It's 10:30 p.m., well past my bedtime, but I zip up my down jacket and brave the 4-degree inky black winter night to drive to the small town of Dover, N.H. As the lights go out in most of the local restaurants one spot in town is just revving up.
Twice a month, on Wednesday evenings, chefs from Boston to Portland, Maine, gather in the kitchen of Chef Evan Hennessey's James Beard Award-nominated restaurant, Stages at One Washington Place, for a kind of cooking salon. They present dishes and techniques they are working on—or struggling with—and get feedback from other professionals in the business.
Unlike reality television, on which chefs scream, break plates, and do just about anything to get ahead of their peers, this gathering replaces competition with constructive criticism, and supportive sarcasm.
The idea for the Stages Project came to Hennessey while reading Chef René Redzepi's cookbook based on his world-renowned Copenhagen restaurant, Noma. Like Redzepi, Hennessey is a practitioner of molecular gastronomy. Redzepi wrote of his late Saturday-night salons at which the entire kitchen—from the prep cooks to the great chef himself—presented ideas and techniques. Hennessey's old friend, Chef Matt Louis of Moxy restaurant in nearby Portsmouth, N.H., did a stage (or internship) at Noma. Together the two chefs decided to bring the concept to northern New England. In early 2014 the Stages Project was born.
As the session begins, Hennessey, a tall, lean, bearded redhead, looks tired, and no wonder: His day starts at 6:30 a.m., walking his young daughter to school, followed by ordering food for the restaurant, prepping and then cooking for a full house. By the time I arrive, Hennessey and four other exhausted-looking chefs are busy working on the dishes they will present tonight. "There are no expectations here," he says to the group. "No egos. No winners or losers." Five chefs have brought dishes to present; and another half dozen chefs, farmers and sous chefs are there to taste, watch and learn. The only requirement for those watching is that they must come back a second time to present their own dishes. No voyeurs allowed. "We're here to have a platform where we can talk, taste and share ideas," says Hennessey.
Such soft talk is not what you'll hear on Hell's Kitchen, Chef Gordon Ramsay's aptly named reality TV show. But despite Hennessey's assurances and a few cold beers, it's not that easy to get chefs to relax when they are in the company of fellow professionals. Some of the younger chefs, who have traveled more than 60 miles from Boston and Manchester, N.H., look nervous, as if they were at an audition.
Louis volunteers to go first. "We got these gorgeous local winter bay scallops," he says, toying with his Red Sox baseball cap. "They're just too beautiful to cook, so I thought raw— just let them be."
Thin slices of locally grown pink watermelon radish line the bottom of white rectangular plates, topped with slices of the white scallops, rutabaga chutney, paper thin slices of house-made coppa (cured pork), and a drizzle of locally sourced sunflower oil, honey and red chile. A fried parsnip chip provides height and crunch on top.
Twelve forks dig in. The room is quiet, thoughtful. "Great balance and texture," says Hennessey.
Pam MacKenzie, a forager, gardener and locavore who is a first timer at the Stages Project, marvels over the buttery, fresh quality of the scallop. "What would a sprinkling of locally sourced sumac be like on this?" A philosophical discussion ensues about what, if anything, a dish gains or loses when a chef commits to using only local ingredients.
John Flintosh, Hennessey's sous chef, is up next. He has been experimenting with smoke. He serves small plates of smoked clarified butter, smoked eggs and house-cured salmon with smoked crème fraîche. The butter tastes like it has been melted over a campfire. The chefs discuss the amount of smoke in the food: What's too much? Could you smoke water and make smoked ice cubes for bourbon drinks?
Smoked ice cubes? Seriously? That's the kind of culinary invention you might expect to find in Barcelona or Copenhagen, cities known for cutting-edge cuisine. But Dover, N.H.? Seacoast New Hampshire may be best known for fried clams and chowder, but the area has become a notable destination for restaurants that build their menus around fresh local ingredients. Hennessey is part of this burgeoning scene. Like many of the chefs who attend the late-night sessions at the Stages Project, he grew up watching cooking competitions, but wanted to further his education and is continually pushing himself and his staff to think outside the box.
Each presentation lasts no more than 20 minutes. Chef Matt Decker, sous chef from Moxy restaurant, which specializes in American tapas, slices up mortadella, an Italian cured sausage he has been experimenting with, made from pork shoulder, garlic, toasted pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries. Served with cranberry sorbet, it's the lightest, most ethereal mortadella I've ever tasted. The group is blown away. They take notes, snap Instagram shots, ask probing questions.
"This is anti-reality TV," says Evan Mallett, chef-owner of the Black Trumpet in Portsmouth, N.H. Mallett, who has presented at Stages twice, has become a leader of a movement that regards using locally grown ingredients as part of a larger effort to strengthen the community. "The Stages Project underscores the good values in this community, the way we all support each other, rather than fight and try to one up one another," says Mallett, 47. "I've been cooking for a long time now, but I have so much to learn from everyone who steps up here."
It's almost midnight and the last to present is Charlie Dunne, 24, a fish cook at Boston's Bistro du Midi. He's so nervous his hands shake as he plates his foie gras torchon with a blood orange gel and ambrosia made of cara cara oranges with a toasted coconut crème anglaise.
Hennessey talks to the young chef about how everything on the plate needs "a purpose." He asks Dunne what he was aiming for.
It reminds me of writers workshops I've attended in which I have been challenged about my word choices or plot structure. Other chefs have questions too. How many courses would follow this dish? They feel there are too many sweet elements on the plate, that it overpowers the unctuous foie gras. What other savory ingredient could go on the plate? Several chefs throw around ideas while still honoring Dunne's original intention. Dunne is visibly relieved. "Wow, thanks so much to all of you," he says. "I'm grateful for the good ideas."
Just before the evening ends, I ask Hennessey how he'd like to see the Stages Project evolve. "I'd like to see a young cook ask their idol, face to face, how to cook something," he says. "I'd like to see other projects start in other communities. This will in turn help each restaurant community grow."