The Follow: Eric Rivera, Renegade Chef

For the latest edition of The Follow, Abe Beame connects with Eric Rivera to talk about the pandemic's lasting affect on the restaurant industry, TikTok cooking content and much more.
By    May 12, 2023

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Abe Beame is going to be upset when Lil Dicky shows up in a Wes Anderson movie.

The Follow is an interview series I plan on putting out occasionally, or frequently, or maybe never again, in which I basically just talk to the people I enjoy following online who are willing to talk to me for a while. It will be about what they come to Twitter for, how they cultivate their online personas, the things they feel passionate enough to contribute to the infinite discourse on this app, and why they feel the need to do it. And on a basic level, it will be two people on Zoom shooting the shit.

What does the future of the restaurant industry look like? Whatever most people with intimate knowledge of the business might tell you today, it’s a different answer than the one they would have offered four years ago. When the pandemic hit, it presented both an immediate crisis for the restaurant industry, and a paradigm shift moving forward. The immediate crisis- barely addressed by our government- will go down as one of the great exchanges of wealth on a grand scale in American history. An entire sector of the economy was forced to shutter for- in many cases- months if not years without rent protection. Some made it back, many either didn’t or are still coping with the ramifications of months or years of rent without revenue.

The paradigm shift is a question the industry is still grappling with. It speaks to the sustainability of what is perhaps the world’s second oldest profession. Working in a restaurant, generally speaking, has the potential to be a lot of fun. It’s a tailor made gig for a twenty something new to a big city. Your coworkers are all writers, artists, poets, and musicians. Passionate, fascinating weirdos making ends meet by making drinks or bussing tables. You’re surrounded by good food and good wine (in some fortunate cases), the money can be fast and plentiful if you work front of house at the right place, and after work there’s…… let’s say, always a party.

But the party couldn’t last forever. When the pandemic forced many restaurants to close, their young, uninsured, unprotected employees were left without jobs and no timetable to come back. Many were forced to reflect on the nature of the work and the industry as a whole. Restaurants, like most industries in America, are a dictatorship run primarily by exploitative white men. Cooking as a profession is extremely f*cked up. You work long and hard hours in a confined space with spectrumy assholes who take your labor for granted. Front of house is beholden to the largesse of their tables, rich assholes more concerned with the lighting for their TikTok videos than the food in front of them or the young person working a slammed station, doing their best not to unravel before the end of their shift. The result was a sudden, violent walking away by a workforce once seen as eternal and bottomless. The industry now faces a mandate: Adapt or die.

The voice of this resentment, this hungover anger that the workforce woke up to, is perhaps best articulated by the Seattle native, Chef and raconteur Eric Rivera. He owned one of the tens of thousands of restaurants that had to turn over their keys in the wake of the pandemic. He suffered nightmare scenarios at the hands of racist, abusive, sadistic chefs throughout his career. He’d spent over a decade sacrificing his lifeblood to make money for dickheads, and finally said “Enough.”

His Twitter account is one of my favorites. He is alternatingly angry and hilarious: speaking out in passionate threads when it comes to the common restaurant sins of exploitation, ignorance, and appropriation, as well as hilarious running bits, serving as an armchair critic, peanut gallery scold and food comedian with the either brilliant or unfortunate TikTok videos he reposts and flames.

When I reached out to Eric, I referred to him as “Chef,” which I’ve always looked at as an earned sign of respect. He asked me not to call him that, which I chose to interpret as a rejection of the brigade system, and the old world European hierarchy of the kitchen. He’s proudly Puerto Rican and interested in promoting talents and voices of color in the food world. He currently doesn’t have a restaurant and doesn’t seem particularly interested in opening another one anytime soon, as his pop up business is now direct, and personal. He has an entire encyclopedia of food ebooks on his website that blends his culture’s cuisine with many other global cuisines I’d strongly recommend. He has a big, engaging personality which comes across through social media.

In short, his approach to his career is dynamic, mobile, and muti-faceted, and he just might be innovating what a way forward could look like, so I wanted to discuss his history and how it shaped his perspective on if there is a future for restaurants, and what that future might look like.

(Author’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed to make me sound like less of an asshole)

So would you mind quickly just running through your CV? I’ve gotten bits and pieces of it from your posts. It seems like a really fascinating career.

Eric Rivera: I worked in business before this, some mortgage insurance, financial services, and then in 2008, all that shit blew up. So then I started doing a cooking blog while I was at home, then went to culinary school, worked in a bunch of restaurants around the world, like number one restaurants, that kind of shit, like Noma. And then I got a job at Alinea in Chicago. I was there for three and a half years. I was the director of culinary there, then moved back from Chicago to Seattle. Helped a little restaurant group there open seven restaurants in a year. Then I started doing things out of my apartment in Seattle, doing pop-ups all around Seattle, and then finally got a brick and mortar.

