Chef Erik Pettersen: “Owning a restaurant is like a marriage”

I only use the freshest ingredients. Not only does the dish need to have the photo worthy eye appeal, it also needs to hit the mark with flavor. The best dish takes your palate on a journey. The mark of a great dish is that you can close your eyes and taste the freshness of […]

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I only use the freshest ingredients. Not only does the dish need to have the photo worthy eye appeal, it also needs to hit the mark with flavor. The best dish takes your palate on a journey. The mark of a great dish is that you can close your eyes and taste the freshness of the baby heirloom tomato, the fresh picked crispness of the romaine, and that tenderness in prime meat. This evokes the feeling of security that the dish is made of quality ingredients. That is what makes a dish not only photo worthy for social media, but brings out the emotional need to shout it from the rooftop and share with the rest of the world.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Restaurateur Chef Erik Pettersen. He owns Evo Italian, a fine dining restaurant in Tequesta, Fla. He won an episode of “Guy’s Grocery Games” on Food Network in 2020 and hosts a weekly recurring segment called “What’s For Dinner With Chef Erik,” on CBS12 in West Palm Beach.

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?

I grew up in Oyster Bay on Long Island, New York. While working at a pizzeria as a teenager, I became self-aware of my keen sense for quality that I saw in my own family’s cooking, which lead me to become more and more attuned to the nature of my true calling. With the knowledge of knowing how to cook, my mom constantly reminded me to explore my natural ability further. I climbed the ranks of some of the most well-respected and popular restaurants in New York, working as a sous chef in Manhattan restaurants for revered restauranteurs, the Scotto brothers and renowned chef Brendan Walsh. As the years passed, my dream took full shape, as I knew I wanted to go back to my roots and start showcasing my family’s recipes.

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?

Evo Italian, now 13 years in business, offers a contemporary interpretation of authentic Italian recipes. Evo, short for evolution, brings time-honored, old world traditions evolving full circle into fresh new beginnings with the freshest and highest quality ingredients.

My Italian heritage drew me to cooking this cuisine. As a fourth-generation Italian chef with over 30 years of culinary experience, I was exposed to Italian food preparation by my Sicilian grandmother, whom I would watch and help cook whenever I visited her. I learned the authentic, farm-to-table recipes passed on from generation to generation, and the respect and attention to detail that each dish merited. She taught me the family secrets that still influence my cooking to this day.

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?

One of the first restaurants I worked in as a chef put me through a bit of hazing. As I walked in on my first day, I thought I had made it to the big time. The chef gave me a large bag of onions and told me to grab a cutting board and a knife. He sent me to the back corner of the kitchen to cut the onions. Not long into the process, I was weeping. My eyes were watering and burning. I looked up and all the chefs are looking around the corner laughing at me. The lesson I learned that day is to always cut onions in an open and well ventilated area.

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?

At the tender age of 29, I was brought in as executive chef and working partner for Ciao Baby!, an upscale four-star restaurant in Commack on Long Island. The restaurant took off quickly and my sauces and recipes were being raved about in reviews from the New York Times and the New York Post. First time customers became regulars, a line was out the door to get a table, and after the first six months in business, a second Ciao Baby! location broke ground in Massapequa. I was on my way to becoming one of the hottest chefs in New York.

I was on Cloud Nine until I received a devastating phone call from my mother in Florida. She was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. It took a while for this horrific news to set in, but when it did, I sold my share of the restaurant and moved south to Delray Beach to be her caretaker. In her final months, we’d visit relatives together in Jupiter and Tequesta, and she would remark, “When I get better, we’re going to sell the house in Delray, open a small place in Tequesta, you’ll do the cooking and I’ll handle the business.”

After my mother’s passing, I lived out both of our dreams and opened Evo Italian on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2007, in Tequesta. While adding the title “restaurant owner” to my credentials, my one-room small restaurant had only eight tables and 35 seats. The very first customer I served was legendary ice hockey player Bobby Orr. Evo soon was the talk of the town and I was once again building my reputation like I did back in New York. After two years, I added a bar area and expanded into a second room, and by our fifth anniversary, Evo moved into its current location with 150 seats, a full bar, lounge and outdoor patio area.

My chef’s jacket has the name Nancy written on the back, so I know my mother Nancy always has my back!

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

I only use the freshest ingredients. Not only does the dish need to have the photo worthy eye appeal, it also needs to hit the mark with flavor. The best dish takes your palate on a journey. The mark of a great dish is that you can close your eyes and taste the freshness of the baby heirloom tomato, the fresh picked crispness of the romaine, and that tenderness in prime meat. This evokes the feeling of security that the dish is made of quality ingredients. That is what makes a dish not only photo worthy for social media, but brings out the emotional need to shout it from the rooftop and share with the rest of the world.

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

The perfect meal for me is a meal of fresh ingredients with the simplicity that allows you to enjoy and taste the flavors. One of my favorite dishes from my menu is the Bartolomeo Clams. I use delicate little neck clams, roasted garlic, white wine, toy box heirloom tomatoes, and Tuscanella Villa extra virgin olive oil. A clean and simple dish.

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

Years ago, in the Italian village where my grandparents lived, there were no supermarkets to shop for food, so dinner came fresh from the farm to the table. Today, this is the philosophy I continue to practice, and I don’t simply wish to just feed my guests, but nourish the body and mind with culinary experiences that set a new standard in dining. At Evo Italian, I embrace South Florida’s rich farming and fishing heritage and celebrate the remarkable seasonable bounty. The climate supplies me with a year-round steady stream of stunning ingredients from which I craft the menu. I source and handpick the finest products to incorporate into contemporary variations of my family’s secret recipes and traditional treasures with a new twist and the warmth of the Italian way of living.

