Evan Smith playing the Riot Fest, Chicago, 2018. Photo: Shane Timm
I remember the first time
I improvised in the kitchen. I was 16, and one day after school I got a pre-dinner hankering for some fried rice.
“How hard can this be?” I thought, as I poured a half gallon of canola oil into a wok and set it on a very low flame. When the oil was slightly warmed to my satisfaction, I scattered a cup of uncooked white rice into the oil. Nothing happened. No sizzling or popping—all the little grains sank right to the bottom and stayed there. So I turned the flame up all
the way and waited some more until the oil was screaming hot. With delight, I noticed tiny bubbles beginning to liberate themselves from all the raw rice.
“Ah, yes,” I thought, “It’s working!”
Around minute 15, it had fused into a crusty, translucent clump, and I finally admitted failure. I retrieved the clump from its oily grave, let it cool on a paper towel, and then did something that confuses me to this day: I took a nibble. What a miracle that the human brain can bear witness to catastrophe and still see hope.
Growing up, my mother exemplified the best kind of off-the-cuff cook. She had a constantly growing and well-organized collection of recipes, but when it came to cooking I don’t think she ever followed one to a T. There was always some substitution or personal flourish that went into even the most labor-intensive dishes. I learned to cook by watching and, later, by helping her. Under these conditions, a child discovers that mealtime is a canvas to be painted. And when fear of failure in the kitchen is absent, a hungry person can cultivate a love for the act of cooking versus successful repetition alone. To this day, I very rarely follow a recipe when I cook at home.
I’m a musician full time and also a hot sauce producer here in Maine. My journey from high school saxophonist to touring professional starts in my hometown of Dallas, Texas, and goes through Montreal for school and New York City, where I arrived a jazz improviser and left a rock/pop performer, with many twists along the way. Even while music remained my primary professional focus, I always had side jobs with and around food.
When my girlfriend, Megan, and I moved from Brooklyn to the Texas Hill Country in 2012, I was hired as a cook at a ranch and charged with resurrecting a daily lunch buffet for 20–30 staff members in a little basement café called The Wagon Wheel. I planned five item menus, cooked, ran the register, bussed tables and cleaned the place up Monday through Friday. I didn’t have any help, but with virtually no oversight I had full creative freedom to cook what I wanted. When you conjure up the image of “ranch hands in Texas” and swap the horses for John Deere Gators, that was my clientele. They gave me a chance, and I tried to impress them with dishes like chicken tikka masala, boeuf bourguignon, pad thai, handmade pizza and enchiladas from scratch. I gave each day a loose theme, often an exploration of some cultural cuisine outside of the white American paradigm. A friend from the maintenance department once saw that I was serving chicken souvlaki with fresh hummus and pita and yelled “Humus!? You’re serving us dirt?” A joke, I think, but it’s so hard to know.
I was a vegetarian then—a secret I held as closely as I could, never tasting any of the hundreds of meat-based dishes I served. Yet as the weeks and months went on, I started to see signs of a real community developing around my lunches. I’d get phone calls from staff members in their corners of the ranch asking what was for lunch, who would then spread the word among their departments. And eventually I started to get calls from outside the ranch from county folks who had heard about this new spot and wanted to come try it out themselves. I’m really proud of what I helped build that year, and sadly the doors have closed since I left. We stayed in Texas almost a year, then embarked on the next segment of our post-NYC plan: Maine.
Megan, who became my fiancée while in Texas (and then my wife), grew up in Cape Elizabeth and we both felt drawn to Portland. We were excited by the arts and music scenes here and the possibilities they held for us, and we were tempted by all the powerhouse food options around town. It reminded us a little bit of our old neighborhood in Brooklyn, Ditmas Park, with its walkability and micro-scenes happening on virtually every block. I knew I’d be comfortable commuting by car or plane when music jobs would come up in New York, a city I still have a strong connection to professionally. We got to Maine as fast as we could.
Upon arrival in Portland I found Chef Jason Williams at The Well at Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth, who was looking for kitchen help after two successful summers doing all the cooking himself. The Well is a gem in our state—a place that embodies what it means to eat locally in Maine. Miraculously, I was hired with no formal training and no experience working the line in a professional kitchen. Jason is a master at his art, and one of the things I learned from working next to him was that you can be intensely busy “doing” something—like cooking and timing a dozen different dinner orders simultaneously—and still preserve a core of absolute stillness and focus. I now practice that skill every time I’m on stage.
That season drew to a close and I found myself making pies at a wood-burning pizza restaurant in Kennebunk, which would turn out to be my last restaurant gig. One winter day, I got a flurry of texts and a call from a friend. Jack Antonoff from the band FUN was starting his own project and I had been recommended for the touring band. With my hands covered in flour and a bunch of pizzas waiting to be made, I scrolled through my phone for any YouTube videos, pictures or audio clips I could find online and put together a makeshift resume to send along. A few days later I called out of work and drove down to Brooklyn to meet Jack at his apartment. We talked about synthesizers, he showed me some music he was working on (it turned out to be for Taylor Swift’s album 1989), we had bagels and orange juice and hung out for an hour. His band is called Bleachers, and six years later I’m still a part of it.
