Eric "Big E" Austin: Chef Chat

Categories: Interview

Big.E_250.jpg
Courtesy of Eric Austin
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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22 comments
Checked the Facts
Checked the Facts

Eric never studied cooking in France on a work visa, nor did he graduate from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He uses these fabrications to pad his resume, but attentive fact-checking indicates neither is true.

Foodie101!
Foodie101!

I think the bottom line here is...have you tried his food.  It's amazing with great flavors for the palette.  Love how you morons just want to pick apart things you have not tried.  Eat first...then you can talk about it!  So have you tried it?  No...hmmmm then what else do you have to say?

Spgdean
Spgdean

Eric is all about the food - and your experience eating it with the ones that make your life matter.  His pride is on the plate and his standards are about what you deserve to experience with his name behind it.  My second bite of his food at his old resturant made me a fan for life.

He even gives away his cooking skills and recipes on Facebook, teaching anyone that has an interest.

Big is real, down to earth, honest, and respects your experience and your wallet.

Dean Chapman

ref
ref

I'm thinking Greg is upset that he doesn't get as much press time as Big E. 

I don't know about the rest of the chefs in town., but I do know that every dish that E makes has his heart and soul (and foot - lol) in it.  I don't see what got you guys all riled up, he said one word wrong? Whoopdie do.  Settle.  I sense jealousy . . .  

Bitchhunter
Bitchhunter

None of you have to go to any restaurant that E opens. You have free will. Stick to Crave and Seven or whatever douchery that suits you better. I don't want to run into any of you there anyway. I would like to dine without the stench of pretension ruining my experience. E's food is special, that's it. You can all argue your wiki-facts over some slop at Urban Eatery and discuss how funny Dane Cook is.

your's truly
your's truly

@Greg - hey, though a bit pissed, you are right, definitely pulled a Bachman, try to say Al - pine, come up with Al-sace, but hey the point of using French techniques in German cuisine is still illustrated - thanks for the correction

MelanieKell
MelanieKell

I think if you really knew what you were talking about "Herb" you would just shut-up!  Chef E has donanted THOUSANDS of dollars to the March of Dimes and American Heart Foundation just to name a few charities.  He is well respected for his food knowledge and we know him as someone paving the way to educate and elevate every type of cuisine he touches.  He has been given neighborhood improvement awards and STILL has a huge following.  (All you need to do is work Google to see that!!)   Whatever your major malfunction is - it it definatly misplaced here.

Cant LetGo Herb
Cant LetGo Herb

Remember that one guy that almost did that one thing way back before he quit that other thing that never worked?  Fuck me running...

Lazy Ass CP
Lazy Ass CP

Way I reckon, if you leave a restaurant shortly before it opened, that don't count for nothing but shoulda woulda.  Know what?  The dog would have caught the rabbit if he hadn't stopped to shit.

Incredulous Herb D
Incredulous Herb D

Jesus Christ, do you guys owe this guy money or what?  Hasn't done a goddamn thing in years cept BOMB yet you continue to write about him...   Seriously  what's the deal? 

Greg
Greg

Alsace style is a blend of German and French, all you have to do is look at a map to figure that one out.

M_Hedberg
M_Hedberg

For sure!  I became a fan when he started sponsoring the "Dining out for Life" capain and supported the fight for AIDS.  He created a gourmet Lobster meal and dessert that I will never forget and donated ALL the proceeds to charity.  You only were required to donate 10% so when this was his choice - MY choice became clear, too.  Good lookin, out E!  I am sure all his generosity to the community around him will pay off eventually.

Moonriver
Moonriver

I think you're right, ref. Jealousy is king in most of these comments. If you know Big E, you know he's about real food, not about impressing people with his knowledge about food. He's got the chops for sure--his bio proves that. What better place to learn about food than at your Grandma's side? Can't get more authentic than that. Obviously, CP ultimately writes about things that they know their readers want to read about...and Eric must be at or near the top of their list. As for the negative comments, it's evident that you are all full of yourselves..and/or full of sh*t  ;)

Greg
Greg

I'm not a bit pissed. But, here's the thing people in general (and especially chefs) should understand about "French Technique": pretty much the only reason anybody uses that term is that the French were the first to codify technique. People in countries all over the globe have been braising, grilling, stewing, frying, roasting, poaching, etc for quite some time without the help of the French. Confit is the only uniquely French dish I can think of at the moment. Not trying to bash you here, just saying. As to the other comments here, I think if people had a better understanding of the food industry, they might not be so quick to judge. I do have that knowledge and have worked in some dysfunctional places, so I can make some guesses as to your situation. I'd give you the benefit of the doubt for sure. Owners can be "interesting" folks at times.

Truth HURTS-BHD
Truth HURTS-BHD

Bullshit.  Anybody who slurs and umms and SAYS NOTHING like the interview above is NOT respected for any type of knowledge much less food knowledge.    How can he "elevate" any cuisine if he hasn't had a real restaurant in years?  By cooking at home?  Jim Jones at a huge following right up til the end too.  What's my major malfunction?  I just can't believe that with hundreds and hundreds of real restaurants open in the Metro that CP does ANOTHER interview/puff piece with this epic loser.  "Do you have a favorite dish you like to prepare at home or at the restaurant?"  HE DOESN'T HAVE NOR HAS HE HAD A RESTAURANT IN YEARS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!   I'm a reader who just doesn't understand why this dry well is continually tapped.   

MelanieKell
MelanieKell

....and his point was that the French techniques are used with ALL types of world cuisines. 

M_Hedberg
M_Hedberg

Either you LOVE him, you HATE him.... or you think he's ok.

Frank
Frank

Eric "Big E" Austin is a local celebrity chef. The media contacts him to do interviews and he smartly obliges. Your rage is misplaced. The tragic irony is that by adding a litany of comments under this story, you have only added to this man's credentials as a celebrity. Be mad at yourself.

Greg
Greg

He wasn't making any kind of point. He was putting a word to the fusion of Italian and French cuisines and he was incorrect. The correct word for that type of fusion if you know the history of French cuisine is just that: French cuisine. The great renaissance in French cookery occurred when Catherine de Medici married King Henry II of France. It was the Italian chefs she brought with her to France that elevated French cuisine. If this guy is truly knowledgeable about food and intends to educate people about it, shouldn't he have his facts straight?

your's truly
your's truly

we could surely open up dialogue about a host of points regarding French cuisine Greg and it's influence on world cuisine - right down to being the first to codify technique, which is no small matter - Escoffier's Le Guide did become highly regarded with all of the (so called) chefs of the world - and yes, while cooking is as ancient as a dinosaur on a spit, a renaissance of uniformity was brought about in turn thus they [the French] were given world status ranking as the cuisine to immulate - but that really wasn't my point either, I really didn't want to stray too far away from the point of "soul" cookery in the article (just pretty hard to speak impromtu off the cuff while driving along 94 lol) in answering the question, "where was the first place you worked?"  If any facts were to be gotten straight, it was the one you brought up - I don't debate, or fight about food - too much pretense in its history, nor do I care to "Claven (from "Cheers") about it - I will leave that to Jessica Harris and Escoffier. I would rather just go with Beard here, "I don't like gourmet cooking or this cooking or that cooking, I like good cooking" You sound like a chef (lol, and I mean you no insult hahaha) so thank you for the benefit of the doubt regarding owner's who are not chefs - neglect the food, call the customers stupid and master mediocracy, and I am simply NOT the guy you want working for you. I hope everyone can just dig that.

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