Podcast Episode 43

How to Reach a Big Culinary Career Goal with Erik Niel

Erik Niel | 39 Minutes | May 24, 2022

In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Chef Erik Niel, a restaurateur who knows how to connect a culinary career path to a distant culinary arts goal.

Erik Niel is the co-owner & executive chef at Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats in Chattanooga, TN. Chef Niel is a James Beard semi-finalist from 2016 and 2017 for Best Chef: Southeast. In his career, he was awarded Chef of the Year: Independent Property by the Tennessee Tourism & Hospitality Association.

Listen as Erik discusses why “food” and “home” go together, the feeling of true hospitality, how to manage multiple restaurant brands, and what creates balance when presenting a dining experience.

Watch the podcast episode:

Video thumbnail play
Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Erik Niel, co-owner and executive chef at Easy Bistro and Bar and Main Street Meats in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chef Niel was a James Beard semi-finalist in 2016 and 2017 for Best Chef Southeast and was awarded Chef of the Year Independent Property by the Tennessee Tourism and Hospitality Association. He’s been featured in Southern Living, Garden and Gun, Style Blueprint and the Wall Street Journal, and much, more.

Join us today as we chat with Chef Niel about his culinary roots, establishing his entrepreneurial footprint in Chattanooga, and what it takes to build two successful restaurant brands.

There he is! Good morning, Chef! How are you?

Erik Niel: Good morning! Very happy to be here, Kirk. Thank you.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. I’m really excited about this. I think we’re going to have some fun. First, I’ve got to ask: it looks like you’re at home. When Chef Niel stands up, or friends come over and you get over to that little area over your shoulder, what’s the go-to meal?

Erik Niel: The go-to meal at the house for my wife and son is some form of chicken with rice and vegetable because we go real fast. That’s about what a ten-year-old wants to eat at this point, so we kind of eat with him and have some fun with it. When we have friends over, I’ve got all the chef-y accoutrements outside from Green Eggs to smokers and such that I love to play with and do things that I can’t do in the restaurant, that take hours or days to smoke or cook or whatnot. I like entertaining like that.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Maybe the game is on. You’re going back and forth. It’s the most comfortable place to be.

Erik Niel: It’s a great place to be. I really enjoy being at the house and having people over. It’s a lot of fun.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. Thanks for welcoming me in for a little bit today. I have a lot of chefs on the show, and I like to talk about their culinary journey, because it connects us sometimes in unique ways. If you don’t mind, you’re born in Texas,

Erik Niel: Raised in south Louisiana.

Kirk Bachmann: Raised in Louisiana. Kind of the same for some people, right?

Erik Niel: Kind of the same. Exactly.

The Culture of Home and Food

Kirk Bachmann: So you’ve spent a lot of time with your family growing up, fishing. I’d love to talk about when you started imagining and becoming influenced to become a chef. Now, Easy Bistro, your first restaurant, was originally called Easy Seafood, right?

Erik Niel: Very true.

Kirk Bachmann: Is that because of what you did growing up?

Erik Niel: Absolutely. Louisiana is a place unlike any other in the States, in my opinion. When I thought about being a chef, and I’d have to say that I thought more about being able to cook when I was younger, because it was an important part of everyday life. This is men and women alike in my childhood were revered for what they did well. We knew who made the best gumbo, who had the best fish fry, whose sauce piquante was the best to put on red fish. Would emulate that however we could.

I was also very fortunate to have grandparents who were both, in their own right, amazing cooks. The idea of cooking or preparing food for everybody was ingrained in my being that it just seemed natural to want to help in that process. It’s that southern Louisiana hospitality that’s just indescribable. People know when they feel it, but it’s hard to put words to it.

That desire in me was always there from a youngster. Turning it into a profession was a totally different decision. Cooking and the idea of taking care of people was there from as far as I can remember back.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. The door is always open. You’ve said, “Home is a place where people care deeply about food.” Brilliant. Talk about that a little bit.

Erik Niel: I think food and home, in my mind, go together. They’re one in the same. To invite family into home or friends into home is to feed them and nourish them and love them. It’s basically the same thing. Home is where you feel most comfortable, in my opinion, but in somebody else’s home that welcomes you, usually with food, it can put you at ease and make you feel like you’re in your own home or comfortable in theirs. In a way, I don’t know that there’s anything else that you can do to do that. A good hug is maybe a close second, but that’s about it.