That went really well, and then the pandemic hit. I was hanging out for like two years, basically inside the restaurant with nobody around. And then I got my lease renewal on my restaurant and my landlord wanted to charge like 90% more, so I told them to go f*ck themselves. And then I went on tour for like a year and a half, and then landed here in Raleigh, so I’ll be here for a little bit, but still doing tour stuff.

When you say tour, what do you mean?

Eric Rivera: So basically, I have a bunch of guests that live everywhere, and so they’re always saying, “Hey, I don’t know if I can get up to Seattle, but I have an event.” And eventually I was like, “well, f*ck it, I’ll come to you guys.” So I sold all my stuff and my partner Emily came with me.

So we went on tour together and then kitted out my forerunner, got a little trailer and now I’m built to pop up and go anywhere. So I’ve gone from Seattle to San Francisco, LA, Palm Springs, Nashville, Atlanta, DC, Puerto Rico a couple of times, Raleigh three times, then back around. And just did that for almost a year and a half.

We’ve got to get you up to New York.

Eric Rivera: I wanted to, man. It’s f*cking hard, dude. It’s hard doing this shit and not being famous or having a PR company. I know people up there, but it’s not really enough for me to hang out there for a week. It’s just really expensive.

Yeah, I’m somewhat familiar. What was it like working for Grant?

Eric Rivera: I was in a unique space. I don’t think anybody had that opportunity like I had because I was basically, like, his right hand person. It was a very unique thing because people were working at the restaurant or doing all this shit or trying to impress or trying to be cool, and I was just directly working with him. So I was working on future menus and dishes and innovating stuff and creating new things. When he would travel, I’d travel. I would talk to people there and help install dishes or whatever, and they’re just like, what do you do here again? And I’m like, don’t worry about it.

If you don’t feel comfortable discussing this, it’s fine and we can move on. But you said that some of your early career experiences were- I will characterize them as exploitative and abusive. Would you like to expand on that?

Eric Rivera: Sure. My first job that I had in a kitchen as a professional cook was an AM prep. And it was extremely abusive. I would get there early, super early in the morning. They paid me minimum wage then, which was barely anything. I think it was like $9.75 an hour. I worked there for about a year and a half, and finally got offered a raise of like $0.23 an hour. And I’m like, this is f*cking insane. And they kept on moving the carrot of “If you want to be a line cook……” and I wanted to be a line cook. I want to move up. And they’re like, “you’re two to three years away from that.” And they had all these shoddy pieces of equipment. And it was really f*cked up.

The next place I went to and I worked in more downtown Seattle, I had a f*cking chef throw me across a walk-in, literally pick me up and throw me. The chef that I worked for, the first thing he would do when I became a sous chef was come and yell at me if anything went wrong in the kitchen. He’d literally stand like an inch away from my face and just yell at me. He threw pots and pans at me. He’d sabotage and burn stuff on purpose. He’d be like, “you’re not paying attention,” all that kind of shit. And he’d yell at everybody else. But if it was cooks, he would just come and yell at me. And it was f*cking insane.

And when I went to other restaurants, it was the same shit. It was always some weird f*cking angry white dude that isn’t good enough. But the intimidation and scare tactics is what keeps them around. And then I finally got around that and set up my own thing, and I was not f*cking doing any of that shit.

Do you think there is a humane, feasible way to run fine dining?

Eric Rivera: Yeah, get white guys out of the kitchen. That’s all it is. Stop investing in f*cking white male chefs. These guys talk about how they learn about dishes from their grandmas and moms, culturally specific dishes. Well f*cking give the money to those people, the moms and grandmas. Give those people a shot then. Why does everybody have to listen to you? They’re all these abusive old white guys. You have Gordon Ramsay who makes tons of money by calling people pieces of shit and idiot sandwiches. So if you’re looking up and going like, “what is it going to take to be successful?” That’s what everybody looks at.

Do you think that there are culturally specific reasons why this sort of behavior is indicative of white men?

Eric Rivera: That’s what America is built on. That’s everything, literally everything, every method or motor of success is these f*cking white dudes in every sort of business. They’re f*cking pricks. They’re crazy. They’re f*cking insane. They beat their wives. They cheat on them. They get drunk. They go f*cking f*ck everybody at their office like a f*cking dating game or something. And that’s what it is.

