Chef Hunter Evans of Elvie’s: “You cannot please everyone”

I used to think I could open a restaurant and do it all. People would come to eat MY food. I could not have been more wrong. Your staff is the backbone to your company. After experiencing yoga, I knew that I had to offer this to my staff, so we started classes at the […]

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I used to think I could open a restaurant and do it all. People would come to eat MY food. I could not have been more wrong. Your staff is the backbone to your company. After experiencing yoga, I knew that I had to offer this to my staff, so we started classes at the restaurant for our staff on Mondays while Elvie’s is closed. The hospitality industry is stressful and hard on your body.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Hunter Evans, chef and owner of Elvie’s restaurant in Jackson, MS. Growing up in the south, he was exposed to food his entire life. However, he really honed his technique and journey of becoming a chef by attending the Culinary Institute of America and being exposed to some of the best kitchens in New York City. Since moving back home and creating his dream restaurant, Elvie’s, he has been named the Mississippi King of Seafood, featured in Garden and Gun magazine, and recently listed as a Chef to Watch in Plate Magazine.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

Food has always been a part of my life. My grandmother Elvie lived in New Orleans which was about a 3-hour drive for us to visit. I Gatherings with family always involved food. Through visiting my grandmother and being raised in the south I realized that the table is a very important and sacred place. It is a space that communities have used for a long time to reconcile and break bread together. I was sold on the possibility of opening a restaurant with the opportunity to create memories and experiences for other people. As a chef, I have the opportunity to develop relationships with farmers, to support our community, and support a staff of about 30 people.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

I really love cooking food that has an old school, classic feel. Specifically, I like to explore the French influence of southern cuisine. As a classically trained French chef, I love to find old recipes and techniques and cook them through the lens of Mississippi ingredients and stories. I think a lot of young chefs currently want to cook and do what’s new and trendy, while I really love cooking dishes that I think are ‘dying’ using the best produce and products I can find. We had a dish on the menu where we took something very French — Escargot — and paired them with something very southern — collard greens — to create a very interesting intersection of two cuisines I love.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I was volunteering for an event in Oxford, MS for the southern foodways alliance and a James Beard nominee chef (now winner), Alon Shava, asked me to use a whip cream canister to finish a flatbread with a gorgonzola cream. It is a pressured canister, and you slowly squeeze the trigger for the cream to come out. I was having some trouble slowly pulling the trigger and he was watching, and all the sudden gorgonzola cream exploded out of the canister and sprayed all over him. It was not the worst thing I have ever done but I was young and excited to help out. I learned that it is okay to ask questions and to ask for help. I tell young staff in my kitchen often that no one came out of the womb cooking. If you work hard and give me your best every day, then I have no problem teaching and answering questions.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

I have been cooking for about 10 years. Within the last few years, I decided I really wanted to pursue my dream of opening a restaurant. Well, I quit my previous job in September 2019. I spent the next few months with my business partner, Cody Mccain, planning and securing the funds to open. We finally made reached our goal and opened January 31, 2020. Six weeks later we shut down due to Covid-19. The next year was very difficult, but we got creative and committed ourselves to our staff and community. It was difficult in the beginning to make decisions with so much unknown, but we held a meeting with our staff and tried to be as honest as we could. We said we would not fire anyone and do whatever we could to help. Collectively as a restaurant we worked hard and changed the entire concept of Elvie’s every week (we explored a new cuisine or culture each week and created a menu based on that) to provide takeout for the community.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

Connection and stories. When you can connect dots to things off the plate, I think people get excited. When people understand and can interact with the chef or a server about why our fish dish is the way it is, they can experience a lot more than just nourishment. Why did I put collard greens with escargot? Those moments are special and memorable for guests.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

The perfect meal would be to stroll through the farmers market (or go to a friend’s farm) to pick some vegetables, maybe a protein, invite some friends over, light the charcoal grill, season with a little salt and pepper, and pair with some great wine. I love cooking over charcoal or fire when I can.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

