Chef's Bio & Blog
For Chef Evan, the path into cooking professionally was a sinuous one, wending its way from Washington, D.C. up the coast to Boston and ultimately the ridiculously quaint seaport village of Portsmouth. Having cooked a little in the late Eighties and early Nineties, and after several stops for college education and stints in advertising and food journalism, Evan ate a meal at Lindbergh’s Crossing in 1998 and--with help from his then-fiancée Denise--had an epiphany. The restaurant at 29 Ceres Street, already renowned for its twenty-six year run as the legendary Blue Strawbery, would become the epicenter of the Malletts’ world.
Evan and Denise moved to Portsmouth shortly after that, and Evan applied for a job as a prep cook at Lindbergh’s Crossing. The partners at Lindbergh’s opened a Spanish-themed tapas bar called Ciento, where Evan was named sous chef. In 2001, the Malletts (including newborn Eleanor) moved to Mexico, where Evan cheffed at a Mexican/Cajun restaurant in San Miguel de Allende.
In 2003, Evan was lured back from Mexico by an offer to head up the kitchen of Lindbergh’s Crossing. The great northward migration with Denise and Eleanor (and Cormac, a few months shy of being born into this world) ended with a new home on ten acres of mushroom-rich land in southern Maine, where the Mallett family still resides today.
In March of 2007, Evan and Denise bought the restaurant at 29 Ceres Street, naming it Black Trumpet after a particularly delicious mushroom Evan found while foraging. By purchasing the space, the Malletts essentially vowed to be stewards of an historic restaurant location in an even more historic building. Mallett’s connection to local food sources and his love of Latin and Mediterranean cuisines continues to inspire him as he mans the stove with an aging grace. The legacy lives on at Black Trumpet, evolving with every season and every seasonal menu change.
In 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2017 Evan was named as a James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef, Northeast. In 2020 Black Trumpet received the esteemed honor of being named as a James Beard semi-finalist for Outstanding Hospitality. He is actively involved and sits on the boards of Chef's Collaborative, Slow Food Seacoast, and the Heirloom Harvest Project, an initiative to join farmers, chefs and educators to identify and restore a food system native to the greater NH Seacoast.
Black Trumpet Blog: Table Zero
April 2, 2021
Hey survivors. Here we are climbing out of the basement of this exhausting social experiment called COVID-19. None of us know how this will end, but many of us have experienced loss of one kind or another over the last year. So I think it is critical to have a gut check at this point so we all remember what is really important, and maybe take a second look at all that is not.
If I can weigh in here, which is my blog prerog, I will say that we have now had plenty of time to think about what is happening around us. We may support or reject the guidance and the direction we are given, but the reality says that COVID-19 is a serious, widespread and opportunistic killer, which is why we have made a colossal effort to protect our most vulnerable citizens in populations around the world; but we also have to recognize the harm that this closure of society and economy has brought to our communities. Global economy is too big a beast for me to think about—or care about for that matter—but in our immediate foodshed, we have seen some very interesting developments come to the fore in the last year, and there are lessons to learn if we want to pay attention. I really want to believe that we all want to pay attention.
It is no surprise to most people that restaurants have been disproportionately screwed by the pandemic relative to other industries. But what most people don’t know is that, because we restaurant folk are accustomed to handling adversity, we are not going to lay down and surrender to this one just because it is all the horrible “unprecedented” things we have been hearing for the last 12 months. Yes, we are navigating daunting, unforgiving, universal, wackadoodle times; but most of us restaurant folk are still navigating, knowing that the world still needs to eat.
At Black Trumpet, we are acutely aware that we provide nourishment and a memorable dining experience for a small percentage of the population. And, while we have pursued every channel we could think of to keep the lights on and the doors open for our own survival, we have also made a significant effort to use the spare time on our hands (that might have otherwise been directed toward daily operations of a busy restaurant) to nourish the souls of all people, not just those who can afford to dine at Black Trumpet.
To that end, we have forged a profoundly meaningful relationship with Gather, an endlessly inspiring local hunger-relief non-profit. It began back in the Spring with PPP money we had to spend with no indoor dining and very few options to re-employ our staff. We cooked a lot of meals every week for Gather, eventually moving our operations to The Atlantic Grill after the Labrie family saw what we were doing and offered up a massive banquet kitchen they were not using. The result was a scaled operation that could churn out hundreds of meals a week. After PPP money was gone, we continued this program and to this day find ourselves producing food most weeks for families in need.
