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.
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.
"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.
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.'"