Portrait of a Chef
Bayou Eats takes a voyage to good food with Chef Eric Johnson and Company, home of Foodie Friends, Lavish Lunches, and a…murder?
ARTICLE BY MICHAEL DEVAULT & PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARTIN G MEYERS
Eric Johnson has come a long way since he was a small child at his mother’s side, watching her cook in the kitchen. Over thirty years, though, not a lot has changed. She’s still there, beside him at the counter, only this time, it’s his kitchen and she’s assisting with the preparation of meals at Chef Eric Johnson and Company, the restaurant her son operates on Blanchard Street in West Monroe.
His mother, Patricia, is there every day. “She’s been a huge inspiration and has taught me so much about cooking,” says Johnson, who has studied with some of the biggest names in Louisiana cuisine. “I’m classically trained in Cajun, Creole and French,” says Johnson. He also has experience in Italian and spent time in the Caribbean. All of these experiences flavor the foods he makes daily at his restaurant and for the food delivery service that caters to some 3,000 email and Facebook subscribers. “We do a lot of those kinds of things here.”
The menu at Chef Eric’s changes weekly, though the menu consistently offers a couple of main entrees, a pasta dish or seafood dish, and a number of sides. When BayouLife visited, the menu featured Delmonico chopped steak and a Chicken Pasta a la Carbonara. The Delmonico was rich, hearty and topped with a savory cabernet mushroom sauce that highlighted at once the hearty steak and delicate fried onion rings on top of it. For a side, a five-cheese macaroni bake added a smooth, smoky starch to the plate, which Johnson finished off with lightly poached asparagus spears.
In addition to the rotating menu, Johnson prepares a regular series of offerings, including a burger and Muffaletta. The Muffaletta is served on a grilled ciabatta loaf and loaded to capacity with turkey, ham and salami, topped with provolone cheese, spicy mustard and Chef Eric Johnson and Company’s signature and secret olive mix recipe. For a touch of whimsy, Johnson tosses a few nacho cheese corn chips on the plate, a subtle reminder that food is supposed to be fun.
If Chef Eric seems to enjoy his work, it’s with good reason. He took the long way to a restaurant, something he didn’t set out to build. In fact, when he left high school, he worked a string of manual labor jobs–construction, heavy service and the like. “I went through the school of hard knocks, trying different things. I worked for Entergy, Highlines and Atmos, hung sheet rock, and did roofing work. But I just didn’t enjoy it,” he says. So at 20, he enrolled in culinary school at Delta Ouachita Votech. “During the first year, I was able to go to work at the original New Orleans Café in Washington Plaza,” he says. He rose through the kitchen ranks and, eventually, achieved the post of Executive Chef.
Up next, he spent five years with Chef David Gurlach at Bayou DeSiard. That’s when Chef Eric and his wife decided they wanted to move. Johnson landed a job as executive sous chef at White Oak Plantation, working for celebrity Louisiana chef John Folse. When the historic Louisiana eatery Lafitte’s Landing burned, Folse brought in Steve Zucker to reopen it at Bittersweet Plantation in Donaldsonville. At Lafitte’s Landing, Johnson came into his own. On one particular night, he was cooking when Times-Picayune restaurant critic S.M. Haun showed up. “We all knew what she looked like, had her picture and everything,” he says. “The executive chef took a night off, left me in charge of the shift, and she came in. But we nailed it.”
After Lafitte’s Landing, Johnson and his wife decided to return to Monroe. He returned to town to open the corporate dining facilities at Chase. While working at St. Francis as Executive Chef, he met CenturyLink president Karen Puckett. “That was the catalyst for all of this,” he says. “I started being her personal chef. Then she introduced me to other executives at CenturyLink. I became their personal chefs.”
He started a small email list, outlining menus each week. People would order what they found interesting, he would prepare it, and then he would deliver it. Just like that, Foodie Friends was born. More than 3,000 “friends” later, they decided to build a restaurant on 7th Street in West Monroe. But the old Schlotzki’s Deli location was available, and Johnson saw the potential. “Five years ago, we opened Chef Eric Johnson and Company.”
Today, they open for lunch. They still do Foodie Friends, and they have another trick up their sleeve. A couple of years ago, they became the home of Murder is Served, the murder-mystery dinner theatre troupe started by Steve Munz. Munz passed away during the most recent production–Murder, the Next Generation–but true to show business, his cast was there. The front board, where the menu is normally inscribed, a memorial to Steve, highlighting the dinner theatre’s prominent place in the hearts and minds of Chef Eric Johnson and Company. “It’s a big part of who we are,” he says.
The spacious, open dining room seats 85. An open-air covered patio offers additional seating for forty. The facility is available for banquets, rehearsal dinners and even small weddings. Audio-visual hookups are provided, and Johnson and his crew provide offsite catering, as well.
The meals-to-go service remains a big part of the business model at Chef Eric Johnson and Company, too, and with the holidays around the corner, Johnson is quick to point out they can prepare and deliver entire holiday spreads. Menus for the upcoming week of their Foodie Friends deliveries are distributed Fridays, and Johnson makes two to three deliveries a week. He notes the food is always fresh, never frozen, and is delivered ready-to-serve. For $25-30 a meal, Johnson feeds a family of four. If you’re interested in casseroles, he keeps a stocked selection of fresh and frozen casseroles as well.
The dream of owning a restaurant was a slow one for Johnson. It took time to begin to ferment and grow. Though he always recognized the potential and the goal, he says now is the right time. “I am a little more mature and more calm now. It’s just such a natural thing for me.”