Interview with Chef Eric Hara of davidburke & donatella - New York City

September, 2007

Will Blunt: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking?
Eric Hara: I ask myself that same question everyday. I was good at cooking, so I ended up at culinary school. I always watched Emeril on television and loved trying what he was doing in my own kitchen. I went straight to culinary school without ever having worked in a restaurant.

WB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
EH: My first job was working with Michel Richard at Citronelle in Santa Barbara. While I was in Santa Barbara, I also worked under John Downey at Downey’s and Camille Schwartz at Restaurant Mimosa. I left to work at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel from 1999 to 2000, then I moved to Canada for a job at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. When I came to New York, I started out at a little French bistro in Hell’s Kitchen called Chez Josephine. I also worked at Tao before I came to davidburke&donatella.

WB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
EH: I went to Santa Barbara Hotel and Restaurant School. Would I recommend it? Yes and no. The cost sometimes outweighs the benefits. You have to consider how long it’s going to take to make back all of the money you sank into it. I recommend a trade school, although most of the people in my kitchen did graduate from culinary school.

WB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
EH: Camille Schwartz at Mimosa in Santa Barbara really taught me the fundamentals of good cooking.

WB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
EH: I look for eagerness more than anything. I don’t care about pedigree. I look for willingness. If the first question they have for me about the job has something to do with how much money they will be making, then this isn’t the place for them.

WB: In what kitchens have you staged? Do you take stagiers in your kitchen?
EH: I staged at Valentino in Los Angeles. We do accept stagiers here.

WB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
EH: Patience, patience, patience. Cooking is like a marathon, not a sprint. In order to succeed, you really have to be in it for the long haul. You should also be really open to learning – try to work for the best chefs you can.

WB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized? Why?
EH: Fennel seed – it’s almost like salt in that it enhances all other flavors in a dish. I love chick peas too.

WB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
EH: Sweet with sour or really rich savory flavors – foie with french toast or cinnamon buns, like in our PB&J Foie Gras Torchon. I also like pineapple and sumac, and chick peas are great with smoked paprika and garlic.

WB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
EH: My Vita-Prep – I love it. It makes beautiful purees, soups and sauces.

WB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and used in an unusual way?
EH:I take a lamb rack, grind it, roll it on the end of a clean bone, cover it with falafel mix and deep fry it.

WB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
EH: The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller has some examples of great, clean cuisine. Also Susur Lee’s book – it has a lot of substance and is something different and new.

WB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
EH: I think it would be cool to travel around Asia because I don’t know a whole lot about it. I’d like to go to Hong Kong and Thailand the most.

WB: What are your favorite restaurants off-the-beaten-path in your city?
EH: Noodletown in Chinatown for lo mein noodles and L’incotro in Queens for raviolo and blueberry risotto.

WB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
EH: There’s a lot of science going on in cooking, but at the same time the classics are coming back. The classics are being reinvented with a scientific slant.

WB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
EH: I like to use the best ingredients and keep the food really clean and pristine. I like to really taste the natural flavor of the ingredients – the sauce, the fish, all of it.

WB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? Who would you serve?
EH: Kennedy – I think he would be a lot of fun to go out with. I’d serve him Marilyn Monroe lollipops.

WB: How are you involved in your local culinary community on a national and global level?
EH: I train and educate young chefs as much as I can. That’s it, but it’s an important job. They are our future.

WB: What are some of your favorite food-related charities?
EH: Meals on Wheels. They reach the people who need it most.

WB: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
EH: I don’t know! I’ve honestly never considered doing anything else.

WB: What does success mean for you?
EH: It would mean owning my restaurant – a casual spot.