Kirk Bachmann: Is that the culture that you try to develop with your team at the restaurants?

Erik Niel: Absolutely. Culture is one of those words that we’ve all adopted in the past ten or so years in this business. In order to love other people and care for other people and be hospitable for other people, you have to love each other and take care of each other. The guiding principles of Easy and Main Street Meats are that we take care of ourselves so we can take care of others. We try and manifest it in different ways. Just being a place where people want to be and feel like a home away from home with food is really important to me.

Recognizing Hospitality

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. A good friend of mine once said as a point of advice, “Rule number one in business: you gotta like your customers.” Makes everything else a little bit easier, right?

Erik Niel: It does. In the hospitality side, I think there are people who have a hospitality bone and people who don’t. One of the things we really search for in both front and back of the house is people who understand and feel hospitality when it happens to them so they can give it back. In fact, that’s my favorite interview question for a front of the house employee: do you know when somebody’s being hospitable to you? Can you give me an example?

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, I love that.

Erik Niel: The examples are amazing sometimes. Sometimes it’s sad because people don’t recognize when it happens to them. I think it’s a little bit of a lost art in some ways, now. It’s a feeling that is indescribable when it happens, but you know when it happens.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s genuine. Sincere.

Erik Niel: It can only be genuine. There is no fake hospitality.

Trust the Team in the Kitchen

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. By the way, I love on the website, how you call out your team. I’m real big on that, just respecting your team, calling them out. Quote, unquote, you say, “Our talented crew in the kitchen.” You never see that on websites! It dives into the menu, maybe a little history of the founders, location, things like that. For you to call out your team, how important is the team to you? We’ll kind of segue into the CEO conversation a little bit.

Erik Niel: The team is the business. I feel fortunate to get to work with everybody who is on the team. I get to be the leader of the team, but I also get to be the follower of the team and the biggest cheerleader of the team. As my roles have developed and adapted over the years and evolved, I see myself as the supporter of the team as much as the leader of the team. It’s been integral to our success, but it also makes it a lot of fun.

Kirk Bachmann: To put you on the spot, I have to ask the question: do you know where your knives are?

Erik Niel: I do know where my knives are. I have not used them in a good long while, but I know where they are hiding, and if I need them, I will certainly get them.

Kirk Bachmann: How does that change? We’ll talk about culinary school and your earlier time in the industry. I’d love from your entrepreneurial perspective, when do you know that you’ve got to step out from the pass, or from being the stove? You’ve got to be the marketer in the dining room. You’ve got to be the CEO, essentially, of the business.

Erik Niel: Owning your own restaurant and being the chef – or being the bartender, or the manager, or the sommelier, or anything like that – at the same time is a challenge. Because there’s all these demands of the business that are on top of the demands of that position. I’ve been running, thankfully, my own restaurant for 17 years now at Easy. Seven at Main Street Meats. I fought it for years and year and years, the need to put he knives down and go be the business manager.

To be perfectly honest, the thing that really put the nail in the coffin of needing to do that for me was covid. I knew instantly when covid happened to all of us, but especially with managing two different teams at two different places that me holding a knife was instantly useless. I needed to manage people and manage the business and be creative from a top down point of view so that we could survive the first day, week, month of covid, and everything ever since. It changed us all, but it really changed me in the way I perceived my job and my responsibilities.

Kirk Bachmann: And the way others perceive you as well.

Erik Niel: Absolutely.

Kirk Bachmann: So I’m going to help you here. How does your wife fit in to the whole thing? You’ll thank me later.

Erik Niel: I am extraordinarily fortunate to have been able to do all the things that I’ve done in the restaurant world with my wife. Amanda and I are a great team. We each have our lanes that we swim in. We try not to cross the ropes very often. While it does occasionally happen, we usually can get back in our lanes pretty quickly. Amanda is an integral part of the process of Easy and Main Street and the upcoming Little Coyote. We love working together. People ask us how we’re able to do it. We met in restaurants, we dated in restaurants, fell in love in restaurants, and that’s just what we do.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. There you go. Good job, Chef.

So you gave us a little hint. We’ll come back to, I think you said, Coyote. We’ll come back to that in a minute. We often don’t get the insight to what is behind the curtain, so I’m excited about that.

