Eric Rivera – Chef at The Bookstore Bar and Café
Welcome back to the Chef interview series on The Hungry Dog Blog! After a long hiatus, I’ve decided to get back to what started this blog – writing in-depth profiles of some of the best Chefs in the Pacific Northwest. Kicking off the series is one Eric Rivera – current Executive Chef at The Bookstore Bar and Café in the Hotel Alexis in downtown Seattle.
I’ve interviewed a few chefs in my day and I can honestly say that there is no comparison for the enthusiasm Rivera demonstrates when talking about his craft. He goes to ‘11’ all the time and is constantly working on creating better food and a unique experience for his diners.
An Open Book on Cooking, Food and Creativity in the Kitchen
Dinner with Eric Rivera always includes the unique and unexpected. I recently dined at The Bookstore and the plates that were served ranged from an elephant-ear sized chicharron to an army of perfectly fried jojo’s to a giant, roasted turnip with little else adorning it. Menus often include dished rooted in multiple cultures and regions. Seeing dishes that include influences from the Pacific Northwest, Central and South America, Southeast Asia and the American Deep South are not unusual when dining at his restaurant.
I spoke with him to learn about his background and what drives him to create every day. Read on for the goods…
Why and how did you get involved in food?
It was something I got involved with when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time hanging out with my grandpa and cooking with him. Mom didn’t’ like to cook but did out of necessity. Both of my parents worked – dad was in the military and we moved from Puerto Rico when I was a little kid. They would drop us off at Grandma and Grandpa’s house to take care of us during the day and I would help him make all our meals.
He would spend time making breakfast, lunch and dinner just for my grandma but would always have extras and leftovers and stuff for anyone else that just came over. He would throw everything he had a them – that was kind of his thing. I’ve always gravitated towards food and as I got older, it wasn’t thought of as a thing to pursue as it wasn’t deemed a worthy profession by my parents and in my culture – it was more like something you’d if you were getting out of jail or had nothing else to work towards.
Did you go to culinary school?
Not at first but later. I went to college to study biology and wanted to be a doctor but then decided not to. I was working in mortgage insurance and in the financial services industry at 25 and was doing well for myself. Then, the market collapsed and I hit a deep, dark moment in my life where (like many others) everything was taken away from me overnight. My house, employees – it was crazy.
So, I was sitting at home unemployed and just started cooking. It made me happy and I was just doing things for myself and thought that what I was making tasted good but just looked terrible. I felt like I could be kind of dangerous doing it and needed to learn more about the process.
Sometimes unexpected change leads to personal evolution, right?
Yeah, I started seeing food blogs pop up everywhere – so I started the ‘creatively’ titled EricRiveraCooks.com. I was posting what I made and ate and I started to refine what I cooked from an aesthetic perspective. Then I started magically getting invited to things – bloggers were the ‘social influencers’ ten years ago and I guess I was ‘media’. I was treated well by folks and it was crazy as I wasn’t paying for anything.
So, I was like – ok, I’m blogging and cooking and so I’m all in here. I started to look at what would be my next step and decided I wanted to cook for a living. So I put a resume together and started going around to restaurants in Seattle. I’d done my research and was looking at all the big names in the city.
I went out and had my ‘super cool guy’ suit on and shared my resume with zero cooking skill and told them I wanted to work my way up in the kitchen. And no one took me seriously. After going to like 5 different places I couldn’t even get a job as a dishwasher. Meanwhile I was being invited to eat for free at their events and whatnot.
Sounds weird, and discouraging. Where did you go from there?
I talked to a few people who encouraged me to go to culinary school. And I ended up going to the Art Institute and really liked that whole thing. But it was like 50 grand at the time and no joke. I took out student loans and was literally out of a job at the time so I was literally starting from scratch.
After I had been there for all of 2-3 weeks – I had the itch to do something outside of school. I met Bridget Charters there (who runs Tom Douglas’ Hot Stove Society) and showed her my resume. She immediately said, “No – take all that shit out and write ‘Culinary Student’ at the top”. I then went to a couple of different places including Seastar in Bellevue and talked with the chef. He was like, “yeah – when can you start?”. So, I became the AM prep cook there while going to school full-time.
It’s always the simple things. Where did you go from there?
