Located just outside of Portsmouth, NH is Chef Evan Hennessey’s progressive cuisine restaurant, Stages. Here, the kitchen table is an interactive experience, where Chef Evan prepares 8-12 course tasting menus. Hennessey was named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award in the category of Best Chef Northeast. He’s also an October of 2013 and 2014 StarChefs.com Rising Star Chef Winner for Coastal New England.
What are your earliest recollections of food?
I always remember my parents cooking. Sometimes, when my brother, sister, and I were younger, we’d have dinner and a movie up in our bedroom. It was a real treat.
Cooking was always a part of my family. Nothing fancy, but there were a lot of good cooks in my family so I was always exposed to home cooked meals. The time-tested dish that I still crave today, is my mother’s macaroni & cheese. I still request it for my birthday dinner even now!
How did you get started in the restaurant business and what led you to become a chef?
I originally wanted to be an animator and took almost every art class available, including cartooning and graphic arts classes at Mass Art and Northeastern in Boston during high school. Once I graduated, I went to the University of Kentucky to study Fine Arts.
While I did really well in all my art classes and math classes, I didn’t do so well in pretty much everything else. I needed a job. I looked in the paper (because that’s what you did back then) and found a prep cook/pot washer job at a local fish fry restaurant.
I loved the way a kitchen worked. I saw the guys at the end of the line, and decided that I wanted that job. So I worked very hard and worked my way through all the positions in the kitchen, at several restaurants. Ultimately, I attended the Le Cordon Bleu school at MacIntosh College here in Dover, NH and graduated at the top of my class.
When it came time to choose an internship site, I looked for a place that was modern, innovative, and most importantly, a place I could hopefully stay on full time afterwards. That restaurant was 43° North, in Portsmouth NH.
I carried on my previously established work ethic and within a year and a half of finishing my internship, I became the executive chef. Being a chef to me, at that point, gave me the incredible ability to create art with food.
Why did you chose New Hampshire as the site of your restaurant?
I’ve lived in NH almost my entire life, it’s a beautiful place. I really love it here. It has what I want; the close proximity to the mountains, forests, fields, and oceans. I am an outdoor kid at heart and need to have those things in my life. Plus, living here for this amount of time gives me a real connection to the people and the land that I don’t have anywhere else. When it came time to open Stages, New Hampshire was the only place that made sense.
That is not to say it’s been easy. We are in a very tucked away location, with a very high end and experimental concept. But, I wanted to take the foods that are grown right here in our community and elevate them to a whole other level. We’re still here.
Who are your favorite suppliers?
Stages may be a very modern restaurant with my approach to artistic plating, serving only tasting menus, high tech cooking equipment, and refined technical cooking style… but, it is rooted deep in our area’s cultural history. The farmers that I work with are my friends and neighbors, they’re all in New Hampshire. These farms dictate my menu.
I never demand or ask for a product, I never call a company and place a produce order or a meat order for the next day. Instead, I create dishes based on what I’m told is coming from the farm or out of the water.
Each week, Abby (Abby Wiggin, Wake Robin Farm, Stratham NH) texts me a list of what is being picked. Amanda (Parks) & Captain Tim (F/V Finalander, Portsmouth NH) texts a list of the fish they caught that day or night. Luke Mahoney, (Brookford Farm, Cantebury NH) sends a list of their dairy products. And Jim Czack, (Elevage de Volailles, Loudon NH) and I work closely with the birds he raises to maintain a breeding and slaughter schedule to know what ducks, turkeys, geese, and lamb are coming. We also get all our eggs from Jim. This coming year will be special as he’s going to raise a cow for us, which means, this will be the first time that Stages will have served beef in 5.5 years.
We are committed to honor the hard work of our friends, and are committed to the tradition of an honest working relationship between farmer and chef. It’s very old-world, and it’s the most trusted system out there.
Do you grow any of your own food for the restaurant?
Next door to Stages, I have an indoor grow room. I grow various herbs for my kitchen. I created self-draining grow beds with rocks and soil that drain via lines at the base of the tables. All the lights are on timers and go on and off throughout the day to simulate cloud cover and day and nighttime. It gives me the ability to pick fresh herbs year-round.
I forage for wild ingredients including herbs, flowers, roots, berries, seaweeds and some mushrooms. Our food comes from every living part of NH in order to best tell the story of where we are.
What is your favorite ingredient to work with and why?
It’s hard to answer that for a specific food, I like so many things! As a group, I like cooking vegetables. They may seem easy to cook, but, properly cooking vegetables is difficult. There’s surprisingly little room for error. Some of my favorites currently are cabbages, mushrooms, tomatoes, and onions.
Can you tell us about your menu?
My menu is quite different, in fact, when presented, it’s not a menu at all. It’s simply a list of ingredients and where they came from (Field, Pasture, Ocean, Wild, Aged) This is to show my guests what I have that day or week, and from there I create a constantly changing tasting menu presented in a progression of 8-12 courses. The variance of the course number is justified by however many courses I feel is necessary to showcase the foods I had that week.
Not only do I select from what’s coming from the farms, but, I spend a lot of time preserving the food as well. This is done by fermenting, pickling, drying, curing and smoking in order to have foods that might be in abundance one season, yet gone in the next.
As we know, the winters in New England can be quite harsh. These methods help to secure the foods that I can cook with in the colder months. I spend all year setting up for this time. And each year, the cycle repeats. It’s something where you have to not only be very in tune with the local agriculture, but versed in preservation techniques as well.
You’re becoming known for your theme dinners? How do they work?
Stages is open 4 nights a week serving the multi-course tasting menu. Sometimes, for fun, I put that menu aside and use an iconic restaurant, history, a movie, or holiday as menu inspiration. Each menu is only for one night to a sold out crowd.
I spend a lot of time researching each theme for accuracy. I enjoy reading about the history and cultures of other times and places and incorporating them into my work. It’s enjoyable for the staff, for the guests… and it’s fun to break the rules and do something totally different.
What cookbooks have influenced you most?
The French Laundry, Alinea, Noma, Eleven Madison Park, La Technique (Jacques Pepin). They reflect my style – French technique, Scandinavian/Nordic flavor and sensibility, and modern and precision in approach.
What to you want people to most know about your work?
It’s possible to be brave and unique, to make a difference, and still exist.
Learn more about Stages Restaurant by visiting their website below.
One Washington Street, Suite 325
We have some great ideas sprouting up so watch this space for more delicious finds.