Inside the life of a hotel executive chef
Photo of Eric Rivera by Jackie Donnelly
Interview with Eric Rivera, Executive Chef, The Bookstore Bar and Café, the Kimpton Alexis Hotel, Seattle WA
Growing up in Olympia, Washington, to a Puerto Rican family that celebrated food, Eric Rivera recalls cooking happily with his grandfather at a young age, which sowed the seeds of his culinary passion and career pursuits.
Though he started out in the financial services industry, “The market crashed and I was tired of having things taken away from me,” says Rivera. He then enrolled in culinary school at the Art Institute of Seattle.
He later worked for stand-alone restaurants before conceptualizing and opening the Thompson Hotel, part of the Huxley Wallace Collective, plus four other restaurants. A friend later connected him with Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, for whom over the past six months, he’s completely revamped the menu at the boutique hotel brand’s Bookstore Bar and Café, within the Alexis Hotel. He dishes below on his vision for and approach to his new role as this hotel’s Executive Chef.
HC: What’s different about heading up a freestanding restaurant compared to a hotel restaurant?
ER: A restaurant may be open for 12-16 hours a day, and some are closed on Monday’s or Tuesdays, but a hotel is always open, always on. When I came to the Alexis, they had reduced service hours in their restaurant, but if we were going to be a hospitable hotel, we needed to be open 24/7. I said let’s go for it. Let’s find out what kind of food people want, and I put my own spin on it. With banquets and weddings, I wanted to be involved with the catering team for everything. Instead of handing an engaged couple a 5-page booklet of menu options, I ask them what they like to eat and what ingredients they enjoy. We’re catering to people, not just giving them what we think is good.
HC: How do you approach the conceptualization of a hotel restaurant’s menu?
ER: The existing menu at The Bookstore Bar and Cafe was full of fruit and cheese plates and burgers, which isn’t bad, but exactly what I was expecting to see from a hotel, which doesn’t do anything to challenge what we can do with this space, nor does it challenge the diner or the front of the house. In my first month, I relied on the menu, but asked, how much of what excites people can we make ourselves and put our own spin on? I wasn’t coming here to cook other people’s food. I have a thing about how I want things to look – and for being detailed. Now, for example, for our breakfast French Omelet, we char the citrus and add texture with candied nuts in a paneer on the inside. I began to overhaul the menus one at a time. The only remaining item is the burger, but it’s not the same. Mine has a custom bun from Columbia City Bakery, with custom ground patties and a secret sauce with a billion ingredients.
HC: How important is it for executive hotel chefs to infuse a sense of location in to their cuisine?
ER: We didn’t bring in someone from California or the East Coast as chef. I don’t care about what New York does. I’m from Seattle and this is what we do. People want to see what’s going on here – it’s part of the allure. With our in-room chef’s tasting menu, guests can try any one of our meal periods to taste things that make Washington unique. There are old school techniques, infused with modern style here. For example, our Eggs Benedict in a Hole is served on a brioche, with the benedict on top and the middle taken out. There is bacon – which takes three days to smoke – all the way through. There’s so much we can do to show the gigantic spectrum of different parts of Washington.
HC: What advice can you offer chefs aspiring to achieve the great level of success you have?
ER: Don’t get complacent. I’ve seen chefs work for other name chefs for twenty years. Then, they want to open a restaurant and everyone’s like who the hell are you? It’s a very competitive game. I work really hard at this. I’ve put in 100 hour weeks. I have enough skills and understand the numbers. I can be a stand alone if I needed to. But working with cool people – with Kimpton – for this opportunity, I’m able to move forward at a faster pace.
HC: What have you learned about managing others?
ER: I hear other chefs and cooks say they struggle to find skilled help. No – you’re just not taking the time to train them. What are you doing to help them with their future? They’re not there just to follow you around. How long will someone want to work for $15 and hour? I have a waiting list of people to come work for me. I treat my chefs like they run the restaurant. I say, it’s your restaurant. What are you doing? Why is this happening? I ask them these questions so they have a voice, or else they’re going to leave.
HC: How do you attract top chef talent to work for you?
ER: I don’t hire cooks, I hire chefs and those who want to be chefs. If you don’t want to follow that path, I don’t have space for you. When my chefs come in, I ask them what they want to do and where they want to go. I’ll help them get to that point. I started an incubator program for my chefs. They show me their concept, and we help them run it for a day to see the realities of whether it will help to sell the place out. I’ll also tell them – the happy hour menu is yours – I start to discover stuff with them and we evolve that for the next menu change.