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Armsby Abbey’s Many Moving Parts

On a late-winter morning, I found myself standing outside 144 Main Street at 6:58 a.m., tapping on the kitchen window of Armsby Abbey. Executive Chef Sean Dacey was fit to butcher a 29 lb. lamb and I hadn’t even had my coffee yet.

He opened the door and then disappeared into the walk-in where he fetched Ram, the one year old lamb that had arrived from Chimney Hill Farm the day before. “There’s a growing acknowledgement that we need to be using the whole animal. Everyone’s squeamishness about this kind of thing is dissipating,” Dacey told me.

A lot of the Abbey’s animals come with names, a simple consequence of the fact that Dacey maintains close relationships with his farmers.

“It can be emotional for farmers,” Dacey said, recalling Walker Farm’s prize steer, George. “George had grazed seasonally, rotating through Joanie Walker’s fields to maintain the health of her soil. She gave us George and then came in to eat him because she trusted us,” he explained.

Dacey takes particular pride and care when cooking with older animals.

“In the factory farming system, older animals are generally viewed as a negative. But, we know that animals that live full lives and get pastured have amazing qualities. Joanie Walker takes three times longer to raise her cows than most farmers and that’s more expensive for her,“ explained owner Alec Lopez.

“There’s a growing acknowledgement that we need to be using the whole animal. Everyone’s squeamishness about this kind of thing is dissipating,” says Executive Chef Sean Dacey.

Walker’s visit to Armsby Abbey for her final farewell to George was not unusual for the establishment. Influential brewers, chefs, and farmers have flanked to the Abbey to enjoy the fruits of their labor (sometimes literally) since it opened nearly a decade ago. Regardless of whether a respected farmer or a first time customer sits down at a table, Dacey expects his staff to be more than just knowledgeable. The restaurant’s table management system, Reserve, certainly helps. The system allows staff to monitor and maintain customers’ visits, dining habits, dietary restrictions, allergies, and requests. If a farmer is coming in for a special goodbye, you can be sure there’s a note in Reserve so that his or her server can be briefed.

Gazing at the primal cuts of Ram (the lamb) in the early morning light, I asked Dacey, “How much is your front of house team expected to know about what goes on back here?”

“Everything,” he responded.

On Sunday, I returned for brunch, this time on the other side of the pass. The general layout at 144 Main Street is curious in that the kitchen is located across the hall from Armsby Abbey’s dining room.

I could tell that Dacey was not exaggerating about the awareness of his staff. Our service was nothing short of remarkable. I ordered the stout braised lamb served with seared mashed potatoes and a rolled oat cake, and topped with smoked turnip puree, butter braised carrots, pickled potatoes, and a soft-cooked egg. Ram tasted just as handsome as he looked.

On Monday night, Dacey invited me back once more to attend a staff meeting about primal cuts and charcuterie. At the Abbey, weekly meetings provide key opportunities for interpersonal moments between the kitchen and the front of house. During a busy service, much of the communication among these two parties takes place with iPads and pagers. “Armsby utilizes a dual iPad system that runs Reserve; meaning our host station and our kitchen run the app simultaneously for real time information,” owner Sherri Sadowski explained, “without Reserve, the only window into how busy the dining room is, is via the tickets streaming from the printer.”

Armsby Abbey attracts an eclectic crowd. “During a busy dinner service, Reserve allows the kitchen to see what kind of night it is; be it a date night where the room is filled with deuces or more of a rowdy atmosphere where the dining room is overflowing with larger parties. Every shift is different and Reserve allows the kitchen to keep tabs on exactly how the shift will play out,” Sadowski shared.

On Monday nights, Dacey is free to move at an easier pace. It’s technically his day off, but he finds these gatherings too important to neglect. Dacey wants his team to be knowledgeable enough to sell his most unconventional dishes because he views them as not only exquisite, but also humane. Above anything else, Armsby Abbey’s kitchen strives to run with patience – a constant struggle in an industry where things seem to move at full tilt.

Dacey began the training by reminding his staff, “At your pre-shift meetings on Fridays and Saturdays, there is time to relay information, but no time for nuance. That’s why we’re all here tonight.”

Lopez and Dacey went on to recall a workshop with butchery legend, Adam Danforth, at the Chefs Collaborative Summit last summer during which Danforth broke down an 11 year old lamb and cooked the cuts on ripping hot cast iron for immediate consumption. The experience accentuated flavors rendered from working muscles, affirming the decision that the Abbey has made to support farmers by taking on older animals like George. This practice began with previous Executive Chef Damian Evangelous who departed in March for the west coast.

