Q & A with Eric Greenspan, Part 1: Chef-as-Owner, The Grilled Cheesery + Humanizing Fine Dining
It's noon on Wednesday at The Foundry on Melrose and the phones are ringing off the hook. The house line is buzzing relentlessly, as is chef/owner Eric Greenspan's cell. Mostly it's staff calling with questions. One seems to have a wardrobe issue. 'How about this: Look handsome,' Greenspan says, then ends the call with a facetious 'I love you.'
Photo by Felicia Friesema. Eric Greenspan in his open kitchen at The Foundry on Melrose.
You've definitely seen Greenspan somewhere, be it at his restaurant, or on one of the many TV shows he's peeked his head into. "I've probably been on the Food Network more times than anyone who doesn't have an actual show," says Greenspan.
Right now The Foundry is Greenspan's world. It opened during the writer's strike, but Greenspan's award-winning grilled cheese, or maybe his ever-changing tasting menus, helped it survive to see its 4th birthday. Or, perhaps it was the man himself, who does everything he can to make sure guests are having a good time.
Turn the page for the first part of the interview. And check back later for part two, and Greenspan's recipe for "The Champ" Grilled Cheese.
SI: Are you usually this busy so early in the day?
EG: Me? Yeah. Well, keep in mind I'm the owner too, so I do all my 'restaurant owner shit' until like 3, from whenever I get here, sometimes 9 a.m., sometimes noon. There's times when I have nothing to do so I sleep in a little. But I'm here running the business until 3, 3:30, then I'm in the kitchen with the boys. I wish I were in there even more. 'Would to be a chef again.' You know what I mean? Being a chef/owner is a totally different thing.
SI: In what ways, specifically?
EG: I have to pay attention to everything. Since, the writer's strike -- we opened up three months before the writer's strike, and it's been a fight ever since we've been open. As far as business goes, we've had a great year, but that doesn't make up for two bad years. The world was in the dumpster two years ago. I have an awesome staff, and that's how I've been able to bring this restaurant back from the brink.
SI: How does being the owner affect the choices you make as a chef?
EG: I think I'd be far more dogged as to what kind of cuisine I'd be cooking. Far more dogged. When I was at Meson G, I'd make you cry. I was like an unbending, ruthless, knows the fuck what I'm cooking... When you expand your horizons to the entire -- when you start to realize what a restaurant really is -- I was a young chef; I was 27-years-old when I started working at Patina. And I like to consider myself a pretty humble cat, but there's an element of diva that goes into every chef.
It's really all about the food, and that's a beautiful thing, until you start to realize that's not what this business is. This business is not about food. It's about the entire experience. Depending on how you set your restaurant up. Obviously at The Foundry, the food is a major part of the business, but it's almost as important to make sure that the hostess is greeting the customer at the door and saying hello. If [the customers] are wandering in and out not being greeted by a hostess, and they get sat down and the server fucking hurries them through their water selection, by the time they get to opening up the menu, I've lost them.
SI: So you're far more conscientious of that stuff.
EG: You've got to be conscientious of the entire experience. And thank God! 'Cause like I said, it really puts into perspective what this world's about. It's about taking care. And the food's a big part of that, but it's not the only part. That's why when I brought the wall down in the kitchen here, and the way I run this place from the dining room pretty much, people are like 'Oh, he's showboating, Oh, he wants to be then next Wolfgang Puck.' It's like 'No, I'm doing my job.' I've got to be able to plate the food and taste the food and be a part of the food, but I also have to instantly be able to make sure there's water poured in those glasses, and that those people are happy and those people are taken care of. So I set this place up so I can keep my eyes on everything.
SI: Do you love having your hand in everything, or do you think you may stop wearing one of those hats someday?
EG: I love getting involved in everything, and I think at the end of the day, look, if there is a hat dropped it's everything but the chef hat. I would love to drop all the fucking hats one day, you know, and just oversee everything. And my team is getting a lot stronger. I have a team that really knows what this restaurant is about, back of the house, front of the house.
Jackson, who runs the front of the house, he's not your average general manager. It's not how we do things. I don't do anything normal here. We do things that fit the place. At the end of the day, The Foundry is The Foundry and it has its needs, and these are the people I have that I can plug into those needs.
It's a hard line here, because The Foundry's about one table having a five-course tasting menu with wines paired next to other people having a burger and tots. You have to give them the same kind of experience.