I was there for a year and a half and decided I wanted to get into the Seattle market. I own a book called Coco (from Phaidon) that I’ve read a thousand times and the only Seattle chef in the book was Kevin Davis (Of Blueacre, Steelhead Diner and Orfeo). Off I went to meet him with my resume in hand.
I saw Brian O’Connor (now owner of Bok a Bok) and asked for Kevin. He asked what I wanted and told him – a job. So, he asked me to come stage and things went really well – I was excited to work there. After a while, Jake Hulett took over as CdC and then Seth Richardson. Eric Abdelbari (Chef at Canon) was also there.
A veritable who’s who in food in Seattle! How did things change for you then?
I got promoted to sous which was crazy. I remember while I was there that Rene Redzepi was coming to town at Mistral to promote his new book. The ticket was expensive – like $120 – but I was determined to go meet him and ask for a stage. I waited until everyone was done fawning over him (this was like two weeks before Noma was announced as the best restaurant in world) and found him taking a break. That’s when I made my move to ask him. Hee said it was a long trip to Denmark and he told me to email him when I was ready. I didn’t’ even get home and I’d already sent an email on my Blackberry. I got a response from Matt Orlando quickly. He told me I could come on my spring break which was amazing.
Wow – what a whirlwind! Just goes to show you that taking initiative works.
Yeah – but after I’d talked to Matt about coming to work there it just didn’t work out. However, one day soon afterwards I was going to work and my friend Jethro and Lisa Nakamura sent me a tweet from Grant Achatz who was looking for a ‘Culinary Liaison’. I sent him an email and said I wanted the job. Basically, I said, “Yes – I’ll do it. I don’t care what it is.”
I got a response and they asked me to come out. Then I asked Kevin (Davis) if I could do it and even though he wasn’t that excited about me leaving, he encouraged me to do it as it was a great opportunity. I still didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing but I thought the possibilities of it all were cool.
I got a response a week later letting me know I was there #1 choice. Then I got an actual offer letter and knew it would going to be weird when I got into work. I told Chef I was doing to do it and he was congratulatory. That was that – off I went to Chicago and to work at Alinea!
That’s outstanding. What was it like working with Grant Achatz?
It was exciting and always random. After being there for a few weeks, Chef asked me if I would help with a transition for a new place – which was Next. So I was pulling double duty at Alinea and starting up Next when they gave me a shot to help with The Aviary. I was literally working at all three places and doing just about everything you can imagine – events, writing, cooking, supporting Chef on trips, talks, whatever.
I was all over the place and it was crazy because Mondays and Tuesdays (when the restaurants were closed) were my days off and used to plan the next week. But then I’d get something randomly from chef at 2 a.m. and I’d be up until 3, then get a couple of hours of sleep and come to work at 7 a.m. It was like that for three and a half years. At that point, I’d been promoted a few times and the range of the job was just crazy. I was meeting with all these people who had this massive range of connections – movie stars, sports figures, tech folks – it was all over the map.
I was always encouraged there and able to experiment and be creative. There was no defined path and you could create and be unique and channel creativity. Now – that makes it easier for me as a Chef and I’m sitting on dishes in my head and waiting to make space on the menu here to introduce them.
Sounds amazing. How did you end up back in Seattle?
I had reached out to Josh Henderson about Huxley Wallace and ended up going to work with him. Josh had some expectations and we’d agreed on things and as I was driving out here with Kate (my wife) he sent me this email about a hotel project he was working on. He was looking to me for a concept and after driving for 13 hours I did this brain dump (which later became Scout/Thompson/The Nest) in Seattle.
I was so excited to be working here and with Josh. I did R&D for Great State helped him open St. Helens, Noroeste (now Kiki Ramen), hired chefs, teams, and put systems in place. In the end, we clashed heads a bit as we really come from different worlds when it comes to food. He wants to go for the comfort/casual scene and I want to make people think in a different way with my food. It became a rough working scenario and we ended up parting ways after about a year.
When they got Scout off the ground I’d had a bunch of folks working there (including my wife and other friends en route) and ideas that just hadn’t materialized. I’d wanted the Chef’s table in the kitchen – I wanted that for Seattle and it still needs it.
Tell me about how you ended up at The Bookstore at Hotel Alexis.
