Eric "Big E" Austin is one mean chef

Storied local soul-food legend has a long rap sheet

Eric Austin strolls into French Meadow Cafe and takes a seat behind a candlelit table. He peruses the menu, more out of habit than necessity. This is one of his favorite local dining spots—a "chef's restaurant," he calls it—and he already knows what he wants.

"This is where I conduct most of my business," he says. "For me, this is like the closest to Brooklyn you're gonna get."

Austin is surprisingly short for a guy nicknamed "Big E," but he makes up for it with a round Buddha belly. He has a youthful chubby-cheeked grin, but patches of gray in his dreadlocks and facial hair betray that he's fast approaching 50.

Alma Guzman
Austin prepares one of his neo-soul dishes, jerk chicken wings with mango salsa and watermelon ice
Alma Guzman
Austin prepares one of his neo-soul dishes, jerk chicken wings with mango salsa and watermelon ice

Location Info

Map

French Meadow Bakery & Cafe

2610 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Restaurant > Bakery

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Details

A culinary celebrity in the Twin Cities, Austin is known for his innovative approach to soul food, popularized at the eponymous Big E's on Nicollet Avenue. Austin calls it "neo-soul," a combination of classic Southern dishes and the formality of fine Parisian dining.

"He's a very talented chef," says Jeremy Iggers, former restaurant reviewer for the Star Tribune. "His soul food, for the short time that Big E's was open, was really the best ever served in the Twin Cities."

But outside the kitchen, Austin isn't always so refined. His rap sheet is pocked with more than a dozen arrests: credit card fraud, theft of a motor vehicle, escaping police custody, and several assaults.

At times he's been his own worst enemy. Restaurant partnerships have inevitably collapsed in lawsuits and recrimination—his most recent endeavor, Viva Brazil on Lake Street, went south earlier this summer just three days before it was slated to open.

"A white coat is a chef's coat," Austin says, "not a pope's."

A WAITRESS COMES BY after a few minutes, and Austin offers a toothy smile. "Goat cheese pizza, please," he says.

The scene—ambient piano music, cloth napkins, an all-organic menu—seems a far cry from Austin's humble beginnings. The first business Austin owned was a neighborhood joint on Eat Street called Big E's. The dining room was about the size of the bathroom here, but Austin made the most of it. He ripped the kitchen doors off and decorated the walls with paintings of heroes from black history.

The restaurant opened in February 2002. Word of Austin's unique take on soul food spread quickly among local foodies. Before long, customers were lining up halfway down the block. It became a local landmark for black celebrities when they visited the Twin Cities—Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, and Bill Cosby all dined at Big E's.

Austin loves to tell the story of the time Shaq came in and ordered Big E's signature macaroni and cheese. A few minutes later, Shaq returned to the counter and handed Austin his cell phone.

"Tell my mom how to make this," Shaq commanded.

In the kitchen, however, there were signs of the enfant terrible lurking just beneath Austin's affable exterior.

"He's very adamant on how he wants his food," says Timothy Hovanetz, who worked for Austin as a sous chef. "There's been some plates thrown out of frustration."

The facade began to crumble in 2005, when Austin sold the restaurant to a man named Ahmed Elsabee. Austin quit shortly after Elsabee took over, then demanded that Elsabee change the name.

When Elsabee refused, Austin lost his temper. He grabbed the cash register by the cord and ripped it off the counter.

"Now I have your attention!" Austin announced, according to police records.

Big E then grabbed Elsabee by the shirt collar and plastered him against the wall.

"Then he punched me in the mouth and told me that he was going to kill me," Elsabee recounted in a civil court filing. "He grabbed the knife to try to assault me, but someone else stopped him."

A dishwasher detained Austin by his long dreadlocks while Elsabee called police.

"He's trying to kill me!" Elsabee told a 911 operator.

"I'm a chef in a kitchen full of knives," replied Austin. "If I wanted to kill you, I'd have killed you all!"

Sitting in the well-appointed dining room of French Meadow Café, it's hard to imagine such a chaotic scene.

"That was my first business," Austin says, by way of explanation. "We poured every-freakin'-thing into it."

Austin also says Elsabee destroyed one of his paintings during the argument.

"I mean, I don't care what the situation, that's my property," he says, chuckling. "Gandhi would have slapped the hell out of you at that point!"

THE WAITRESS DROPS OFF the goat cheese pizza, and Austin stares at it for a moment in quiet contemplation.

"One thing I will say is that I came up in the kitchen of Anthony Bourdain," he says. "Everything now is turning kitchen corporate.... All the Cub Scouts are now cooks."

After the blowup at Big E's, Austin joined forces with a competing soul food restaurant next door, Soul City Supper Club. The restaurant was promptly renamed Chef E's Soul Food and Blues to capitalize on Austin's cult following.

But just six months later, despite the restaurant's popularity, it all fell apart.

Hoang Dang, the owner, showed up at 2 p.m. to find the dining room closed. Austin was sitting inside, waiting for him.

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