Eric "Big E" Austin is one mean chef

Storied local soul-food legend has a long rap sheet

"I asked him why he hadn't opened the restaurant," Dang later testified in court documents. "He stood up, shoving me into my office and knocking my head into my computer. He grabbed me by the throat, telling me, 'I'm gonna kill you now! I'm gonna kill you now!'"

Dang's brother-in-law entered the fray, according to police reports, and Big E ran into the kitchen and began dumping out all the food.

"You messed with the wrong guy!" Austin screamed, according to Dang.

Austin's relationship with Viva Brazil and its owner, Olmedo Alvarado, ended days before the grand opening
Hennepin County Sheriff
Austin's relationship with Viva Brazil and its owner, Olmedo Alvarado, ended days before the grand opening
Austin's popular soul food restaurants attracted a long list of celebrities over the years.
courtesy of Melanie Kell
Austin's popular soul food restaurants attracted a long list of celebrities over the years.

Location Info

Map

French Meadow Bakery & Cafe

2610 Lyndale Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Restaurant > Bakery

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Details

Noshing on goat cheese pizza, Big E denies actually striking Dang. Asked about destroying his kitchen, he offers a polite explanation: Dang left him no choice but to lose his temper. Dang had closed out an account they both owned, says Austin, putting him in financial turmoil. He couldn't reach Dang for a week, so he closed the restaurant to get his attention.

"I lost a house, two cars, and almost my family," Austin says.

ONCE THE MOST CELEBRATED chef on Nicollet, Austin now couldn't even walk the street. Though he didn't face charges in either incident, both of the former owners filed restraining orders against him, so he wasn't allowed anywhere near the block where he had made his name as a cook.

Austin eventually began advertising his services on Craigslist.

That's how he came to work for Olmedo Alvarado, who was interested in opening a Brazilian restaurant in Minneapolis. Being from out of town, Alvarado was unfamiliar with Austin's history. He was wooed by Big E's friendly personality, hiring him after one interview.

Alvarado and his business partners had only three months before the grand opening of their new venture, Viva Brazil. But, as Alvarado tells it, Austin had little enthusiasm for the challenge.

"He was a lot of times in a bad mood," says Alvarado. "You don't want to talk to him."

Three days before the opening, Austin told Alavarado he didn't think they were ready to make a public debut. The dispute escalated into a screaming match, and by the end of it, the partnership was over.

Austin says he didn't quit, he was fired, and he's preparing a lawsuit against Viva Brazil, claiming a one-year contract was breached.

"This time, I'm not Hulking out," says Austin. "It's all in writing."

AS AUSTIN PICKS UP his final slice of pizza, there's one last incident that needs to be addressed. It's from a police report filed in 1996.

The problem began when Austin's then-girlfriend told him she wanted to break up, according to the report. At first he reacted by sitting silently on the bed. Then he picked her up by the throat and smashed her head against the wall. Austin threw her down on the bed, choked her, and punched her face repeatedly.

"I fell back and lost consciousness at one point, because I woke up and he was choking me again," the victim later testified in a police interview. "That is what woke me up, because I couldn't breathe."

Because she lost consciousness, the woman was unable to calculate how long the beating lasted. At one point, she asked Austin to call for an ambulance, the report says, but he refused.

He kicked her in the ribs before she finally escaped, stumbling across the road to the Third Street Market. She collapsed near the register, blood gushing from her face. So profusely was she bleeding that the clerks thought she had been stabbed.

"He told me he was going to kill me," she told police of Austin. "He said several times that he was gonna end it all tonight for me and for himself."

Sitting at French Meadow Cafe, Austin is handed the police file. He studies the report, seeing it for what he says is the first time.

"Bah!" he scoffs when he first begins reading, but his smile quickly fades as he reads in silence the detailed narrative where he is the villain—a man who beat his girlfriend while her seven-year-old daughter sat in another room.

For several long minutes, Austin sits stone-faced, betraying no emotion.

Finally, Big E throws the paperwork back across the table and casually takes a bite of his goat cheese pizza.

"It didn't go down like she said," he says with finality, noting he wasn't charged in the incident. "There was nothing calm about this relationship."

AUSTIN DOESN'T LIKE TALKING about the past, and he's clearly upset by his outsized reputation.

"I go to nightclubs and people come up to me like, 'You know where you fucked up?'" he says. "And it's not even about being a celebrity chef. It's like, 'Dude, I'm just here to have a fucking beer!'"

For now, Austin says he's looking toward the future. He recently entered into talks with investors about opening a new soul food restaurant called—what else?—Big E's Cafe Sol.

After the check is paid, Austin lingers in his chair, staring down at the remains of the day. Before getting up, he offers one last protest that he's not the monster some people might think he is.

"Bill Bixby never just walked into a room and Hulked out," he says, referring to the actor who played Dr. David Banner in the 1960s television series that also starred Lou Ferrigno. "It was always the bad guy that did something to provoke him. And then it was like, 'All right, I've gotta Hulk out now.'"

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