Chef Eve Aronoff: The Woman of Flavors

I was very fortunate to interview Eve Aronoff, a well-regarded chef who owns two restaurants: eve (seasonally-driven fine dining), and Frita Batidos (very casual, Cuban-inspired). She has appeared as a contestant on Top Chef, been invited to cook at the James Beard Foundation, and studied at Le Cordon Bleu. However, Eve is remarkably down-to-earth and does not take herself too seriously, always friendly and smiling when you see her in person. Here is our conversation from online interviews.

-Can you talk about your earliest recollections of cooking? What feelings did it evoke in you?
Sneaking tastes (equal to a meal in tastes) while my Mom cooked — she always warned me that I would ruin my appetite but I never once did! A feeling of abundance with the food spread on the table; rarely fancy but delicious, savory, made with a lot of love. Though it sounds cheesy you could taste it. The feeling of being nurtured.

-Can you talk a little bit more about your approach to cooking? I don’t mean the techniques, etc., but do you visualize what you cook, or have a kinesthetic sense of it, or an olfactory sense? For example, do you sort of see it like an artist with a palate of different colors? What metaphors do you use?
It is more of an instinct and just really focusing on the flavors, textures, and contrasts; being excited about ingredients as they come in and out of season; and wanting to keep a more organic presentation, which to me is more beautiful than one that is more architectural or orchestrated-looking. Does that make sense?

-Yes! Your restaurants are very accessible, I think. For many eaters it can be intimidating if something is “orchestrated,” as you put it so well. A question about classical technique — it’s something that I am always trying to understand and balance as an artist, how technique intersects with instinct. Because too much technique can kill instinct if we try to do things too perfectly. But at the same time, technique can help make things easier and give us a grounding in the fundamentals of whatever our art is. Did you find that your time at the Cordon Bleu stifled any of your natural cooking impulses? Or, did learning classical techniques allow you to go further?
I think my time in Paris at LCB was inspiring mostly from being in Paris and experiencing how central food is to culture there. I spent most of my time walking around Paris:  going to different ethnic eateries, outdoor markets (especially the North African market), pastry and cheese and charcuterie shops. I have always evolved the most from being around or even reading about cultures I am drawn to rather than learning in an official scholastic setting. Wandering around Cuban neighborhoods in Miami or going to the North African market in Paris or even reading about the history of Cuban culture and cuisine. Or reading Camus when I majored in comparative literature at Brandeis.
So being in school in Paris was educational, but more transformative was the time I spent there. I do think I refined some of my technique and presentation so I could balance that with the big bold flavors I have always been drawn to. From that I really developed my personal style as a chef — balancing complex, bold flavors paired with a very bright, cool, or refreshing contrast to create a harmony and bring out the best of both.
For me I think it is a good foundation or underpinning that can elevate your natural, more raw instincts and intuition. But if you rely on it too much to drive you, or [use it] instead of that intuition, you can lose the soul of what you are doing. If I cook that way it doesn’t taste good.

-Very interesting! It is so important not to lose the soul of what we do!
Yes, that’s the most important thing, I think. Knowledge, organization, etc. all augment what you can do artistically, but over-thinking things in a self-conscious way just tends to ruin things or at least takes a lot away when you are trying to create something special. You will never do it as well as when you are free-spirited.

-Very well said. I know it is easy to become very self-conscious, especially in the beginning stages of one’s arts career. What are your thoughts on molecular gastronomy, which really seems to push the limits in terms of food and creativity? Some marvel in this, whereas others think it’s very gimmicky.
I’m not personally drawn to molecular gastronomy to be honest, though I think it is pretty technically amazing. I don’t feel the same soul in molecular gastronomy from what I have seen/experienced, with the exception of Ferran Adrià. I feel like from there, a lot of the realness gets lost (on me at least). Also when I eat food like that, it is more of an interesting experience compared to a fulfilling one, and I usually end up ordering a pizza afterwards!

-Those dainty little dishes on a huge white plate leave us hungry and wanting pizza!

– Given the theme of this blog, I wanted to know — what are your experiences as a female chef? Is it a profession in which gender has played any impact, or is cooking a profession that transcends gender?
-I have always heard it can be a challenge to be a female chef, but in my personal experience I haven’t found it to be a major issue. I have always kind of tried to not focus on that and focus on just learning skills, so I could cook side by side with other people, whether they were male or female. Just focusing on the food, textures, and contrasts, and striving to create something delicious. Where I have encountered more bias has been in the business side of things in meetings. For example, where it seemed sometimes people may respond to you being passionate or particular as a challenge, and let it go if a male is communicating with equal or more passion, attention to detail, or sensitivity. Or sometimes people perceive you as the “creative type” without giving respect to the business aspect of what you have worked hard to learn/achieve. I have tried to handle that with being straightforward and having open communication, and that has sometimes seemed to ease the situations.

-Are there any famous women chefs you have worked with or met? Julia Child, Alice Waters, Gabrielle Hamilton, others?
Alice Waters has been very inspirational to me since I was little. We did a special dinner for the Agrarian Adventure modeled after her edible schoolyards, and she was the guest of honor, which was very exciting. I paired up with Takashi Yagihashi [of Takashi and Okada and Slurping Turtle fame] to do that dinner at the original [location of my restaurant] eve the first year we were opening, and it was a pretty transformational experience for me. It kind of opened my eyes to the community of cooking together with other chefs, especially for things we value and care about.

