By Matthew Hacke | Photographs from Christina Emilie Photography
When Eric Wallace, the new executive chef of Monterey Bay Fish Grotto, took charge in the kitchen in June, the restaurant wasn’t new territory for him. “Twenty years ago, my first kitchen was Monterey Bay in Monroeville,” he says. With an impressive résumé stemming from stints at local hot spots, such as Casbah, Soba, and Kaya, to traveling the world while working under renowned chef Lidia Bastianich, Wallace comes prepared with both the experience and drive. It’s also a plus that fish is his expertise and favorite thing to work on in the kitchen. “As long as I have my hands in fish, I’m happy,” he says. We chatted with the super chef and discovered more about his passion and plans for the kitchen.
Can you talk a little bit about your background and where your culinary curiosity comes from?
I grew up in a little town called Pitcairn. Food was really big in my life and still is. Sundays for me are about eating with my family. It’s a big deal. My dad will start texting me on Friday saying, ‘Hey, what are we cooking for Sunday? What are you feeling?’ And on Sunday, come 5 or 6 o’clock, we sit down, catch up, laugh, and eat! Growing up, my family had, in addition to their 9-to-5 jobs, a pizzeria, as well as catering. We’re also Serbian, so we roasted a lot of lambs, pigs — you name it. So, that sort of catapulted me into my college years. College, I knew, wasn’t for me. I always wanted to be in a kitchen.
Well, you clearly have quite the résumé in the kitchen!
[laughs] Thanks! I started working at Monterey Bay in Monroeville. I was there for about six months. And then right at that time, big Burrito [Restaurant Group] was blossoming. It was one of those things where I wanted to be in it. So I moved to the city and started working at Soba, six months later I was a sous chef at Casbah, and that transferred me to Kaya. Then, I worked in some little independent eateries in the city and left food for a short time. Also, in that duration, I was with Chef Lidia Bastianich. I got to travel with her, doing her book signings, and working with her on her TV show. That really gave me a lot of privilege to see things that the average chef doesn’t get to experience. Things that people read about in magazines — like going to Venice, Milan, and her winery in Italy. So, I was pretty privileged. I worked with them for about three years. From there, I took a step back and went corporate. I went to Giant Eagle, and I was their food and beverage director for a year. I was taking care of their Market Districts — at the time, they were starting to grow that brand. I worked for the Penguins for almost three years with Aramark. Next, I landed in a spot where I was working on my own projects, and I was kind of moonlighting everywhere and doing stuff. Then, I jumped into a sales position and I was selling fish for about three years. I loved that! It gave me a great opportunity to kind of keep a foot in the door with all of my colleagues and sell fish, which I love. Towards the end of that duration, chef and consultant Kevin Sousa approached me, and he said, ‘Hey, I think I may have an opportunity for you [to be the executive chef at Monterey Bay].’ That was in June, so from there it has just been onward and upward!
How did you approach the menu when you first arrived?
I came in and I had these grand ideas of conquering Grandview Avenue! In my head, it was a revision because Monterey Bay is so beloved by its diners, people come here for anniversaries, huge celebrations, and life events, in addition to regular diners. So knowing that, it took two months for us to really start to look at how we wanted to change the menu because it has been in existence for 20 years. You don’t come in and just tip the ship over. I focused on really showcasing the incredible ingredients that we have access to — some of the best sustainable seafood in the country, top-quality locally sourced ingredients, and unique imported ingredients as well. We are fortunate to have an ownership and management here whose mission is always quality first. The menu is an homage to the restaurant’s most loved dishes. We even have a whole section of the new menu dedicated to the famous crab cakes and various luxe preparations of the dish as a new addition, as well as an introduction to my world view of food, seafood specifically. The whole menu change process took about six months.
So, which dishes did you change or refine on the menu?
It’s taking things that work and asking ourselves, ‘What do people come here for?’ What is our Big Mac?’ Our crab cake is very popular — it’s our Big Mac here. I go through more crab than anybody in the city. It’s looking at that and recognizing, ‘OK what’s happening out there with fantastic restaurants like Station, Stagioni, and Dish? What are they creating and how do we complement that to the city?’ So, that’s what we’re doing. As far as what’s new on the menu, we have a lot of the classics just done a little bit more relevant to the time. So, we’re doing craft cocktails and oysters. We’re doing a gin and tonic iced. A lot of raw fish. We’re doing a lot of smoked salmon. The first menu overhaul was hard because it was such a drastic change from what the populous knew. Right now, what we’re seeing is à la carte coming back and it’s particularly strong for us with the renovation change — and our banquet business is through the roof!
What is your favorite thing to make on the menu?
Fish, I think, just overall. I’ve always been drawn to it and I don’t know if it’s from growing up in a landlocked part of the state, but it was one of those things that just fascinated me as a kid. I loved to go to Wholey’s and see these things that I’d never known existed. In regards to the restaurant, I cut fish every day and I love it. I get to bring it in, smell it, look at it, and taste it. We source it from really great people, so it doesn’t smell like fish — it’s sweet, like the ocean. And having sold fish for the company that I buy it from now gave me that insight into really knowing that I’m getting the best. I love seafood. It’s one of those things that you have to be delicate with and know what you’re doing. You have to have the assertiveness to take the dish and build it, and then, you have to be gentle with it like a baby because you’re not dealing with a steak. You’re not dealing with a land animal that you could slap on a cutting board and hack away at with a knife. This requires a lot of intricacy and skill and knife work and that’s what I like. I’m detail-driven.
So, what can we ultimately expect from you at Monterey Bay in 2017?
The best possible fish. Period. Having been in so many food-related facets and having sold fish for three years, I have that inside track on what’s available, what’s fresh. You’re going to see a couple of specialty things coming up. I’m working with a few guys from Cleveland that may be coming in to do some special dinners and then vice-versa.
Monterey Bay Fish Grotto, 1411 Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington. 412.481.4414. montereybayfishgrotto.com