For almost 12 years chef Evan Hennessey has worked to dial in his local, seasonal and hand-harvested fare at Stages at One Washington, located in Dover, N.H. Today he expertly plates an ever-changing 8-10 course tasting menu for 36 guests each week, all with the idea of showcasing true New England fare.
The courses feature an array of unique ingredients, from freshly plucked wild herbs to forged mushrooms to sea truffles he gathered himself. The chef sources animals from one farm and plans out the meat a year in advance. His produce is hyper local, and in total, about 75% to 85% of the food served comes from nearby. The chef, who worked at renowned restaurants such as Per Se in New York City and Trio in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., said he finally has the kitchen he always wanted.
Restaurant Hospitality spoke to Hennessey over the phone about his revitalization of New England fare, what farm-to-table really means, and about his new staging program.
What is the progressive tasting experience like at Stages?
It’s what I like to show people of what New England tastes like right now. The guests never see a menu, and they start in the Living Room where we offer a snack board and change it seasonally. We change not just the food, but the tray, which is designed to look like the season and land it came from. Right now it's rocks, juniper berries and branches and acorns, and it looks like what you would see if walking through a New England forest. [We do this to] give them a sample of what they are getting into when they come into the kitchen.
We are ocean and vegetable forward, but we also work with a farm in New Hampshire, about 45-minutes from the restaurant. There they raise all the land animals for us: Sheep, ducks, turkey, geese. The seaweed, clams, scallops, oysters, we harvest, and they are super good. Everyone wants to eat oysters in the summer, but the water gets colder and they get sweeter in the winter.
How has the service at Stages shifted over the past 12 years?
The idea definitely evolved. It goes hand-in-hand with me finding my culinary voice. Flashback to a million years ago when we opened, I wanted to put out good and tasty food. Over the years I found my confidence as a chef and my own footing. I had the ability to use my creativity and my culinary skills to showcase what New England has to offer. I found not many [chefs] were doing that. I am someone, as a person, who loves challenges, so I set forth in redefining what higher-end New England food looks like. And I continue to explore, find, try and cook what’s around us.
What is New England food to you?
If you ask a handful of people what their associations with New England food are, you get clam chowder, lobster rolls, blueberry pie, and maple syrup. I love them all, but they don't show where we live, they just show what we have liked to eat over generations. That's [the stigma] I wanted to undo.
How much are you using native ingredients, and what does this look like?
I use them quite a bit: All the seaweed we gather and other items from the seashore. Here’s a term I learned: primitive breed, which goes back to the lineage of that breed and never has that bloodline been crossed. [My farmer, Jim,] raises the animals according to farm standards set hundreds of years ago.
His animals too, being primitive breeds, are slower growing animals. The sheep we get are four to seven years old. Normally, sheep are slaughtered at maybe a year old. It's the same thing with the Irish Dexter cows. Those are anything from 7 to 9 years old. That's the timeframe commitment.
Is it difficult to source food that way?
When you implement the idea of making relationships with fishermen and farmers, which we have been doing since we created the restaurant, you can take it pretty far. It's achievable at that scale, when starting up. Restaurants with 1,000 covers a night probably aren't looking for hand-harvested Maine sea urchin.
Not many restaurants make a point to hand harvest ingredients or work directly with a farmer to get exactly what they need.
It sounds like a new thing but it's the old way. You get food from your neighbor, eat what they harvest. Sure, I can pick up a phone or go on the Internet and get food from all over the world and have it delivered, but it breaks the honest mold of cooking and food handling. Plus, I get to go to farms, and this week I went to the seashore and hung by the waves. It's all part of my job.
How many people do you serve each week?
We are open Thursday, Friday and Saturday. In the kitchen [where the tasting menu is served] we only seat six, and have two seatings. In the Living Room we have roughly 20 to 25 covers. It's not a lot, as far as absolute restaurant standards, but that's another point. For me, I was trying to bring the scale down, slow down the experience, and make people feel comfortable in a restaurant, showing them the potential of what a restaurant can be.
What's the price point for dinner and how many people work the shift?
The average check is $250 per person in the kitchen. It's a small staff: Myself, two more in the kitchen, and a sommelier. The kitchen serves all the food, and there are roughly 11 courses.
Talk to us about cost. How does this business model work financially?
What Jim and I realized is he raises animals with the hopes of selling them. You do what you do on the farm and you try to get restaurants to buy them. So instead, we pay on an annual basis. We figured out how much meat the restaurant can handle. We worked out a financial cost —what does it cost to raise that animal? — and took that number and divided it by 12. We pay the same amount each month, even if we aren't harvesting the animal then. We will pay so he can go buy wood, fuel for the tractor, and feed.
