Nancy Pugh and Rob Evans outside Duckfat Frites Shack on Washington Avenue in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Newly retired Portland restaurateurs Rob Evans and Nancy Pugh had a profound impact on Portland’s dining scene over the 24 years they were in business here. Since first meeting 39 years ago, the couple learned fundamental lessons about the hospitality industry at venues around the country before buying (the now defunct) Hugo’s in 2000 and helping put Portland on America’s culinary map.

Evans was named among the country’s best new chefs in 2004 by Food & Wine magazine. The couple then opened Duckfat just down Middle Street in 2005, and married in 2007. Evans won a James Beard award for Best Chef: Northeast in 2009 and appeared on the cooking show “Chopped” in 2011, winning $10,000 (he also made it to the final round on “Chopped Champions” in 2013). Evans and Pugh sold Hugo’s to a team of their employees in 2012. Pugh oversaw business and front-of-house operations at Hugo’s and the Duckfat restaurants, including Duckfat Frites Shack, which opened on Washington Avenue in 2016.

This spring, Evans, 60, and Pugh, 57, sold the Duckfat properties and left restaurant life behind to focus on building a home on their property in western York County. We sat down with the couple recently to talk about how they got their starts in the industry, how working in some of the country’s most elite restaurants prepared Evans for Hugo’s, the challenges facing married restaurateurs, and what Portland’s restaurant scene might look like in the years to come.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us how you got started as a chef, and how you two met:

ROB EVANS: I went to trade school, not for culinary but for electrical wiring because it was in the family, but I just don’t have the head for that stuff. I used to wash dishes and bus at this place in Southborough (Massachusetts) when I was younger, and one day I’m walking by. They’re all outside behind the kitchen, smoking a joint of course. They’re like “Hey how’s it going? What are you doing?” And I was like, “I’m doing electrical. I don’t like it.” And they’re like, “Well you want to learn how to cook? We’ve got a job for you if you want.” It was as straightforward as that. And I’ve been cooking ever since. I was 19.

I spent three years at that place, and I followed the chef to another place, Reflections in Hudson (Massachusetts), where I met Nancy in 1985. She was waitressing and I was cooking. It’s the oldest romantic restaurant story in the book – front of the house, back of the house …


NANCY PUGH: I had been working there and he came in as a new cook. I introduced myself very quickly.

The legendary Julia Child, right, with Evans, second from right, and the team at Goose Cove Lodge in 1998. Courtesy of Rob Evans

RE: We were wild childs. We went our separate ways, but we stayed connected, on and off, all the way until we moved to Portland together. I came back to Maine in 1995 when a job opened up on Deer Isle (at the former Goose Cove Lodge, now Aragosta at Goose Cove). This was my first chef job. I was not by any means experienced enough. But I went down and applied. I didn’t get the job. But then a month later, the chef had heart issues, and all they had was me, so I got the job by default.

I started doing my own stuff, and it was a total shift in my thinking. The shift was going from a line cook pirate to creativity and thinking through dishes and meals. That ownership of it. I came back at it the next three seasons, just charging at it, to develop my own style. The owners gave me a lot of creative leeway, and I think I earned their trust.

NP: When I went up there to see him, I didn’t know a lot of other places where the menu shifted and changed as much. He was creating a menu that was different almost daily. So there was a lot of experimentation in that crash course.

RE: I was always picking stuff I hadn’t cooked before. So it was like putting myself through culinary school. My last year there, I got to feed Julia Child. She came in one night because she had family up there. She had carrot risotto with rabbit. I remember because she liked it.

How did your time at renowned restaurants like The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia and The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley shape you as a chef?

RE: In 1998, I sent a letter to The Inn at Little Washington (in Virginia) for a tryout, and they said I could come down, no guarantees. I did a two-day tryout, which involved cooking dinner for (owner) Patrick O’Connell, and I got the job. That was my leap into high-end dining. It was finishing school for me. I learned about the importance of quality of ingredients, how to keep yourself tight and organized, and striving for perfection. It also represented Southern hospitality in a different way. Maybe they were the original rustic chic, I don’t know. And the food wasn’t exactly technique-driven like the Laundry. It was super accessible to the average diner.