Photo: Christina Wnek
Part of being away from home and living in tour buses, hotel rooms and airports is that you never have access to a kitchen. Somewhere in 2015, I started treating my time at home as a chance to cook a lot, and to catch up on canning projects and various ferments. I would make huge batches of food when I got off the road, stuff like kimchi, sauerkraut, mole, BBQ sauce and hot sauce, which I’d give away to family and friends. I still had lots of friends in New York, too, and I started loading jars into my checked luggage to distribute when I arrived for Bleachers rehearsals or legs of tour. When people started asking for more, I started to take my condiment skills seriously, and this is how Evan’s Rockin’ Hot Sauce was born.
Soon we were talking about the possibility of selling hot sauce at our band merch table, and in the summer of 2017 I formally developed my recipe and learned how to start a food business in
Maine so I could do that. We gave away lots of bottles of hot sauce that next fall during our U.S. headlining dates, and Jack and I would draw labels by hand backstage before each show. By spring of 2018, I was selling about a case worth every night we played; I was getting lots of positive feedback and was starting to feel like my product had a life outside of mine. Now, a couple of years later, I sell through a spiffy e-commerce website, have a supportive community of fans and some exciting possibilities for growth in the works. It’s been a rewarding journey and from purchasing ingredients and cooking batches of sauce to packaging and mailing orders, I’m still connected to every step of the process.
Cooking commercially, where safety and quality come first, requires precision—a whole other kind of joy for me than my at-home cooking style. I say joy because I honestly love the feeling I get from completing a batch of my hot sauce, currently about a seven-hour marathon in the kitchen at Fork Food Lab, the commercial kitchen where I'm a member.
When I started developing my recipe, I had a few big goals in mind. First, rather than lean on preservatives, cane sugar, thickeners and other food additives to dial in the perfect shelf-stable hot sauce, I wanted to use 100% whole food ingredients. I understand the place for additives within the greater food landscape (namely to save cost and increase market competitiveness) but we don’t eat very much processed food in our home and I didn’t see a reason to start a food business that way.
Secondly, I wanted my sauce to be only moderately spicy and not engage in some kind of capsaicin arms race. I’m not a fan of edible gag gifts or impossibly spicy condiments that punish your insides. I see the beauty in balance, and I hoped folks would choose my brand as a complement to their food any time of day, not just for sport or as a crutch for bland cuisine.
Lastly, the most important thing to me was a well-balanced flavor profile. I think of flavor like bands on a sound spectrum graph. That’s fancy talk for what the equalizer shows you on your iPod: From left to right you see the frequencies of what you’re hearing displayed from low to high. With taste I tend to think of that graph as umami-to-astringent, with richer, meatier flavors in the 40hz range and the brightest, sharpest flavors showing up in the 10Khz range, in audio lingo. If you ever chase a mouthful of sautéed wild mushrooms with a few Sichuan peppercorns, you’ll get a sense of that flavor spectrum pretty quickly. I aimed high in my early recipe trials, and with a half dozen or so of the most famous American hot sauce brands in my crosshairs I tried to fit my flavor in the cracks.
As I write, music venues around the world remain closed and restaurants are struggling to keep their doors open in the wake of the seismic shift that is COVID-19. In Portland this past July, we saw the closure of Port City Music Hall, an important New England hit for bands that were maybe still on their way to selling out bigger venues in town. Artists are finding new ways to reach their fans while being forced to approximate the irreplaceable experience of seeing live music. It’s likely that the entertainment industry will be the last to regain a sense of normalcy, given that large gatherings and close proximity are so integral to the experience.
As a performer, I’m heartbroken. And honestly, I’m angry that it’s come to this. And yet, I’m still able to make a living recording music at my home studio. Recently, I’ve contributed to Taylor Swift’s Folklore and a host of other yet-to-be-announced projects. I’m encouraged by the greater community of musicians and recording artists who are working hard behind the scenes to keep things happening.
And as a food producer, I’m inspired by the ways in which Evan’s Rockin’ Hot Sauce is starting to thrive. People are sending food gifts to each other in the mail, stores in Maine are selling even more locally produced food products than before and writers are finding unique ways to feature food businesses in our state.
With all of our amazing restaurants, farms, international food markets and next-level food trucks, I already knew we had it good here. But here in the fight of our lives, I see the beating heart beneath all of that as a participant now. Without realizing it, I joined a food community that is fiercely supportive and working nonstop to emerge from this pandemic even stronger than before.
. . .
Comfort food and what time of day or night you enjoy it most?
My favorite comfort food is dark chocolate (70% cacao or above),
eaten all day long beginning at 9am. Best with breakfast.