Thursday, October 11, 2012

Chef Dwight Evans in Paris - Part 1

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of his graduation from the esteemed professional cooking school Grégoire Ferrandi, Chef Dwight Evans returned to Paris to see classmates and visit “old stomping grounds.” I had the good fortune of being able to set up a rendezvous with him before he filled his schedule and he granted me an interview. During our chat, I reminded him that I interviewed him ten years ago when he was preparing to leave Paris and return to the U.S. to "seek his culinary fortune."

This week's blog presents my write up from that first interview in 2002. I'll post the discussion of our 2012 interview next week.


The throngs of people filling their baskets at the street market outside the café on rue Mouffetard were just one of the many signs that Paris was returning to normal after summer vacation. Inside, I chatted with Dwight Evans, who, ironically, was preparing to leave Paris to return to Indiana.

Chef Dwight Evans in 2002
© Discover Paris!

Though he was born in Cleveland, Ohio, Evans considers himself a native of Muncie, Indiana. He is what you might call a “self-made man”, having chosen cooking as a profession at a very early age. Starting as a dishwasher at the age of 13, he worked his way up to the position of cook, then sous-chef in restaurants in Muncie and in Indianapolis. His grandmother was his greatest inspiration, and his respect and love for her cooking is stronger now than ever. Evans recalls that at the tender age of 12, his grandmother told him that his greens were “the best she ever tasted”. That single phrase gave him the determination and the belief in himself to succeed as a chef.

Evans comes from a family where all the men cook, and cook well. But he is the first of his clan to venture into the kitchen professionally. After gaining invaluable experience in many local restaurants, he found that he had reached the proverbial “glass ceiling” in the field – he was overqualified to be a sous-chef, but underqualified to be a chef. He was advised to go back to school to obtain a degree. And after talking things over with his family, Evans did just that.

Having left high school to take care of his family, he began by obtaining his G.E.D., then went on to study at Ball State University. He subsequently enrolled at Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina, where he enhanced the knowledge and skills that he already possessed with instruction from some of America’s finest culinary professionals. He sites John Kacala, Certified Executive Chef and professor of the Garde Manger course (the art and preparation of cold food) at the university, as one of the people who influenced him most during his two-year tenure at Johnson and Wales.

When I asked Kacala to comment on Evans’ performance in school, he said “Dwight is a team player with a good head on his shoulders…There is no doubt in my mind that he is an up and coming force in the culinary and hospitality field.”

Yet another esteemed culinary professional, Michel Bouit of the central region of the American Culinary Federation, was instrumental in encouraging Evans to strive for greater heights. He suggested that Evans undertake instruction in Paris, which is considered by many to be the culinary capital of the world. Again, Evans was ready to challenge himself, and soon found himself enrolled at the Ecole Superièure de Cuisine Française in the heart of the city. After completing the program, he had the great fortune to work as an intern at the Michelin-star restaurant, the Jules Verne.

The take-home lesson from Evans’ experience at the Jules Verne was discipline. As you might expect in a Michelin-star restaurant, everything ran like clockwork in the kitchen. The brigade ran like a well-oiled machine. While Evans found that the kitchen staff viewed some of the dining preferences of the clients less than “appropriate” (for example, ordering beef cooked well done as opposed to rare), he said that their professionalism was beyond reproach. He hopes to run his own kitchen with such a well-trained staff someday.

When I asked Evans how he feels about cooking, he responded by saying that being a chef is “like being a magician”. Though everyone has different tastes and preferences, a chef has to know how to please everyone despite these differences. Finding the formula, or recipe, for each individual dish on a menu that is pleasing to the majority of people is like magic for him. He also said that when everything comes together in the kitchen as it should, he gets an adrenaline rush from the realization that he has succeeded yet again at satisfying his “audience”, the customers in the dining room.

Who are Evans’ culinary heroes? Escoffier, who devised the brigade system of the restaurant kitchen and wrote what Evans considers to be the culinary bible of our time. Emeril, who is also a Johnson and Wales alumnus and who also went to Paris to further develop his culinary skills. Bocuse, who Evans looks upon as a modern-day Escoffier. And Ducasse, who is not only a consummate chef, but an excellent business man. Evans hopes to emulate Ducasse by succeeding at both the art and the business of cooking.

While French cuisine has definite appeal, Evans does not plan to specialize in it. Or, for that matter, in any other kind of cuisine. He does not want to “pigeon-hole” himself, but rather wants to experiment with all kinds of cuisine. Though he has returned to the U.S., thoughts of another culinary excursion to a foreign country are already coursing through his head. Evans has his sights set on Italy, and if the contacts that he made during his Paris sojourn develop, then he may soon find himself applying for another visa.

I asked Evans how he managed to deal with the language barrier while taking such an intensive course at the Ecole Supérieure de Cuisine Française. He laughed and said that his course was for foreigners, and was thus held in English. But he did have to learn French nonetheless, and he was just starting to get the hang of it when he had to leave. To combat homesickness, he said that he found a home-away-from-home at the pan-African soul food restaurant, Bojangles*. The owner, Chicagoan Sharon Morgan, was happy to meet another African-American from the Midwest who shares her passion for cooking. She even asked Evans to be guest chef at the restaurant, something that he was happy to do.

Bojangles restaurant
© Discover Paris!

Interestingly, it was Evans’ professor at the Ecole Supérieure who gave Evans the name of a contact who introduced him to Morgan. Thus haute cuisine and soul food were both part of Evans’ culinary experience in Paris.

*Bojangles closed its doors in March 2003.


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