After Huxley Wallace, I went to Tallulah’s a bit to work for Linda Derschang and that didn’t work out. At that point I’m thinking, “Here I am in my city again and things aren’t working out!?” At that point, my friend Derek (Simcik) who is the Chef at Scout introduced me to the folks at the Hotel Alexis. They were looking for a new chef after Caprial Pence left and wanted to have me in to talk and do a tasting. I asked what they wanted to do and they told me, “that’s up to you” – so I was immediately excited about it. By the end of the tasting I wanted to know what their deal was – if they were going to hire me or not. They said yes on the spot. They also told me they had a lot of catering and banquet stuff going on and asked me to start the next day. I did a whole week with $76K in catering along with one sous and a Kimpton chef from PDX. We knocked it out.
An awesome and auspicious start for sure. What are you doing with the menu there?
From the beginning, I told them I wanted to be very creative. I didn’t want to play any cover songs, we’re going to play our own music. I introduced new menus for every service within a month. That’s tough to do and it was insane. We’re going to change everything and I was hearing about how The Alexis used to be ‘the place’ but now there was all this new competition.
I knew the competition – and I got excited about that. I also asked about this vacant space around the corner which used to be the Painted Table. I wanted to do a High Tea thing – but not like anyone else. It’s not the same old, stodgy stuff – it’s a tasting menu and it comes fast – a brunch assault! We came up with the name Afternoon Delight as well as Author’s Corner and I started to get together menu.
In the meantime, I put the burger I spec’d out for Great State which is now on the Bookstore menu. It’s also the same one that Rebekahh Denn said was ‘the perfect burger’ in the Seattle Times. I took it back!
Looks like you really hit the ground running. What’s next?
Afternoon Delight is up and running and we’re starting to pick up traction with media and getting some great reviews. I really wanted to do my menu in the way that I’d pitched to the Thompson earlier and I knew exactly how I wanted it. And they weren’t doing it anyway.
So, in May, I’m launching ‘The Local’ which is a story of Washington – a progressive style tasting menu. It ranges from low tide to high tide, crosses the Olympics to Puget Sound, goes through Seattle and over the Cascades and ends in Eastern Washington. After that, we’ll launch ‘The Tourist’ which will be 17 courses and cover even more places across the state. We’ll take you through Olympia and go to places in Eastern Washington. We’ll show you cultures as well and do things like show you what the Hispanic farm workers might be eating.
That sounds ambitious and excellent. Where did you get the inspiration for these menus?
I saw so many menus when Trio opened and how things evolved. I saw the framework for it there. Even in the book ‘On the Line‘ which I’ve read 100 times. The template is there – that style of restaurant is documented.
I also wanted to focus on creating a good product that makes people want to see Washington in a different way. I want to create something new – and I want to be face to face with the diner. Every table in my restaurant is treated like a ‘Chefs table’. It’s all mine – whether it’s in the guest’s room, at the Bookstore, Afternoon Delight, The Local – it doesn’t matter.
What can you tell me about your staff and management style?
The kitchen has as much ownership of the dining experience as I do. I want them to progress and in their careers and I want the best for them and I want them to be the best and to move on to great things. There’s a guy here who used to be a butcher for five years at Rain Shadow. I have another guy who used to be in construction and now he’s on his second career. My sous that I really believe in – she’ll be Chef de Cuisine one day.
I don’t want to be the chef who has someone work for me for 25 years and have nobody know who they are. And I also don’t want to be the chef that holds people back and never promotes them or helps them become better and progress in their careers. If you do that – who are you? The big fish in the small pond? I want to be the whale in the ocean.
What is your philosophy about food/cooking?
I think now, for me it comes from everywhere. I live in the aesthetic. I’ve gotten to a point with my food and I can look at things and it inspires me. It doesn’t have to be an ingredient. I can manipulate things now to make it look like something 1:1. I can make a beach, a tree, whatever.
Now, for me it’s about tailoring an experience. It means more to me than an individual dish, glass of wine, cocktail pairing. I look at someone now and go ‘What do you want? I can look at your Instagram account and see what you like, what you’re eating, if it’s your anniversary, etc. My goal is to create that experience that’s meaningful for you personally. I can’t do that without having the right team in place.
I have an a la carte tasting menu that I can pull out at any time. I hit it hard – and I can pull from it ad hoc and that’s fucking hard. And it just happens. And it comes fast. It doesn’t always come all the way dialed in but it’s unique and I’m ok with that. And I believe in that unique experience.
