I caught up with Dover’s Evan Hennessey while he was on his way to Mount Major for a brisk winter hike with his kids after a stop at the climbing gym.
It’s not the prototypical off-hours schedule for a chef, much less one who’s gained national attention this past year thanks to talent, an impressive resume that includes stops at top restaurants in New York, Chicago and Boston, and a couple of high-profile wins on the popular Food Network show “Chopped.”
But in Hennessey’s case, his life is built as much around a love of the outdoors as it is around the influences of mentors in the kitchen. In fact, his desire to shed the apron regularly and head for the mountains and forests has come to influence the flavors on his plates.
“For me, the forests and woods are such a safe place,” he said. “The smell of the air, the feel of the ground. We go hiking all the time.”
And while many of us seek the restorative powers of a walk in the woods, Hennessey has brought the outside in, connecting the forest with the plates he serves at his boutique restaurant, Stages, located on the third floor of a restored and repurposed mill building in his hometown of Dover. In addition to farm-to-table and ocean-to-table, Hennessey has flavored his menus with a creative dose of forage-to-table.
A recent chef’s table menu included, for example, rock tripe (a lichen that grows on rocks) and wild blueberries that Hennessey flavored with juniper as part of a dish with white Embden goose.
Using juniper with the blueberries wasn’t a “genius moment,” he said. He simply noted that they frequently are found growing together (typically in long-fallow farm fields), and so he experimented with combining their flavors.
In addition to working with a small network of local farmers and fishermen for his menu, Hennessey will head for the woods (or the rocky shore) with a notepad.
“I really try not to go for a hike with a dish in mind,” he said. “You are out in the woods, and you start connecting to things you have back in the kitchen. You end up with a list of ideas.”
Sometimes it’s lucky find, like the time he was driving in the pouring rain on a dark night and happened to spy an oak tree laden with hen of the woods (a mushroom also known as Maitake).
The season makes a big difference, of course. But even in winter, when edible roots are locked underneath frozen ground, the tastes of the woods can be found. Wintergreen is always there. Snowcover, Hennessey says, will rehydrate rock tripe and allow him to transform it from lowly lichen to progressive New England cuisine.
Plants considered invasives also find their way onto the menu at Stages. Autumn olive, for example, or garlic mustard, which Hennessey says is full of beautiful flavor. We are not likely to eat our way to eradication of those invaders, however.
Hennessey is able to experiment because he’s put in the time learning his craft and reached a level of success. He’s a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu at the Atlantic Culinary Academy. He’s cooked with top chefs around the country.
This year, he gained fame by appearing on “Chopped” on the Food Network for multiple episodes, winning twice. His ability to think quickly and invent creatively served him well in the completion.
“You get to a place in your career, cooking-wise and craft-wise, where you get to do what you want,” he acknowledged. “You can make your own choices.”
For Hennessey, “art and the outdoors have been prevalent with all my cooking. Adapt my food to what is happening outside — soil, air. And every time I go for a walk in the woods, it’s different.”
Which is exactly why he says that Stages is a “constantly evolving restaurant” and that he never get bored. Stages is a nine-seat “Chef’s Counter” restaurant where diners sit at a counter with a view of the kitchen to watch Hennessey at work.
Dining there might just inspire you to take a walk in the woods.
Reservations are required at Stages. For more information, go to www.stages-dining.com.
Jack Savage is the executive editor of Forest Notes, the quarterly magazine of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @JackATSPNHF.