “not looking for that kind of salary or expecting to do that kind of food,” she said. “Everyone’s just ready for a lifestyle change. … and that definitely had its influence up here.”  

“It was an America waking up from its food coma,” Evans said. “I think what was happening here in Portland for the early part of [the] 2000s was going on everywhere. Average diners were being educated. The Food Network was a huge part of that.”

But “it was the winter that separated people in this town,” Evans added. “You had a winter plan — special dinners, and you promoted it — or you just sat there, sad, with a half-empty restaurant.”

Not that Chef Rob saw the light right away.

“Wintertime would come, and I’d be like, ‘Let’s do a three-course menu, call it Love for Sale,’ Pugh recalled. “And he’s like, ‘Well, don’t call it Love for Sale!’ The arguments would just be terrible. And a lot of times I’d do things without telling him, or change the wording on the menu sometimes without necessarily saying something to him. … You couldn’t even use the word consommé.”

“Rightfully so, Rob was kind of heads-down in the kitchen,” she continued. “I’m trying to figure out how to run a business, how to get financing, how to operate. So I’m running around with my head cut off during the day, and then I’d run home and shower and try to put on something that looked nice and then stand at the door. As you can tell, Chris, I’ve got a sailor’s mouth and grew up in Massachusetts. I’m just trying to feel comfortable in my own place, and at the same time embrace what we’re doing.”

“We were struggling with what we could spend on food, as well,” said Evans. “So we did a lot of cross-utilization of stuff. That whole idea became our signature there.”

One day early on, Evans spotted buckets of cod heads at Browne Trading Company, the seafood purveyor on Commercial Street. He asked owner Rod Browne Mitchell what they did with the heads, to which Mitchell replied, “‘We sell ’em to a fertilizer company.’

“‘Can I buy those from you?’

“‘Sure.’

“It was like thirty cents a pound,” Evans recalled, “and they’d bring in these big totes of cod heads [to Hugo’s] — it’d be like twenty bucks. The delivery guy got screwed on that deal.

“My parents are from Newfoundland and I’d spent time there as a youth, so this cod thing actually matched my roots, too,” he continued. “So we started taking the cheeks out, and the tongues, and the throat, and we’d serve cod cheeks and pickled tongue and make stock out of the head.

“The Love Affair With Cod was a dish,” the chef added. “It was the cheeks, the tongue, the throat, the loin, puffed skin, the chowder made with milt. It was like everything cod condensed into it. It was an awesome dish. But that was a move when we had no money, and was really smart back then.”

“It was an emerging time,” Evans observed. The farm-to-table movement was just beginning to find its legs, so the network of Maine farmers we now have, providing organic, heirloom and other niche products to restaurants, didn’t exist. “But then there’s little gems like Browne Trading,” said Evans. “They’re shipping the best of what Maine has to offer to high-end restaurants around the country, so we developed a relationship with those guys. That gave us a bit of an edge.”

“There was a lot of beautiful product in Maine, but nobody in Maine was using it, so it was being shipped down to New York,” Pugh added. “Even like the glass eels, anything kind of fun or interesting, or that was pricy. … It was fun for some of the purveyors, over time, that their product was being served in Maine.”

A turning point arrived in 2004, when Evans was named Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine. After that, “the cuffs were off,” he said. “We’ve got people comin’ in who want to experiment and have interesting things. … We got the go-ahead from that award to be what I call sometimes overly creative — definitely guilty of that during that period. Just like, ‘Oh, I’ve got total freedom!’ I look back at some of the stuff I did and it was just having fun, not the best idea.”

The magazine award connected the couple with some of the most accomplished and visionary chefs in the country. Evans apprenticed with molecular gastronomist Grant Achatz in Chicago, and famed French chef Daniel Boulud came to Portland to cook with Chef Rob at Hugo’s.

Chef Daniel Boulud (left) with Chef Rob Evans at Hugo’s in the mid-2000s.

“American restaurants were coming into their own, and there was this experimental stage that we were part of that was super-exciting,” Evans said.

“What was the most exciting thing for me at Hugo’s was chef’s menus and tasting menus. These would be menus that were twelve to eighteen courses long, and of that realm of art in a sense like writing music — where you had someone committed there for three hours; they paid you a lot, so you can do whatever; and you can create these highs and lows in the menu.”

