Taste Trends: Phil Evans, Executive Chef, Raleigh Convention Center

March 6, 2023

Oftentimes, the careers we imagine for ourselves as children aren’t necessarily what we end up pursuing as adults. Ask Phil Evans about his path into the culinary arts and he’ll tell you a similar story.

“My parents were the driving force for me to get into the culinary industry,” Evans explains. “I actually wanted to be a schoolteacher, but I grew up in the kitchen cooking with my grandmother and then my mother, so it came to me naturally. I inevitably fell in love with cooking.” 

Now, as executive chef at Sodexo Live!, Evans boasts an extensive background in fine dining, catering and hospitality, a successful career that began in the kitchen of France’s three-Michelin-star Chef Marc Meneau. From there, he went on to serve as executive sous chef and executive chef at five-star and five-diamond resorts including The St. Regis resorts in Houston and Aspen, before landing in his current home of Raleigh, North Carolina, where he became known from his time as executive chef at the acclaimed Herons restaurant at The Umstead Hotel and Spa. 

“Working in the hospitality industry has led me all over the U.S. and to parts of the world I would not have seen if not for this career,” Evans says. “Each day, working with food presents different experiences and opportunities to learn. No two days are alike.”

In 2016, Chef Evans joined the Raleigh Convention Center (RCC) as executive sous chef before stepping into the role of executive chef in 2020, right in the middle of a global pandemic that left many in the food service industry scrambling to survive. But instead of viewing the shutdown as a calamitous disaster, the down-to-earth, creative chef saw a unique opportunity to explore how Sodexo could better stand out as a steward of North Carolina foods, flavors and hospitality. The result was Evans’ latest award-winning menu, “A Seat At The Table: Southern Cuisine Featuring North Carolina’s Women and BIPOC Farmers and Food Producers.”

TSNN had the recent pleasure of speaking with Evans about this inclusive sustainability initiative, how his passion for supporting local, historically unrepresented farmers supports the RCC’s progressive environmental initiatives, what he sees as the convention industry’s biggest food and beverage trends, and how meeting and event planners can still provide delectable culinary experiences for their attendees without busting their F&B budgets.

What are the biggest and most exciting culinary trends you’re seeing and executing at meetings and events these days?

Local, local, local! There’s a big push to incorporate local into anything we can and the RCC is leading that charge. From Raleigh-made Bone Suckin’ BBQ sauce to locally-made jams, produce, sauces and even garnishes, we are doing it. Prior to the pandemic, we even had success with a small hydroponic garden right here in the kitchen. Doesn’t get much more local than that. 

At the RCC, locally minded cuisine isn’t just limited to what’s served on plates. Thinking local also means diverting our food waste and turning it into compost through our ongoing compost program. Since 2018, we’ve saved almost 250,000 pounds from the landfill and, in the past five years, we’ve donated compost – about 25,000 pounds at this point – to a nearby learning garden that supports families experiencing food insecurity. We donate excess food as much as possible and offer the “Share a Meal” program, where clients can purchase additional meals that are then matched by the RCC and donated to shelters, food banks and other neighboring organizations in need.

We are also well-positioned to capitalize on the “glocal” trend, which sounds like a cutesy hashtag but actually produces amazing, crowd-pleasing dishes. “Glocal” means taking local products and recipes and putting a global spin on them – something the chefs and bartenders of our colorful Capitol City have been experimenting with for years. There’s a reason why Raleigh is regarded as an up-and-coming food destination, and we strive to reflect that excitement in the food we prepare for guests at the RCC as well. For example, North Carolina produces more sweet potatoes than any other state, so we give them an international flair in our Asian-inspired sweet potato salad with soy ginger vinaigrette.  

In line with this, please tell us about your ‘A Seat at the Table’ program at the Raleigh Convention Center. When and why did you launch this program?

During COVID, as we were looking toward reopening, we wanted to visit and reconnect with our local farmers, especially those from historically underrepresented groups such as female and BIPOC farmers. Our produce supplier already featured local, minority-based businesses and farms, but we had not personally connected with that part of the supply chain. So, as soon as we safely could, we went to work visiting as many farms as possible, and the meaningful connections I made along the way inspired me to dedicate an entire menu to those farmers and their products. And now we’re revisiting the spirit of that menu and exploring how we can expand it to more of our offerings. 

The ‘Seat at the Table’ menu represents a large variety of what makes North Carolina agriculture so special. It gives us a tremendous palette with which to work – whether it’s collards, sweet potatoes, peanuts or fantastic NC pork – all from smaller, family-owned locations where farming is a passion, not just a business.