SI: What do you think of yourself as a boss?
EG: I'm an awesome boss. Right, Sam? [Yelled to one of his staff heading towards the kitchen. "I have to pee!" she yells back.] I'm not the easiest person to put up with. I don't want you to get the wrong impression of me. I'm a high-energy kind of guy. Things are fun around here, but they're intensely fun. I'm here seven days a week. It's going to be entertaining to me. Either find entertainment in what I find entertainment in and enjoy the ride, or do not find entertainment in what I find entertainment in, and you're not going to enjoy the situation.
We are a pirate ship, and it's definitely a tight-knit family. I even tell people who are coming in for jobs, just come spend a day with us. Because in that one day, you're either going to be like 'Fuck no,' or 'Hell yes.'
SI: Do you look for balance between work and personal life, or do you not even bother trying to find it?
EG: Oh no, I wish. I'm shooting for [balance.] I'm engaged to an amazing woman, and she's an extremely patient woman because she knows what she's got to put up with. We live together and sleep next to each other, and there are times when she'll turn to me and say, 'I miss you.' I'm like, 'I'm right here!'
I could quit tomorrow, get a job for fucking probably six figures, only have to cook, no stress, show up at 2 [p.m.] leave at 10 [p.m.], two days off - beautiful fucking thing. But she wouldn't stand for that either, because that's just not me.
SI: So you are where you want to be at this point in your life and career?
EG: Well, no.
SI: Who is, I guess.
EG: We're a little behind, but exactly, who is? But is there a light at the end of the tunnel? I think we're making a lot of good strides. Fuck, we've been around for four years. We make friends every day and new opportunities -- I know you've been hearing about that place next door [points outside] for a fucking year now.
SI: The Grilled Cheesery?
EG: Yeah. It is happening. It's definitely happening, it's just taking forever. I've got amazingly talented partners for that place, but because they're amazingly talented they're also amazingly busy, and we're not just opening up one. If we were planning on opening up one it would be open.
SI: What is it that fuels your love for the grilled cheese?
EG: You know, it's not so much that I have this love for the grilled cheese -- I love all things greasy and fattening. I love taking comfortable shit -- you know, I'm a down home guy who happens to roam at a high-end level. So a lot of my food is about that. I have love for the grilled cheese now because the grilled cheese that we came up with -- it sure as fuck has returned the love. It's a good-ass sandwich.
I made it to be my way of getting people to order a cheese plate. That's what that sandwich is; think about it. It's raisin walnut bread, a little apricot caper spread, a couple oven-dried tomatoes and arugula, a little salad, and a big chunk of Taleggio cheese. I put the short ribs on it too, just in case you want to turn it into a 'Manwich.' But at the end of the day, that's all the accoutrements of a cheese plate. But people go out to the restaurant and are like [snob voice] 'Oh, the cheese plate. Huh-huh-huh.' You're on Melrose Avenue and you're gonna get a cheese plate? It's kind of my way of saying, 'But you'll have a grilled cheese, won't ya?' That's where that sandwich came from. It was a way of humanizing fine dining.
SI: In the last few years there's been that trend of grown-up kid food. Why do you think we're obsessed with grilled cheese and mac n' cheese and cupcakes all over again?
EG: The honest answer? It's comfort food. [Sarcastic voice] 'We're all looking for comfort in a time of change.' Ah, bullshit. I'll accept that maybe--times change all the fucking time. When the recession hit, everybody feels so 'bad' and wanted to return to the womb. There's no like, placenta chairs turning up or something like that that would make us feel comfortable. Nobody's putting you in a balloon of saline solution and playing calming music. [Laughs.]
SI: What do you think it might be, then?
EG: Look, cheap food is better than expensive food. Me personally, I want as many people as possible to enjoy what I do. Maybe 10 years from now I'll open a restaurant that will be back to what I was doing at Patina. [Snob voice] 'Huhhuhhuhhuh' and shit like that. But for now, it's for as many people as possible to try your food and grow with you. And you have to dress things up in a way to make that work. I think you start with something people know and love, and then you fuck with it.
Why grilled cheese for me? Because after all the fucking hoopla that sandwich got it's like, why not grilled cheese? Plus 'Greenspan's grilled cheese' has a nice little ring to it, don't you think?