By the time Evans won the Beard award in 2009, most Hugo’s diners were comfortable enough with his style to order the “blind tasting” menu. “On our side of it, it’s like, They don’t even know what they’re getting,” Chef Rob said, still relishing the memory. “So we can just slide in freebies — there’s a huge amount of freedom in that model.

“There’s also a lot of room to mess up,” he acknowledged. “People can get bored if it’s not fast enough. There’s more room for bad food in there. So there’s a lot of due diligence that comes with that.”

The same was true in the front of the house, where Nancy was on watch for a different threat: elitism. Evans and Pugh never wanted what they called the “perfect, sterilized service” at typical fine-dining establishments. “Letting our staff be themselves and be funny and be casual definitely translated from Nancy down into what we did there on a regular basis,” said Evans. “We kept staff for a really long time because of that.”

But as Chef Rob’s reputation grew, even veteran staff sometimes slipped into snobbery. Or, Pugh said, “we’d hire staff and they’d be fuckin’ mean. Or they started to feel entitled. And it was probably the biggest thing that I was sensitive to. I’d have a couple times when I’d sit them down and be like, ‘You know, we’re in Portland fucking Maine here, and I don’t know where you think you are.’ We hired a bartender once. She was from New York, and it was like, ‘Smile.’ This is not New York. No one likes the bitchy bartender here, that doesn’t fly here.

“It is who I am, and I didn’t know any other way,” Pugh continued. “It was our home, and it would be like my brother being rude to a friend I had coming over. Like, what’s that? So it was personal. It really was.”

Duckfat, originally opened as a lunch spot, flailed for its first three years — the daytime business the couple was counting on didn’t materialize. By the time Duckfat took off, the Great Recession was killing business at Hugo’s, but by the decade’s end both restaurants were profitable. In 2010, Evans and Pugh finally hired a general manager to help run Hugo’s, and the couple bought 80 acres in western Maine.

“We both wanted to live a rural life, so we started thinking about making a change, and we still needed income,” Evans said. “Hugo’s would keep me tethered there. … Most people find themselves in this position, that I can’t be there all the time, I can’t be the one anymore, and that’s when you start outsourcing and hiring.

“I was there because I liked doing the food,” Chef Rob continued. “I didn’t want to, like, oversee other people doing other food, which is where restaurants go. … Again, this is the chef view, she has her view.”

“I’m sure I probably started talking about wanting to sell before James Beard,” Pugh said, “but we really started talking about it seriously after James Beard, because there was the freedom at that point. I think all of us can have a lot more guts when there’s some money there. … We really did hit the ultimate moment to sell, from a financial standpoint, but also we had run our course. I know I had, that’s for sure.”

“My burnout was almost instantaneous,” she continued. “It was too much. I was way over my head. From a business standpoint, all of it was so daunting. … He was just head down in the kitchen, and I was just flailing.”

“When we transitioned out of Hugo’s, this place was just roaring,” Evans said of Duckfat. “All our work had to do with crowd management. The amount of people here eating, the amount of staff we had, the size of this space, how to keep up, how to be consistent — the kitchen’s not built for any of it. It exceeded the space really quick.

“For me as a chef, Hugo’s was the cuffs off; here it was full of limitations,” Evans continued. “I can’t even stand up in the kitchen here, so that was a tough thing. But also, we had to develop food that worked in this kitchen that could be done in mass quantity.

“In the last few years, the culture has set in,” he added. “We’re not so shocked with the amount of people that come here.”

Duckfat is an early example of what’s now called a “fast casual” restaurant: “taking a fast-food concept — as Americans, we like the casual atmosphere of that — but then doing exceptional food,” Chef Rob explained. “Bringing those two things together, where you can just sit down at a counter and get food you could get at a high-end restaurant ten years ago.”  

As for Hugo’s, Chef Rob said, “I think there’s something nice about getting out on top … but I definitely went through separation anxiety after that. And you know, you always glorify the stuff that’s good and you forget about the stuff that’s a real drag. It was nice for our relationship to have that off our plate. Then we put our efforts into here and out at our land. Ultimately, we want to be more time out there, less time in town.”

It was a snowy Friday afternoon in February. Duckfat had been closed for weeks and wouldn’t reopen until March. Yet here they both were, beneath the marked-up menu pages, diving into topics like Gestalt personnel management and plans for a second year of food service during a pandemic. We’d been talking for over two hours. Sensing that his last sentence seemed absurd, Chef Rob said with a laugh, “Still workin’ on that.”

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