But the biggest thing was, I was on sauté station, and that was the station that fed Patrick and his partner every night. No pressure.

NP: Feedback, though (laughs). The thing about the inn that really stood out to me (when she visited Rob), especially when you look at fine dining – it is 1,000% customer-forward. Patrick was so in tune to really making the guest happy.

RE: But now I’m in the high-end circle, and once you get into that circle, getting jobs at those places is much easier. So me and my friends who cook were hearing all this stuff about The French Laundry, and all of a sudden, I’m like “Oh my God, that’s accessible to me now.” I asked Patrick for a letter of recommendation and he gave me one. He said to me, “Thomas (Keller) does things different out there. Be ready.” An understatement.

I got the job. I was commis, off the line, for my whole time there. If I stayed longer, I would have been on the line, but I was there for seven months. But there was tons of learning. I was making pasta by hand and butchering, all the stuff that normally you don’t do as a line cook, so I embraced the opportunity. It was exhausting. I got paid $260 a week and I worked 60 or 70 hours a week. Now that’s illegal, I think.

Nancy drove out after I got the job, and we reconnected again. In 2000, we worked five jobs between us to survive. I worked at the Laundry, I did catering, we both cleaned a kitchen, and Nancy worked waiting tables and at a vineyard, all just to pay rent.

From this point on, it’s me and Nancy partnering as a couple and as business partners. Her sister knew this guy who was building an inn in New Hampshire. I still had a little taste of The Inn at Little Washington in me, the idea that the rooms can really support the kitchen and you can kind of throw food costs out the window. We wanted to come back to the East Coast, and we were green enough not to see that it wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime deal, because we got out here and it was just not anything we wanted to do.


NP: Everything there felt like Nana’s house. I don’t think stylistically Rob would have been happy or able to do the food he would have wanted to do, coming from the Laundry. We’re in the middle of nowhere in New Hampshire, and it was eye-opening instantly for the both of us, like, “We do not want to do this.”

Evans and Pugh in front of Hugo’s in 2001, the year after they bought the restaurant. John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald

So what brought you to Maine?

RE: Before I went to Virginia, I’d worked at Hugo’s in the winters for Johnny Robinson (Hugo’s original owner). He was OK with me leaving for a seasonal job each year at Goose Cove Lodge. I did Hugo’s for three seasons, and I was able to hone a craft there that’s different from the inn environment, i.e., it was more of your classic restaurant a la carte experience.

So I stopped by to see Johnny and say hello. He was like, “I want to sell. I’d like to get out.” So now our eyes are on Hugo’s, thinking maybe this is a good bet. But we have zero money, zero assets, shaky credit. And we purchased the place with the help of Johnny financing some, with our parents loaning us money, the bank, and we were able to purchase Hugo’s and open up with $2,000 working capital. Nervous …

NP: The second we took over I was thrown into a world where I had no clue what to do. I was a high school graduate. I never did any kind of business plan. Just figuring out all the permits and everything I needed to do to become a business owner – it was a lot. I was managing and running the entire business out front, go home and change, then I’d be at the door hostessing.

How would you describe your cooking style at that time? 

RE: Overly creative. Especially after Food & Wine (the magazine’s annual Best New Chefs award in 2004), which threw us into the limelight. I had license to do what I want and people would sit there and think it was great because everyone was saying it was great. I’m not saying it wasn’t great, but I definitely pushed limits on stuff. I was allowed to reach for the sky and learn from it, and reel it back in. Eventually, I landed on a style that falls between The Inn at Little Washington and The French Laundry, meaning I was more conscious of it being accessible. I wanted the average diner not to be confused or intimidated.

NP:  (Coughs and clears her throat dramatically as Evans talked about his style becoming more accessible.)


RE: I would say that cough represents 2004 through 2006, and 2007, my style started leveling out.

NP: The menu was the first bone of contention between us. I would be standing at the host stand, and people would come in, read the menu and walk out, or not understand three-quarters of it. And to me, that’s not guest friendly. You shouldn’t need a glossary for a menu. What I thought Rob did really well was that he was really conscious of his flavors. To me, Rob knew New England flavors, and I just had to get people to sit and try it.

