February 16, 2016 Leave a comment
CHEF ERIC ALEXANDER- THE INTERVIEW
Eric Alexander grew up in upstate New York and after a taste of working in a local Italian restaurant during high school he was hooked. He attended the Culinary Institute of America and after a relatively short restaurant stint on the East Coast he ended up on the West Coast with his sweetheart. Now he’s not only at the helm of one of the finest restaurants in the region, Carpe Vino, but also lives with his family on a working farm that produces much of what they serve. Here is his story…
What was your food heritage growing up?
I was born and raised in upstate NY. Not a lot of cosmopolitan options there. My mom was a great cook but not blessed with a lot of time as she worked but we always had good meals. On my father’s side we were Lithuanian, in fact my great grandfather had a Lithuanian butcher shop where I grew up in Binghamton, NY. Pirogi, sausages, etc.. Special family gatherings revolved around starch, starch, and more starch drenched in butter- there was a course that was just sautéed potatoes. All delicious and especially as a kid, what’s not to love right? The place in upstate NY where I grew up revolved around things like the quintessential red checker clothed Italian/American restaurant. I was exposed to a lot of that.
What drew you to the industry and why become a Chef?
My first job ever was in this place owned and operated by this Italian family from Long Island. The father was in construction and the kids ran the food operation. The place had a bagel shop, restaurant/pizzeria, and a sandwich shop. I kid you not- Johnny ran the bagel shop, Angelo the pizzeria and deli, Vinnie ran the business operations, and they had a little sister named Sophia. How stereotypical can you get? I learned to work hard, but I was 16 and let’s just say I should have been older for the work I was doing, and I’ll stop right there. But I must say the food was spot on. Johnny had apprenticed like in every bagel shop in Brooklyn and to date I have not had finer bagels than his. Most everything in the whole operation was scratch so I did learn a lot of hands on basic cooking, especially at that age.
In 1997 I graduated high school and really was drawn to the restaurant industry so I decided to get an education in hospitality business at Michigan State, and it was basically numbers. After I left there I worked in restaurants for a year and decided I needed more actual hands on cooking education so I enrolled at CIA Hyde Park, in Poughkeepsie NY and graduated there in 2001. So I had some real life experience, business education, and culinary education at this point. My next step was to work for Chef Jon Mathieson in Washington D.C. at The Hotel Monaco at POSTE Modern Brasserie for 6 months. Then I followed him to Connecticut to work at a restaurant called HARVEST for a year. Jon was a disciple of Gray Kunz and was the CDC at Lespinasse in its most gilded era. He was there when Floyd Cardoz, Andrew Carmellini, and Rocco DiSpirito were sous chefs; so you understand the weight in that type of kitchen. He was a great Chef to work for and I learned a tremendous amount.
At the time I was working with my girl friend Courtney, who is now my wife, in Jon Mathieson’s kitchen at HARVEST and she was from Auburn, CA. Her mentor was a long time culinary pillar in the Sacramento area named Susan Barry. She was running the Monte Verde Inn in Foresthill, CA. After her husband passed away she called Courtney and wanted her to come out and take over the culinary operations of the inn. In 2003 Courtney and I decided to come out and run that project as the chefs. We lived on the property and the stresses of living where you work began to take its toll and it never really panned out like planned. Regardless we were there for a couple years. One day we were in the Carpe Vino wine shop in Auburn, CA. We had befriended Drew & Gary, the owners, and they started talking about how perhaps they should do something with the little coffee shop next door whose lease was coming up. The café butted up against the wine shop. Well they made us an offer to start a culinary program with them there and eventually a restaurant. So in 2005 we started doing wine dinners that eventually grew into what it is today. The logistics of that kitchen was crazy, in fact it still is! Cramped with no pass but we make it work, as there is no room to grow out with it. It’s actually made me a better chef as I have had to take a bad logistic and make it work with both preparation and expediting. We’ve been here 10 years now and not only are we the chefs here but as of two years ago live on, and own, the farm where much of our produce comes from. We have always been farmer oriented and still are but now produce quite a bit of our stuff. I would never, ever have guessed this is where my career path would have taken me. I mean I had only worked under a chef, albeit a world class one, for a couple years and then up and move to the Northern California foothills and with my wife run a fine dining establishment as well as manage a farm that we live on. Unbelievable!
What about this working farm where you live?
We knew Bob & Terry, the farmers that lived here, on the 5 acres that we now own, as we would do business with them. They were in their 70’s and a few years back they prepared to retire and lead a more laid back life. What came about was that instead of putting it on the market, Bob & Terry wanted to make sure the house and property went to young people that wanted to carry on the farm, so we got first shot at it and got it! I am a chef, and will always be one, but my wife Courtney while a great chef is truly a farmer at heart and does the lion’s share of the farm work.
