One James Beard Award nomination and two booming food destinations in Chattanooga prove that while Chef Erik Niel’s voice is subdued, the Southern food he creates certainly is not. We sat down with the owner of Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats to talk about his Chattanooga ties, Cajun influence, and what he loves most about being a chef in the South.
SL: You’re from Louisiana. How did that food culture shape your dishes?
EN: It’s everything about why I love food. The way that Louisiana’s Creole and Cajun cultures appreciate food allows me to understand how food makes people happy or sad. Without it, I wouldn’t be in the food business. And now, I’m at the point in my career where with every dish I create, I want to recreate the feelings that Creole and Cajun food brings. Every time I find something that tastes good - even if it doesn’t taste like Creole cuisine – if it makes me feel like I did when I was 8 years old, standing in the back of my parents house at a crawfish boil, then it hits home for me.
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SL: What was the first thing you remember cooking as a child?
EN: Fish that my dad and I had caught. I remember pretty clearly catching a really big speckled trout. We got out the knife and my dad let me clean it, and we fried it.
SL: What’s your favorite restaurant in Louisiana right now?
EN: I love going to New Orleans. Every time I go, I’m just in awe of everything that has happened since I’ve last been. Honestly, my favorite restaurant is whatever one I’m eating at, currently.
SL: What made you decide to open your restaurant in Chattanooga? How is the food scene now, and compared to when you opened your first restaurant, Easy Bistro & Bar?
EN: I knew I always wanted to be in the restaurant business, and that I wanted to own my own business. Chattanooga is where I settled for family reasons. But then they all left, I met a girl, I fell in love, and the whole nine yards later, we are still there. Chattanooga became my muse as a city. It was on the rise when I got there 16 years ago; 16 years later, it has changed me in so many ways. Chattanooga has helped me to grow, just as much as it has grown in the time that I have been there.
SL: How would you describe the style of food at Easy Bar & Bistro?
EN: It’s really an amalgam of southern French, Creole, and classic Southern food. When I started cooking professionally, I knew that Louisiana cuisine and Creole cuisine was just my beginning point. I dissected that back to its roots, which lie in southern French cuisine. I found a real simplicity in southern French food that doesn’t exist in Creole cuisine. I really liked the seasonality and the produce of French food, and this same seasonal focus is all over the South. We use what is available; we riff on all of those ideas constantly.
SL: Favorite dish on the menu?
EN: I’m always going to be happiest with whatever is new and raw on the menu. We always have some kind of raw fish, and then whatever seafood we’re playing with – that’s where my happy place is. But then, there are things that have been on the menu for twelve years, and I probably don’t love them as much as I used to… I mean I want them to stay on the menu, but my love has waned.
SL: Do you have plans to open anything new in the future?
EN: Yes. Sure. At this midpoint in my career, I’ve got a couple of ideas that I really want to work on. I, like every other chef in the world right now, am totally enamored by open flames, wood fires, and smoking. I have an itch that I really need to scratch, badly. I mean, I have a seafood-driven restaurant (Easy) and a butcher shop/charcuterie (Main Street Meats). I think that there is something else that I need to get into.
SL: What is the hardest part about being a chef?
EN: If I had known how much business knowledge being a chef entailed when I started, I might have thought differently about the evolution of it. That is the hardest thing: being a chef doesn’t necessarily mean that you are cooking all the time, or that you get to be creative culinarily all the time. It means that you have to manage each of the many different aspects of a restaurant. It’s also one of the most important things about being a chef: realizing that the relation between the front and the back (the guest and the kitchen) is just as important as how creative you are on the plate. If the whole thing doesn’t work, then it is all for naught. You can have the best dish in the world, but if the host can’t answer the phone to take the reservation, it doesn’t work.
SL: What about being a chef makes you love your job?
EN: Oh, it’s fantastic. On a daily basis, you get to make people have fun. And there are very few jobs in this world in which you can be directly responsible for people’s enjoyment of life. If we do our jobs right, which we always strive to, the guests in the dining room are transported. I mean, a piece of you and everyone else in your operations’ soul is transferred to them, for a moment, for a bite. And feeding and nourishing a person’s soul, is one of the greatest feelings.
SL: What is the strangest thing you’ve ever cooked?
EN: Oh, I did peaches and crab once. It ended up being one of my better dishes. I made a potato ravioli with mascarpone filling, shallot, lemon, caper, peaches quickly sautéed, topped with jumbo lump crab and a butter sauce, slightly browned.
SL: What’s your go-to weeknight dinner?
EN: Well, I’m from Louisiana. I have to cook rice. Whenever I need super comfort food, I want rice with chicken stock and butter. If I have some herbs growing, I’ll grab those. Chicken, too. I’ll roast a whole chicken all the time. You can set it up, throw it in the oven, come back an hour later and it’s done. In the meantime, I can chase my kid around the house and cook some rice.