Chef Rob Evans, owner of Duckfat, cooks for a benefit at Flatbread in Portland on Sunday. Evans will compete for $50,000 on “Chopped Champions” Tuesday night.
By Meredith Goad
You might think that $50,000 is an awfully big carrot, a prize that's tasty enough to lure even the most reluctant chef before television cameras.
But Rob Evans, owner of Duckfat in Portland, confesses his first reaction to going back on the Food Network show "Chopped" was, "Thanks, but no thanks." He thought about it for two months before changing his mind and saying yes.
The show is actually "Chopped Champions," a contest that pits 16 past winners of the "Chopped" show against one another in the kitchen. Evans was shown winning round four in last week's episode and advancing to face three other chefs in the grand champion round, airing at 10 p.m. Tuesday. The winner will receive $50,000, a reward that's much grander than the show's usual $10,000 prize.
The chefs had to cook three dishes using mystery baskets of ingredients that usually contain unusual combinations of foods. The rounds were timed, and one chef was "chopped" by the judges after each round.
"I have to say, I enjoy the cooking part of it," said Evans, 49. "The first time it's really anxious, and then as you get an idea of what it's like, it's just fun. Just ready, set, go, try to make something that's better than everyone else. Whether it's delicious or not, I don't know. It just has to be more delicious than the other three guys, because it's not the way I cook. It's very quick and short."
Duckfat, where Evans and his cooks corn tongues for three weeks, brine food overnight and make their own charcuterie and fermented sodas, has had three wins on "Chopped" -- not bad for a little northern New England sandwich shop.
Evans won $10,000 on an episode that aired in October 2011 before winning round four of last week's "Chopped Champions." A Duckfat cook, Missy Corey, took home $10,000 from the show in April of last year.
The staff at the restaurant had a party during last week's airing of "Chopped Champions" and watched it together, "which was a blast to have my whole crew behind me and my own cheering section," Evans said.
He plans to watch Tuesday's grand champion show with a small circle of friends. Evans and his wife, Nancy, live on a farm in western Maine and don't have cable TV.
Although Evans almost didn't participate in the show this time around, in the end, he decided he couldn't turn down the national exposure for his restaurant.
"You know, the money's tempting, but it's about PR," he said. "I don't like being on television, really. I think I do OK on it, because I just ignore the cameras and talk my spiel.
"As I was thinking about doing it, I just couldn't toss away the PR that it offers. As a restaurant owner and chef, win or lose, it's a win for me, because the exposure is so huge. "
Evans started his restaurant career 30 years ago.
"When I started cooking, it wasn't as glamorous as it is today," he said. "I loved the counter-culture aspect of it. I did a lot of traveling with it. It wasn't until, I think, 10 years into it that I started thinking about it as a serious career."
Evans owned Hugo's on Middle Street for 12 years. His work at that restaurant won him national acclaim and, in 2009, a James Beard award for Best Chef Northeast. He has owned Duckfat, just down the street from Hugo's, for eight years.
Evans is an avid supporter of Share Our Strength, an organization that fights childhood hunger in Maine. He began by volunteering at the group's annual Taste of the Nation benefit dinner, and upped his involvement after raising $48,000 for the organization in a single night at Hugo's.
He now organizes similar events, called "No Kid Hungry" dinners, throughout the year at other restaurants. On Sunday night, he joined Sam Hayward of Fore Street and Chad Conley of Gather in Yarmouth making pizzas at Flatbread for a more casual, family-style benefit dinner. There will be another one at Gather on April 7.
"I try to rally chefs to come on board and do this," Evans said. "I don't always cook at them, but I'm there. I help them get donated food and help them figure out their menu."
The giving back is part of what Evans called a "well-balanced life," one that he can have now that he is settled on his 80-acre Limington farm, where he is raising pigs and hopes to eventually grow vegetables for his restaurant.
"For the last 25 years, I've been trying to buy land in Maine and live a rural life," he said, "but I own a business in Portland, so right now we spend half the time out in the country and half the time in Portland. It's a little bit healthier lifestyle than I had at Hugo's. I have more time for family, more time for friends, more time for my health, more time for my wife, all of it.
"It's been a nice next level for me. I think most people in my position just go off and expand, and I have no dreams of an empire. I want to make a good living and be connected to all aspects of my life."
Evans cannot reveal any of the details of Tuesday's episode of "Chopped Champions," including the outcome. He said on last week's show that if he won the $50,000, he'd probably buy a tractor.
"I'm hoping now that I've done enough PR that I can just retreat to my property out west and not have to see a TV camera anymore," he said.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: