Eric Ernest has visited over two dozen countries and is ready to bring that international focus to dining at USC.
You can say that the man hired to oversee the vast dining operations at the University of Southern California is well-travelled. Eric Ernest has visited over two dozen countries and plans to visit more on busman's holidays during which he adds to his store of knowledge on international cooking techniques and dishes.
Ernest joined the Los Angeles-based university last fall as executive chef in charge of USC Hospitality, the school's far-ranging in-house dining arm.
It's far-ranging because USC is huge, a private university with a public flagship school-like enrollment of nearly 35,000. USC Hospitality operates 39 dining concepts on USC's two campuses, as well as several off-campus restaurants.
Ernest brings not only a well-used passport to USC but also experience gained in a series of high-profile West Coast restaurants, including MC2, Aqua, Spago Beverly Hills, Citrine and Royale.
Most recently, he served as executive chef for SBE Restaurant Group, whose concepts include Katsuya, XIV by Michael Mina, Gladstones and The Abbey Food & Bar.
I understand your interest in food began with a Christmas present mixup?
Yes, that's true. When I was about six, I mistakenly got a box with an Easy-Bake Oven that was supposed to go to a cousin. So I started baking cakes and really started relating to that cerebral process of building something by hand and being able to eat it as well.
Is that what prompted you to become a chef?
Well, the Easy-Bake really was only a minor factor. Much more significant was growing up in a very diverse agricultural area in Wisconsin, where I really began appreciating seasonality and the amazing flavor of fresh foods. This is probably why I've always had great relationships with farmers.
What prompted the move to California?
I had come out here on vacation and just fell in love with the produce, the weather and the dining scene. You walk around San Francisco and every block is full of restaurants.
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Tell me about your travels…
I consider it part of my training. When I go somewhere, I try to experience the fat of the land. Unless I'm in a major city I rarely eat in a fine dining restaurant. I want to know what the locals are making. My perfect day is to be in a small town in Italy that most tourists don't make it to, and walk into a local restaurant to eat what the local people eat. That's the best food on the planet.
What are some of the more unusual foods you've come across?
The street foods of Budapest and the local markets in Marrakesh were pretty memorable.
What were the foods in those places like?
In Marrakesh, there are a lot of kebobs, many of them cooked over open fires using all sorts of different spices. They also make all sorts of tagines [a kind of Morrocan stew — ed.] using different ingredients. In Budapest, there were lots of rich stews, the kinds of things that make even goulash seem light, as well as lots of steamed buns and steamed breads.
What first drew your interest to USC?
I think the first thing was the large scope of the operation and the high level at which they were operating. I was also very much drawn by their desire to add someone who could assist their move to add more local and artisanal products. Since that is also what I am very interested in, it was very attractive to me.
What have been your biggest challenges?
Well, I had to assimilate into the campus lifestyle, and a lot of that was very refreshing. In the private sector, you're always bleeding the stone to make that profit. But here, whatever profit you make goes right back to the university. It's a very regenetive system. Other than that, I've had to become used to the ramp ups and ramp downs of the school year.