Minneapolis chef Eric Austin is known best as the owner of Big E's, a popular soul food restaurant he left in 2005 after a fight broke out in the kitchen (read more in this week's cover story).
But years before Big E's even opened, Austin started his first restaurant on the deck of his apartment on Oak Grove Street in Loring Park.
The formula was anything but conventional. He did most of the cooking on his kitchen stove, where he kept a bucket of hot grease he used in lieu of a deep-fryer.
In the beginning, his clientele was a small but loyal group of neighbors who played basketball at Loring Park down the block. Protocol was to walk up to the back window and buy a plate of whatever Austin had cooking for $10 a pop.
"It wasn't exactly legal," admits Melanie Kell, Austin's girlfriend of 15 years. "But in the South, people have basement parties and blue light parties."[jump]
Austin's idea was to create a combination of both in his own backyard.
This is where Austin developed what would become his signature style of cuisine.
Through countless hours of experimentation, he combined his grandma's soul food recipes with the techniques he learned cooking in France. He called it neo-soul, a term made popular by record producer Kedar Massenburg, who fused African music with jazz, hip-hip and other styles.
As Austin began to conjure up more recipes, word was spreading throughout the city. By the end of the summer, it wasn't uncommon for Austin to be cooking all day to keep up with the demand of a never-ending line outside his kitchen window. On occasion, people would drive from more than an hour away just for a plate.
"When it hit, word went out," says Austin. "This is Big E's soul food. The black community started looking at this as culinary endeavor long before I did."
Then one day it all came to a screeching halt. Austin was behind the stove as usual when he smelled the unmistakable odor of smoke. It was the pot of boiling grease, and the fire was already spreading to the rest of the kitchen.
Austin kept the flames at bay until the fire department arrived, but by the end of the day Austin's burnt-out stove was sitting in his backyard and the kitchen was reduced to suet and ashy remnants of what were once cupboards.
"Pretty much the whole room I remember just being black," recalls Kell, who came home from work that evening to discover what had happened.
But it wasn't a total disaster. Austin had always dreamed of opening his own restaurant, and the success of his makeshift soul food joint couldn't be ignored. Two years and a few business classes later, he opened Big E's on the 1800 block of Nicollet Avenue.
"For what it's worth, it was a great ride," Austin says of his backyard restaurant. "And if I hadn't burned down that kitchen, there'd be no Big E's."