Prior to COVID, dietary-conscious menus were a growing trend. Is this still true, and if so, do you foresee this accelerating in the future?

That trend is not going anywhere – in fact, it is getting bigger. We are also seeing a rise in requests for mocktails and low-ABV beverages, which means we must create delicious drinks that don’t “hide” behind alcohol and can appeal to discriminating tastes.

During the pandemic, we learned to listen to our bodies and to eat more nutritiously. I’ve noticed that now even those who don’t consider themselves to be particularly health-conscious are more mindful about what they’re consuming. We offer a wide selection of options that can suit any dietary preference, and if it’s not yet on the menu, we’re always eager to work with clients to craft the perfect bite. 

Many event planners are now working with tighter budgets due to higher food and beverage costs. What are your top tips for overcoming this obstacle while still providing delicious fare for attendees? 

Two words: comfort foods. Some of the most traditional and delicious comfort foods are also the most affordable, and they hit the right mark without requiring a lot of costly ingredients. For example, take mac and cheese. A perfectly made mac and cheese doesn’t need expensive cheeses or add-ins like lobster; a silky roux with sharp cheddar works just fine and you’ll have clean plates all around. The same goes for things like meat – we will steer our budget-conscious clients away from filet mignon and lead them instead to the perfectly braised beef short rib. 

Part of our job as the Raleigh Convention Center’s caterer is to work with clients to provide top-notch options. That often means elevating less expensive cuts of meat while maintaining the fantastic taste and luxurious entrée perception. This is the kind of work that challenges and rewards you as a chef. 

What are some of your favorite restaurants that event groups should make sure not to miss in Raleigh and why?

It would have to be Poole’s Diner and their fabulous mac and cheese. Talk about comfort food! I have chefs visit me from all over the world and I tell them that they must go to Poole’s and get Chef Ashley Christensen’s Macaroni au Gratin before they leave town. You won’t regret it – and it’s just across the street from us, too!

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Overview: The award-winning Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) goes the extra mile to make every day extraordinary by offering customer service excellence and industry-leading partnerships. From their dedicated in-house Rigging team to their robust Exhibitor Services, The Center of Hospitality brings your imagination to life by helping you host unforgettable meetings and events. With more than 2 million square feet of exhibit space, world-class services and a dream destination, we are committed to making even the most ambitious conventions a reality. In October 2023, the Orange County Board of County Commissioners voted to approve allocating Tourist Development Tax funding for the $560 million Phase 5A completion of the OCCC. The Convention Way Grand Concourse project will include enhancements to the North-South Building, featuring an additional 60,000 square feet of meeting space, an 80,000- square-foot ballroom and new entry to the North-South Building along Convention Way. “We are thrilled to begin work on completing our North-South Building which will allow us to meet the growing needs of our clients,” said OCCC Executive Director Mark Tester. “As an economic driver for the community, this project will provide the Center with connectivity and meeting space to host more events and continue to infuse the local economy with new money and expanding business opportunities.” Amenities: The Center of Hospitality goes above and beyond by offering world-class customer service and industry-leading partnerships. From the largest convention center Wi-Fi network to custom LAN/WAN design, the Center takes pride in enhancing exhibitor and customer experience.  The OCCC is the exclusive provider of electricity (24-hour power at no additional cost), aerial rigging and lighting, water, natural gas and propane, compressed air, and cable TV services. Convenience The Center is at the epicenter of the destination, with an abundance of hotels, restaurants, and attractions within walking distance. Pedestrian bridges connect both buildings to more than 5,200 rooms and is within a 15-minute drive from the Orlando International Airport. The convenience of the location goes hand-in-hand with top notch service to help meet an event’s every need. Gold Key Members The OCCC’s Gold Key Members represent the best of the best when it comes to exceptional service and exclusive benefits for clients, exhibitors and guests. The Center’s Gold Key memberships with Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando and Walt Disney World greatly enhance meeting planner and attendee experiences offering world-renowned venues, immersive experiences and creative resources for their events. OCCC Events: This fiscal year, the OCCC is projected to host 168 events, 1.7 million attendees, and $2.9 billion in economic impact.  The Center’s top five events during their 2022-2023 fiscal year included:  AAU Jr. National Volleyball Championships 2023 200,000 Attendees $257 Million in Economic Impact MEGACON 2023 160,000 Attendees $205 Million in Economic Impact Open Championship Series 2023 69,500 Attendees $89 Million in Economic Impact Sunshine Classic 2023 42,000 Attendees $54 Million in Economic Impact Premiere Orlando 2023 42,000 Attendees $108 Million in Economic Impact