When the meeting concluded at 10:30 p.m., I watched a few members of the staff hang back to ask Dacey and Lopez questions. Others thumbed through a copy of Danforth’s book and nibbled at what was left of the head cheese. At 11:00, when Dacey felt sure the staff was prepared, he finally defected to get some sleep for a few precious hours. I can’t help but suspect that he even cooks in his dreams.


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Armsby Abbey Bids Farewell to Longtime Executive Chef Damian Evangelous

Armsby Abbey's Executive Chef Damian Evangelous.

Armsby Abbey shared today that Executive Chef Damian Evangelous will roll up his knives for the last time in February and say goodbye to the place he has called home for the better part of a decade. He and his family plan to resettle in California in coming months, after enjoying a brief sojourn in Spain. The restaurant has officially announced that Executive Sous Chef, Sean Dacey, will assume the position of Executive Chef upon Damian’s exit in February 2018. Owner Sherri Sadowski was kind enough to reflect on Evangelous’ time at Armsby Abbey in the following exclusive for Mass Foodies:

In December 2009, I received an email from a young chef named Damian Evangelous. At the time, Damian was living in Spain, researching area restaurants that he would be interested in working for upon his return that January. While Armsby Abbey was not hiring at the time, I was smart enough to know, you never pass up a talented culinary candidate. I emailed Damian back immediately. I just had a feeling. At Armsby, we are all about hiring the right person for the job and sometimes those people are worth waiting for. I left it to Damian to follow-up with us upon his return; within 48 hours being stateside, we were chatting all things food and drink at Armsby Abbey. That was how it all began.

Born and raised in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, Damian knew he wanted to cook early on. I remember him telling me, “I’ve wanted to be a Chef since I was 12! I would watch ‘Emeril Live’ every day when I was in junior high and it got me so interested in cooking food, it was then I decided my career path.”

In fact, it was Damian’s participation in the Culinary Program at Tantasqua High School that would lead him to apply to the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont where he would further fall in love with his craft. Upon graduation, Damian moved to sunny San Diego for work where he would not only gain valuable experience working with incredible produce from the likes of Chino Farms, but also meet his future wife, Lauren.

After seeing the culinary series ‘Made in Spain’ with Chef Jose Andres, Damian was drawn to the idea of living and working in Spain. Soon thereafter in 2009, as life would have it, Damian and Lauren left San Diego together for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work at San Sebastian in the Basque Country of Northern Spain. It was here that Damian fell in love with the Spanish culture and culinary scene, elements he would later infuse his menus with.

Upon moving back to Massachusetts in 2010, Damian was offered a culinary position at our new farm-to-table restaurant in Worcester, Armsby Abbey, under then Executive Chef/Owner, Alec Lopez. Alec recalls, “When Damian first arrived in my kitchen, though a bit green, his passion, intuition and raw talent made it clear to me he would go places. Creating an environment for Damian to flourish became my focus.” And flourish he did.

Damian was constantly chasing the next opportunity. In the Fall of 2012, after applying for, and receiving, an illustrious position to work with one of his idols, Jose Andres, Damian left Armsby Abbey and moved to Washington D.C. to be part of the re-opening team at Minibar. He says, “Working for Jose Andres at Minibar changed the way I thought about food and what was possible. Jose’s mission of ‘changing the world with the power of food’ is one of my constant motivations.”

Upon completion of the position at Minibar, Damian returned to Massachusetts in the Spring of 2013 with a reinvigorated spirit and desire to connect customers to the food on their plate. Timing is everything; Armsby Abbey was wrapping up construction on their newly expanded kitchen and dining room at which time Executive Chef/Owner, Alec Lopez, was about to hang up his apron as Executive Chef. It was at this time that Damian was offered the opportunity to return to Armsby Abbey, only this time as Executive Chef, and the rest is as they say, history.

Chef Evangelous has been the backbone of Armsby Abbey for almost 8 years. Under his knife, Armsby Abbey has won culinary awards both locally and nationally throughout his tenure, including: Worcester Magazine’s Best Chef, Best Farm-to-Table Restaurant, Best Overall Restaurant, and Best Sunday Brunch (9 years in a row!)

Damian’s unique menu items have been featured in the Boston Globe, Telegram & Gazette, Worcester Magazine, Worcester Living, Plate Magazine, and Chef’s Collaborative. He has prepared multi-course beer dinners with some of the World’s most respected brewers; Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead, JC & Esther Tetreault of Trillium Brewing, Nate Lanier of Tree House Brewing Company. He has cooked for the likes of Naomi Watts, Zakk Wylde, Jean Van Roy, Manchester Orchestra, Anthrax, the cast of Cirque du Soleil, and so many more.

