Scott Evans turns out new restaurants about as frequently as most of us upgrade our cell phones. Within the last seven years, the prolific restaurateur has opened the doors of four eateries: a diner with a built-in pie shop named Hub & Spoke in 2015; the East Liberty Tap House in 2014; the Spanish tapas restaurant, Finca, in 2012; and Pago—the elegant, farm-to-table 2009 original within what would be his burgeoning dining empire. This modestly sized destination was one of the first of its kind in the Salt Lake City area, but it’s created a trend of like-minded restaurants, and provided an eager market to local farmers and producers.
“(Pago) is the most ‘fine dining’ concept we have, in the sense that it’s the most food and wine-driven. (Our guests) trust us and allow us to push the envelope in a way that we couldn’t do in a bigger environment,” Scott says. “They come in expecting something new, something they’ve never had, and often they first taste it at Pago.”
The path to Pago was one that spanned fifteen years and multiple countries. In the 90’s, Scott began his career as a professional snowboarder, traveling far and wide and working every job in the restaurant industry to finance his pursuits on the slopes. After his third promotion from cook to manager, he took a mental step back and thought, I might be pretty good at this restaurant thing.
“I transitioned from my passion for snowboarding and put a lot of the same love and focus into studying: food, wine, beverage service and cocktails,” he remembers. “For snowboarding, I would try to go around and ride the best resorts and enter competitions, and I’d do the same things with restaurants like, okay, here’s the best restaurant in New York and San Francisco. I spent a lot of time and money doing research and trying to figure out what the best was.”
As it turns out, some life-changing information came out of the constant conversations with chefs, sommeliers, and foodies around the world, as Scott searched for restaurants who set a higher standard. In addition to identifying the proverbial bests of the industry, Scott began to value knowing where his food was coming from. This concept became the foundation of his then-fledgling restaurant. He soon found that local, artisanal food producers were not rare—local restaurants were even doing business with some of them—but no restaurant was exclusively celebrating them. And certainly not in Salt Lake City, site of the 2002 Winter Olympics and longtime destination for sports-lovers like Scott.
So, in 2009, Pago became that celebration, surrounded by the snow-capped peaks in Salt Lake City. This, of course, meant that the restaurant had to serve dishes based on what the local farmers and artisans could provide—and for the first two years, restaurant staff had to explain to countless guests what farm-to-table meant and why certain things weren’t available at all times.
“In general, most restaurants keep the menu the same year-round and, in Utah, no one was changing their menus to the season. It would be garnishes here and there, but there wasn’t a single restaurant that was writing the menu to the products—and that’s what we did at Pago,” Scott says. “People loved it and hated it. The challenge we had was, they would find a favorite dish, and then the ingredients would go out of season and we’d have to remove it. We’d get negative reviews about it, so it became about working with the market to explain that the dish was so great because all the components were at their peak of freshness.”
Our culture tends to be a little supermarket-spoiled, and sometimes we’re confronted with the unfortunate reality that tomatoes, for example, are not in season at all times. (They lose their natural sweetness, as Scott calls it.) To minimize that loss, the food Pago serves couldn’t be fresher—when you dine there, almost everything on your plate has come from within a 20-mile radius of your seat.
A rotating roster of small, local farmers drop deliveries at Pago throughout the week, so the produce is never more than two days old. But this enterprise transcends mere business, Scott and company share a symbiotic relationship with the farmers that is warm and collaborative.
“(One farmer) asked us, do you have a need for your own produce, and would you support us if we grew it for you, and we said, absolutely. So, we sit down every year and go through different rare and exotic vegetables that we want for our restaurants,” Scott says. “They work really closely with us to grow exactly what we want and experiment to grow things that have never been grown before in Utah.”
This isn’t to say that Scott and staff don’t produce a lot of their ingredients in house—mustard, sausage, pies, bread, cured bacon and more are all created within Pago walls. However, Scott is often the first to support local cheese, cacao, wine and other producers, working with them to grow their businesses.
“The moment I stopped looking at labels of wine bottles as just an ambiguous thing on the shelf and actually met the people who make it, that just changed my entire relationship with wine,” Scott says, “[Now] I see how many bottles they produce, their farm, do they take care of their staff? Going out and pulling the carrot out of the ground and harvesting the tomatoes and walking through the chicken coop and grabbing eggs… that, to me, feels like we’re involved in a mutual relationship.”
Such is the magic of Pago: Scott’s one-time sommelier now runs a winery with a cult following, in which Pago is a proud participant. Scott considers this and other start-up producers among his biggest success stories. For him, growing the businesses of local farmers and other artisans is the goal.
“I think we’ve done a really good job in identifying people who are doing really great things before anyone acknowledges they’re doing really great things. We take a risk on them and help them launch their careers, just like when I started Pago and had to rely on a bunch of people trusting me and giving me advice and support,” Scott says. “I have loved giving that back.”
Through that support, Pago alone has helped launch six local businesses with products ranging from cheese to charcuterie. And, for Scott, success looks like every link in the farm-to-table chain—from the farmer who milks the cow to the diner who eats the cheese—being aware of and appreciating food from the local environment. The big moral of this story is that we’re enjoying fresh food exactly when and where nature intended us to—and there’s nothing more human than that.
We stopped in Salt Lake City on our West Coast Road Trip in the 2016 Lincoln MKX. To learn more, visit us here.