Interviews: Chef Eric Ehler of Black Sands

What were you envisioning when designing the Black Sands menu? Share with us your process and its evolution.

Ultimately delicious food that goes well with cocktails, something that is approachable to the neighborhood, and is enjoyable with beer. I never wanted the menu to be “mine” or something that chefs only would eat.  I really spent time asking neighbors and people in the neighborhood: “what do you see coming in for regularly” and I got responses like “they wanted a really good burger, they wanted fries, but they all demanded something more creative and substance. They wanted something with soul and substance." From the beginning I’ve been trying to make tasty food that goes well with booze. Now I’m really trying to round out the menu and even out the selections and balance a well rounded menu. Not interested in just selling a ton of burgers and nothing else, but something balanced and we are getting to that point where things are ordered evenly.

What are some of the challenges with menu highlights?

The burger for sure is one of our most popular and in demand products. Its really hard though as a cook to keep customers happy since supply of ingredients can make things difficult.

For instance I’m going through this dilemma since tomatoes are out of season, there is a lettuce shortage and I’m working to keep the integrity of our burger even though things change seasonly. I’m trying to create a new diner style winter swiss mushroom burger with herb aioli - all to keep people happy and not mess with customers while dealing with supply issues. It’s a difficult proposition to keep constancy, customers happy and deal with realities.

 

On that note what is your philosophy regarding sourcing?

As a new restaurant I really try to be logical and we try our best to support local farmers, but in this stage of the game, it's more logical to buy the best ingredients we can get that match our goals.

So when is it ok to cut corners? 

Cutting corners depends on the eye of the beholder. The corner is in the eye of whom is cutting.

There is being lazy and there is being efficient…so if one is cooking with integrity there is no corner being cut.  

In the end if the food is delicious there is no corner being cut. For example, we buy mayonnaise in bulk, to some it might seem a corner is being cut that we don’t make our own but to me its more important to focus on elements that really matter, and taking this efficient step leads to better food, faster service.

Talking about fries what is your attitude towards fries?

As for fries, everyone loves fries.

I originally staged at Bouchon, one of Thomas’ Kellers restaurants in Yountville, who many consider has some of the best fries in the world. For a long time no one knew that his fries were bagged frozen SYSCO fries that are really well fried.  

Going back to cutting corners, this is a great example, there is no restaurant in France that does volume and hand cuts their fries. It's not worth it. Better technique in this example leads to better taste. I would trade an hour of good technique here vs cutting fries everyday for an hour.

All this influences our fries. Originally I started with bagged fries but after building a team, we went about making some awesome fries that wouldn’t break the bank and were manageable to make.  We decided to make fingerling fries. The fingerling fries are cooked three times and then fried and make for a crispy outside, creamy inside but are easy to prep.

Is it better to have polarizing dishes? Our fries for instance are polarizing, people either seem to love them or a a little bit taken back by their untraditional style. 

I’ve never heard anything negative about them aside from that they feel fancier. They are indeed fancy, organic potatoes from Oregon.

If we put something on the menu, it needs to be awesome. Not perfect but awesome. I’m working towards that.

What is the vibe you are trying to create with the food?

The vibe is having a whole bunch of small hand held bites that are easy to share. Customers are 50/50 in how much they want to eat. Early customers come in a full meal, and those people are inclined to have fuller dishes, but after the night progresses people want more bar food. I try to balance those two types of customers in the dishes we make.  

Everything we make has something nifty, and special and have been trying to use beer in a lot of the prep and cooking. I’m using hop infused oils in the brussel sprouts, stewing our chicken in beer etc.  I’m not interested in confusing food but good food.

Is the food Californian food then?

This is definitely San Francisco food. 

San Francisco people are gourmands.  People here are very educated in produce, meals, and have good ideas about Chinese, Japanese and Latin ingredients. Here everything meshes. The audience is quiet savvy. I hear people sometimes talking who don’t even work in food and I’m like jesus “wow they know soo much about food”. It's great and people are awesome because they aren’t confused, order food and enjoy. My short ribs for instance are meant to be eaten with their hands and the best customers go to town with these. They just go at it.

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What is your favorite vegetable to work with?

Umm. Broccoli. I like all kinds of broccoli. My favorite thing to do with broccoli is to cook it over smoldering wood. I like to grill it over burning wood with a little chard to it. Just lemon, olive oil and salt. Its just fantastic. I would love to serve a plate of broccoli like this, but some people might get confused.

My favorite foods are very boring - something like classic ginger scallion noodles with a fried egg. Fried rice with garlic and crab. Simple beautiful food.

What are some of your favorite places to eat?

Capital. It's a classic Chinese american diner in Chinatown. They have a daily special; yesterday they had this pork chop with bagged cooked veggies. Simple with two scoops of rice. It's a legacy of the cross over of American and Chinese day laborers and food that appeals to both. I like really unassuming places that have a great authentic purpose and offering.

Excellent chicken wings too.

I also like this placed called Mickies, this homey Japanese restaurant in San Francisco.  Super homestyle place with signature fried garlic over noodles. Excellent glazed crispy unagi.

What is your spirit of choice? 

I like clean simple drinkable beer… I love our beer. I love the Smash Nelson. I’m not so into hoppy beer. I like beer that I can drink a lot of. I like refreshing beer I can drink through the night.

As for booze goes, I like it all. I’m in a gin phase now. I like it all. I like a Negroni.

How do you define Luxury?

For most people I think luxury would be getting dressed up and experiencing interval prix fix meals, but that to me is stuffy.  

Luxury in my eyes is going to Swan Depot, alone no line, an Anchor steam, crab, uni, clams. The pinnacle of luxury is whatever you want when you want. 

What would you like the customers to know? What is something you would share with everyone who sits down to know? 

I want people to know that there is a lot of substance, and heart, people who genially care about their experience. 

Being a cook is hard but its nice when people understand all the work that goes into everything from making beer to putting a burger in front of you.

I want people to know that there is a lot of heart here - there is.