Not only did Chef Phil Evans, while a youngster, help his family grow enough backyard vegetables to feed its four members, he also learned to cook them at his mother's knee. Family photos show him as young as 5 or 6 wearing a chef's toque. Mother and son are still cooking side by side whenever they can in the Herons restaurant kitchen at The Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary. They kept their duet alive even during Evans' apprenticeship to the noted Michelin-starred chef Marc Meneau (famous for L'Esperance in Burgundy's St. Père-en-Vézelay), and his chef-appointments at the St. Regis in Houston and Aspen.
It's been a decade since Evans graduated from the culinary program at Paul Smith College, after which he was "thrown to the wolves" among Chef Meneau's sous-chefs and prep-cooks during a six-month stage. He credits this time with his ability to run his own creative tight ship—offering haute qualite cuisine that is always just a little bit newborn and freshly invented. An upscale, international version of home cooking, if you will.
Evans' style has been described as refined-rustic, elegant down-home, nouveau Southern, and with "global flavor fusions" reminiscent of Texas, France and Italy. Elegance can be tasted and seen in such recipes as she-crab and lobster bisque, which are anything but rigidly classical. I'd have to say that the rich, silky flavors in that soup are fit for a prize. The popular starter goat's milk ricotta agnolotti served with tasso ham and stewed tomatoes has a melt-in-your-mouth quality, with just enough sauce to make each little cheese-stuffed pasta float. The portions themselves are such that we get the flavor pleasure without overindulging, and the menu choices are so varied a local could eat there regularly (if the wallet can handle it). On my lunch visits to Herons, my companions and I tried various highlights on the menu—the pulled pork sandwich (with chef's own special barbecue sauce), shrimp and grits (cornmeal dusted prawns, local truffles), pan-seared N.C. rockfish with lemon and fennel. The dinner menu tantalized us with such specialities de maison as grilled Kobe beef tenderloin, molasses-lacquered quail breast, spring lamb, and too many desserts to name (but the spirit of chocolate was among us).
Herons' menu draws heavily on local farms and in-season produce—an influence from the home-gardening days. Elodie Farms cheese, Cane Creek pork, La Farm Bakery's handmade breads, North Carolina-grown vegetables, the best wines from our state and region. Home-state cooking? It's impossible to give a single label to the new ground Evans is breaking, but one thing is clear: He loves what he does. "It's not about the money," he insists, smiling with conviction (his 6-foot-1 frame towering tall in his clogs). "It's about doing what you love." Formal training and classical influences aside, Evans insists that his Italian heritage (the passion for family cooking, gathering loved ones at holidays, and of course the ever-present pot of sauce simmering on the stove), which comes to him from both sides of his family, combined with his mom's presence and influence, are as much a part of the making-of-the-chef as his culinary schooling. The following recipes reflect it all—Evans and his mom tweaked them to celebrate summer's best ingredients just in time for July Fourth gatherings or a week at the beach.
Sweet corn risotto with seared scallops
2 ears sweet corn, peeled
2 1/2 pint chicken stock, boiling
2 tablespoons whole butter
1/3 onion, finely diced
6 ounces Arborio rice
1/4 cup dry white wine
Kosher salt to taste
2 2/3 ounces butter, diced
2/3 cup Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
kosher salt to taste; white pepper to taste
Heat butter in skillet over medium heat. Add onion and sweat until translucent. Reduce heat and add Arborio rice. Cook rice until it is shining, approximately 2-3 minutes. Do not brown. Add wine and cook until almost all the wine has absorbed into rice. Add chicken stock to pan until it covers rice; repeat this process until rice is tender, slowly adding stock a little at a time. Once the rice is almost cooked, add corn. Mix well and finish risotto with the Parmesan cheese and butter. Check seasoning and adjust salt if needed. For scallops, preheat a large skillet over medium heat. Add oil and butter to the pan. Season scallops with kosher salt and pepper; sear in pan for 2 minutes per side.
Heirloom tomato and torn basil salad, Stilton cheese, grilled Tuscan bruschetta
4 heirloom tomatoes, quartered
3 tablespoons cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces Stilton cheese
1 bunch basil, torn
1/2 small red onion, peeled and julienned
2 ounces thinly sliced Tuscan style Italian bread, 1/2 inch thick
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup frisee lettuce or any fresh leafy green
Wash tomatoes and place them into mixing bowl lined with a paper towel. Once dry, slice into approximately ½-inch pieces. Add to another bowl with sugar, kosher salt, fresh ground black pepper, balsamic vinegar, basil, red onion and extra virgin olive oil. Allow tomatoes to marinate at room temperature for at least an hour before serving. While tomatoes marinate, brush Tuscan bread with olive oil and place directly on a grill. Once the bread is evenly toasted on each side, place the Stilton on top and drizzle with remaining olive oil. In a separate bowl, add frisee lettuce or other fresh or crispy leafy green. Season greens with salt and pepper and liquid from tomato marinade. Place Tuscan bread and cheese in center of plate. Top with tomatoes and garnish with greens.
This salad can be followed with grilled salmon, chicken or beef treated as an entrée. It pairs particularly well with a bottle of chilled Riesling white wine from California or Alsace.