What do you love most about the restaurant biz?
That it doesn’t feel like a job to me. I don’t think it ever did – even when I was an AM prep cook with a long commute. That’s the craziest kind of thing. It’s not hard or rocket science but that’s what makes it fun. At the end of the day, even if the dish sucks I can say, “well, shit – put hot sauce on it!”
If someone doesn’t like something, I can create something better on the spot and that’s the fun part for me. I always have more ideas.
What do you like least about it?
How everyone treats it like the fashion industry. Certain ingredients are cool but then they won’t be in six months. Like bacon – unfortunately. What’s the latest thing coming out? Ingredients aren’t trendy – they’re just ingredients. They’re just good. And I can work with all of it.
We end up at Unicorn Frappuccino’s quickly. And that’s fine and fun but I don’t want one. And I don’t care if other folks like it or not.
What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with?
I like spicy things really. Like – knock me out spicy things. I dabble with that in the restaurant every once in a while. If I had my way, everything on the menu would be super spicy but that’s just how I eat.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
Have a game plan. Seriously. That’s a big thing.
The biggest mistake I see is when chefs have a new idea they think they should open a new restaurant. They frame themselves up and pigeonhole so they can’t serve things that are not in line with the concept of the place. Then, they’re just stuck.
Be transparent and be ready to learn and from the right people. It’s not just working at a restaurant – find the restaurant to work at. If you’re telling people who you’re grinding away and getting a paycheck then it’s already over for you. If you’re not coming into this industry to kill it then don’t. Because there are other industries that you can work half as much and make more without working 16 hours a day.
If you’re not coming in to make an impact for yourself and think big then don’t do it. That’s on the FOH side too – the scope of that is changing a lot. Pro servers who do what they do well make a name for themselves now. When you think about Eleven Madison Park you think about Will Guidara and Daniel Humm. That’s the game now. Both FOH and BOH stand on their own.
What would you have done differently when starting out?
I kind of wish I would have started younger but I had other things going on. For me, I don’t really have the energy of the 25-year-old – I have the energy of a 17-year-old! I run around all the time. I don’t complain about my old bones.
It would have been cool to go stage at El Bulli and all these other amazing places. It’s OK though – I got in on the back side of that when Next did the El Bulli menu and worked with Ferran Adria.
What’s your desert island food?
Anything coming from a pig to be honest. Any part or piece – I don’t care.
Who are some of the top chefs and restaurants in Seattle now?
And I know this sounds biased but Kate’s (Sigel – wife and pastry chef at The Thompson) desserts – no one is even close. She’s doing stuff that’s world-class – and I truly believe she’s doing stuff that’s just too good for the city – in the best way possible.
I would also say Emmanuel Chavez, who works for me and heads up the Afternoon Delight. His food is rad – anytime he puts out dishes I’m impressed. He could open a restaurant tomorrow and it would be one of the best in town
What is your last meal? Food, drink, chef…
I think Chef Achatz – obviously. I’ve had some great meals with him. He can’t eat spicy too much anymore but I’d want it to be spicy. And I’d be drinking Gin and Tonics, Rose and beautifully green Chartreuse – it’s so good!
I like hot pockets with El Tapatio on there – it’s the best. The Haribo gummy bears – I can crush a whole bag of those.
What’s your Karaoke song?
All of them. I shit you not – I’ll karaoke any time. I really don’t have one – I love it and will throw down on some karaoke anytime.
As a side note, when I worked at Alinea there was no music – it was dead silent. It got to a point that I didn’t want it to be that quiet. We play music all the time in the kitchen at The Alexa – and I like it that way. You learn about people through music and we tell people to play whatever they like. I have a Korean guy that likes to play Korean hip hop all the time – and it’s excellent!
Go. Eat. Now.
If you’re in search of a creative meal that will most definitely surprise you then I’d encourage you to go eat at The Bookstore Bar and Café in downtown Seattle. It’s always an adventure dining with Eric Rivera and one that can often with in a blow torch blasting your desert with a thousand degrees of heat at the end of a meal.
If you enjoyed this interview and are interested in reading more about some of the great chefs in the Pacific Northwest, then check out the Chef Interviews section of TheHungryDogBlog.com. Bon appetit!
* Photos appearing in this piece are credited to Jackie Donnelly or Eric Rivera