My wife and I had our first daughter 7 months ago, so personal time is a little limited right now, which I am totally fine with! I keep my daughter, Amelia, all day Monday while the restaurant is closed. While my wife works, I try to spend lots of time outside with my daughter. Going on walks is a space in which I can unwind, and my mind can chew on dish ideas and recipes. Walking and running is where I have time to dream and play with food in my head. Being in nature and experiencing the different seasons is really inspiring and a great gauge for how the menu will change.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

I never stop dreaming! I am constantly thinking about restaurant concepts. I am currently working on a small expansion with my business partner. It is not a full restaurant but more of a small bar and niche bottle shop (selling bottles of wine and snacks) right next door to our restaurant. I think this will impact us greatly and give us more opportunity. Specifically, it will give us an opportunity to grow some members of our staff and give them the chance to step up and pursue things they are passionate about.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Hire good people and treat them well. You cannot do everything. Surround yourself with creative, likeminded people. You will build off each other and do things together you did not think you could accomplish. Take some time to learn what you are good at and hire other people to do things that may not be so great at.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Cook what you know / believe in

I love to eat out and go to other events with chefs. I can easily point out a dish or recipe and which chef it came from. I also notice when another chef is copying a dish or recipe. Do not follow trends. If you cook what you care about and share that with the guest, they will have a much better experience. It is not that I was being told the opposite but there is so much media and trends to keep up with and follow, and it can make you lose yourself.

2. Your staff is the greatest asset you have

I used to think I could open a restaurant and do it all. People would come to eat MY food. I could not have been more wrong. Your staff is the backbone to your company. After experiencing yoga, I knew that I had to offer this to my staff, so we started classes at the restaurant for our staff on Mondays while Elvie’s is closed. The hospitality industry is stressful and hard on your body.

3. You cannot please everyone

Not everyone is going to like what you are doing and that is okay. Not every chef is going to welcome you in the community and not every guest is going to like the food. Yes, out of 100 good compliments I will sometimes dwell on the one bad one, but if your restaurant is full, staff is happy, and bills are being paid then you are doing something right.

4. The more you move up, the less you cook

This is something I saw but always thought that it would not happen to me. I do run specials and help the cooks every day, but some days when the kitchen is running smooth and it is a busy Friday night, I am just in the way. I consider that a success. The goal is how to figure out a way to make your business run without you. I love cooking and will never stop teaching and being involved in the menus, but on a day-to-day basis I must train others to be run the kitchen. There are so many different things that pull you in so many different directions as a restaurant owner that it is best for everyone that I let sous chefs and cooks really be present every day in the kitchen.

5. Communication is such an important skill

There are so many aspects of communication that I am learning. Communicate with your staff about expectations. I try to lay out roles and responsibilities as well as communicate what it means to work with and alongside me. Will there be other opportunities? Pay increases? And so on.

Communicate with managers. I try to communicate and be on the same page as much as possible with the managers that will be running day-to-day operations. We try to meet once a week where we discuss what is coming at us for the next two weeks, and anything else that needs to be addressed. I try to constantly ask my team if there is anything they need from me that would help them do their job better.

We are only a year and a half into our restaurant and the majority of that was a pandemic. My business partner and I are trying to nail down the best systems for us while trying to shift from working IN the business to working ON the business. The two of us went on a camping trip to discuss our first year of operation and that time was much needed. Just to have the space away from the restaurant to look at numbers and brainstorm about what we want the next year to look like was a necessity. We are going to try and make it happen quarterly.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

Our Mississippi Redfish Almondine! Almondine is a classic preparation of garnishing with slivers of toasted almonds. We pan sear the fish and top it with lots of almonds, brown butter, capers, parsley, chives, a charred lemon purée all on top of some lightly wilted bibb lettuce and finished with fresh lemon. It is by far our number 1 seller.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I know mental health is a hot topic right now but as a husband to a therapist, son of a therapist, and a brother to a therapist, I think that restauranteurs and chefs need to take a hard look at how and what they are providing for their staff. If we don’t treat line cooks and servers like professionals in and outside the restaurant, how can we expect our guests to treat them like professionals. For too long the hospitality industry has bent over backwards at our own expense, and I think we will break it we do not start changing some things.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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