When we left off our conversation with Fred Eric (Fred 62, Tiara Cafe), the chef was discussing his eating habits. Or lack thereof, as Eric was in the middle of a two-week fast when we interviewed him. A fast is one thing if you're an ascetic in the Mojave, quite another if you're a working chef running a restaurant or two, with food constantly revolving around you. For more on this, as well as a consideration of the actual vs. imagined cost of an ahi tuna salad and the cultural relevance of Jeff Koons, turn the page. And check back later for Eric's recipe for chorizo and roasted poblano pizza; even if the chef hasn't been eating it lately, you certainly could.
Squid Ink: Do you fast a lot? Josiah Citrin [chef-owner of Mélisse] does the same thing.
Fred Eric: Yeah, I'll fast a couple of times a year. It's funny, he does. Same one. Octavio [Beccera, of Palate Food + Wine] does it too. We both did a 90 day one. And once you've done it, you kind of feel so much better.
SI: Well, you guys are surrounded by food so much of the time. It must be good to take a break from it.
FE: Yeah, that's the other thing. You're so used to putting so much stuff in your body. And then once you're putting it in, you're like, Oh, bacon fat! Didn't kill me; I guess I'll have some more. And it's horrible. I thought it would be funny to do a — not literally, more like a Saturday night joke — show of all these chefs. Oh, Wolfgang, so what's your most popular dish? Oh, my chicken salad. How many restaurants do you sell that in? Oh, 40. How many do you serve a day? 400. And for how many years… And then you show how many chickens had to die. And you see the Queen Mary loaded with chickens. So indirectly, you're responsible for the death of like 8 million chickens. How does that sit in your karmic wheel?
FE: You know another documentary I'd love to do? I'd like to buy a Jack-in-the-Box or a McDonald's and then show and then film how the product comes in. Here's our menu, we make all these little things, and then show what would happen if you actually had to make them. We're going to make everything there: this buns we made, this meat we ground, and this… you know? And show how big the restaurant would have to be. And how many people you'd need to employ. And then show what actually gets made there. There's something ultra-utilitarian and horrible about what happens and then what you get. Well, duh: how do you think you get that $2 hamburger? What part of the cow didn't they discard to make that hamburger that costs you a dollar?
Five years ago I realized that the economy was totally wrong when I was making an ahi tuna salad and I'm selling it for $9 and I'm thinking, Okay, if I had to sub-contract all this out… How is it than in this city, I can only charge $9 and yet someone is out there fishing this stuff, catching, killing, cleaning, transporting it to LA, someone else buys it, holds it, sells it to me, and every product on that plate that's happening to. All that product, all that fuel. It doesn't make sense.
SI: Yeah, and who's doing the carbon footprint for all the trucks — and all the food trucks.
FE: It just seems like there's some economy there that's being massaged. It makes no sense. I mean, it should cost like $50 for that salad. You should be able to order it like once a month. Once a year on your birthday. Simple inventory. How many tunas are there out there? There's got to be some movie made. Humans can only be allowed to consume X amount of tuna a year, and if it goes beyond that, the people who are trying to sell them are taxed more.
SI: That sounds very Margaret Atwood.
FE: It might scare people too much. But maybe it should. When I got out of high school, I went to the Rural Education Center, which ended up being Stonyfield Farms in Vermont. There was a little room where we made yoghurt. The point is that I went to make cakes, and Samuel Kaymen said, Fred, that's a lot of butter. You know, if you had to milk the cows to make that butter you know how many days it would take, how many cows you'd have to milk… And it really sunk in.
SI: So to circle back, you worked for Joachim Splichal way back when.
FE: Yeah, I worked at Max Au Triangle. His restaurant that he opened in Beverly Hills that failed. And then I lived at Patina, I was the pastry chef at Patina.
SI: And how did you get into cooking in the first place? We go backwards.
FE: I got out of high school and I went to art school in San Francisco. And my idea was that I was going to study multi-media and anthropology. Because there was that whole Iran problem, and the idea was to go to cultures in the world that Americans didn't understand and present them in multi-media ways, and have them understand them sympathetically. That was the idea. And then I went there and I was like, I don't know anything. I'm a middle-class white kid. What do I have to say? This is ridiculous.
So I went to a Buddhist monastery. And I thought, okay, if I learn how to meditate, I'll be able to at least find out if I have anything worth saying. And then while I was doing that — I went to a Waldorf school as a kid — I was reading some Goethe, The Metamorphosis, and about plant life, and I realized that if I learned how to watch plant life, I would have a better sense of seed-to-flower, that I would understand life better. And if I understood life, then I could make a decision on something. So I went to work with Alan Chadwick, who was this biodynamic French farmer guy, and he passed away, so I went to work with Alan York, who was a biodynamic winemaker. So I was learning how to organic farm. But at the time the only people who cared about that were vitamin stores.
SI: Big granola emporiums.
FE: So I was like, okay, I'm never going to make any money and this is a really bad idea. But I now know how to grow vegetables. What if I learn how to cook? I knew what good produce was. And then I came back to L.A. I wanted to work with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse — but I didn't. I probably should have. As much as I like the idea, I was also committed to having a little bit of fun. I had too many ideas. I should have been really pragmatic: I Want To Grow Vegetables. Every step of the way, I was just like, Oh yeah, but there's David Bowie. Wait a second. How can I do that when there's people like Jeff Koons around? I just couldn't be that dogmatic or serious about it.