-So you don’t mind collaborating with other chefs?
I love to. I have grown to love to from that experience. Community means more to me than almost anything within the restaurant, and that expands it and brings people together to create something that is more multi-dimensional and often for a cause you really care about. It is very dynamic/thought-provoking working with other chefs.

-What strikes me is that your philosophy to cooking is very open and about learning, not ego-driven.
Yes, I have a lot of aspirations but I am not very competitive at all: that is one of the reasons why I think I did such a poor job on “Top Chef.” I had never seen the show and they approached me to participate. But really that was the only time I was doing self-conscious vs. free-spirited cooking and it just didn’t feel right or natural — and it was the worst job I’ve ever done at anything. So I just learned I love and thrive on real-life challenges, but not ones that feel orchestrated.

-I absolutely love Top Chef, but I can’t imagine having to cook under that kind of pressure. It seems like some wonderful, talented chefs just get booted for no reason.
I love real life pressure/challenges and I think, for me, those are even more intense, but are organic and, for me, can still be handled naturally. It just didn’t feel like it [the show] was about what I care about personally. (That’s what I was thinking about above when we were talking about losing the soul of the food.) I don’t think competition brings out the most delicious, soulful food but I learned a lot about myself from that experience, which is always good.

-What gave you the courage to pursue your career of being a chef? I was so scared and shy of going into the arts that I tried everything I could to avoid it, like spending many years in academia! But I couldn’t avoid it, because my heart was really in the arts.
That’s interesting. I could see that, but for me it was just what I cared about and was interested in and felt driven to do. So I didn’t really question it — if I had I might not have done it. I don’t know why in retrospect, but I thought I could open a restaurant. I wasn’t independently wealthy (I had NO money), but I kept looking at spaces, talking to bankers, working on my business plan whenever I wasn’t working etc…and finally all of the pieces came together to open eve, my restaurant. I really don’t know why I didn’t question things like that, or being a woman in a “male-dominated” industry, but I didn’t and I think those things have served me well. Maybe it goes back to things going better when you do them naturally — still with a lot of strategic thought but not as much questioning why/ability etc.?

-I think ultimately that is the best way, to be driven from the heart and soul instead of worrying too much about the externals.
When I went to school, my dad (who is a professor) told me to just expose myself to as many experiences as possible and find what I truly enjoyed doing and that is what I would be best at. He recommended going to lectures, etc…but for me, when I started cooking for spending money in college, I just fell head over heels in love with it and knew right away I wanted to open a restaurant. You must be very brave to pursue your art if you actually do question it – that takes a lot more bravery, I think, Sonja! I would have thought, “OMG what? Why/how can I do this? Okay, forget it…”
My parents, thank goodness, were very open-minded about me doing whatever I really was passionate about and I think that helped a LOT.

-It does really make a difference with parental support.
I have friends whose parents had a lot of preconceived notions about what careers are appropriate/suitable and that was really challenging for them personally. This has been such a fun conversation!

-What other creative outlets do you have?
I am in love with design and architecture. When I became ultimately debilitated by my back injury for an extended period of time, I was considering applying to the school of Art and Architecture at U of M. (There are so many creative facets within a restaurant, though, that it is pretty consuming/satisfying/fulfilling).

-Cooking is only one part of the equation when you run a restaurant. (Or for that matter, when one is a professional artist, one has to manage the business and career side of things.) You have two, and both are very successful — not to mention delicious! Can you talk a little bit about the business and professional side of things?
That is very nice, thank you, Sonja. I have learned a lot over a long period of time and developed skills in areas in which I was pretty deficient, which feels pretty empowering. I touched on this above because it is why the restaurant industry is so satisfying and exciting to me. What I love about the restaurant industry is how multi-faceted it is.
I love being able to constantly learn and evolve, whether in the areas of business/finance, developing my management style and our culture and personal philosophy, overcoming my shyness. Also focusing on design and having the design echo the texture and contrast of the food by striving to create a backdrop, rather than an overly “designed space.” So the contrast that is in my cooking is echoed when the people, food, spices, and music fill up the backdrop of the composition.

– One last question: what is your favorite junk or fast/casual food? Julia Child loved Fritos and peanut butter!
I have several, but I love pizza, bi bim bop, and Oreos to name a few! I have more — I am like the least elitist person in the world about food. I just love things that taste delicious to me, and I don’t think you judge junk food as a treat the way you would a Michelin starred restaurant. It is just a tasty snack but still tastes really good once in a while. I eat plenty of wholesome food, but everyone needs treats once in a while. What about yours, may I ask?

-I do love Oreos, pizza (but that can be healthy, right?) Ooh, mac and cheese from a box. I am a foodie and that is my guilty pleasure! Anything with orange cheese flavor on it is included!
OMG that was my favorite in high school — Kraft Mac and Cheese and better mac and cheese just does not taste better when that is what you are craving right?!

 -Any form of mac and cheese is really good, I must say!            TRUE! I should get back out there [to the restaurant].

-Have a great evening!                                                                               Likewise. Thanks for a great conversation and for thinking of me for this!

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