And of course, we would not have made it this far without help from the State of New Hampshire and the City of Portsmouth. The Main Street Fund provided a much-needed boost from the state that most restaurants used to help cover fixed costs like rent/mortgage, taxes and utilities. And the city, after I wrote a letter in the local paper in April, came around to the idea of assembling a taskforce to help restaurants like mine who had limited capacity to seat guests outdoors. Black Trumpet, after months of hard work and plenty of obstacles, had the good fortune to be the one featured restaurant at the Popup NH lot, a heroic conversion of a parking lot into a socially distanced live theater and dining venue. The revenue we were able to generate from that auxiliary business, along with off-site pop-ups at various locations and four tables on the sidewalk of Ceres Street, enabled our business to survive the summer and fall months.
As we prepared to tumble into the darkest winter, Black Trumpet stood with many other restaurants as we weighed the relative merits of staying open versus shuttering and praying that we come out on the other side of this beastly situation.
From the beginning of this COVID calendar, we have made keeping our staff employed a priority, and we continue to hold their well-being front and center of our struggle. We now have a small and dedicated staff working a fraction of their normal hours, and as we look back at the first months of the new year, it s worth noting that we were able to keep a skeleton crew alive and kicking. We found a way because we believed we could, even if the odds against us seemed insurmountable.
Here are just a few of the ways we innovated to ensure our survival:
· Takeout and delivery
· Creation of Pop-up NH, an socially distanced outdoor dining and entertainment venue in the Bridge Street parking lot
· How-to cooking videos
· Live Zoom cooking classes
· Grab’n’go meals at local breweries and wine shops
· Dish kits sold through VeggieGo, a Three River Farmers Alliance program, complete with recipes and videos to demonstrate how to cook dishes with local ingredients
· Monthly Savor the Sol kitchen takeover with Najee Brown
· Gather events
· Footprints Thanksgiving (Thanksgiving meals for hungry families)
· Safe “Bubble Event” bookings of our wine bar and dining room for small groups
We have seen the beginning of a changed restaurant landscape, and an event as significant as this pandemic demands that we consider what we as a culture and a community value. If restaurants--as I have been known to argue—feed not only our appetite but our souls, the Black Trumpet team and I will come out of this public safety cocoon committed to providing the food and hospitality that will accomplish that goal. Similarly, if what we value is a greater, deeper understanding of what remains broken in our food system—equity, access, and distribution challenges, to name a few things—then I hope we will take a serious look at new models that will address those needs.
I am grateful to so many bold and brilliant minds—in our community and elsewhere--who have conspired to find channels of survival through this last year. What a very special community we live in! With this post, I am sending love to all of you who have been impacted, especially those who have been isolated. With all of you, I look forward to rebounding with purpose and vigor. Be well.
May 9, 2020
By Evan Mallett
I have cooked for you for over 20 years. I feel boundlessly fortunate to have created, with my wife Denise, Black Trumpet, a restaurant that has served your needs and desires for 13 years. My children grew up in our restaurant, and some of our staff have been with us since the beginning. I can unequivocally and unironically say I have poured everything imaginable into restaurant ownership, because the joy my team and I get from each happy customer more than validates our creative risks and the long, demanding hours.
I am reaching out to our greater community today with this letter to propose that the city of Portsmouth and the state of New Hampshire assemble a task force specifically to tackle the threat of closure our myriad of independently owned restaurants now faces.
Many of you have a connection to Black Trumpet, whether it was an uncle’s 50th birthday dinner, or that first date that became a long-term partnership, or that graduation celebration where everyone at the table ate their first [insert name of strange food ingredient here], or — most commonly -- just sitting at the upstairs bar with friends.
What matters in this moment is not what memories my place has imparted, but rather what service our collective restaurant community has provided since the Blue Strawbery laid the foundation for Portsmouth’s modern culinary identity in 1970. Although I never ate at the Blue Strawbery, my young parents did. While my folks dined in the legendary space my restaurant now occupies at 29 Ceres Street, my babysitting grandparents took me to Hector’s, Yoken’s, Flagstones, The Library, BG’s and Ray’s. If there had been Applebees and Olive Garden back then, I’m sure they would have opted for those spots, but part of Portsmouth’s charm has always been its reluctance to invite the big chains downtown.
Today, Black Trumpet stands shoulder-to-shoulder with every other independent restaurant in our community faced with the threat of permanent closure if we can’t come up with a solution that will give restaurants — one of our city’s proudest bragging rights — hope for survival.
We restaurant owners have a solid track record for bouncing back, having dealt with litanies of setbacks followed by periods of bootstrapped reinvention. This hurdle feels different though, perhaps because it is immediately followed by a cliff.
We have adapted to the best of our ability. We have considered all the grim possibilities; gambled on ill-fitting, potentially forgivable federal loans; and tried to take the road most hopeful. Regulations currently in place have presented a very challenging scenario, but proposed guidelines for reopening restaurants make the existing constraints seem loose.
