A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Eric LeVine worked under celebrity chef David Burke at the River Café and with Chef Jean-Louis Le Massion from Le Petite Café in France, Chef Giovanni Brunell at Il Tratattoire da Familia in Italy, and Master Chef Lee Ho of Otani from Japan. LeVine served as Chef de Cuisine at the Marriott Marquis in New York City. The James Beard Foundation nominated him for Outstanding Chef of Year and he was invited for the third time to host a dinner at the James Beard House in New York for the Great Regional Chefs of America Series, the first catering chef to be given this opportunity. The International Chef’s Association named him Creative Caterer of the Year and Chef of the Year – the only American chef to receive that distinction. In 2011, he become the Food Network’s “Chopped” champion. The author of two cookbooks, LeVine owns two New Jersey restaurants, Morris Tap & Grill and Paragon Tap & Table.
Why did you feel drawn to a career in the restaurant industry?
The kitchen was always a place for me, it’s in my DNA. I started cooking in restaurants in Brooklyn as a kid at 11. I always had a passion to cook, my grandmother was an amazing cook and you could see it every day in everything she cooked. She had that love in everything she made. Her cooking brought me comfort. I always knew that I could make an impact in the food industry by my hunger to continue to learn and educate myself on trends and new ideas to build from. I always strive for more. Today, I’m proud to say have I own two restaurants, Morris Tap & Grill and Paragon Tap & Table, a ravioli company and authored two cookbooks.
How do you define casual dining and what are some trends you are seeing on the horizon?
A consistent dining experience with great food and amazing flavor but food that is familiar. I see people being more interested in where food is sourced from. People are much more food savvy than ever before. I also see the fast casual concepts continue to take over the market place.
Why do you feel local sourcing is crucial to your menu and customers?
As a local business owner I want to support other businesses in the area. I also get inspired by fresh produce when creating my menus. At both my restaurants, we use as much local as we can. We work hand-in-hand with our hydro farm “Happy Harvest” which is just down the road from us. Vegan options are also an integral part of my menus and menu development. I went vegan for a while and it was the greatest/worst experience of my life. Going out for dinner was the worst. All that was offered was steamed vegetables and rice, or pasta with vegetables and marinara. I didn’t want my vegan customers experiencing the same thing. So I developed constant changing vegan items as one of the foundations of my menus all the time.
Why do you feel it’s important to meet with every diner? When and why did you start this? What do you learn from these interactions?
I started doing this really when I was younger in my career. It was something that was natural, easy to do, I wanted to hear from my customers directly. Not everyone on the staff is willing to share negative responses. Not being able to know my customers’ real feedback is something I would miss to make myself and my team better. At Morris Tap & Grill as well as Paragon Tap & Table, I find it an important part of our customers dining experience to interact with customers. For me it’s a way of getting instant feedback or criticism from my customers, it also develops trust and a strong relationship with our community and patrons.
In what ways do you motivate your staff?
My team is family. They are the engines that make it happen every day. We have a family-oriented environment. I also educate my staff on the menu. Before we have a new menu roll out, we all dine together and have a family-style tasting of everything. That way they are empowered with knowledge when they are on the front lines.
What are some challenges you see facing the restaurant industry?
The biggest challenge is the talent pool. The drive to be in the business is lost on the youth. They are so tuned to cell phones, Netflix, twitter and other distracting things from being a hard worker and building a culinary career. Many times, I’ve noticed the hard work required to be successful in the industry is lacking. It’s a very tough thing when, as a restaurant owner, you strive daily to provide an amazing dining experience.
What was your biggest career challenge?
Getting off the line and into my business as it grows. My days used to be 90 percent on the line 10 percent doing paper work or things other than cooking. Now it’s more focused on developing dishes, creating and training my team to be an extension of me. They have to be me so my customers never see a difference as we continue to grow into our next restaurant and concept. It’s not easy since my cooking and plating is very specific, and hard to replicate consistently. It’s a daily thing struggle since I know I am more successful because of my teams in the kitchen and in the dining room, no question about that.
Where do you see your career in five and 10 years?
I focus on now, today, this moment. The reality is that life moves so fast and to commit to that far away is a hard thing. I have goals but it’s all predicated on this moment and how I do things now to be better tomorrow.
What advice do you have for someone entering the industry?
Find a mentor. Someone who you have great respect for in the industry. Find someone who has a similar drive and passion as you do.