That also means when I get the meat, I am not paying a huge bill. Normally, when you do your inventory at the first and end of the month, your finances are screwed. But by splitting it out thorough the course of the year, it ebbs and flows with the business.
Sounds almost like a whole-animal CSA.
Yes, but the difference with that, if you have a farm share, when it comes time to harvest, the farm chooses what's in your basket. But with Jim we figured out what to raise. I just picked up three sheep, and in a couple weeks I am going to go back and get more. I know what is going to happen, so menu-wise it's good for me.
Speaking of menu planning, with such a shifting flow of ingredients, how do you do it?
Land animals are really planned out, but the rest is flying by the seat of our pants. If there's a storm it makes it difficult or dangerous to harvest [seafood], and it makes it murky and hard to clean. If there are rough waves, it's just throwing the stuff around. So with shellfish, it's based on weather and seasonality. Every Monday, I know what is coming out this week. We make our choices based on that.
So, the ocean dishes flux more than the land animals, and it's the same with vegetables. We had so much rain this year it was banner year for mushrooms. But the corn — we look forward to it every year — it sucked, it was so bad. We work with a husband and wife forger team, and while they bring us so much stuff, year-to-year we don't know what it's going to be.
How do you manage the unpredictable nature of native-land-based cooking?
We are prepping every day, and we take a fair amount of time doing so. There are things that don't hit the menu, like an excess of mushrooms, so we dry them. We made a root vegetable molasses awhile back. Oyster harvesting can also be hard because they have to close the bay when there is more than an inch of rain. So once we harvested a lot and made oyster sauce.
Another example: We have ramps on our menu right now, but it's from two different years. We ferment them and the ones from last year are soft and mellow and more sweet. The ones form this year have more of a scallion bite but a funkiness from the fermentation. We use them together and they taste different. Because we make these bases for the dishes, when the fresh ingredients aren’t' available, we have an arsenal of flavors to choose from.
So the food changes more than seasonally.
We don't look at the menu changing every four seasons. We look at in the terms of having 365 seasons and constantly changing day to day. In some little way, we are kids at heart and putting a puzzle together, a constantly changing puzzle.
How did you learn to harvest all these unconventional ingredients?
From various people. The forgers told me about the environments mushrooms grow in and about
wild herbs. I did several workshops and sat on the board for the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture. I learned how seaweed is harvested, and proper harvesting so it regenerates. I asked a lot of questions, then went out and looked before I harvested. Then, I would grab a piece, clean it and ask people that were the authority if I did things right. Once I got the green light I started to forage on my own.
What are some of the more unique things you've played with in the kitchen?
A guy in Nashville turned me on to harvesting sea truffles [also called red algae]. He used dried sea truffles, and one day I took him to the ocean and he showed the fresh ones to me. Now we collect them all the time. They look like a little brown tuft, almost like a cotton ball, and they adhere to rock weed. When you pick it up and rub it between your hand it smells like white truffles. We steeped the dried sea truffle into a dashi, and it came out flavor-wise as an oceanic custard.
How would you describe your role in the restaurant?
My job as chef and owner of the business puts me everywhere. I do admin stuff, communicating with the different farms, I run a lot of errands, and the days we are open I am back and forth in the kitchen. For the guys in the kitchen, I bring them everything, and then I'm there for service. I have a sous chef and we are constantly moving things back and forth and doing long-term and short-term projects to stay on top of things we need.
Finally, you're implementing a new program next year, Staging at Stages. Can you tell us more about it?
The basis is we want to break down the mold of traditional staging and initiate one chef per quarter, though I wish it could be a million. We will bring them into the kitchen and make them part of the team.
Their end goal is to produce three dishes that that person and myself will collectively create, then present it to 12 guests at the end of the stage.
This way the chef can see how to successfully execute a tasting menu. On one hand, I am excited to give the opportunity for these chefs to sit with guests and discuss how it was conceptualized and the prep process. On the other, they get in-the-moment feedback from our guests, can see how they ate each dish, and find out what they thought about it.
[The participants in the stage] are able to slow down as a cook and a chef, and learn more about their food and the experience they are offering. The program will start in January, and I have an assortment of applications. It sucks on my part; I want them all. [The applicants] are coming from all areas of the country, and different backgrounds. They are all super inspired and motivated. Overall, the program is to help shape the next generation of chefs in the industry, and help move it forward.
Anyone can make a plate look nice, and even taste good. But what we are doing is giving it life, giving it a meaning, giving it a place. Per Se, they have all the accolades and stars, but in my humble opinion, what we are doing is more meaningful. We are shaking the industry and changing it. After restaurant life and pandemic life, people want a big freaking hug right now. That's what the more successful restaurant is. It goes back to the Cheers thing, you want to go where everyone knows your name.