PORTSMOUTH — Whenever people ask Evan Mallett what kind of food he serves at his restaurant, Black Trumpet, he can never give them an easy answer.

The chef’s food is an interesting blend of ethnic influences layered over a backdrop of New England cuisine, and made with as many local ingredients as possible, a reflection of Mallet’s devotion to the farm-to-table creed – a devotion also on display in the restaurant’s farm/garden, his promotion of heirloom seeds and his interest in foraging.

On a recent, chilly winter evening, pots of fish stock, rabbit stock and veal demi-glace simmered on the stovetop in the restaurant’s small kitchen. Mallett cut up a heritage breed New Zealand white rabbit from a Maine farm for his Mountain Paella – chicken mole meatballs, chorizo, rabbit, snails and mushrooms simmered with Spanish rice. Behind him, two cooks shelled peanuts for an experimental dish, Mallet’s take on West African peanut soup, an African-Mexican hybrid containing okra, onions, garlic, Berbere spice mix, chiles, cilantro and Nantucket bay scallops.

Mallett, 48, gathers much of his inspiration not from fancy food in expensive restaurants, or from celebrity chefs, but from other cultures’ food traditions. He is always on the hunt for new flavors.

“The most memorable meals, the ones I can still taste, aren’t ones that had hundreds of ingredients that were touched by 20 different people before they came to my table,” he said. “It was the ones that were made with heart and soul elementally by people who loved what they were doing. I can cite a restaurant I just ate in in Montreal called Foxy, where everything is made with fire, either on a wood grill or in a brick oven, and the food was just perfect. I would take a meal like that any day over one that’s 24 courses of fabulousness that looks great on camera.”

To answer that frequent question – what kind of food do you serve? – Mallett recently published his first cookbook, “Black Trumpet: A Chef’s Journey Through Eight New England Seasons.” Each of the four seasons is divided further into early and late spring, early and late fall, etc. The book targets “the ambitious home cook,” Mallett says, but he tested recipes over more than nine months to make them as accessible as possible. Still, he knows that not everyone will want to shop for and cook with, say, rabbit.

Mallett, a Boston native, also tells his own story in the book, along with sharing profiles of some of his favorite farmers and fishmongers. He regrets that he does not have any kind of “traceable food heritage” or one of those quintessential chef stories about falling in love with food while he was cooking with his grandmother. Though the family couldn’t afford expensive restaurants, his father used to splurge on them occasionally to mark the milestones in Mallett’s life. Those experiences gave him an appreciation for the hospitality industry, he says, “but there was never this epiphany that I really want to be a chef.”

INTO COOKING BY DEGREES

Mallett attended seven different colleges but never got a degree. He was an English major and French minor, then abandoned both to study marine biology. He was living in the Washington, D.C. area in his early 20s when he began working in restaurants to help pay for school. He parked cars and cleared dishes before a chef coaxed him into the kitchen. Mallett got just far enough along to get a taste for the work before he decided to focus on completing his studies.

His interest in marine biology waned, however, as his interest in writing grew. Mallett moved home to Boston and started writing about food. He was a staff writer at Improper Bostonian, and freelanced for several Boston newspapers and magazines. It’s no surprise, then, that “Black Trumpet” is better written than most other cookbooks. Take, for example, Mallett’s description of New Englanders as “hardy as parsnips, our wills stronger than the roots of the sugar maple…”

“My exposure to food increased exponentially with writing about food,” Mallett said. “One of the perks of being a food writer is exposure to so many different styles and influences and ethno-culinary traditions and farms and food sources and things like that. I became really driven by those connections.”

He returned to cooking professionally in 1998, after he and his wife, Denise, shared an unforgettable meal of rabbit and pappardelle at Lindbergh’s Crossing, a bistro and wine bar located in a two-centuries-old ship’s chandlery on the Portsmouth waterfront. The location, 29 Ceres St., was the former home of the legendary Blue Strawbery restaurant. The rabbit and pasta, Mallett recalled, “was breathtaking and soul-warming enough to trigger that desire to return to the kitchen.”

Chef Evan Mallett prepares rabbit for dinner in the kitchen of his Portsmouth, N.H., restaurant, the Black Trumpet. "I'm pretty adamant about sourcing from within New England, and from New Hampshire and Maine whenever possible," he says.

Chef Evan Mallett prepares rabbit for dinner in the kitchen of his Portsmouth, N.H., restaurant, the Black Trumpet. “I’m pretty adamant about sourcing from within New England, and from New Hampshire and Maine whenever possible,” he says. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The couple was living in Concord at the time and thinking of starting a family. Mallett’s grandfather lived in Portsmouth and was ill. The dinner at Lindbergh’s Crossing helped tip the balance, and they moved to Portsmouth, where Mallett landed a job at Lindbergh’s Crossing. He worked there, and later as sous chef at its sister restaurant, Ciento, until 2001.

That year, a perfect storm hit: Terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, Mallett’s wife lost her job, and Ciento closed. The couple had a newborn daughter to support, so when a job offer in San Miguel de Allende, a city in central Mexico, came along (courtesy of a flamenco guitarist who had played at Ciento), the Malletts jumped at the opportunity. Mallett knew only “eight words of very vulgar kitchen Spanish” when he arrived, but within six months found himself conversant in the language.

They were looking, Mallett explained, for “a decompression, a sabbatical, and it was a perfect escape. I ended up working just as hard there as I have anywhere. … It still, today, informs the way I cook.”

They stayed for nearly two years and still return once a year.

