The typical path of a fine-dining chef of French cuisine usually goes something like this: Intensive training at prestigious schools like Le Cordon Bleu or the Culinary Institute of America; years staging for free at Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe; working your way up through the ranks of the kitchen hierarchy; and finally reaching executive chef status to stake your own claim for culinary greatness.
Rarely does the path go through the Los Angeles Trade-Technical College and an airport Chili’s.
But there are certain chefs, no matter how long the odds, or how great the obstacles, who have a force of will and determination that can out-work, out-hustle, and out-cook their colleagues to rise to the very top of the restaurant world.
Chef Dameon Evers is one of those chefs. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Evers found a love of cooking as a child, discovered the world of fine dining through a Thomas Keller book, and pushed his way to become the executive chef at Le Cirque in Las Vegas, marking his territory as one of the only African American chefs to helm a top French kitchen.
Evers is proof that talent can go a long way, but hard work is the truest differentiator. Here’s the chef, in his own words:
Dameon Evers (photo credit: MGM Resorts International).
Can you tell us your food origin story?
I used to watch my mother and grandmother bake cakes in the kitchen, and it fascinated me. I really started getting into cooking when I was eight years old – there was just something about baking and the smell of bread and the smell of cakes that really excited me and brought me joy. It enticed me to be in the kitchen all day long.
I just wanted to know why things were happening. Like how does putting raw flour, eggs, and baking soda together make a cake? I wanted to know the chemistry. The first thing I ever tried to make was a sweet potato pie that turned out horrible. I was 10 years old, cooking over fire, it turned out raw, there were eggshells in it, it was bad. But you live and learn.
When did you think about cooking professionally?
When I wanted to become a cook, I was in my early teens. I graduated at the top of my class, but before that I was approached by a recruiter from Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. At the time, if you wanted to work in the best restaurants and kitchens, then Le Cordon Bleu was it. But what did we know? I did my research and found that the Los Angeles Trade-Technical College was similar to Le Cordon Bleu but was more hands on and better for me. And school was great. It was very interesting to see other cooks, the way they operate, and the way they act and speak. My main goal was to work at the Cheesecake Factory if you can believe that.
So how did you make the leap from wanting to work at the Cheesecake Factory to fine dining?
One day, during school, I was in West Hollywood shopping in this bookstore and there was this long line for the French Laundry book. So, I bought the book and read it over and over and thought how special it would be to work in that type of kitchen. At that point, my mind shifted from the Cheesecake Factory to the French Laundry and my goal was to work for Thomas Keller.
How did you start pursuing that goal? It’s obviously one of the hardest restaurants to get into.
Well, they didn’t have any open positions and they weren’t accepting stages. It was super busy. They had been open for about nine years before that, and there was just something about being in that environment that was inspirational.
Hawaiian kampachi at Le Cirque (photo credit: MGM Resorts International).
And when you couldn’t get in, what did you do next?
I just picked up a job working at the airport as a cook at Chili’s. I needed a job to pay for school books. And it was an okay job, but it was a job to just get my foot in the door working in the industry. I was still in school and working nights while going to school in the morning. But after I graduated, I left Chili’s and got a job at the Portofino Yacht Club in Hermosa Beach. I started there as a cook and that was my first step into a fine-dining restaurant. And working there really helped me to understand the logistics and a traditional system of working in a nice restaurant – being in charge of your own station and what not.
You’ve worked for a lot of big-name chefs, when did you shift into that world?
I had a friend who worked at Gordon Ramsay at The London Hotel in Los Angeles who asked me if I wanted the opportunity to apply for a job there. Of course, I said yes, and I was hired as a prep cook. And that was super hard. The was the hardest thing I ever did. They were particular about sizing, flavouring, cooking techniques, etc. And within three months, the Michelin Guide awarded the restaurant with a star, which was a big achievement for the restaurant, for the city of Los Angeles, and for the chefs and cooks who were a part of that opening.
But once we were awarded the star, the chef was super aggressive to get a second star and he was pushing the boundaries and pushing us super hard. It was a difficult working environment for that type of cuisine because it was traditional French with a British twist. But I loved it. Something about the intensity and the actual pressure enticed me to work even better than the level I was working at before at Portofino.
One thing I forgot to mention, is that when I was working at Gordon Ramsay as a prep cook during the day, I was also working at Michael Mina’s restaurant at night.
Wow. So, how did you shift from Gordon Ramsay and Michael Mina to Thomas Keller?
There was an article in the LA Times saying that Bouchon was coming to Los Angeles. I immediately called their HR department and was invited to interview. When they hired me, I was in tears. I first gave notice with Michael Mina, but I wanted to keep my job at Gordon Ramsay. But the chef said I either had to commit to them or to Bouchon.
So, this is your dream coming true. Working for Thomas Keller. What was that like for you?
It's funny that you asked that because when we were hired, on our first day, they had our aprons with a beach ball on the apron with your initials. And they give us our aprons and I was almost in tears. Something took over my body and said, ‘you know what, this is something that is great. Like greatness is coming’. And you know, people say if you drink the Kool Aid at Bouchon or with Thomas Keller you will be absorbed in their ecosystem.
Chocolates at Le Cirque (photo credit: MGM Resorts International).
You’ve worked for Gordon Ramsay, Thomas Keller, Joshua Skenes, and Michael Mina, what are some of the biggest lessons you learned along the way?
Working for Thomas Keller, you learn how to work as a chef, how to be a chef, and how to operate as a chef. With that comes how to write menus, how to develop recipes, getting the right systems in place, how to answer the phone, how to boil water, how to make a stock, how to butcher fish. Because cooks need that type of inspiration and that type of roadmap for success. What I implemented here at Le Cirque are the exact same systems because everything matters. From Gordon Ramsay, I learned to be intense, but not to be over intense, because over there, they’re super intense and very unusual. Over here, I’m being gentler and acting like more of a mentor to my cooks.
What does it mean to you knowing that you’re one of the only African American chefs, probably in the world, who is at the helm of an award-winning fine-dining French restaurant?
For me, from where I came from, I think it’s a great accomplishment. Right now, there aren’t any African American chefs who are in this position that I know of. You might have black chefs working in hotels as sous chefs or as executive sous chefs, but not leading a Michelin-starred restaurant like Le Cirque. Nor do many of these chefs have the resources. Right now, I can pick up the phone and call Daniel Boulud or Thomas Keller or Joshua Skenes, and it’s because the relationships I have made in my career are very close and special to me. I have friends in the industry who have been very supportive of what I’m doing right now, and it’s special for me to be working at the Bellagio as an African American chef to show other chefs that it’s possible – especially if you work hard and you have your mind focused. Of course, there have been obstacles – people saying that you can’t do it, or your food isn’t good enough, and not supporting your cause. But what I would tell people following in my footsteps – never give up and always fight for your goals. It’s possible.
Let’s talk about Le Cirque. How are you going to put your imprint on the restaurant?
Just learning from the past. Creating my own vision but building on the past. For instance, take the turbot that’s on the menu. All the components are from the past, but the fish is different. I have scallops on the top and I scale the top with potato, replicating fish scales. Turbot and scallops are both bottom feeders, but you bring these two animals together and it’s like a symphony. I’m creating a story and a memory for the guest who might remember this dish but come away saying it’s a little better or it’s a little more enhanced. That’s my main goal right now, to do techniques that other chefs are not aware of and replicating memories for other guests.
Last question. How’s your sweet potato pie these days?
It’s amazing. I do it every year for Thanksgiving. My daughter asked me last night if I’m making pies and of course I said yes, I’m making pies.