In your cooking, you incorporate a lot of other cultures and cuisines, but I’ve also seen that you will criticize the gentrification of certain cuisines. In your mind, where is the line between healthy, multiculturalism and- I guess- “fusion”, for lack of a better word, and what constitutes as appropriation?

Eric Rivera: I think on my side I’m touching it, I’m educating, I’m showing people. I’m not building 10,000 Panda Expresses around this country. I’m not taking the idea and franchising it and going like, well now I’m Eric Rivera and I’m a Japanese/Chinese whatever chef. That’s insane. F*cking sick. I’m a Puerto Rican, man. The f*cked up thing about me and my culture is that we got it all stripped away, all of it. Taino culture. No language, nobody speaks it anymore. The food is really remnants and ideas and parts and pieces. What the f*ck am I supposed to do? I’ve done Puerto Rican food everywhere. But even now, nobody knows about our food. Not enough people know about it still.

But some dipshit opens some shitty restaurant in Columbus Circle like Bad Roman and before you know it, everybody knows more about pepperoni cups more than they do tostones. So on my side, when I see stuff like that, I’m trying to highlight dishes and things like raw marinated crab, for example. Just today I posted it to say, “hey, here’s this thing.” Am I going around and saying, “come to my raw Merited crab restaurant because I’m doing Korean food now?” Maybe that’s weird to some people or whatever, but I think it’s totally respectful because I’m not trying to monetize the whole thing and I’m not trying to say, “Wow, look at me. I found it and I discovered it and here’s my spin on it.”

You frequently mine TikTok for content. How do you decide what you want to repost and comment on?

Eric Rivera: It’s entertaining. Number one, it’s fast. They’re using interfaces that are f*cking brilliant. Because it sorts out all the bullshit. It’s just straight up and it reads, obviously what you’re doing through the algorithm, and it kind of points you in a perfect direction.

As far as my Twitter goes, it’s partly, “hey, here’s what I’m actually looking at, which is funny to me, that I find entertaining. Here’s all the stuff that I’ve had to sift through that’s egregious garbage.” And I’m giving you my highlights, like, are you seeing this f*cking shit? I cannot f*cking believe these people.

How do you see TikTok having an impact on both restaurant and home cooking culture?

Eric Rivera: It does the kitchen hacks for people thinking they can save time or skip a step, or make something more efficiently. That’s for the at home people. On the restaurant side it’s a lot of: Here’s a hot new restaurant that we’ve got a lot of our influencers showing you what’s going on.

If you want to build that first six months with hype, go and hire a bunch of influencers. And then by the amount of people that come in for that hype, I look at it kind of like Planet Hollywood. When that franchise was introduced, all they did was talk about the stars that were involved. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. And then people would go to these restaurants for memorabilia? So you’d go to the restaurant and it’s just like garbage burgers from Cisco and bullshit food. This is kind of the same thing. It’s hollow. You build the hype, then it is what it is.

It’s a cult of celebrity. Salt Bae gets popular, the guy starts to get f*cking endless money to open places all around the world. But there’s only one Salt Bae. So if you’re in Dubai, or you’re in London, and you go to eat at Salt Bae’s and you order a $1,000 steak and Salt Bae doesn’t come to your table to slice it, you feel kind of scammed, right?

I mean, I think you’d feel scammed anyway.

Eric Rivera: But that’s the funny part. People still go and they get hooked. And so that’s f*cking brilliant to get people suckered in like that. Because the people who are products of marketing or like cult mentality, they’re going to f*cking do that and buy into it. There’s other influencers out there and people that don’t realize that they’re actually getting marketed to very subtly. The 80s were all about product placement and getting kids to eat sugar a thousand different f*cking ways. And it’s smart. But it’s also bullshit.

To me there’s now this kind of, I guess, attraction towards spectacle. It’s like stunt menu writing. A fun, funky idea that plays well as a cut in a 30 second video, but then you’re paying $23 for a plate of pepperoni and ranch dressing. It’s trading off ideas like technique and quality of product in the interest of a big dumb idea that can be easily communicated to the lowest common denominator in a visual medium.

Eric Rivera: Oh, yeah. But it’s like that happens with literally every industry, though. You have enough people there, something is popular, they’re going to tell you it’s f*cking awesome. So people start to believe that it’s f*cking awesome. It’s really interesting how that shit works because the manipulation, influence, and then marketing and then the word of mouth, and it’s a hit before you know it regardless of if it’s any good or not.

I guess Carbone would be another good example of what you’re talking about.

Eric Rivera: Yeah, you’re like, “why the f*ck is anybody going there?” You can go to New York and go to 100 better f*cking Italian places, probably 1000. But they had better marketing.