The portrait of compliance with the rules as they are proposed lies somewhere in Hell’s art gallery between the Dadaist exhibit and Bosch’s garden scene. Thinking about servers in masks at tables that have to be wiped down from a safe distance while guests dine and masked hosts attempting to enforce anti-queuing regulations makes the restaurant owner in me dizzy. Yet the idea that any restaurant might provide a vector for the virus is so awful it makes the human in me nauseous with dread.
Time is the only apparent solution that the CDC and our local health code enforcers can get behind. I left a recent phone call with Kim McNamara, Portsmouth’s health inspector, with the clear and depressing notion that reopening our downtown restaurants will not be feasible for quite some time. Kim has a tough job to do, and she is acutely sensitive to the idea that the public safety mandates her department is enforcing will spell the demise of many food-service businesses. In order for any of us to survive this storm, we are going to need the input and cooperation of the Health Department.
For restaurants that are cash-flow dependent — that’s about 99.9% of us — there is no time left. Waiting for help from on high is futile, as we will soon find ourselves at the end of the terms outlined by the first flurry of SBA loans and humbly scrambling for our share of the next bailout opportunity.
My plea is not about initiatives to jumpstart indoor or outdoor dining, nor is it even about getting our community back to its charm-drenched pre-COVID hamlet of bustling independent businesses. It is about salvaging an institution we all hold dear. Restaurants, it has been said, are greater than the sum of their parts. They are places of conversation, celebration, business, friendship, and romance where being doted upon adds immeasurable value to our collective human condition. Restaurants are indispensable places of human interaction and lifestyle milestones that remain etched in memory for a lifetime.
But those memories are about to be a thing of the past.
The CDC has warned that second and third waves of COVID-19 could dwarf the first wave. This conviction is reasonable, of course, and terrifying on its own. But we should also be prepared for multiple waves of restaurant closures, unless we put a plan in place to safeguard those businesses.
If not, there will be phases of our extinction, to be sure. The first phase, which we are in now, affects businesses that won’t be able to make rent or pay the bills in the short term. Most consumers now know that, given the thin margins in our industry, we restaurant owners rarely have padding in our bank accounts.
The second wave of closures will likely be those businesses that have battled to survive with takeout or other models, adapting new formats and systems in an effort to persevere, only to find those adaptations prove insufficient as weeks at less than 40% revenue turn into months.
The third wave will be a tsunami made up of our people. With an unemployed workforce whose incentives and benefits will run out in July, we — as a community that has proudly touted its restaurants — will face a mass career displacement, as a seemingly infinite pool of beloved bartenders and servers, talented cooks, and valued support staff seek alternate routes from the career they had chosen.
The third wave will leave a ghost town in its wake.
We have no plan in place to shift with this seismic redirection and confront the reality of this loss before it happens. Like many other restaurants, Black Trumpet has tried to keep the lights on. I have even observed at times a few rays of figurative light: building relationships with Gather, for example; seeing our local farmers and fishermen adapt by creating direct-to-the-consumer delivery systems; putting my staff back to work for eight weeks with SBA loan money. It’s definitely not all bleak, at least for now, but I fear it will be if we don’t put our city’s best minds on this.
I am proposing that our community assemble a Restaurant Reopening Taskforce. Unlike others that have preceded it, this taskforce would include not only politicians and industry advocates, but also officials from the City of Portsmouth’s Planning and Health Departments and — most importantly--actual restaurant owners. Ideally, this body would also involve representation from the State, the liquor commission, and any other agency or group (e.g., NHLRA) that has been advocating for us throughout this time of hardship. From conversations I have had with city employees and restaurant owners alike, one thing is clear - if we want restaurants in a year, we have to act now to ensure their survival.
Forgiveness of loans and of rent will be critical pathways to success for businesses like mine. Some landlords are going to see the big picture and forgive a portion of rent until this storm subsides. Others will not. Restaurants who own their own buildings may last longer. Each case is different, but the need for relief is the same.
Those reading this who know me will likely observe that I have passed on an opportunity here to pontificate about using this time in our history to rebuild our local food system. I am carving out time to work on this along with many other hard-working farmers, fishermen, politicians and everyday people. It will require an army, but it is a great and achievable opportunity. First thing’s first, though, for those of us who see the writing on the wall for public dining as we know it.
If we want restaurants in our future, I ask that we invest our faith in a group of people that will encompass all aspects of our community, including municipal entities and food-based non-profits, to implement programs that will protect our imperiled industry.
For a long while, Portsmouth has boasted a fairly diverse and robust restaurant scene, and it’s safe to say that residents and tourists like it that way. As we all weigh the risks of coming out of quarantine and thinking about the next phase for remaining restaurants, I am pleading that we all put down any partisan or power-mongering agendas and put a plan in place for the near future, so we won’t later be tasked with building a Phoenix out of the ashes of our favorite eateries.