We own around 60-70 sheep, mainly East Friesian milking sheep. That’s why we have rams that are of the meat instead of the dairy variety, so that the lambs that can’t be used for dairy have a good conformation for meat consumption as well. Most of the males that drop will be processed as meat lambs. Also, a ewe that does not have traits of making a good mother will become a meat lamb. We will process mutton as well from some older sheep. Courtney does most of the work with the sheep from birth throughout. We have some on our farm and we have another farmer run property we work with that is irrigated that keeps the lambs grazing. We usually stud them in the fall so the can birth in the spring, when the grass is the best for the mother and subsequently the milk for the lambs. Courtney is a super talented chef but always had the feel for the farm, so when the opportunity came up to get into farming she jumped on it. Of course she still helps at the restaurant, and drives the pastry program at Carpe Vino in addition to General Manager of the Foothills Farmers Market.
We have all types of chickens for eggs, we also get a few pigs occasionally to root and turn some difficult grass land. We have a small citrus orchard, a variety of apple trees, pears, pomegranates, plums, apricots, cherries, mission olives, and all types of vegetables and flowers. This year we had a major gopher problem and lost a large percentage of our crop. Especially, when you go organic it’s hard to get rid of them without affecting the land. We still source out a lot of fruits and vegetables as we can’t keep up with all our needs all the time, and it also comes down to economics at times. With fruit we are able to pretty much supply all our needs. Our farm is not huge but it’s about diversity.
How would you define your style?
Refined food, clean flavors, seasonal Modern American with French Technique. Ingredient driven. My dishes are French in composition by my ingredients are multicultural and cohesive.
What do you like most/least about being the boss?
MOST: Having the ability to execute ideas without having to go to anyone first. Also, the hospitality aspect and controlling how we translate that to the guest.
LEAST: Trying to manage the various personalities in a small kitchen. Turnover is always a stress point as well. You can control the food- people are the hardest thing.
What chefs influenced you the most?
- John Mathieson
- Courtney, my wife and my greatest inspiration and go to
- Abraham Conlon, my friend and chef/owner of Fat Rice in Chicago
If you could keep only 3 culinary books, what would they be?
- Forgotten Skills of Cooking (the antithesis of Modernist Cuisine)
- The French Laundry Cookbook
- The Raw & The Cooked
Favorite kitchen gadget:
If you were not a chef what would you do?
Culinary trends that bug you/ trends you like:
BUG: 1) Big corporations jumping on the “Farm to Fork” bandwagon in name only but not actually changing any of their practices. Just a sales gimmick
2) When did French roast coffee start being treated as the worst thing that ever happened? These super lightly roasted beans to me may have nuance but are too acidic at times. I like a dark roast coffee but it definitely is not the “in” thing right now.
LIKE: The flavors of the Middle East and especially Jerusalem which is the melting pot of all those flavors
An ingredient that you’re attached to:
Worst kitchen blunder:
In my early years I had a food runner 86 a heavy prep appetizer item behind the Chef’s back in the middle of service. A VIP table then ordered it and when Chef found out I had secretly 86’d it, well let’s just say it was not 86’d at this point and I had to do more mis en place in the middle of service to cover it. Very embarrassing to think I would lie to cover my own butt. I wasn’t that type of cook or person but it was just one of those nights.
Most memorable dining experience:
It was in Antibes France in 2006 at Michelin starred Le Figuier de Saint Esprit. It was amazing- from the ambience to the food, everything was just spot on.
I must say that before this meal on that day we had a picnic lunch on the balcony of where we were staying overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. We had bread, chevre’, rose’, and the most incredible local tapenade- what a great day that was all around!
Favorite ‘elbows on the table hole in the wall’:
Sam Wo in Chinatown SF, known for world’s rudest waiter. This place opened like in 1912.
A food item you hate to admit to liking:
Stouffer’s Mac N’ Cheese
Three things in fridge right now:
Raw sheep’s milk, El, Yucateco habenero sauce, Fever Tree tonic
Secret junk food indulgence:
Ice cold raw sheep’s milk and Oreo’s cookies. Milk straight from my farm and hydrogenated cookies straight from the box. Yum!
Three people in history you’d like to cook for:
My great grandmother Clemens- (I grew up with stories on how she was a caterer, an amazing cook and baker.), Mark Twain (as in Samuel Clemens. I’m a distant relative. Notice my great grandmothers last name.), F. Scott Fitzgerald
Eric Alexander on Preferred Meats : ”There’s no guessing game. Many meat companies have different levels of meat quality, but with Preferred you don’t have to guess or worry that you are going to get something of low quality. The product is top notch and you get what you expect to get. I really like that.”
Interview by John Paul Khoury,CCC
Corporate Chef Preferred Meats, Inc