In New York at least, Mexican food works on a couple of different “tiers” for lack of a better term. You have hundreds of humble take out spots, really great neighborhood places in Jackson Heights or Sunset Park or Bushwick or the Bronx. And then there’s also- it’s the product of indigenous chefs- but these more “upscale” fine dining spots. We have a number of Puerto Rican restaurants in New York but they tend to be the former, and I can’t think of a single one that falls under the category of the latter. Do you think that impression is accurate, and if so, do you have any theories why Puerto Rican cuisine hasn’t received the “White Table Cloth” treatment?

Eric Rivera: Well, Americans think everything is Mexican food no matter what. There’s so much ignorance and stupidity, especially outside of areas like New York with robust Puerto Rican communities, that they think it’s all Mexican food, right? It’s like a lot of people here in America also think that it’s all Asian food. And they can’t tell you the difference between Japanese food, Korean food, regional Chinese food, nothing. So on a larger level, if I’m going to start to do a specific style of Puerto Rican food, that would f*cking ruin so many people’s minds, unless I’m going into an area where there’s a Puerto Rican community and I can say like, “okay, I’m just doing pinchos,” “okay, I’m just doing frituras, I’m just doing lechon.” I can get away with doing that.

In Seattle, I had a restaurant that did Puerto Rican food, but it would not have existed if I just did Puerto Rican food. People there were like, “oh, there’s another Puerto Rican restaurant here.” Meaning, there were only two Puerto Rican restaurants in all of Seattle at the time. The other one burned down and then I was the only one, and that was still enough for people.

But for Mexican food, they can tell me, here’s my favorite Mexican restaurant. It’s so weird because there isn’t the same want or need for discovery. And a lot of it has to do with colonization because when you go to Puerto Rico, they go there to travel or they go as a tourist, they’re going to the little f*cking touristy areas. They’re going to San Juan or they’re on a cruise and everything is within a little radius. For them, that’s as much culture as they can get. So when they say, “I’ve had Puerto Rican food,” they’ve only had these five to ten dishes. And then when they go back to New York or somewhere like New York and they want to scratch that itch again, they only need to go find that one place. It’s not as wide and varied, there isn’t the diversity of a whole country as large as Mexico, where you have people in California, in New Mexico, in Texas that can show you the different styles.

We’re all from a f*cking little island and they let us in and so we’re like, “well, I guess we’ll move over here.” In Puerto Rico, there are the fine dining places that cater more towards Puerto Ricans. There are also the fine dining places that cater more towards white people. But on a larger level, it’s still not a cuisine that anybody gives a shit about, or knows enough about.

So you think Americans tend to lump it all in as one amorphous blend of pan-Latinx cuisine under the umbrella of “Mexican”?

Eric Rivera: Exactly. Or else they go even further to make the cuisine more bland. And they just say, Caribbean food. I’m like, well, then you’re a f*cking piece of shit because Jamaican food is f*cking stellar. Haitian food is f*cking stellar on its own and there’s different styles of it and that erases Black people immediately. And it’s crazy because these same people can tell me 50 different styles of f*cking pizza, how to eat it, what the rules are, what the unwritten rules are.

How do you feel about The Bear? Do you think it’s good for kitchen culture?

Eric Rivera: It was a good way to show that a white dude can get away with anything and take all the risks and still have something to stand on. That’s number one. Number two, it also shows how a kitchen that’s diverse and multicultural is effected by the mistakes of the dumb white chef.

It’s cool, it’s entertaining. But again, it’s always the same shit. Especially in Chicago. That’s a very segregated city. I lived in Chicago for three and a half f*cking years. It’s fine. I’ll watch it. But it’s not the same thing for me as it might be for other people. Maybe I see it from a different point of view because I worked in one of those restaurants in that city. And here’s what you can see. The kitchen that the guy throws away and says, “well, I’m going to go back home and do this.” But then ultimately, “I’m going to turn this humble sandwich shop into a fine dining place.” That’s the aspiration. A lot of people will say, “well, now you’ve made it because your place is expensive and refined, right?”

But he’s just fine doing the f*cking sandwich place. Everything’s cool, just doing the sandwich place. But he has to now throw it all away or take the risk to open the big fine dining place when nobody needed that, in a neighborhood where nobody needed that.

You’re right, but I found the show interesting because at least to me, it feels like it’s engaging in that conversation. It’s a referendum. It appears to be very much conscious of that frustration that I think everyone feels. And now they’re grappling with, well, what do we do next? And what do we do about this ancient American restaurant industry dynamic where the head of the snake is always a white CIA trained dickhead?