RE: Regionality became a focus. There was a growing period. I point to 2007 as landing on who we were as a couple and as a restaurant.

What led you to open Duckfat?

RE: We went to Amsterdam for my 40th birthday in 2003. We had Belgian fries, and thought, wouldn’t this be great in Portland? And we weren’t happy with our lunches in Portland. There weren’t a lot of lunch places. If (the Duckfat location on Middle Street) wasn’t as close to us as it was, it might not have taken root. But it was so close to Hugo’s, it felt like it’d almost be an extension of it.

NP: Amsterdam was an inspiration for us, experiencing the fries in a cone. Great concept, and something we can do with Maine potatoes. And there was this fantasy for us in that: We’re doing this food at Hugo’s that we have to labor over for five nights a week, barely making money. Opening up a casual sandwich shop just seemed like a piece of cake. It seemed like easy money. Little did we know. But either way, it was a way to supplement income and have something that’s more accessible.

Tell us about the challenges of running multiple restaurants as a married couple.

NP: We talk about dog years. If you’re married and in business together, every year is like seven. So if you last two years, it’s more like 14 years.


RE: We don’t have kids, so that helped. The key with the restaurant business – and marriage too – is to get through the tough years. We went through real tough times. We learned our resilience from it as individuals and as a couple, respecting space, coming to common ground and compromising. Any great partnership includes all those things. But in the restaurant business things are dialed up to 11, and it can be crushing.

We bought land in western Maine in 2010, and that became a sanctuary for us. Once we bought that, our attention was divided between Portland and out there, all the way up to when we sold Duckfat. We were trying to figure out how to move out to this property full time.

Chef Rob Evans in the kitchen of Hugo’s in May 2009 with his James Beard Foundation Award medallion. John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald

NP: The James Beard award in 2009 did a couple things. One, now you’ve got a casual spot in Duckfat that a James Beard chef owns, so you know how that goes. At that point Duckfat was doing well, and Hugo’s was doing really well. It was the first time after all those years that both restaurants were thriving and not needing each other for support. A high-end dining award catapulted Duckfat at the same time. But the pressure was on at that point, with both places busy.

RE: Right after we got married (in 2007), we decided we wanted to sell Hugo’s at some point. Our staff (current Big Tree Hospitality partners Arlin Smith and Andrew Taylor, along with former partner Mike Wiley) all showed interest. They were ambitious and hungry. We really wanted to focus on Duckfat. It seemed like smart business move. I was 50.

NP: I needed out. Owning businesses, not knowing what I was doing, trying to operate everything. It was just too much. It was not my forte. And while we still had Hugo’s, his total attention and devotion was in the Hugo’s kitchen. So that was another thing: Duckfat needed more attention.

So when did you decide to sell Duckfat?

NP: It was 2019 when we decided to start backing away and build a house on our land.


RE: And then the pandemic hit, so we’re totally shifting gears from selling to survival.

NP: We never worked as much or as hard as we did for those three years.

RE: And we thrived. The biggest thing outside of our restaurants’ culture and how we work with each other was the city closing down (one lane of) Middle Street. We had this huge wooden pavilion and we fed people in that thing through the winter for two years. Every day was something different, and we needed some creative solution to some problem. Last summer, we got back to our plans for selling.

NP: If you thought we were ready in 2019, believe me. I had nothing left.

RE: We don’t have kids, don’t have debt, still have our health. And we wanted to do something different than be business owners. As a couple, we’re real excited to be husband and wife living in rural Maine. We have a house to finish, and it’s become clear that this is our project. The retirement thing has been really challenging for us in ways we weren’t expecting.

Evans and Pugh on a two-month motorcycle trip to Utah. The couple aim to take more extended trips now that they’ve retired. Courtesy of Rob Evans

NP: I’m not going to be bored, I’ll tell you that much.