How important is your team, you and Amanda, in that local community? Do people come to see you and Amanda?

Erik Niel: I think both of us would answer that question modestly and say that they come to see the restaurants and to be a part of what the restaurants are able to make people feel like when they’re there. I would love to think that people come to visit us, and certainly people do, but it’s our work and it’s the legacy of the restaurants that people really feel.

My true hope is that we grow into different roles and get older. We have a ten-year-old boy who is very important to us. I certainly missed a lot of time in his early life, being in restaurants. I love being able to come home knowing that the team is there doing great work in both places so that anybody who is coming to see us is perfectly satisfied with Easy and Main Street Meats as they exist right now. I believe in my heart that what they find there is a piece of us, but also a piece of what’s greater than us in both of those places.

From Vail to Sweet Basil

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. Let’s go back. You went to the University of Texas. Even though you’re in the great state of Tennessee, your favorite color is burnt orange versus orange. We won’t tell anybody.

When in culinary school, you had a really interesting experience with culinary school because I sit here in Colorado and I know that the Johnson & Wales folks had a really cool Vail experience for culinary students. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Erik Niel: They did. As most of us do when we’re finishing a bachelor of arts at some great school, and mine was Texas, we try to figure out what’s next. I had since childhood had this ability and desire to cook, but really started honing it through college. I started working in kitchens in the summer to make a little bit of money and keep myself busy, and found through a friend this program that was the Johnson & Wales program at Vail where you could go and do an accelerated program where you only did culinary for a year and still got the associates degree in fine arts from Johnson & Wales in culinary arts.

Because I had a bachelor’s degree, I could do that. Vail seemed like a pretty cool place to be for about 18 months, and it sure was in the end. But it was a really cool experience to get to cook in Vail with a bunch of people who were also on that accelerated path, or changing career paths. People who had bachelor’s degrees – they had to; it was a prerequisite for the program – so it was a different environment of learning there. I really enjoyed it.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. I just love the six degrees of Kevin Bacon scenario, the fact that you shared with me that you worked at Sweet Basil, which is still there. I took the family there a few months ago. It’s unbelievable. I went to culinary school with a line cook from Sweet Basil. Isn’t it amazing?

You’ve been operating your first restaurant for 17 years. That’s a lifetime in our business. Sweet Basil is probably going on 30 years.

Erik Niel: I think they might be longer than that. Maybe 35 or 40.

Kirk Bachmann: Maybe more.

Erik Niel: It’s an impressive operation. The chefs who’ve gone through there, and the line cooks, and the servers, and the bartenders are all the lineage back to Sweet Basil, especially on the West Coast, is incredible.

The Road to a Restaurant

Kirk Bachmann: It really is. What lessons from your time in school? When did you start thinking, “I’m going to do this myself,” or did you know that you needed to work in the industry for a while? This is great advice for current students who will listen to our chat.

Erik Niel: I started the culinary path with the idea that I wanted to own my own business. This was in what I would call the golden age of chef-owned and operated restaurants in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. Cooking was a muse to get me there. I knew I needed to hone that skill, and that’s exactly what I did.

But I started and took every step in my culinary progression with the intention of opening my own restaurant. And I probably did it earlier than I should have. Made more mistakes than I needed to. I was 20-something and bull-headed and thought I could figure it all out. I guess I kind of did, but I certainly could have done it in a way where I took a little less beating. But I’m happy to be where I am.

Kirk Bachmann: So you’re standing there in Vail, Texas-born, Louisiana-bred. How Tennessee? How’d you find your way to Tennessee?

Erik Niel: That’s a great question. It’s one of these things, one of my own favorite quotes: “If you don’t know where you’re going, pretty much any road will get you there.” As I’m leaving Vail-

Kirk Bachmann: You should be a songwriter.

Erik Niel: It’s probably from a song; I just don’t know who wrote it.

My mom had married a man who lived in Chattanooga, and moved to Chattanooga while I was in college. So my younger brother and sister had moved to Chattanooga, and I’d visited for holidays and stuff like that. I had an opportunity to come here and see my brother play football his senior year of high school. My sister was a cheerleader. It was just something I felt like I had missed out on being gone and older than both of them. I wanted to come here and pause for six or eight months, have a fall of high school football with my family. I was planning on going to Charleston, or Charlotte, or New York, or wherever the next place was going to take me.

