Eric "Big E" Austin: Chef Chat
If you follow the local food scene at all, you'll surely recognize chef Eric "Big E" Austin's name. Known for both his sophisticated neo-soul fare and some very public endings to multiple business partnerships, Austin has made his presence known in the Twin Cities since arriving in 1996.
Most recently, Austin left Uptown's Viva Brazil shortly before the restaurant's opening. Despite the flurry of controversy surrounding him, Austin's considerable culinary chops keep people coming back in droves for his food. The Hot Dish spoke with Austin about his culinary background, his experiences in France, and his plans for the future.
Where did you grow up and when/why did you move to the Twin Cities? I grew up in Mississippi, in Indianola, which is B.B. King's hometown. Subsequently, I was going back and forth between there and New York City. I spent school years in New York with my mom, and the summer months in the south with my grandparents. I'm a city-country boy, and that's what most of my dishes reflect. I got to the Twin Cities in 1996, and the Loring Cafe was one of my first gigs here.
What got you started with cooking? Is there a definitive moment that you remember? That was in the south. When school was out, my brothers and I headed south. Our options were either to work in the field or work in the kitchen with grandma. My brothers chose to work in the fields, and I chose the kitchen, because I knew I got first dibs on whatever it was we were cooking! I learned a thing or two there. I was about eight years old when that started though. Where did you attend culinary school? What's one of the most important things you learned at culinary school? I went to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] in New York eventually, and that was a cool thing. Before that though, I was getting my feet wet working at a place in the Lower Village during college, trying to pay my way through school. I knew enough about food from cooking with my grandma to fake my way through an interview. I worked out a deal with the manager there, who was eventually turning over the restaurant to his sons. He knew that his sons couldn't cook, so I ended up cooking for him and he sent me through culinary school.
After that, a group of other grads and I got work visas and such to go to France and just hung out and learned. We weren't in Paris doing Parisian cooking, we were in Burgundy and Lyon. When I got there, I found their food had the same basis as some of my grandma's cooking. There was cassoulet and pig's feet and collard greens. I thought, "Wait a minute! Hold the phone! I thought I just left this!" I just didn't know you were supposed to call it something else. [...] In my cooking, I never wanted to mess with soul food, but I wanted to present it in a more sophisticated light, using my formal training. I want to bring some ideas from the formal restaurant to soul food, but keep the integrity. The ladies from church on Sunday, they put you to the bread pudding test. I couldn't call it something fancy without isolating them. I'm just elevating the technique rather than trying to kill the soul food.
So the restaurant in New York was your first restaurant job? Yeah, it was. I had been exposed to that cuisine before too. My mom was in politics in New York and would throw dinner parties, so my knowledge of that kind of menu was a must. Whenever I was on a date, I had a familiarity with the menu, so I'd be able to impress dates by pronouncing all the names. Like I said, I went to that one restaurant a lot for dates, the one in the Lower Village. That place was a combination of Italian and French cooking, the Alsace style. The manager was impressed that I knew something about the food, and I eventually wound up with that job. I wasn't good on serving the food at first, but I could make this and that dish. I could cook the dish, but putting 30 of them out, that might take a minute. I thought restaurant cooking was completely different from home, but it wasn't. I thought, "Wait a minute, I can do this." Culinary school helped me put some management to my technique, and gave me an understanding of all the different tools.
How would you define your approach to soul food, and what draws you to cooking soul food? I'm all about using formal techniques and elevating soul food a little. The French food I take inspiration from comes from peasant food, and soul food is like that in a way too. I didn't want to accept notion that soul food was also a poor food. I thought, "everything I see in these other kitchens, why can't be that applied to soul food?" Do you have a favorite dish to prepare, at home or in a restaurant? [laughs] Wow, no. It's all a mood thing really. On some days it's barbecue, on some days it's something completely different. What about a favorite ingredient? Or an overlooked ingredient that you like using? That's hard too. I'm really trying to get to the roots and nature of dishes and ingredients. In soul cooking, no one thought to use eggplant, and eggplant originated in African cuisine. What could get more original than that? Eggplants and baba ghanoush are forms of soul food! When people would see a vegetarian menu or a vegan menu of soul food, they're surprised. Most places are associated with pork and black eyed peas and what have you, but lots of African cuisine is vegetarian. We weren't setting out to be a vegetarian or a vegan restaurant, it's just the nature of the food. Once we started discovering those original recipes, that's when the vegetarian dishes happened. We were just trying to get back to the beginning. The neo-soul food presentation was always big with me, because it hadn't been shown in that light before. Our catering, it's the most formal catering that you could get. It's presented in full restaurant fashion, but it's all grandma's recipes. What about Viva Brazil? Can you talk about that situation at all? I can't really talk about it that much. It's definitely in litigation, and I'm going to let the attorneys take it from here. Before, I used to try to be easy and not use contracts, but this time around, there's a contract. It's a different feeling this time. What's next for you? Where can we find more Big E's food? I'm going to see how this plays out. I've got kind of a bat cave that are friends of mine, and I'm always around the city somewhere in the background helping my friends with their menus. The next thing I do, I think it will be Big E's soul food. I want to work on a revival and bring it back. It's time to get back to that for me. There are a couple of opportunities that have been presented to me, through people who were fans of my food before. With bad situations like this Viva Brazil thing, there's always something good that happens. I've got some great leads and I just want to make Big E's happen again.
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