Eric Austin’s no angel, but he’s a hell of a chef.
An e-mail from Melanie Kell, wife of chef Eric Austin, tipped me off to this news: Big E is out as chef of the Bourbon Street Steakhouse. The news came as a surprise to Austin: “I was just blindsided,” Austin told me. “I didn’t see it coming.” According to Big E, owner Richard Defoe simply informed him that now that the restaurant was up and running, his services were no longer needed. (I called Defoe for comment and got a call back saying that he would be out of the office until Friday. Stay tuned.)
Austin posted his side of the story on the restaurant’s website, www.bourbonstreetsteakhouse.com :
“It was my hope to bring to you the most authentic New Orleans dining experience that I was capable of – instead that mission has been delegated to the parties I trained, but do not believe are ready to carry out a menu of this caliber independently. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience endorse, recommend or support the efforts of Bourbon Street Steak House.
I apologize for any misinformation given regarding this, and give my warmest regards to the customers I had the fortune of meeting and getting to know while this venture was underway. As always, I wish you good dining – and I’ll see ya’ around.”
-Chef Eric (Big E) Austin
Note to owners: It’s usually a good idea to maintain ownership of your restaurant’s website.
Austin does have a history of rocky relationships with owners and investors. CityPages restaurant critic Rachel Hutton posted Austin’s announcement on her blog, and then dug up Austin’s arrest record: he was arrested and charged with assaulting one of the investors in his business in 2005, and a few days later with violating a restraining order, and then in 2006 he was arrested and charged with punching a different business partner, and the partner’s girlfriend.
Austin says there is another side to that story, too, which Kell sent me in an email. I have edited out the names of some of the parties involved, since I don’t have their side of the story:
It’s time to clear a few things up! I’ve been under the impression for a long time that if you play by the rules and keep your proverbial nose to the grind stone, you’ll get ahead in this world. But with each one of my efforts to introduce my cuisine to the Twin Cities, I get a little wiser and my eyes are opened to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that are in waylay. There are sinister forces out there that wish the worst on any worthwhile endeavor. “Build it and they will come” isn’t just a romantic notion of success that is portrayed on the big screen, especially if you realize that “they” means everyone – those that wish you well, and the others – those that do not.
On the first assault charge:
“The banking group that financed Big E’s sold their major shares to this group (a group of investors – ed.) making them the instant owners of Big E’s. I was told that I could continue to be the name and the face (and draw I might add) while they ran the business. They soon determined that Big E’s would be better suited selling “middle-eastern” cuisine – gyros, falafel, kafta, etc. …and eliminate “pork” from its menu all together. With this, my response was “No, that’s not soul food and that’s not what built this business! It’s not going to be Big E’s then.” I was told that this is what had been decided and what was going to happen, that I no longer owned s#$&. To which I replied “Then I’ll just take my things and go and you can do whatever the f#$% you want to do with the place.”
“I walked over to the wall and started to retrieve the many acrylic black and white portraits my wife and I had painted, and a hand over my shoulder blocked me. “These are not yours anymore either!” “Like hell they’re not!” To prove his point (one of the investors) grabbed the painting out of my hand and destroyed it right in front of my face. “They’re mine and I can destroy them all if I want!” This would be the part of the show where Bill Bixby’s eyes lit up green, just before the transformation to the Hulk. My hands were upon him and his allies were upon me and the dance began. When it was all said and done in court, a restraining order was issued…
On the charge of violating the restraining order:
I showed up next to the now “new Big E’s” (funny) to meet with Jason Dang (wow! that’s another story) of Soul City Supper Club. We were standing outside of the restaurant forging another partnership when (the investor who sought the restraining order) came out of the original Big E’s and asked what we were doing. “This has nothing to do with you. I am making plans with my new partner and we’re going to open up here.”
Moments later the police arrived stating that I was in violation of the restraining order… Once in court, the judge cited that the violation was ridiculous because if I were to be in a business right next door …that he (the judge) would not make me enter in the back door and that it was fair business and the charge was dropped…As for this next one:
On the second assault charge:
Here’s a guy, whom I only knew as a customer in Big E’s who asked me at Market Barbecue one night after he and I both had drank a few, that he be allowed to partner with me. “I don’t need a partner right now, but thanks.” You would think that would be the end of it, but then, he’d had a few, so the next thing I heard was, “So you think you’re better than I am n#$%@!” – not pulling the race card here. I’m from the deep South so that wasn’t the first time I’ve heard it and had long ago learned to walk away with a smirk over whoever ignorance had said it. So I turned to do so and this fool grabbed my shoulder to turn me around. (Green eyes again) He got decked! Then his girlfriend jumped on my back and the crowd broke us apart. “You saw him! You all saw him! He hit us! Call the police!” In court the defense lawyer said that the guy was suing for $60,000.00 or a partnership interest. Or we could just plead to 5th degree assault and be done with it. And that’s what we did. Wow!!!!!!
So there you have it. Am I a talentless, egotistical, maniacal chef with tyranny as the basis for my actions? There will always be those of you out there that believe this of me. But I will keep tying to get the type of cuisine and Southern hospitality many of you know me for.
The good news is, Austin has another restaurant project in the works, Chef E’s House of Soul. It’s a duplex near the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, that he hopes to open by next February.