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Eric Cook: “Good Soldiers Make Great Cooks”

Eric Cook trained as a chef at the John Folse Culinary Institute in Thibodaux, Louisiana. His first restaurant, Gris-Gris, has received many accolades including Restaurant of the Year and Chef of the Year in 2018 by Eater New Orleans. Cook has appeared on Top Chef New Orleans and was featured in 2020 on Gordon Ramsay’s Uncharted. A combat veteran who served six years in the United States Marine Corps, Cook founded the First to Fight Foundation, which supports military veterans and their families.

Before I worked in one, I had probably sat in two restaurants my entire life. I wasn’t the kind of kid who wanted to go to restaurants. I was the kind of kid who wanted to be a soldier.

I grew up one town over from New Orleans, and I knew I was going to be a Marine by the time I was nine years old. You can’t enlist that young, so I waited until I was 17. In the meantime I was a typical 70s kid—an athlete, a Star Wars junky, and a class clown who teachers said wasn’t living up to his potential. But I had a plan. My potential wasn’t going to be realized in algebra or college. It was going to be realized as a lifelong soldier.

You know what they say, though, about the best-laid plans. I graduated high school and joined the Marine Corps on the same day. It was exactly what I hoped it would be. The structure and discipline were great for me. Then, after the Gulf War ended, a new president decided to downsize the military only six years into what was supposed to be a lifetime of service.

Like many soldiers at that time, I was honorably discharged. I came back to New Orleans, this time with no plan and a lot of anger.

Eric Cook at Gris-Gris in New Orleans. Photo: Cory Fontenot.

I spent a bunch of months seeing how long I could grow my beard and how much I could drink. Very long and a lot, it turned out. People close to me were worried. We had a lot of tough “what are you doing with your life?” conversations. While I didn’t have an answer, my older sister had an idea. Her husband was friends with someone from the Brennan family, one of New Orleans’ legendary food names. They offered me an entry-level job as a cook.

The thing I liked about the restaurant industry right off the bat was how paramilitary it was. There was structure, chain of command, rank, and camaraderie. It was still pretty violent and vulgar back then, too, and it all kind of reminded me of what I loved in the Marines. After years of “Yes sir!” and “No sir!” it was an easy transition to “Yes chef” and “No chef.”

And there are 18 million veterans like me estimated to be in the U.S. right now! This is an industry made for us. I was just 23 when I started working in restaurants, but I came in trained to be mission oriented and to follow instructions. How many times do you want me to run into that wall? I’ll do it until I knock it down, or until I knock myself out trying.

It was that dedication and my ability to follow leadership that was a big part of me blooming in the industry. For 10 years, I trained under amazing chefs at Brennan’s and then Commander’s Palace. I was an executive chef at a few places, too, as I took the lessons of adaptability and scrappiness I learned as a soldier and scraped and clawed my way up the ladder of New Orleans’ food scene.

I was in my 40s by then, and my wife and sisters saw how hard I was working. I remember they backed me into a corner and basically told me, “You are great. You can do anything you want. You need to start a restaurant.”

So I scraped and clawed some more. My family did the same. My wife would spend nights researching business plans for restaurants. We put one together, and when I’d go to the bar for a drink after work, I’d show it to anyone I could. Maybe they’d have an idea, or—better yet—maybe they’d want to have something to do with it.

Photo: Cory Fontenot.

My wife found this amazing space in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District and told me this was the one. I brought a friend in to check it out, and he confirmed it was a great deal. I had to mortgage my home, which was tough, but then I had to ask my parents if they’d be willing to mortgage their home, as well. Fortunately, they believe in me. “That’s risky,” they said. “Let’s do it.”

Scrape and claw. In 2018, Gris-Gris was born. I love this restaurant we’ve created. I love the family we have put together. I’ve worked with some of these people for years. I love the customers that come in here—the people from the neighborhood who come hang out and eat classic Southern food with us.

That being said, the last two years have been the craziest of my life. I remember March 16, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was just sinking its teeth into New Orleans. I got called to a meeting downtown with a bunch of other food professionals, and they told us, “You’re all closed as of 6am tomorrow for dine-in. Your only option is takeout.”

Takeout was less than 1 perecent of our business, so I called my manager and told him to get the team together in 30 minutes. I had to tell everyone the restaurant was closing, that we were giving everything in our freezer away to front-line workers, and that we had to lay everyone off.

It sucked. I’m not proud this is the decision we had to make. But it was the only decision that made sense. In the military we learned you have to determine what is necessary, you have to protect what you can, and you have to amputate everything else. You have to make the decision quickly. That’s what I was trained to do, but these were some of the shittiest decisions I’ve ever had to make. These were my close friends. We saw each other more than family. They were family. But if I didn’t make these decisions and we didn’t consolidate, there would be no restaurant for any of us to come back to.

