Remembering Darryl Evans

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The SFA was sad to learn yesterday of the passing of Darryl Evans, a pioneering Atlanta chef who served as a mentor to many others, especially African American chefs. To give you an idea of Darryl’s influence, we share below “Where Are All the Black Chefs?” a 2010 article by John Kessler that first appeared in the Oxford American and later in Cornbread Nation 6. We reprint the piece here with Kessler’s permission.

Where Are All the Black Chefs?

In 1997, I began eating my way through Atlanta in my capacity as restaurant critic for the daily paper. I enjoyed the variety: soul-food cafes and country-cooking warhorses that served meat-and-threes in compartmentalized trays, and the white-owned, white-tablecloth restaurants that sold customers on fried green tomatoes capped with swirls of Alabama chevre.

Atlanta was going through the first of several Southern cooking revivals I would witness—this one marked by savory riffs on grits and the crusting of Gulf seafood with andouille sausage and such. But where, among the practitioners of the new Southern cuisine, were the ambitious black chefs?

In place of restaurants run by famous black chefs, Atlanta had famous black restaurant owners—Sean “Diddy” Combs and Gladys Knight among them, who lent their names to concepts. There was also a growing cadre of talented black chefs who worked exclusively for rich individuals: rappers, basketball players, and entrepreneurs.

The scene changed in 2000, when Spice restaurant announced its debut with a billboard depicting a red-hot chili spread across a woman’s nude torso. Opening in a refurbished 19th-century bungalow in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood, Spice was one of many new, swank dining destinations to debut that year, but it was unique.

The enterprising African American chef/co-owner, Darryl Evans, created Spice with two business partners and more than $2 million dollars for the lavish renovation. The menu showcased his vision against a backdrop of world cuisine—an approach that translated on the plate into dishes such as seared foie gras with a green apple and bacon compote. But Evans did not forsake his native victuals. He prepared white shrimp from Georgia coastal waters and paired venison with a sweet potato and red onion chutney.

A native of Columbus, Georgia, Evans came to Atlanta in the early 1980s to attend junior college. His first gig was as a kitchen assistant in a suburban airport hotel. He had no cooking background but worked hard. Evans’s break came one morning in the form of a pancake emergency. The head chef had neglected to place the day’s order and panic ensued—the kitchen had no pancake mix for the morning buffet. Looking around, Evans saw eggs, milk, oil, and flour, and offered to save the day. “I had seen my mother make pancakes every weekend,” he recalls. “It didn’t seem to be that hard.” When Evans served a batch of flawlessly fluffy pancakes, the manager promoted him to top chef on the spot.

Evans hadn’t come looking for a career as a chef. His interest in food was latent—developed while watching his mother cook and while attending family reunions, which centered around food. Based on the promise he showed while working at the hotel, though, Evans was offered an apprenticeship with the American Culinary Foundation, the largest professional chefs’ association in North America. As part of the program, he interned at the Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta’s tony Buckhead neighborhood.

“He was always asking to stay and help, even after his forty hours,” recalls Tom Catherall, who was the club’s chef at the time. “He used to duplicate everything I did. You’d show him once, and then he’d execute it exactly the same. I could see that Darryl had the drive to be an executive chef.”

Catherall hired Evans full-time. Working toward Master Chef certification, which involved rigorous testing and far-flung competitions, Evans accompanied Catherall to events throughout the country and in Europe. Evans, often the only black face visible in a kitchen of white toques, absorbed knowledge and technique at these events. “I watched everything Chef Catherall did,” Evans says, “how he made his food and how he ran his kitchen.”

When Catherall left Cherokee to start Azalea, one of Atlanta’s first chef-driven restaurants, he invited Evans to be his sous. Azalea served as a daring-for-its-time fusion of Asian cookery and Southern ingredients. Its trademark dish was a whole, sizzling catfish, its backbone removed and its side scored deeply so that diners could pry nuggets of flesh loose with chopsticks and dip them in soy sauce.

Like many chefs, Evans advanced at Azalea by leapfrogging from job to job, with each move demanding greater responsibility. Before he was 30, Evans left Azalea to lead the kitchen at the Athens Country Club. The next year, he became the first African American to represent the United States Culinary Olympic Team in Germany.