Eric Rivera: When I look at it, I don’t know that it’s that in-depth. I’m not watching the director’s cut on Criterion. The show is doing a good job capturing that thing. But I can also see a lot of kids missing that point, and idolizing the chef. And we end up with another generation doing the same thing they did with Marco Pierre White, or Gordon Ramsay, or Anthony Bourdain. Nobody paid attention to the cautionary part of the cautionary tale. They glorified and idolized these assholes and took all the wrong lessons from their stories.

As a cookbook nerd, would you mind recommending a few you love?

Eric Rivera: I had hundreds of cookbooks, and I’ve had access to every cookbook imaginable throughout my whole career. I’ve done an about face to them because I’ve consumed so many. Looking back, a lot of them forced a narrative from the wrong people. People who get cookbook deals- it’s a very crazy thing because I have a group of people that I know who aren’t famous chefs, that have struggled to get deals. But they make good shit. They’re awesome. They can write, they can do all these things, but they can’t get a deal. Then a celebrity or a star writer or somebody who does trash can nachos can have 50 cookbooks. So it’s hard for me to stay interested in it, when the marketplace is so f*cked up.

I see the guy that wrote How to Cook Everything, Mark Bittman. The bravado and the ego of something like that is so insane to me because when you look at the f*cking cookbook, it’s awful. It’s garbage. It’s just shit. It’s white people cooking. So when I look at stuff like that, that’s why TikTok and all these other faster moving platforms are more important. Because I don’t have to wait a year and a half, two years for somebody to get their shit together, to get a cookbook, to get it through a publisher, to get it pushed out. Or have a legacy restaurant that puts one out, like an Alinea. And then we all get to see what Alinea did seven years ago, but now they’re onto something different. There’s a lot of stuff that’s there that’s missing, and so for me it’s kind of not it anymore.

If you had kids, would you be okay with them going into the industry?

Eric Rivera: No, it’s pointless. This industry will be, I wouldn’t say decimated or gone soon, but who gets to play in it? There’s no future in it. It’s dead. So whatever it’s going to be, you won’t see people who are representing anything sort of positive that will have a long career working as a chef, a cook or anything.

I was a chef for 20 something years, and after the success of my chef career, I am now doing this. A lot of people don’t understand or realize when you say rock star chef, superstar chef, the only thing that’s not a star is your bank account. So you can have all these successful people in all these industries and they can sell out Madison Square Garden, and you have a Gordon Ramsay that gets first rider refusal for every Ferrari that comes out. There’s so many other people that don’t even have anything close to that. That is what kills an industry. That’s a ghost town. And it’s exactly why something like ghost kitchens and robotics and all these other efficiency things and smaller no dining room kitchens for fast casual are proliferating. And on the other end, it’s the one person mascot style thing. You have your Colonel Sanders types, like Salt Bae.

It’s the cult of personality thing we were just talking about. These places are just support for that person, Guy Fieri, that kind of shit. So when you start taking names and spaces and places and people and communities away, and you’re just left with these one man entities, you’re going to end up with nothing.

It’s more like an entree into becoming media personalities.

Eric Rivera: Yeah. F*cking literally go over and say, like, “if you want to get hot in this industry, you got to do a franchise. You got to scale, you got to Mr. Beast burger..”

What does your future look like? Is it a restaurant? What is your plans for the next few years of your career?

Eric Rivera: I have a startup that I’m working on with Emily, The Beet Project, and we’re moving forward on all of that stuff. And so that startup is essentially taking the idea of a lot of stuff that you and I just talked about, instead of going like, “hey, here’s this one person,” it’s finding all these other people, helping them get represented and helping them push their talent out. It’s like a talent farm for cooks.

Like an incubator?

Eric Rivera: More than that, we’re finding specialized talent all the way around, helping develop it and then getting them in the right places and managing the talent, helping them like a talent agency kind of thing. It provides them with mentorship and funding and everything we’re doing that we’ve secured some funding for. We’re moving forward. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily my legacy project, but that’s what I want. That’s what crushes the restaurant industry, and I want to see that. So that’s one. Two, we’re doing dinners, we’re doing the tour stuff. There’s a lot going on.

Would the goal ultimately be to open something?

Eric Rivera: I don’t know. Could be, maybe. I don’t know. The idea of a brick and mortar restaurant isn’t good, and it’s not bad either. But the point of view of what that place is and what is happening there has to change. And that’s what I’m working on now.

So maybe a future after all.

Eric Rivera: Maybe. We’ll see.

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