This is when people—often people who have never run a business in their lives—tend to make broad statements about how the service industry should pay its workers more and how business owners should take pay cuts so they don’t have to fire staff. They act like restaurant owners live in these opulent homes up on top of the hill. They see crowded restaurants, and they think we’re raking in dough. But most of us mom and pops aren’t like that. We’re struggling to survive, too, but nobody wants to hear that.

The truth is the profit margins in the restaurant industry are so thin there are a lot of times when a manager on the floor makes more money than I do. There is some money to make if everything goes perfectly, but that rarely happens. One broken refrigerator means most of our profit is gone. The last two years, of course, have been much more challenging than a broken refrigerator.

First, we were closed. Worst of all, we were closed during the spring. In New Orleans that means Hogs for the Cause, French Quarter Festival, Jazz Fest, and all of these other celebrations that make this city special, bring in tons of tourists, and keep businesses afloat.

I figured how long our business could stay shuttered before I would lose it, and that date was rapidly approaching. I told my wife, “We’ve got to reopen.” If we were going to lose Gris-Gris, I wanted us to lose it while trying to save it.

There were a lot of new protocols to navigate, and they were constantly changing. But if anyone is equipped to adapt to new protocols, it’s a Marine. It was a reminder that you can’t think too far into the future with a restaurant. If we could open up at 11am the next day, we were a success. One day at a time. Scrape and claw. We were only as good as the experience we provided our most recent customer.

We were open. That was worth celebrating, but that doesn’t mean we had overcome all our challenges. In fact, the next obstacle is one we’re still battling with. And not just us. It seems like every business, regardless of industry, is battling with it. We can’t find enough employees.

Before you say it’s just a matter of paying our staff better, we are. The jobs we were previously paying $12 or $14 per hour are now making $22 per hour. Profit margins further tighten, but we know it’s something we need to do to be competitive. Even after what amounts to a 70 percent increase in payroll, we still can’t find enough workers to open full time. I had to shut down our second restaurant, Saint John, for lunch, and it took us 18 months to get Mondays back on the schedule at Gris-Gris. It’s not a matter of not having customers. If we’re open, the customers are there. We just can’t push our small team that hard.

Where’d the hires go? Well, for starters, New Orleans is a transient town. When the city and everything that makes it so special shut down, I think a lot of people went back home. Hopefully they’ll start to come back now as festivals have returned.

I also think a lot of people formerly in the service industry have found other work—maybe something they can do from home at their computers, and certainly something that doesn’t require them to be on their feet as much as working in a restaurant. We can increase pay to some extent, but restaurant work will never not be hard.

We’re trying to adjust. We’re receiving a lot more applicants at management level, so rather than having eight hourly cooks and two salaried chefs, we now have five salaried chefs and three hourly cooks. It’s more expensive, but it’s helping. Still, we have a long way to go until we’re fully staffed and open full time.

If you’re watching the news, you know payroll isn’t the only increasing cost. The country is facing an historic level of inflation we haven’t seen since the 1980s. It wasn’t that long ago I made a joke that a case of romaine lettuce was going to be $70 pretty soon. When I made the joke, the price had risen to a now-modest $38. Four days later it was $64. Our supplier’s advice was to leave it off the menu for the time being. How can a restaurant leave romaine lettuce off of its menu?!

The price of everything in the kitchen is going up and, because of staff shortages, we can’t stay open enough hours to make that money back. I’ve only just started to finally raise the prices of some things on our menu. But I can’t push it too far. Inflation is hurting our customers, too, and we take pride in being an affordable place for the neighborhood to eat.

Is there a solution? The truth is running a small restaurant for a profit is like landing a spaceship on the moon in even the best of times. So why do it then, you might be wondering. The simple answer is I don’t have a Plan B. If I’m being honest, I don’t want a Plan B. I can’t sit in a cubicle. I can barely type. If I can’t keep my restaurants open, at least I know everyone else is hiring and—not to brag—but I’m a pretty good cook.

But I’m not giving up that easily. We’re looking at everything. Where can we save money and drive up revenue? Do we really need that many vodkas on our menu, or a $20,000 wine list? How do we make more hires? How do we make our kitchen a more desirable place to work? Because you can’t get away with a lot of the more toxic stuff you could when I was first coming up.

Restaurants don’t ever “win” the way armies can win a war. There’s no ticker-tape parade when you have a good night. But if we can open tomorrow at 11am, that’s a success worth celebrating. Scrape and crawl one day at a time.

And I’m not the only one who thinks like that. Forty percent of my staff are veterans, and they’re fast learners and amazing at what they do.

Some people worry that hiring veterans will come with a host of problems and mental health issues. That hasn’t been my experience. In 2022, coming out of the pandemic, it feels like the whole fucking world has PTSD. You’ve got a lot of shell-shocked people out there. But veterans have been through crises worse than this, and they know how to work as a team in a high-stress situation, and how to stay mission-oriented during a crisis. The skills I learned as a soldier helped me launch my career and helped me keep my restaurant during the pandemic, open another, and even plan for a third.

There are hundreds of thousands of veterans with many of these same skills applying for a restaurant job right now. Give them a chance. Good soldiers make great cooks.