As the story goes, here I am 22 years later, married, got two restaurants, and my entire family has left Chattanooga.

The Connection Between Great Cities and Great Food

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. To the excitement of those in the community. That’s a cool story.

Erik Niel: I found a really neat burgeoning little city when I got here that had just an enormous amount of potential. For me, being young and culinary-minded, but also business-minded, I really wanted to see what it was capable of providing, and what we were capable of providing for the city. I think that idea has borne fruit over the last 20-something years, and I’m very grateful to the city for the opportunities that it has given me. And I’m happy to have seen how much it has developed and how much it has grown in the time that we’ve been here.

Kirk Bachmann: And to be part of it. I love how some cities embrace food. We’re talking about food today. I spent a lot of my early career in Portland, Oregon. I can remember some great restaurateurs coming up from San Francisco, or down from Seattle. Just trying some stuff. It was wildly popular. Early ‘90s, just trying crazy things. I worked for a Weston Hotel, where everything was very sophisticated. Swiss chef. Brigade of 40. It was always kind of continental. And then all these wild, great restaurants with fresh fruit and fresh vegetables. Portland, still today, great food mecca. I love that connection between great cities. Charleston is one of those as well.

Erik Niel: I think Charleston, and going back to my adopted hometown of New Orleans.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, gosh!

Erik Niel: The scene there. It’s hard for cities to evolve without food. Restaurants are really important in redeveloped underused or under-serviced areas of town. They’re important meeting places for people to come together. This goes back to that home feeling we talked about earlier. Restaurants can provide that in an environment that’s controlled and get to know each other, expand their worldviews, try something different. Without us pushing, I think cities lag behind. I’m not saying that restaurants are the only reason that this happens. There are plenty of other reasons, but it can be a catalyst, and it’s a fun thing to be a part of.

Getting out of the Way

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. 100 percent. So you and Amanda have built two successful restaurants in the area. James Beard nominations. Incredible presence in a variety of publications, from Southern Living, to Charleston Wine and Food magazine. Just unbelievable. Great success. Congratulations to both you and Amanda.

We’ve chatted a little bit about Easy Bistro. I’d love for you to talk about how it segued from a seafood concept to a bistro concept. But more than anything, Chef, I think we all know how much work the industry is and how difficult it is to run that one business. I’d love for you to talk about how do you leverage talent? How do you leverage economies of scale? Is it easier or is it more difficult when you open up that second property? Obviously, the third one coming! Does it get smoother? Do you learn every step of the way?

Erik Niel: The wisdom of experience is the only way I can quickly answer that question. To go back to the beginning of what you were saying. The rebranding of Easy Seafood Company into Easy Bistro was necessary. I was young, and thought I knew what I needed to do and what the market wanted, and I missed. I needed to evolve. That’s exactly what we did.

Easy, especially, being the first child that we had, the oldest, has probably gone through the most evolutions, up to and including moving the restaurant and covid. We moved from our original location of 15 years to a new location about two years ago, and have been able, in that process, to evolve it again. What it’s reinforced to me is that Easy itself is an idea as much as it is a place or a thing. it’s that feeling that it’s able to evoke amongst the guests and the people who work there that is really important.

Adding Main Street Meats into the process, for me, was a little ambitious when we did it. But in hindsight, it was one of the better moves that we’ve ever made because it forced us to get out of one of the restaurants, at that point Easy Bistro and allow the people who were working at the restaurant the room to get better and what they do. To remove the safety net, so to speak. You’re walking the trapeze at that point without a net. Our managers, especially, our chefs, especially, I realized in that time period that giving them the space to make their own mistakes, to have their own successes, and to recognize and react to both of those things and help them in that way was probably the best role that I could have. I found that I was good at it, at helping people achieve more than what they were doing at that moment.

A Stairway to Growth

Kirk Bachmann: So that expansion was kind of – not to cut you off – was that a team play? Did you sit down and talk to the team about the concept?

Erik Niel: Oh, certainly. We did. We had moments where we shared employees and have gone back and forth with that. We’ve moved people from place to place depending on skill level and need. More than anything, it forced Amanda and I to become better managers and let our people do what they were good at. In that way, the team just got stronger and stronger.