On his return home from overseas, Evans was recruited to lead the kitchen at Anthony’s an antebellum mansion located on three plush acres in Buckhead. Anthony’s played the moonlight-and-magnolias card big time, employing hoop-skirted hostesses and touting a reputation that referenced the “War of Northern Aggression.”

Given carte blanche to devise a menu, Evans grafted New South and Old South, white and black. He prepared chicken livers in the style of foie gras and molded Hoppin’ John into croquettes. He sourced the best regional ingredients, pairing striped bass and ravioli stuffed with goat cheese and Georgia caviar. It was a menu that reflected the times, but also one that defined Evans’s coming-of-age style—with a lengthy roster of dishes, each dish more elaborately garnished than the last. Yet it was build on a foundation of ingredients that any Georgian, black or white, would recognize.

After only a few months at Anthony’s, Evans joined one of Atlanta’s top hotels at the time, the Occidental Grand, as executive chef. He says the reception from his new kitchen staff was less than cordial.

Some people walked out on his first day. “They didn’t want to work for a young black chef,” he suspects.

***

For up-and-coming black chefs, however, Evans was a beacon. “I was tracking all this from Seattle when I was in high school, recalls Duane Nutter, who, as a boy, obsessed over magazines like Restaurants & Institutions the way other kids do with Vibe or Sports Illustrated.

Despite the paucity of black role models in these pages, Nutter wanted to become a chef. He loved cooking. He loved eating. He loved the idea that he could make a living this way.

Fresh from culinary school in Seattle, Nutter wrote to the three most prominent and frequently profiled African American chefs of the time. There was Patrick Clark, then at the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington, DC, who had turned down the Clintons when they were looking for a White House chef. There was Johnny Rivers, the photogenic executive chef at Walt Disney World, who leveraged his time in Orlando to build a food and beverage consultancy. An d there was Evans. Evans was the only chef who wrote back. He didn’t promise Nutter a job but invited him to try out.

Nutter arrived in Atlanta to find that a number of black chefs were already working the kitchen line with Evans, looking for mentorship, among them a young Chicagoan named Todd Richards. Evans had Nutter prepare a meal from a mystery basket of various goods, a typical test for a nabe cook, and was impressed enough to give him a job.

Nutter and Richards stayed together under Evans, even as the Occidental Grand hotel changed ownership. Eventually, Evans left to run the kitchen at Villa Christina, a truffles-and-pasta Italian restaurant. Nutter and Richards followed.

Taking into account the continental expectations of both the restaurant owners and their clientele, the men abandoned notions of incorporating African American vernacular into the cuisine. “Being African American didn’t matter anymore at Villa Christina,” Evans says.

Villa Christina was just another way station, but it was a perch from which Evans could recruit the investors who would finance him in a chef-driven restaurant—one with an urbane, glamorous setting—where he could showcase a refined take on American cookery, rooted in the South but not restrained by geography.

It wasn’t easy. Evans perceived a tacit racism in the reluctance of both white and black investors, who didn’t deem black cooking worthy of white-tablecloth trappings. “I could run the kitchen in a 14 million dollar hotel,” he recalls, “but I had to prove that I was responsible enough to manage a 2 million dollar investment.”

Evans persevered and did find two white investors who believed in him. Spice opened, he says, with “one of the most creative menus I’ve ever done.” Creative, as interpreted by Evans in the Spice era, meant lobster-lacquered prawns with baby vegetable ratatouille and a bouillabaisse infused with sassafras.

The joy was short-lived. Four months into his tenure, Evans was sickened by autoimmune cirrhosis of the liver, a chronic condition he had long battled. Deathly ill and awaiting a transplant, he left Spice behind. So advanced was his disease that he moved to the top of the transplant list, and Catherall and former colleagues rallied behind him. The American Culinary Federation held a fundraiser to pay for the expensive procedure.