When Mallett’s former employers in Portsmouth invited him to return, he and his wife moved back and bought a home in Berwick, where they still live with their two children, Eleanor, 16, and Cormac, 13. Mallet became executive chef at Lindbergh’s Crossing. Three years later, the owners asked the couple to take over the restaurant. They agreed, and transformed the restaurant, which had served cuisine from the south of France, into the Black Trumpet.

Denise Mallett, while a co-owner, did not work there on a day-to-day basis until the recession hit, and her husband credits her with the restaurant’s survival. (She is now back to her own career, working for a Portland firm that researches socially responsible investing.)

FLOURISH OF TRUMPET

The cozy downstairs dining room at Black Trumpet peers out over the harbor at sidewalk level. Guests can see the riverfront and the Fort Macon tug standing guard – an even better view is available in the upstairs dining room. Downstairs, where the kitchen is located, the long, narrow dining room is filled with small copper-topped tables and huge, dark, wooden beams stretch across the ceiling. The narrow fireplace hasn’t worked since the 1800s, according to a server. Along one old brick wall is a long shelf filled with wine bottles; below them, a line of photographs of fish, seaweed and, of course, black trumpet mushrooms. Shortly before opening for the evening, Mallett brings out a pot of shrimp and meatball gumbo for the staff meal and explains the additions to the night’s menu, which are listed on a chalkboard that sits on the fireplace mantel.

A meze plate holds a trio of tastes, including veal Bordelaise, an achiote-rubbed tenderloin, and a creamy beef empanada. The achiote spice blend is house-made – the Mallets also own a spice store called Stock + Spice next door. The tenderloin is seared rare and served with a dab of crème fraîche. Sampling the plate reveals how the spices build in heat, from left to right. It’s a warm heat that complements the food, never overwhelming.

Among other items on the chalkboard are pork rillettes made with a mulefoot hog’s head from Washington County, Maine. Small plates include local oysters Bienville, and the fish for the evening is local dayboat cusk. The menu includes a wide variety of small and medium plates. Entrees range from $19-$32.

TEACHER AND SEEKER

Over the years, Mallett has earned a solid reputation as an advocate for what he calls the “Good Food Revolution” and for using only the freshest, local foods.

“I’m pretty adamant about sourcing from within New England, and from New Hampshire and Maine whenever possible,” he said.

Mallett sits on the boards of Slow Food Seacoast and the Chef’s Collaborative, a national nonprofit network of chefs and food professionals dedicated to food sustainability, access to good food, and building a better food system.

Black Trumpet has its own garden, which began as a raised bed in a community garden on the grounds of Strawbery Banke. Today it’s a three-quarter-acre organic plot at Meadows Mirth Farm in Stratham, 10 to 15 miles from the restaurant. It has spawned another food system-building project called the Heirloom Harvest Project, co-founded with Josh Jennings, the owner of the farm.

“Feeding our guests from our garden is a nice story to tell,” Mallett said, “but a more important story is the food heritage that we are curating and disseminating, literally. The heirloom plant varieties that we grow there are, generally speaking, endangered or approaching extinction.”

Once a year the Heirloom Harvest Project shares heirloom seeds with local farmers, for free, and connects them with chefs. Rare varieties that have been targeted by the project include Roy’s Calais flint corn, Longpie pumpkins and Gilfeather turnips.

Kathy Gunst, a food writer and cookbook author from Berwick, calls Mallet “driven, creative and obsessed with learning about, and supporting, local farmers and the food they grow.”

“He has an almost childlike wonder, in the best way, about the food world around him,” she said.

Gunst occasionally dines at Black Trumpet and has taken part in one of Mallett’s other projects, the annual “Take a Bite Out of Appledore” eco-culinary retreat on Shoals Marine Laboratory at Appledore Island, one of the Isles of Shoals off Portsmouth and Kittery. Mallett co-founded the event, a weekend of foraging, education in ecology, and good food, then later invited his longtime friend and mentor Sam Hayward, co-owner of Portland’s Fore Street and Scales restaurants, to help. (Hayward began his own culinary career on the island in the mid-1970s.)

Guests explore and collect edible plants with biologists, trawl for groundfish in the lab’s research vessel and snorkel in tide pools for intertidal shellfish. Hayward said he and Mallett had only a limited idea what edible plants and marine species would be available when they first arrived on the island, “and yet, somehow, every meal was a buffet of literally dozens of species.”

“Evan embodies much that I wish all food professionals would share,” Hayward said. “He cooks from a deep well of generosity, the basis of hospitality. His curiosity is limitless. He’s one of the few chefs I know who studies the natural history of the creatures and plants we cook and serve. He’s an observant naturalist and a habitual forager. He’s a tireless experimenter. And as a collaborator, he’s incredibly inclusive and open to the suggestions of those working with him.”

Mallett says the opportunity to talk about foraging and ecology with a captive audience was “a once-in-a-lifetime possibility” that he couldn’t pass up. “I am exponentially more educated by that experience than I am an educator.”

“The most surprising thing that’s happened is learning about the adaptability of species to adverse conditions because the Isles of Shoals sees that more than most places in our region,” he said. “The harshest storms, the most severe droughts. This last year, there was a species of plant that flourished because of the drought that would normally have been dormant.”

He used that plant, red goosefoot, to make a salad that was “a better salad than any spinach has ever made.”

Consider it one more lesson learned about an ingredient that grows in New England – an ingredient that, when it makes its way into Mallett’s kitchen, will likely find itself enhanced by flavors from another land.