So moving into a third concept is just allowing us to do the same thing on a larger scale where we’re relying on our people, trusting our people to carry on the team and the ethos that we’re trying to create into another one.

Kirk Bachmann: Is it a consistent theme for Coyote? Or is it something completely unique?

Erik Niel: It’s something different from what we’ve done. It plays my Texas roots more than anything, with smoked meats and tortillas.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow!

Erik Niel: It’s an idea that I’ve been noodling on for the better part of the last 10 or 12 years, wanted to try to get on paper. Finally did that and finally managed to put some of the pieces of the puzzle together to make it happen.

Kirk Bachmann: Do you turn immediately to the team and say, Hey, this is a high achiever who’s going to be with us for a long time. We’re going to give you a shot.

Erik Niel: Absolutely. It provides us a stairway to growth for our group. We need that. It’s a way for us to expand our business profile, but also help our people working for us expand their opportunity.

The Origin of Easy

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. That’s beyond motivation. That’s inspiration. That’s really neat. I want to go back to – I don’t want to miss this. I think it was really, really important. You called the restaurant Easy Bistro. In your mind, in your business plan, you and Amanda way back when. You named that restaurant because you wanted to evoke a certain feeling when guests came. You were thinking more about your guests when you opened that restaurant than you were yourself, is what I’m gathering there.

Erik Niel: A little bit. It’s a bit of a double or triple entendre, to be honest with you. I love the word easy. I was raised in the Big Easy, and that idea of what New Orleans is. To be perfectly honest, my nickname in kitchens was always Easy E.

Kirk Bachmann: Isn’t that great!?

Erik Niel: I’m an Erik from the late ‘90s, so Easy E was it. I told somebody the other day, I probably responded to Easy more than Erik for the 15 period of my life. It had a bunch of different meanings.

Kirk Bachmann: I love the story. As chefs, we’re storytellers, too. Songwriters, storytellers.

Erik Niel: Totally.

Kirk Bachmann: Menu writers.

Erik Niel: I have terrible handwriting, but I can put food on a plate.

A Little Advice

Kirk Bachmann: There you go. Again, not to put you on the spot. You’ve shared some incredibly valuable feedback for aspiring restaurateurs. If you had to narrow it down – I apologize, tough question – is there one or two non-negotiables, bullets? If you’re thinking about following this path, if you’re thinking about doing this, you’ve got to do this. Not that you want people to prevent making mistakes, because it helps people grow. If you had to give that one advice, what would that be?

Erik Niel: If you are a chef who wants to only cook for the rest of your career, don’t open your own restaurant, because you have to do other things. If you want to only focus on the culinary, and that be your one true path for the rest of your career, then the business part of it is not necessary. It will get in the way. For me, it was always a marriage of both. As my career has evolved, I’ve tried to evolve with it. That’s probably the best thing I can say from a culinary point of view. If somebody thinking about getting into this business, start a path. Try and figure out where that path is going to go.

The other thing I’d like to say to people who are trying to understand how to navigate the business at the beginning of it. I committed myself at the beginning of my culinary career to finishing my career in the culinary arts somewhere. I know hard that is to do, to start cooking in your teens or early 20s, go through culinary school or not. But to cook or be in the restaurants from the beginning to the end is a decidedly difficult path. If you want to end up being a salesperson, go be a great salesperson. You don’t have to be a cook first. For me, it was more about trying to get from the beginning to the end in a way that checked the boxes I needed to check. But I was committed to being in the restaurant world from the beginning to the end of my career.

The Joy of Acknowledgment

Kirk Bachmann: It sounds like you wrote that last chapter, and then started the book. Well done. You’re incredibly humble, Chef. I’m going embarrass you a little bit.

Accolades. I used to think that, boy, just taking the apron off and switching over your jacket before walking into the dining room and have people just say that they enjoyed your food was enough. But there is so much attention. Chefs have really become rock stars over the last couple of decades. There’s lots of awards that go around, and there’s a lot of restaurants and a lot of chefs. So to be nominated, to just even be in the running for an award like a James Beard, to be the best chef in the southeast for a couple of years running. Some people can only dream of that sort of recognition. I’m curious, if you wouldn’t mind indulging us: what do moments like that mean to you and Amanda?