RE: There’s identity stuff that comes when you’ve been doing this for 24 years. This house is keeping us kind of in that mode that we’re normally in as business partners and owners. We’re also trying to be less ambitious while getting things done at the same time. Find how to have more balance and not be, uh –

NP: Doing everything at an 11. When we first looked at selling, all we could think about would be an operator, someone who knows how to operate a restaurant. But more than likely, Duckfat would not have stayed the same. If a restaurant couple came in and bought Duckfat, what do you think they’re going to do? They’re going to get rid of the highest-paid people, start ripping through it, put their own spin on it. Of course, why wouldn’t they?

So I reached out to a broker down in Boston that my brother and sister used – both of them sold restaurants as well. And he had a guy he’d been working with who happened to be in Austin, Texas. And he expressed interest immediately. The thought of whether that would be a good fit for us was puzzling. In fact, we said no instantly. The (broker) said to me, “Why don’t you think about this over the weekend?” We started doing the math, and knew he wouldn’t buy the place unless our staff was staying on. And then we thought, “Oh, our staff would run this. Everyone would keep their job, and not only that, everyone would be kind of getting a raise and taking on more responsibility.” It became the best scenario I could have ever dreamed of. They can take Duckfat and keep it relevant. And the customer is not going to miss a beat.

Thoughts on the future of fine dining and Portland’s restaurant scene in general?

NP: I don’t think fine dining is desired anymore. People are spending money. But it’s like, “Don’t tell me to be quiet, don’t tell me to put a jacket on, don’t tell me to look nice.” That atmosphere of having communal tables and have things be more casual doesn’t mean you can’t charge 68 bucks for a burger, either.

The old-style fine dining has started to go to the wayside across the board. For Rob and I, if we go somewhere, we’re going to look for the couple that’s running a restaurant, the guy that’s somewhat starting out who cares about what he’s doing in the kitchen. Leeward is one of our favorite places to eat right now. Their wine list, their food – he (chef-owner Jake Stevens) is so reasonably priced I can’t stand it.

I think Portland is going to continue to keep on putting the hipster thing out there. Whatever the flavor of the trend is, Portland will have it. People seem to be attracted to what’s happening here right now, and if they come here and it’s not happening here yet, they’re like, “Let’s do it in Portland. We could get away with that and make a lot of money doing it.”


RE: I have to wonder if the fine dining model is an unsafe model right now, where fast casual is much more accessible and your customer base is broader. We went through 9/11 and saw a change in food not just in Portland but throughout the country, then the recession, and then the pandemic. It’s going to take a while to see what the change from (the pandemic) is going to be. It was a massive change in cost of goods and what people want to eat, and staff is looking to be valued more and basically not be abused. How that model shifts is going to take time.

What do you think your legacy will be in Portland?

NP: I look at (Rob) over there and laugh because when we came into town, (award-winning Fore Street chef) Sam Hayward was like grandpa. He’s the guy of all knowledge. He’s the guy that had the produce there when you walked into the restaurant, farm-to-table. Sam cared. Now (gesturing to Rob) he’s almost hitting the grandpa stage.

RE: If I was to put humility on the shelf for a second, we weren’t afraid to take risks at a time when dining was questionable – who was coming out? – and that risk-taking served us well. I think a lot of restaurants should embrace that quality of restaurant ownership.

NP: What we get back from people who used to work for us is how much they really appreciated what we built behind the scenes as well as on the floor.

Evans’ and Pugh’s yurt on their western Maine property. The couple is building a house on the land. Courtesy of Rob Evans

RE: We were good with the Golden Rule. We had worked in so many restaurants, and the question was, how do we develop a restaurant that eliminates the stuff we didn’t like – the negativity, the division between front and back. We treat our dishwashers like we treat our chef.

NP: We sold Duckfat on the 30th of April. I became emotional one afternoon, and I think it was about that Duckfat has always been its own thing. It has its own personality, and all of us are just breathing life into it. I mean that in the sense that it was our baby. You build something from the ground up and you don’t know until it’s gone. We really worked hard to not have any regrets and appreciate it. That’s the part that is bittersweet. That could have just been a total disaster had (another new owner) come in and just tromped all over it. Our kid went off to a really nice college instead of smoking crack around the corner. So you’re like, “Okay, maybe we did something right.” We can sit back now and maybe relax.

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