Al Maykel wants to get away. Don’t worry; he’s not leaving Worcester or EVO. Al and his sister opened the restaurant on Chandler Street in 2008 in half of their parents’ market, The Living Earth. In 2015, he just longs to explore new possibilities for the restaurant and his legion of loyal customers.
“I would love to take a food truck across the country every summer,” says Al, “I would go to different cities and towns and on the way out eat and figure out what their cuisine is. Then, on the way back, I’d hit up those cuisines in the EVO style and just cook food once or twice a day. Then, I’d bring what I learned back here.”
Al got the idea from his favorite food movie, “Chef,” in which the main character leaves his job at a prestigious restaurant for a food truck and jumpstarts his creative side. That food truck is probably a long shot any time soon. And Al has no intention of leaving his job. But he couldn’t agree more that a chef needs to connect constantly with his creative side and the movie’s “inspirational message that a chef has to be who he is to be happy and successful.”
That said, diners at EVO won’t have to wait long for Al to “get away” from what he has been doing successfully for so long to satisfy his craving for creativity.
Al’s having a blast considering the possibilities for EVO’s evolving menu. With his sous chef and team in the kitchen, he is creating the kind of fun dishes he wants to offer. They are playing with potential new menu items as specials, at private dinners, and at events like Worcester’s Best Chef, which Al won in 2013. Grilling, slow cooking, braising, roasting, smoking… Al will draw on them all, combining them with his Lebanese and Spanish backgrounds and all he has learned at EVO so far. “I love a melting pot,” says Al. “I’ve tried to incorporate different things that I like about every cuisine into our current menu, and I’ll do the same thing with the new menu.”
Plans also include introducing ingredients that you do not see everywhere or anywhere in Worcester like alligator. (Anyone thinking alligator is a joke should know what Al does: Alligator is a delicacy in southern US cuisines, particularly Cajun, and really does taste a little like chicken.) “Our chefs were looking at a picture of two cute little alpacas and said, ‘Who wants to put it on the menu?’ Everyone said, ‘Yes! Lets do it!’ We’re after something different,” he says. (Okay, alpaca meat may be too much for now, but it is lean and sweet and not just for sweaters anymore.)
In looking for new flavor combinations, Al often draws on his parents’ Living Earth market next door when inspiration arises: “Other chefs are so jealous, I know it. How can you not love it? If I ever want a random product or something I don’t need a case of, I have the only organic produce market in Worcester right next door.” Not that Al always appreciated that connection though he always appreciated their support: “My parents have owned Living Earth since before I was born, and it always had the health, organic, natural focus. Growing up that was a nightmare because none of my friends ate that stuff. Health food then did not taste like it does now. It was disgusting. I had to learn to manipulate those products to make them palatable. That helped with my understanding of flavoring and how to tweak flavors to get different results.”
But while Al wants his customers to be surprised by and discover new flavors at EVO, he is most concerned with how the dishes come together. “Any dish that we create will take into consideration plating, texture, ingredients, flavor, balance,” he says. “I like doing small tasting plates with a few bites that get you all your flavor profiles. I love the decoration of those plates. When you have dishes like that they are almost works of art, and you are the artist who considered every aspect for something people will hopefully try and enjoy. That is all I ask for, for my customers to try it.”
Loyal customers need not worry, however: Al has no intention of getting rid of the acclaimed comfort food – the burgers, pizzas, quesadillas, mac and cheese, and shepherd pies – EVO customers have come to expect and cherish. All the favorites are available on a consolidated menu and complemented by a finer dining side.
Finer dining is where EVO was when it first opened but the diners weren’t ready for it. Now, according to Al, they are. In fact, the new menu is really about honoring some of his favorite customers. “We have customers who come in here all the time and just say create us something,” he adds. “I love those customers. They give me room to play and let me do something different. They love food and they want to try different things. So, finding the balance between our standard everyday menu and our adventurous one where we want to go, play, and have fun.”
The key words in that sentence are “balance” and “fun.”
“The life of a chef is all consuming,” Al continues. “My wife has been so supportive. She knows there is always something I have to do. I need to take more time off to explore. I want to hike, drive across country even without a food truck, visit friends in Vermont. Balance in my life like balance with the new and old menus is my goal.”
As for fun, that’s where the creative process comes in: “Sometimes my wife or my sister will say to me, ‘I had such and such dish in this restaurant, go taste it and make it for me.’ That’s fun because I can try and figure out what that is by tasting it. That’s awesome. But the most fun is when you get that customer whose day you made with your creation. To be able to interact with them and how they feel about it? Their happiness gives me happiness. That’s what it’s about.”