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Group Dynamics

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A culinary director helps lead and empower chefs across multiple concepts.

By Amelia Levin June 2015 Chef Profiles

As independent restaurant groups take the country’s food-focused cities by storm, many executive chefs have become culinary managers, overseeing the menu, systems, and team for multiple restaurant concepts. That includes John “Johnnie” Anderson, the former executive chef of Eschelon Experiences’ Mura, who rose to culinary director for the entire Raleigh, North Carolina–based independent restaurant group when he was just 31 years of age.

“It’s been great getting the chance to grow from within the company,” says the Burlington, North Carolina, native, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona. Chef Anderson clocked time in the kitchens at upscale eateries in the Raleigh market including French enclave Margaux’s, Herons at The Umstead Hotel and Spa, and Brier Creek Country Club prior to joining Mura, Eschelon’s first restaurant, a sushi-Japanese concept that opened in 2007 in Raleigh’s revitalized North Hills neighborhood.

The group now has six concepts, each with a very distinctive, elevated menu and a highly skilled head chef. Rather than dictate the dishes for each restaurant, Chef Anderson takes a mentoring role, helping to facilitate brainstorming sessions throughout the group and define the vision of each restaurant without becoming a micromanager.

“One of the best things about our company is that we give all the great chefs we hire [the opportunity] to create their own, creative menus,” says Chef Anderson, who empowers each chef with plenty of autonomy as long as what they plan is grounded in the concept. “The chefs and I talk more about the vision than the actual ingredients. I wouldn’t tell a sculptor what to sculpt, but I might push the artist in the right direction.”

For example, at the recently opened Basan—a contemporary sushi and Japanese restaurant, and Eschelon Experiences’ first location outside Raleigh, in neighboring Durham—Chef Anderson worked with San Francisco master sushi chef Toshio Sakamaki around his particular style.

“We were going for West Coast–style sushi, which is lighter and cleaner and more about the freshness of the food than fried food and cream cheese and soy sauce,” Chef Anderson says. “The further West you go and when you get to Japan, everything is about the fish; there’s none of the fried stuff.”

Chef Anderson, a trained sushi chef himself who formerly headed the hot kitchen side at Mura, brought his ideas for that heartier balance to the menu. This includes playful takes on traditional Japanese dishes in the form of tsukune ramen with chicken meatballs and yuzu aioli; Ishiyake beef, or sliced Black Angus steak cooked tableside on a hot stone; and karaage, a sweet and spicy Japanese-style fried chicken.

For his part, Chef Sakamaki says he appreciated the help from Chef Anderson and the ease of the working relationship. “Johnnie really helped advise me how to create the menu and manage the restaurant,” he says. “If you work in a larger group, you get really great support from other chefs and managers, and it’s a very organized system.”

The pair worked together closely to design and build a new type of sushi restaurant that would make it easier for hot kitchen and sushi chefs to work together when plating. “Most sushi restaurants have a sushi bar and hot kitchen that aren’t connected so there’s little communication between both sides,” Chef Anderson says. “We set up Basan as a rectangle with the sushi bar still out front but backing up to a wide open hot kitchen separated by a table to plate dishes from both sides.”

Chef Anderson’s greatest challenge—in both menu and design—came with the dual openings of Basan and Faire Steak & Seafood within just a few weeks of one another, though this was not on purpose, he notes. Faire opened in October, followed by Basan in January. Construction challenges delayed the opening of Faire, a 6,000-square-foot space with a large kitchen, lounge, dining room, and private-dining enclave.

A play on the French word meaning to take action or to make, the name Faire is also a tribute to the North Carolina State Fair, which has been held annually for more than 150 years and is located just a few miles from the restaurant. Faire was conceptualized to be a chef-driven, modern steakhouse that’s anything but the stuffy, dark “old boy’s club” of years past.

“We wanted to focus more on food from-scratch and make it a nice place where you can feel comfortable coming in for a business meeting or for a casual dinner and drinks,” says Chef Anderson, who worked with Faire head chef Christopher Hill to bring that vision to the menu. “It’s not just about the hunk of meat on the plate; we think about every detail of the menu,” Chef Anderson says. “We have allowed our chefs to be imaginative.”

A classic example is the bread and butter: an eggplant-infused loaf baked fresh, in-house, and served with butter that has been cold-smoked in a combi-oven, which happens to be Anderson’s favorite multi-use equipment as of late.

The beef still takes center-of-the-plate attention at Faire, and for good reason, coming from a local farm on the outskirts of Charlotte. “As far as I know we’re the only restaurant in North Carolina exclusively using this beef,” Chef Anderson says, adding the group has found that their guests increasingly appreciate local sourcing because it keeps dollars closer to home and the local farms bring quality product.

Though he doesn’t want to micromanage Eschelon chefs and their choice of specific ingredients, Chef Anderson does help them find these specialty suppliers and he helps the group achieve economies of scale with the larger food and broadline suppliers. However, the local, smaller suppliers can present challenges when it comes to supply and demand—and Chef Anderson steps in to assist.

“If we get to the point where our volume is too high, we will find a secondary supplier that meets our standards,” Chef Anderson says, adding as an example that the restaurant only uses beef raised humanely without the use of hormones and daily antibiotics.

He also helped the Faire team build their supply of herbs by working with the horticulture department at North Carolina State University to grow microgreens in the restaurant. The micro cilantro, sorrel, fennel, and other sprouting herbs are grown in trays on wire racks outfitted with special lights and set up near the back door of the restaurant to prevent any potential garden pests from entering the main kitchen. All the cooks chip in to help maintain the microgreens, using them for garnishes, salads, pesto, and other sauces.

Chef Hill has rave reviews of working alongside Chef Anderson, noting, “He is the most level-headed chef I have worked with, and he really listens to you and helps guide you to make the right decisions while demanding exceptional results. If he says he will be there to help out, he’s there 15 minutes early.”

Aside from creative direction and kitchen design, a huge part of Chef Anderson’s job revolves around accountability and helping the chefs stay on track with their numbers. After many years of closely monitoring finances and food costing, he has developed cost-monitoring formulas and spreadsheets that help his busy chefs stay on track with menu development, purchasing, and inventory management. The goals are to hit the defined percentages around profit per plate and compare total purchases with in-store inventory to determine more accurately which types of dishes sell and which don’t.

“One of the things that makes a restaurant profitable is knowing where money goes, because profit margins are slim,” Chef Anderson explains.

However, he adds, success starts with finding great chef talent who already have a competent grasp on food costing, menuing, interviewing, and recruiting their own teams. But proper training is the other part of the equation. During openings, Chef Anderson will spend more time at the new restaurant, helping train staff and instill the group’s systems and culture in the new team.

Our culture is defined by our core values—integrity, passion, quality, and innovation—and the culture has two parts, family and a sense of ownership,” he says. “I consider the people I work with and who influence my growth and ideas as my family. If you ask our employees, they will tell you they feel similarly and they genuinely care about each other—as we do about them. The ownership part of it is something we [instill] through training and our bonus system. By being transparent with our financial information, our employees are able to see how they can improve themselves and [impact] aspects of the restaurant.”