This past Summer, Chef Evangelous was one of 25 chosen Chefs from around the country to be awarded a coveted scholarship to the 2017 Chefs Collaborative Summit in Atlanta, Georgia, for his work on helping to improve local sustainable food systems.

Chef Evangelous preparing the reception course in the kitchen of Armsby Abbey on Main Street in Worcester, MA (Photo by Erb Photography)
Chef Evangelous preparing the reception course in the kitchen of Armsby Abbey on Main Street in Worcester, MA (Photo by Erb Photography)

The kitchen is the backbone of any restaurant; at Armsby Abbey this is no different. Executive Chef Evangelous commands a team of culinary wizards who work tirelessly assisting him in his mission. Executive Sous Chef, Sean Dacey, a seasoned area Chef, joined Armsby Abbey’s culinary squad shortly after Damian’s return in 2013. Together, the two Chefs have worked side-by-side as a tightknit team who complement each other’s personalities perfectly. Sean shares, “Damian’s ability to exclusively source locally raised, sustainable food has been unlike anything I have experienced in my career. Worcester has been very fortunate to have a chef of his caliber and knowledge advancing our culinary scene while challenging our industry to raise their standards.”

In addition, happy-go-lucky Sous Chef, Nate Rossi, joined Armsby Abbey 3 years ago and rounds out the kitchen’s Executive trio. “Essentially my job is to make Sean and Damian’s job easier,” Nate states with a smile.

Damian loves being a chef. You can see it in how he works. You feel it when you are in his kitchen. You can taste it in every bite. Armsby Abbey will simply not be the same without him. This past October, Chef Evangelous handed in his resignation. Come early February, Damian will head west once more. He says, “It’s hard to find the words to describe my time at Armsby Abbey. It has been many things for me but if I had to choose one in this particular moment I would say it has been formative. Armsby has allowed me to grow not only as a Chef but also as a person. Reflecting on how much I have learned about food, about leading people, about myself, and realizing that there is no end to that journey, is both humbling and inspiring. Joining the team nearly eight years ago, it was clear from the first time I spoke with Alec and Sherri that there was passion and conviction in everything done at Armsby Abbey. It was an environment where compromising the vision was not an option. This attitude gave me pride in what we do and the confidence to push myself to always be improving. There is much I am going to miss about Armsby but what I will miss the most is the people, the team. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet many great people in my time here and leaving is one of the hardest things I will ever do.”

While change is always difficult, it is necessary to experience growth. As Damian readies himself to embark on a new chapter in California with his wife Lauren, and baby girl by his side, Armsby Abbey is preparing to celebrate its 10th Anniversary and adjust to a kitchen without Damian at the helm. As Owner and General Manager, I regard Damian with the utmost respect. Damian is so much more than just a Chef here at Armsby Abbey; he is family. Saying goodbye to those who have been with us since the beginning is very difficult. Damian has been an integral part of our success; he is an artist – a creative genius who always gives 110%. In securing his replacement, albeit a challenge, we are confident his predecessor will continue his vision and maintain the highest standards of sustainability and ethical, conscientious sourcing.

Executive Sous Chef, Sean Dacey, will assume the position of Executive Chef upon Damian’s exit come 2018. Chef Dacey’s commanding presence demands attention as he reflects on his time with Chef Evangelous and his recent promotion, stating, “It has been an honor to work with Damian these past four years, and it is truly humbling to be chosen to continue Alec, Sherri, and Damian’s legacy here at Armsby Abbey. I look forward to continuing creating food that highlights the best of New England’s farms.”

Owner, Alec Lopez, also took a moment to look back on his time with Chef Evangelous over the last 8 years, saying, “Through his dedication and commitment to our local food systems, patience in guiding those coming up around him and the continued honing of his technique Damian has become an inspiration and force in the culinary world. Once upon a time, my role was to teach him as he worked in my kitchen, but the truth is, he taught me. I’m a better Chef for having worked with Damian.”

In closing, an emotional Chef Damian would like to share a moment of reflection looking toward the future. “Armsby Abbey has a great team of people who will continue to carry the mission I have made my life and I couldn’t be more confident in passing the torch to my Executive Sous Chef, Sean Dacey. He has been an integral part of the team since I took over as Executive Chef and a dedicated patron before that – he truly lives the mission. Having him by my side has been instrumental in the success of our kitchen. So, while this is a bittersweet moment for me, I take comfort in knowing Armsby Abbey is in good hands and I look forward to watching the next chapter unfold…only this time from the other side with a beer in hand!” Chef Evangelous closes with a wry grin.