Evo’s beef, chicken, veal, and pork are prime grade, all-natural and hormone-free, and fish is delivered every day from local fish purveyors. Imported Italian products play a major role in my unique approach to cooking. In partnership with my family in Italy, I have the ability to import only the finest D.O.P. certified products from San Marzano tomatoes to Sicilian and Tuscan first cold-pressed extra virgin olive oils, bufala mozzarella, and our famous burratta pugliese, “rocca” Reggiano parmigiana, aged balsamic from Modena, and the finest fresh and handmade dried pasta Italy has to offer.

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

Earlier this year, I competed on and won an episode of “Guy’s Grocery Games,” a reality competition show hosted by Guy Fieri on Food Network! This was an ultimate career highlight and was viewed by millions nationwide. I hope it springboards many more national television opportunities for me.

I am currently working on writing my first cookbook. A lot of celebrities from the sports and music worlds dine at EVO, so I am compiling their favorite dishes they order off my menu and sharing the recipes. Then, everyone at home can recreate these entrees and desserts and dine like a rockstar in their own kitchen!

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

Chefs spend a lot of time on their feet. It is actually a very physically demanding profession. You need to be physically fit and have endurance. I always try to be aware of keeping myself physically and mentally healthy. I have recently dedicated myself to a new, consistent exercise regime and being in better shape is helping me at my restaurant.

I also do a lot of talking, whether it be giving interviews, such as my weekly recurring television segment, “What’s For Dinner With Chef Erik?” on CBS12 in West Palm Beach or talking to my staff and diners. Just like a singer, I need to take care of my voice and give my vocal cords some TLC. When I feel it is getting hoarse, I know it’s time to go on vocal rest leading up to a television appearance. I am also getting much more self-aware of when I need to step away and disconnect for a few days. Sometimes I enjoy a staycation or go to a nearby hotel to rejuvenate.

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. How much money you need saved up. You need at least 6–12 months of capital. You can never anticipate how the first years will be. Many factors play into this. You never know when you will need to replace the air conditioner. There is no way to anticipate when the profits will begin. In the meantime, the staff, rent, and utilities must be paid, as well as all the other fixed expenses you may not have expected, such as the fluctuation of the cost of goods. I opened in 2007. There was no way me or anyone else anticipated the economic turn that came in 2008. I had to adjust to insure my and Evo’s survival.

2. You will eat, sleep, and breath your restaurant. The restaurant becomes your life. You go to sleep planning the next day’s specials, calculating the bills you need to pay, the orders that will be arriving, and trying to solve all the issues that arose throughout the evening. Evo began with only thirty-five seats. The heat from the open kitchen flowed out into the dining room. The air conditioner could not keep up. I looked out into the dining room and NBA coach Chuck Daly and college basketball coach Rollie Massimino were wiping sweat from their foreheads while eating my food. That night, I went to bed worrying over how to get the dining room cool enough to keep the legends coming back.

3. Restaurant ownership isn’t as glorified as he thought. You spend 14 hour days on your feet and you’ll miss holidays and other special occasions with family. Everyone wants to own a restaurant. It sounds cool and glamorous. Most people do not realize restaurants are a place where people gather to celebrate their milestones such as birthdays, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, and Christmas Eve. Owning a restaurant means you ring in the new year in the restaurant and you mark getting a year older in the restaurant. In turn, the staff becomes a part of your family. My wife, son, and I spend each Christmas Eve, as well as the other holidays, in the restaurant working alongside the staff. Our special moments are celebrated with our Evo family.

4. You need to be a plumber, electrician, chef, janitor, and adult babysitter. Inevitably, just like in a house, nothing lasts forever. You basically must be your own handyman. In the middle of service if the internet goes down or something overflows, you must think fast and clean up the issue, keeping everything moving. By default, you are destined to become a “jack of all trades.” The staff varies in age and experience. No matter the age, everyone needs guidance to follow your vision. Many times, this will leave you feeling as if you are an adult babysitter.

5. Owning a restaurant is like a marriage. It is your significant other and you need to treat it with just as much nurturing and attention. You must love what you do and value the treasure that it is. Every detail is important. The smallest thing like the glassware or the fold of the napkin or the sign on the front door are just as important as the dishes we create. Everything takes thought, consideration, and care just like a marriage.

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

Sunday Gravy, this is a dish that has been handed down for generations. Not only is this dish one of our signature menu items at Evo, this is a dish that is relatable to many people, especially if you grew up in an Italian family. It takes you back in time to your parents’ or grandparents’ houses with the pot on the stove. It conjures memories of the home filled with the aromatic scents.

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.

During the height of COVID when we weren’t allowed to have guests dine in our establishment, we pivoted and focused solely on takeout and delivery. We also dedicated a lot of energy to feeding our community to show our gratitude. We delivered meals to frontline workers at area hospitals and Jupiter Police. Thanks to an anonymous, generous donor, we were able to provide more than 3,000 meals to families at The Boys & Girls Club of Martin County, which really tugged at my heartstrings. Parents who relied on schools to provide their children with meals had been struggling while schools were closed. I am blessed to be in a position to help nourish kids and parents and put a good Italian meal in their tummies. I encourage other chefs and small business owners to help their neighbors in any way they can.

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

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