Erik Niel: Those moments were incredibly humbling. The best word I can ever describe for something like that is acknowledgment. To have a group of people, which is what I consider the Beard Foundation, a group of people who understand and know what it is to be in this world acknowledge the work that we had done was incredible. The Beard Award nominations are interesting because they name a person, but the little thing right underneath the person’s name is probably the more important part. Where it says, “Easy Bistro and Bar,” because there’s not a single person who worked at that time or currently or at the past at Easy that didn’t have something to do with that. We all stand up on the backs of those that came before us. To be able to lead that team for as many years as I’ve been able to lead it is the true joy in it. But to have that acknowledgment is incredible. It’s hard to explain how a life’s work can be acknowledged in one moment, but that’s exactly what it is.

Kirk Bachmann: Was it fun to walk in and celebrate that with the team?

Erik Niel: Oh, it was incredible. There are moments you don’t get to experience in life very often. And when you do, you’re in a moment where you know it’s a special moment and something that you’re going to cherish and remember for the rest of your life.

Watching the Children Grow Up

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. It’s a wonderful story. Congratulations again.

You’ve sort of written that last chapter, but you’re still writing the book. We got a little sneak peak in the Coyote. What if it was a series of books? Or even just two books. What keeps you driving for innovation, beyond Coyote?

Erik Niel: The people we work with. It’s so much fun to be in this age that I am right now. I’m in my mid-40s and I’ve been doing this for 20-something years and it’s great. To see young people in their first year or two of existence in a restaurant, or in their tenth and really getting into it. To see them blossom and grow is amazing. I try to embrace that as much as I can because I certainly haven’t finished writing my book, but I feel like I’m a good way through it. At least through the first one. Maybe there is a book number two at the end of the first one, but I want other people to be able to write their own books, and if I can be a part of it, that’s awesome.

But really to stand in the kitchen and in a restaurant and watch a crew of people who I know and care about deeply doing their jobs and doing it well without any assistance from me, and doing things that I would never have done or never have thought about doing.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s like parenting, right? It’s like watching your brother on the football field.

Erik Niel: It’s exactly like that. I feel such a sense of pride in it. I know Amanda does as well. Seeing these groups of people grow up and become better than us at plenty of things. Successful. You name it. It’s a pretty amazing thing to get to watch.

Kirk Bachmann: Is your son interested in food and cooking?

Erik Niel: He has a passing interest now. He’s grown up in the restaurants. He sat in the office and played with coins and eaten things that he probably would never eat now because he would think they were gross. I think that there is a fascination that he has with the world we live in, but for him, it’s the world he’s always been a part of. He’s never not known that. I have no idea if he’ll take to it or not. I don’t have any desire to push him one way or another. I just want him to find his own path. Just like all these other people who work for us, I’ll help him do whatever I can to find his own path.

Managing the Balance

Kirk Bachmann: Speaking of your son or friends or even employees, we’re talking about the really good side of everything. I imagine there are some challenges, right? We’re going to go in the cooler and we’re going to talk. What’s your advice, from your perspective as the CEO, of handling challenges?

Erik Niel: Take a breath and realize we’re not curing cancer. We’re not trying to save lives. We’re not running Life Flight helicopter flights or anything like that. It’s going to be okay. To try and keep some perspective.

Managing people is challenging because people have needs, wants, desires, and feelings and everything about them. Acknowledging those feelings, needs, wants, and desires is really important. But we do have to corral them into a direction that makes sense for the business. That’s what we try and do. My thoughts there are to directly deal with problems as they come up, to not put them to the side as much as possible.

There’s always a balancing act that you have to place as the head of an organization. You do have to weigh the benefits and the drawbacks of making decisions. I find myself saying more these days that I’m not worried about winning the battles as much as I’m worried about winning the war. I will certainly sacrifice for the greater good, because I know how hard everybody works and how challenging it can be to live in the restaurant world day-to-day, and the requirements that are put on us. I try not to make decisions that may be perfect or ideal that will impact everybody negatively and come up with other solutions.

Tasteful Tension

Kirk Bachmann: Good advice. Just from a fun operations perspective, you’ve mentioned that that pairing spirits and wine, or parking them on the menu – I like that better – is very important to you. What’s that process look like? I love that. I love that you’re thinking about food and drink, whether they’re mocktails or cocktails or beer or wine. What’s your thought process when you approach [that]?

