Trailblazing chef Darryl Evans left mark on Atlanta

As with many great chefs, Darryl Evans didn’t go looking for restaurant work, but it found him and changed his life.

The Columbus native was living in Atlanta and putting himself through college with a service job at an airport hotel. On the day the kitchen manager ran out of pancake mix, Evans rolled up his sleeves and tried to recreate his mother’s Sunday morning recipe from memory. Eggs, flour, milk, vanilla, leavening. The next day he was running the kitchen. The next week he began to wonder what more could be out there.

Plenty, it turned out. Evans, who died on February 26 at the age of 52, was not only one of Atlanta’s most influential chefs, he served as a role model and mentor to a generation of black culinarians who saw kitchen work not as a dead-end job but as a path to a creative and fulfilling career.

Evans always created an atmosphere of respect and cooperation in his kitchen, whether he was developing menus for the Four Seasons Hotel, enticing diners to the Midtown hot spot Spice or leading American teams to victory in international Culinary Olympic competitions. He worked meticulously and with laser focus, and he taught everyone around him to do the same.

“I’ve never met many men like him,” said Tom Catherall of Here to Serve Restaurants, a friend who gave him his first serious kitchen job and then stayed with him during his last weeks in hospice care as lymphoma, diagnosed two years ago, took its toll.

“He was a gentle soul whose smile could light up a room,” said Catherall. “He cared about everyone.”

Catherall initially hired Evans for a job at the Cherokee Town Club as an apprenticeship through the American Culinary Federation. “He was always asking to stay and help, even after his 40 hours,” recalled Catherall. “He used to duplicate everything I did. You’d show him once, and then he’d execute it exactly the same.” Catherall invited him along to culinary competitions throughout the country, where Evans was often the only African-American in a room of high-toqued chefs.

Catherall asked Evans to join him as his right-hand man in the opening of Azalea — one of Buckhead’s first chef-driven restaurants. Evans later left to take over the Athens Country Club, and during that time led an American team at the Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany. He became the first African-American to win gold.

Evans returned to Atlanta to open Anthony’s in a Buckhead antebellum mansion and basically invented New Southern cooking. He was the first chef in the city to use ingredients such as collard greens and grits in upscale restaurant preparations. He was soon tapped to run the kitchen at the Occidental Grand Hotel in Midtown, later reflagged as the Four Seasons.

During this time, Evans began to achieve a national profile and was lauded as one of the very few executive chefs of color. The hospitality industry was and continues to be dominated by white males.

Because of Evans, the Atlanta Four Seasons became a magnet for the nation’s most promising young black chefs, including Dwayne Nutter, now at One Flew South, and Todd Richards, now at the Shed. Both first came to Atlanta to work with chef Evans.

Evans then ran the kitchen at Villa Christina in Dunwoody, but soon began to look for investors for a project that would combine both his heritage and training in one package. At Spice, he would prepare a cuisine he called “global soul food” — something with the perspective and technique he learned during his world travels, but using the ingredients and that flavor of love in his mother’s cooking.

Evans had a hard time securing financing, from black and white investors alike, whom he suspected were loath to entrust a large investment to a black owner/chef. “I could run the kitchen in a $14 million hotel,” he later said to me, “but I had to prove I was responsible enough to manage a $2 million investment.”

He did manage to open Spice, and it may have been a lasting success had not Evans’ health taken its first bad turn. He was diagnosed with an autoimmune liver disease and needed a transplant. The operation was successful, but the ordeal weakened him, and afterwards Evans worked more on the culinary fringe, running the kitchen at his church and with caterers. One of his last projects was helping his old friend Catherall open Shucks Oyster Bar in Brookhaven.

“He was a definite talent,” said Catherall. “But the thing about him is he was such a gentleman. It was his manner that everyone liked about him most.”

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