A conversation with Seattle’s new top chef, Eric Johnson
If ever I did a double-take on Facebook, it was this moment: An old friend posted an article about formidable chef Eric Johnson opening a Capitol Hill restaurant, and I wonder, wait, is it that Eric Johnson?
I grew up with a kid by that name in Setauket, New York, a sleepy Long Island town 60 miles from New York City. We both attended Gelinas Junior High on Mud Road. We were run-of-the-mill American kids growing up in the ‘burbs. He played on the boys’ soccer team, and I on the girls’ tennis team.
Low and behold, this was the guy.
Since we both took home ec at Gelinas long ago, Eric had lived around the world, and worked with some of the biggest names in the restaurant business, including Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten in Paris. He and his business partner, Seth Hammond, opened Stateside about a year ago, to rave reviews. Seattle Met named Stateside restaurant of the year, and the Seattle Times recently included Stateside on its list of 2015’s top 10 restaurants.
Since my discovery, I’ve had the pleasure of dining at Stateside and experiencing Eric’s talents first-hand. The French-inspired Vietnamese cuisine is amazing, and the service is so fantastic that one evening, I was so well taken care of I didn’t even feel like I was dining alone.
I decided it was time to hear about what my friend had learned on his culinary adventures around the world, and brought to the city we both now call home.
Where did you develop your love for Vietnamese cuisine?
I lived in both China and France. Vietnam is where Chinese and French cuisine meet.
Is Stateside popular with Seattle's Vietnamese community?
By and large, they [Vietnamese customers] seem to enjoy it. Some have been super-skeptical upon arrival and then have enjoyed it. Once in a while, we’ll hear, “That’s not how my grandmother makes it.” But I’m not going for authenticity. You can go to Hanoi and have Pho at 15 different places. Which one is authentic?
How did your time working in Shanghai influence Stateside’s menu?
I spent six and a half years in Shanghai. When you get in the right place in Shanghai on a clear day, it dwarfs New York.
The chili cumin pork ribs [at Stateside] are me trying to re-create and give homage to a fairly common dish in Shanghai restaurants.
You helped open Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant in Paris. How receptive were native French chefs to working with an American?
That [restaurant opening] was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I did get “that’s not how we do it” from the staff. I needed them to realize that “We’re doing this. It’s different.” Even vinegarettes and salad dressings we used were unfamiliar to them. But, the [bigger] challenge for me was not knowing the metric system and learning the language on the job. Tickets would come out, and I couldn’t understand them. Does this say “rare”?
You had a delicious mushroom salad on the menu the last time I was here. What other local offerings do you draw upon?
In the fall, there are chanterelle and black trumpet mushrooms. In the spring, morels. There were tomatoes and corn on the cob in the summer. Now we’re using local potatoes for brunch, which we just started serving on the weekend. Our first brunch last weekend was full.
Are there gluten-free options?
At least two-thirds of the dinner menu is gluten-free. Even the soy sauce we use is.
This kind of restaurant works in Seattle, and it'd be a hit in New York, judging from the New York Times' assessment. Would it work in the center of the country?
I have no idea. I’ve only spent a weekend in Cleveland. It would work in Denver or Boulder – I went to CU Boulder. Cooking school was at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont.
Are you settled in Seattle? Are you thinking about starting another restaurant, perhaps somewhere else?
I lived in Seattle for three years before opening Stateside, and met my business partner, Seth Hammond, during that time. Any expansion for now would be in Seattle.