Haven is Kitchen Heaven to Chef Todd Erickson
Luckily, opportunities abounded and after a short stint at Zuma, he moved into the well appointed, if slightly miniaturized, kitchen at Haven Gastro-Lounge. We spoke to Chef Erickson about how he got his start, and how it felt to be an executive chef at the unripened age of twenty-four.
New Times: After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America you worked at a catering company in Dallas - did you grow up in Texas?
Todd Erickson: I am originally from Scottsdale, Arizona, but I graduated from high school in Dallas. That's really where I did my growing up, in Dallas, and I fell in love with the city. I just loved it -- really it was a great place to launch my career.
Was that a difficult decision? You went to school right outside of New York City. Was it hard to leave the New York restaurant scene and go back to a location that even now is just hitting its culinary stride?
It was and yet it wasn't. I absolutely love New York. I can see myself living there eventually, but I think I'm even now still not at that point. I value my quality of life as well as my career. To sacrifice and live stacked with 4 or 5 people in a 1-bedroom apartment in order to work 14 hours a day in the basement of a kitchen just to say I did it just wasn't for me. I wanted some balance in my life, so I chose a city that was just starting to get notoriety for its restaurant scene. And a place where I was able to help contribute to the experience of the renaissance of their culinary scene and still have some money in my pocket - have my own bed to sleep in.
Why a catering company though instead of moving right into the kitchen at a restaurant? That kind of was a lucky break. I did what every culinary student does when they get to a new city, I sent my resume to the best restaurants just to get my name known and foot in the door with some respectable names. But since I was a graduate, I was making a very small salary. I just could not make enough money to pay for rent. So I left, because I couldn't afford to live like that. I started cater- waitering for a staffing company that I was familiar with through a friend of a friend.
And how did you then become the executive chef of the catering company?
The executive chef was also the executive chef of a restaurant that was owned by the same company. It was his first catering event and he was clearly in the weeds. I asked him if he needed help. He said 'Yes. Do you know how to plate up food?' I was like 'Yes, I think I can handle this.' So I started plating up the food, and I guess I must have showed up the executive chef. The owner of the catering company noticed what I was doing, and he immediately offered me a job as the sous chef. So I took the sous chef position, and after two months the executive chef threw his hands up and said, 'OK, you've got this.' I became the executive chef of the catering company by default.
And then you quickly moved back into the restaurant game?
The owner of the catering company was very well connected in Dallas society, so that got my name out there. Within 6 months of moving to Dallas, I was doing catered events for Laura Miller, who was the Mayor of Dallas at the time. So that just kind of snowballed into me meeting Hector Garcia, the soon-to-be owner of Hector's on Henderson, which was the restaurant I opened as executive chef at 24 years old. I was the youngest four-star executive chef in Dallas. That's when it all just really took off.
Was the experience of being an executive chef overwhelming at all for you at that age with such a limited experience?
Your experience is limited at that point. The thing that was hard is that I was getting a lot of attention and I was in the press a lot, but I was upset because it was all about my age, like 'oh this kid, this baby.' They always talked about how the food was great, and I always had good reviews - but so much focus on my youth. Now I do interviews and TV appearances, and it's not about that I'm young, it's about that I'm innovative.
How did you handle the shift from catering into high-end restaurant work?
I've heard over and over again how there are fantastic catering chefs that are terrible kitchen chefs. I've also heard it vice-versa, that there are amazing kitchen chefs that are absolutely awful catering chefs. So I think that it was kind of a gift that I had the pedigree from both sides. I could do a five-course meal in a hallway or walk-in closet and still make it restaurant quality. So making the conversion, I wasn't dragging hot boxes of food around and such. It was actually an easier setting.
Check in tomorrow, when we will talk to Chef Erickson about how he manages his culinary flair in that tiny kitchen at Haven gastro-Lounge.
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