Erik Niel: It goes to the overall experience. I was very fortunate to work early in my career with an organization, at Sweet Basil, that really did understand how much the front and back need to communicate to make guest experience better. To have that ideal set was important. In looking at the guest experience as a whole, I quickly realized through some places I worked at earlier in my career, you can make the best dish in the world but if the server can’t get it to the table right, or the bartender can’t pair it right, or if something else goes wrong, your dish is useless.

I really started to take a holistic approach to it. I have a great love of wine and spirit, and have written the wine list at Easy every since it was created. First, out of necessity, and now out of absolute passion. The drinks, the wine that I try to pair with food all share a commonality of being balanced, having some sort of tension in them. I look for wines especially that have tension between acid and sugar, or tannin and sweetness at the end. There needs to be a story to tell. Just like with food. If you don’t balance a dish texturally and flavor-wise, it’s not going to work. I find that balanced cocktail and balanced wine with tension really plays well together.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that! There’s the next book. I have never heard anyone…it’s almost silly. Tension is a good word. It’s not a negative word. There’s positive tension. I love that.

Erik Niel: The tension, it’s across the palate. You have all these flavor sensations on your palate, the four/five senses of taste, whichever you want to subscribe to, and then all the olfactory playing in there. If there’s not a tension across some of them, it’s boring.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. I like that.

Erik Niel: Sugar is not a flavor.

Make the Right Opportunity

Kirk Bachmann: I’m not going to tell my daughter that.

Just a couple more questions. Again, I’m going to put you on the spot. You’re at the podium. It’s graduation day, commencement. There’s hundreds, maybe thousands of soon-to-be graduates in the audience. What do you tell them?

Erik Niel: I would tell them that the world is not forgiving. But it’s also very welcoming to those who want to take it in. If you want something, you just have to go and get it. I think it’s an old adage, but I think it remains true, especially in this world. It plays across different ideas here. You’re definitely going to eat what you kill, so go get it. Don’t wait for the right opportunity; go make the right opportunity. That right opportunity very well might be for less money in a place where you don’t live, but if that’s where you need to go, go. You can make decisions based on your needs, or you can make decisions based on your career, and try to understand the difference between the two of them.

Chef Erik’s Ultimate Dish: Today’s

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Tom Brady would love that. Let’s go! It’s what he always says.

I’ve got one additional challenging question for you, Chef, but I think you’ll enjoy this. Name of the podcast is the Ultimate Dish. You’ve kind of hinted a little bit. In your mind, what is the ultimate dish?

Erik Niel: Oh, man. This is where I get all wistful in my old age in the restaurant business here. Because I want to say it’s something my grandmother created, or something I created. It’s not. For me, the beauty of food and cooking is the ephemeral nature of it. The fact that you can make something that is beautiful and artistic and passionate, and you give it to somebody, and they immediately destroy it. The best thing that can ever happen is that you put your heart and soul into a food, or somebody does that for you, and then you literally make it go away, never to be seen again.

One of my hallmarks has never been to chase the same thing over and over again. I’ve gotten caught in it a few times, but to never chase that same dish over and over again, because it’s never the same. Because food is just like feelings. They’re ephemeral. They go away.

Kirk Bachmann: And our surroundings change. That’s a good perspective. I like that.

Erik Niel: So this might be kind of cheesy, but for me the ultimate dish is the one that somebody just made me. Whoever took the time to put something that they care about in front of you, that is the most important dish in the world right now.

Kirk Bachmann: Brilliant. And I’m not surprised that you just said that. No one else has ever said that. But given your humility and your vulnerability and the way you talk about your team and your family, I am absolutely not surprised. Beautiful answer.

That’s the name of your next book. What Someone Else Made for Me. I love it. I love it.

Chef, thank you so much. Congratulations on all the success. You’re incredibly humble. I love how you talk about your team. Give your team the best from Escoffier. I can’t wait until all of your friends and family get to see this podcast because you represented well.

Erik Niel: Thank you. I appreciate that. This was a true pleasure to get to talk to you and spend some time with you. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you very much.

Kirk Bachmann: Thanks again. And thanks to Amanda and your son.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

Recent Podcasts