By Jan Norris
Photography by Felipe Cuevas
At the end of the meal, diners at Kuro are presented with a dessert dilemma: Is it art? Science? A transporting experience? Pastry chef Ross Evans expects you to choose “all of the above.”
While every chef claims passion for his or her craft, this lanky, tattooed, 26-year-old exudes a wordless love for his job. Instead, it comes in the form of his desserts.
Every dish that comes from his kitchen at Kuro in the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is artfully crafted to hit every part of the senses. Sometimes it’s serene, like the sesame panna cotta, which upon closer look resembles a Japanese meditation rock garden. Bits of nori sponge and tiny spheres of cucumber essence (there’s the science) are arranged on the silvery gray sesame panna cotta, swirled just so in the bowl, with ginger gelee drops.
Others are whimsical, like the restaurant’s best-selling Japanese “doughnuts,” which is Evans’ spin on sata andagi. The dough rings are rolled in dried ginger, matcha powder and cinnamon, and presented with three dipping sauces of blueberry lemon, white chocolate caramel and kuromitsu kinako (toasted soybean flour mixed with black sugar imported from Japan).
“It’s almost like molasses sorghum,” Evans says, rubbing his fingers to explain the thick texture of the unique sauce.
Evans calls his inspired creations—a mix of Japanese flavor with European dessert techniques and molecular gastronomy—essentially controlled chaos, but with balance. While each has disparate looking elements on the plate, one bite provides a perfect mesh of textures and flavors that come together in way that makes the diner stop and think before swallowing.
“It’s so fun,” he says. “Kuro is all new-style Japanese. Our goal: to make the traditional unique and put a modern twist on it.”
When speaking about his craft, Evans generates energy, leaning in as he speaks nonstop about the food, inspiration and the restaurant team.
“I love talking about this,” he says. “People don’t really get to hear about it—how many hours and days go into this, the detail that’s in every part of the restaurant and dining experience. There’s so much that goes into a meal you never see.”
He explains what he’s doing to transform desserts that are approachable, yet unique and in line with the restaurant’s modern Asian flair. At the same time Evans recognizes that in a casino hotel, he is serving a broad audience. Varied experiences helped him hone his craft, including a stage with the famed Grant Achatz, who is known for his molecular gastronomy, at the innovative Alinea in Chicago. Evans worked at Blackbird in Asheville, North Carolina, and Stars Rooftop and Grill Room in Charleston, South Carolina, an ingredient-driven restaurant with regional low-country cuisine. Later, he’d do stints in hotels, the most recent in Scottsdale, Arizona. The experiences give Evans a perspective not usually found in such a young chef.
“It’s so fun. Kuro is all new-style Japanese. Our goal: to make the traditional unique and put a modern twist on it.” —Ross Evans
Though Evans has never worked in Japanese cuisine, he’s confident with techniques and execution he’s mastered to form the structure. The details of ingredients and combinations of flavors are self-taught, he says, “through books and reading, and talking to other Japanese chefs.”
The chef wants diners to move beyond the sugary, creamy, fatty dishes favored in the United States and Europe, and toward the less-sweet and exotic flavors of Japan. “But you can’t be totally outside their reach,” he says of the typical Kuro diners. “They have to have an element of familiarity.” Thus, a sabayon—a recognizable dessert—has been infused with sake.
He quickly deflects the many accolades he’s earned from critics, and insists that it’s teamwork that makes it a pleasure to work in this year-old kitchen, starting with Chef Alex Becker and the day they met by phone for his interview. “We clicked immediately,” Evans says. “All we talked about was the food. I knew he was just like me: He was all about the ingredients.
“This team is all dedicated to doing it right and very well. Everyone has input so there are no egos here. We all bounce ideas off each other. Everyone is trained in every station. Nothing gets my adrenaline flowing like jumping behind a sauté line when we’re doing 500 covers.”
He could easily have gone to the savory side in his career. But the differences, he says, are the time spent to bring flavors out in a dish. Pastry chefs have the luxury to develop each ingredient separately.
“You have to serve a hot dish hot, and there’s only so much time you have to work with it before it has to be on the table. With desserts, you can build them up. Pastry is all techniques of textures and building up the palate.”
Balancing flavor nuances and textures with color and form requires both a palate and an eye. Evans takes inspiration from everything from modern art and architecture to things as banal as logos.
“The color schemes on modern company logos go together. Think about them: They spend big money for these designs; they’re intended to draw your eye.”
But Evans says nature is his biggest influence. His tattoos reflect this: a tree of life, a geodesic pattern and a bunch of grapes twine up his arms. He spends free time at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, or hiking on nature trails. It reminds him of growing up in rural High Springs, Florida, and playing on his grandfather’s farm in nearby Steinhatchee. His grandfather’s respect for the land and organic crops marked him.
“Being under the pecan trees, gathering nuts or picking muscadine grapes off the vines was experiencing food in its natural setting, like it’s supposed to be,” Evans says.
After each service, he meets with his team to review how things went and discuss how they might improve it next time. “Being humble, at the same time being strict about my work, helps me stay focused on doing things the right way, being precise,”?Evans says. “When the team agrees that my method works, we come together to see if there is anything that can be enhanced. If there is a better way, we make changes, and if not, we go with it.”
A lot of chefs, pastry ones in particular, get tripped focusing on the spectacle of plating, he says, sacrificing flavor, texture or even a correct technique. “I used to do that. But there came a point in my career when I was putting so much into presentation and was so focused on the techniques of presentation, I wasn’t focused on flavor. Then I tasted something one night, it was humbling. It was OK, but not ‘wow!’ I realized I need to go back to texture and flavor first.”
Now he has a team throughout Kuro who keep him pushing for better food every day. Days, weeks and sometimes months go into creating, testing and retesting before finally agreeing on a dish for any menu, be it for the bar, sushi, main or dessert. But the results are worth it, Evans says.
“It’s so satisfying, watching a diner discovering a new flavor they might not have tried before. And asking for it the next time they come in. That means we met our goal.”
Originally appeared in the Fall 2016 Issue.