Janet Fletcher: Let’s start with your upbringing in Michigan.
Erik Cosselmon: I was born in Flint, and then we moved out to the country, to Grand Blanc, where I spent a large part of my childhood. We had a small farm. My father was a bit of a hippie, or wanted to be. We raised chickens, ducks, geese, and rabbits, and every year we had a big garden.
JF: What was food like at your family table?
EC: My mother had her schedule of what she cooked. It was all substantial, but nothing stands out. My father was more of a gourmet. He had cookbooks from all over the world, and he would invite people over for Chinese food or bouillabaisse. He taught me how to make omelets and how to use a knife. He used to make goose for Christmas, and one year he put the goose in the oven, went outside to work on his boat, and burned the kitchen down.
JF: Literally? Your mother must have been happy about that.
EC: It was completely destroyed. The whole house was full of smoke.
JF: Do you recall when you made the decision that cooking was what you wanted to do?
EC: I decided when I was nine or ten. When I finished high school, I moved to New York City and stayed with my uncle. I had gone through the restaurant listings in the back of Gourmet magazine and circled the ones I wanted to apply to. Each one sent me to another, until I ended up at Tavern on the Green, which wasn’t the best restaurant in New York, but it was something. The chef said, “Show up tomorrow at 6:00 a.m. and we’ll do a tryout.”
JF: Do you recall the tryout?
EC: Yeah. I’m all excited. I walk in. I’ve got my little chef’s knife. He gets me a cutting board and goes into the walk-in and comes out with this fifty-gallon trash can with a lid on it. He rolls it up to the counter, opens it, and it’s full of onions, big onions. He’s like, okay, dice these. I said, how many? He goes, all of them. That was my first job. I was there for two years.
JF: That was the heyday of Tavern on the Green. They must have done a huge volume.
EC: We would do three- to four thousand brunches on weekends, and upwards of four hundred and fifty just for pre-theater dinner. It was crazy.
JF: Well, the place is gone now so you can speak freely. What was it like back in that kitchen?
EC: It makes anything I do now look easy. We had one guy that just made butter curls and picked parsley all day.
The chef helped set up a three-month stage for me at La Bonne Auberge in Moustiers, France. The kitchen staff there was like a family. We would do lunch service, then prep for dinner, then take a break. When we came back to work, we all sat down in the staff room and had an early dinner. The waiters would smoke cigarettes and play cards and drink coffee, and we would clean mushrooms or whatever. Then we’d start dinner service. I miss that here in the States. It’s not such a team. We have to go, go, go.
JF: After France, you got a job at Le Bernardin. How did that experience affect you?
EC: It was just so simple, and it relied on the purest, freshest ingredients. If it wasn’t absolutely perfect, they wouldn’t even consider it. We would get scallops and shuck them and make a consommé with them. The chef would slice more scallops to order and put them in the bowl, and they would still be moving. Then he would pour the hot consommé over them, with butter and chives, and that was it. Doing as little as possible to the ingredients was important.
JF: What advice would you give to other young cooking school grads about how to structure those early years of a career?
EC: Don’t get too comfortable. Try on a lot of different cuisines. Work with a lot of chefs. If you work for somebody who really doesn’t care, you need to move on, because it’s all about the passion. If that’s not there, you’re not going to have a good experience.