***

After Spice closed, Nutter and Richards moved as a team through upscale hotel kitchens, including the Oakroom in Louisville, Kentucky, where they won a national reputation and where Richards, as executive chef, crafted comparatively stripped-down dishes like a “pork and beans” of pork belly and white beans, glazed with a bourbon-molasses sauce he learned from his grandfather.

Last year, Nutter and Richards purchased Rolling Bones, a traditional barbecue joint, to which they introduced smoked-duck plates and pulled-pork tacos. That development came quickly on the heels of a consulting gig they shared, working to conceive and open a new restaurant, One Flew South, in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

That operation is ambitious, with salads fashioned from Georgia goat cheese and Tennessee bacon, and sandwiches piled with duck confit and peanut relish. A casual observer would recognize a familiar, modern, farm-to-table sensibility of the menu. A closer observer would see, in the elaborate garnishing of dishes and the use of Southern ingredients, Evans’s leitmotif.

No matter the recent successes, Nutter and Richards long to build, from the ground up, a restaurant that is entirely their own. They are now looking for the right location and the right investors, the sort of investors who will warm to a concept that Richards, in a tip of the hat to Evans, has taken to calling “global soul food.”

***

Nine years after his liver transplant, Evans has forged a career on the periphery of the restaurant scene. He runs the kitchen at his suburban church, consults on kitchen staffing and menu design for small cafes and clubs, and caters private dinners for celebrities who recall his heyday.

Recently, I had dinner with Evans, Richards, Nutter, and their mutual friend Reggie Washington, who designed the menu for Gladys Knight and Ron Winan’s Chicken & Waffles. At Shaun’s, a white-owned, chef-driven bistro housed in the space that was long Deacon Burton’s—the most beloved soul food restaurant in Atlanta—I ask why, nearly ten years after Evans left Spice, there are still no African American chef-owners directing the restaurant culture in Atlanta.

“The good chefs are ashamed of soul food,” Evans says. “We don’t go to the farms. We’ve abandoned our roots.” Traditional recipes, he says, are perhaps too far from the modern experience, too time-consuming. His grandmother, for instance, made the best collards he had ever tasted, but he explains that was largely due to her laborious method for cleaning them—a  process that involved a thorough rinse with laundry detergent.

In a 2006 New York Times article, Michael Ruhlman argued that black families often view cooking as menial labor and stigmatize restaurant work. What’s more, Ruhlman wrote, white chefs and kitchen managers sometimes harbor racist attitudes and discourage blacks from advancing within the workplace.

Nutter recognizes that, for blacks, cookery is burdened. For his part, he detests the term “soul food”—while it might suggest lesser cutsof meat and poorer ingredients that enterprising homemakers had to render edible, Nutter feels it mostly perpetuates an inaccurate marketing gimmick.

“African Americans don’t like history,” Richards adds. For a long time, black chefs were disinclined to use their family traditions as jumping-off points for culinary creation.

“The fact is, we don’t go out to restaurants to celebrate,” says Washington. “The best soul food we’ll ever try is at a family get-together where we’re eating from huge pots. You know what that special flavor is in your auntie’s collard greens? It’s love.”

This prompts me to wonder aloud what has motivated Richards and Nutter to hone a culturally rooted, historically relevant cuisine.

Richards answers obliquely, talking instead of his days in Darryl Evans’s kitchen. Chefs need strong mentoring relationships early in their careers. To get that, black chefs either find an African American versed in the rigors and pedagogy of the professional kitchen or cross rasial lines.

Richards and Nutter aim to make good on the vision of their mentor. Recently, they turned their dreams to Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, a traditionally black neighborhood in the throes of revitalization. It is here that many of Atlanta’s new breed of white chef-auteurs have opened restaurants among renovated condos and studios. They already have their beachhead in the area, Rolling Bones, the barbecue joint.

But for now, Richards and Nutter are captivated by their concept for the ideal restaurant. The menu, says Richards, will “reflect African American culture, but also Chinese culture in some dishes, and other cultures as well.”

They already have a name for the place: Revival.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in spring 2010. Rolling Bones is no longer in business. Duane Nutter remains at the helm of One Flew South, while Todd Richards is the chef of The Shed at Glenwood, also in Atlanta.