Chef Eric Rivera: “Keep it simple, make it beautiful”

Keep it simple, make it beautiful. Patrons eat first with their eyes, and if you are able to make dishes with pronounced flavors that allow the ingredients to shine, then the guests will be happy! As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Executive Chef Eric […]

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Keep it simple, make it beautiful. Patrons eat first with their eyes, and if you are able to make dishes with pronounced flavors that allow the ingredients to shine, then the guests will be happy!

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Executive Chef Eric Rivera.

Raised in Colorado, Chef Eric Rivera’s appreciation for cuisine began at a young age by learning in both of his grandmothers’ kitchens. Starting his career in Colorado, Chef Eric was the sous chef at the historic Marlowe’s Restaurant. After adding to his culinary knowledge, he was given the opportunity at 23 years old to lead the kitchen as the Executive Chef at Lala’s Wine Bar and Pizzeria. While working out west, Chef Eric immersed himself into the local food community focusing on using local ingredients and varying his cuisine with the seasons. These efforts earned his eateries Top Ten Best New Restaurant awards. With new opportunities in Birmingham, Chef Eric next opened the Todd English P.U.B. as the Executive Sous Chef in the uptown area where he ultimately oversaw all hotel food operations for several years. He later brought his experience and talent to the reopening the Historic Redmont Hotel in downtown Birmingham where he oversaw both a café with fresh breads and locally roasted coffee as well as a fine dining Italian-inspired restaurant that utilized local ingredients.

Now at Vintage Hospitality Group Chef Eric utilizes simple dishes that focus on twists of distinctive ingredients and flavors that showcase seasonality and quality. Chef’s accolades include being named a MGM Impact Maker by the Montgomery Business Journal in addition to national press accolades that include receiving mentions in the USA Today, New York Times, Forbes and Newsweek Magazines. Additionally, Chef Eric led Vintage Year to being recognized by the James Beard Foundation as a Smart Catch Leader for its sustainable seafood sourcing as well as a grand prize winner of its Blended Burger Contest. A two time winner at the Feast of Flavours event at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Chef Eric has also led Vintage Year to be named one of OpenTable’s 100 Most Romantic Restaurants in America as well as winning Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence. Next on his horizon is the opening of Vintage Hospitality Group’s City Fed and Ravello Italian Restaurant in 2021.

Giving back to the community is important to Chef Eric and in addition to donating to numerous non-profits, he has also served as a judge the Pro Start, a high school program that involved kids in the hospitality industry. In his free time, Eric enjoys working on his home, participating in mud races and spending time with his family that includes wife Alyssa and son Carter and daughter Lorelai.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

My Inspiration for being a chef began with my Grandmothers who I spent many summers. With grandmothers from very different backgrounds, I was exposed to classic Puerto Rican cuisine and rustic farm to table fare. The range of their flavors and styles kept me intrigued and well fed!

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

I have always had a passion for Italian Cuisine as I have always been drawn to the simplicity and focus on freshness. My first Executive Chef position was at an Italian Bar and Pizzeria in Denver. I took a deep dive into reading and studying Italian cuisine. I learned how to make fresh Mozzarella using San Marzano tomatoes and was always perfecting our pizza dough. Italian cuisine was an adventure for me. I am excited to be opening Ravello Italian Restaurant in 2021 that will feature simple and thoughtful dishes inspired by Italy’s Amalfi Coast, yet also highlight versatile and local Southern ingredients.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Shortly after opening the Italian Wine Bar, I was setting up for service and anticipating a busy day. So, I arrived at work early to ensure everything was just right for service. We usually had a pre-shift meeting with the staff about 15 minutes before the doors opened. I could already see guests parked out front so I quickly went through the notes and headed back to the kitchen. As the doors were opening, I began to prepare flatbread dough for the oven but discovered that it was not on! Our stone oven took 25–30 min to reach an even 575 degrees! I knew at that moment that was going to be rough. Knowing there was nothing I could do to make the oven heat up faster; I took off my apron and headed to the dining room to speak with the customers as they were seated with a smile on my face. I swallowed my pride and began to share with them the story of what had happened. Before I knew it, the whole dining room had a laugh and I was back in the kitchen with my crew enjoying a fast paced but successful lunch service.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

When I first began in this industry, it was much different as the chefs were hardened and pushed you to prove yourself each and every shift. For months I was only given very few, monotonous prep tasks or anything the other line cooks did not wish to do and it was discouraging. I learned to overcome this by pudhing myself to get better at those tasks daily and take each one as a challenge. I would soon find myself finishing earlier and earlier each day. As a result, I began to notice that not only the line cooks began giving me new tasks and teaching me new skills but the executive chef was as well. I soon realized they were training me to be one of them!

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

Keep it simple, make it beautiful. Patrons eat first with their eyes, and if you are able to make dishes with pronounced flavors that allow the ingredients to shine, then the guests will be happy!

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

Orecchiette pasta with Sausage, Broccolini, Parmesan & Red Pepper Flakes served with fresh Baked Bread and Olive Oil.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

My inspiration comes from other chefs. I love to see what others are doing. We are a community and are all striving to serve the best cuisine to our guests. I love Instagram to gather ideas and inspiration to create my own dishes.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

Yes, we are currently working on Ravello, what I believe will be a world class, Italian restaurant in a 1920s Federal Reserve building right here in Montgomery, Alabama. I believe it will help elevate the rebuilding of our downtown and of the culinary scene in the South.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Be sure to have mental health awareness. Take time when you need it, give others the opportunity to step up, delegate tasks to give yourself a reprieve, and know that you are only as strong as the team you build around you.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Travel as much as possible as I became a much better chef once I began traveling internationally.

2. Teach and delegate. I feel that learning to let go as an executive chef is hard. I think could have been more impactful on others had I taught and delegated more.

3. See the restaurant as a whole. Often there are barriers between the front and back of house. Breaking down those barriers makes for a much better work environment.

4. Make time for family. Even to this day I have a hard time leaving the restaurant at times but realizing that your #2 is very important to being able to do that.

5. COOK YOUR FOOD. Don’t try and cook someone else’s food. Gastronomy never was my thing but I kept trying to force it on plates but it was never me, nor did it tell my story on the plate.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

Seafood Dynamite

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Neighborhood Dinners. Food is a common language and we should use it more often to build community.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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