Northside Bistro celebrates new chef Eric Johnson with Chef’s Dinner

Northside Bistro
— photo by Adam Burke

Chef’s Dinner

Northside Bistro — Thursday, Aug. 25
Two seatings: 5:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
Reservations Required

Iowa City’s Northside Bistro welcomes new head chef Eric Johnson from Chicago’s Michelin two-star restaurant Acadia. Tonight the restaurant will be hosting a Chef’s Dinner event to celebrate the occasion. Little Village caught up with Johnson and asked a few questions about his culinary inspirations and his life in kitchens:

What does your cooking history look like?

I’ve been working in restaurants for 14 years. I started as a dishwasher, washed a lot of dishes — no one would give me a chance to do much else. Slowly I worked my way to the line and moved up from there. I enrolled in the culinary arts program at Scott Community College in Bettendorf and started taking classes. Part of the program included an apprenticeship where we worked in a restaurant. I realized after a while of working at Red Crow that I was learning more through the apprenticeship so I dropped out of the program. Eventually I took over the restaurant before I moved to Denver where I worked at ChoLon and then to Chicago at Acadia which is a two-star Michelin restaurant.

What brought you back to Iowa?

My wife got a job at the University, but also I grew up here — all our family is in the area and it’s a much better place than Chicago to raise kids.

What’s the best food you’ve eaten since you’ve been back?

The Mexican restaurant on Highway 6, La Regia. I let them surprise me every time, give me whatever they want, and it’s always good. It’s always fresh. It’s cheap, but you can tell they care about the product. I appreciate that — I try to do the same. The Iowa City Farmer’s Market is awesome, too. Chicago’s farmer’s markets are good, but all the produce is coming from 150 miles away. Here, it’s so close, so local.

These days, there are plenty of people in the food world that are worthy of admiration. Who is someone you admire or has acted as a mentor for you?

Lon Symensma at ChoLon in Denver. I worked under him for a while and eventually he pushed me out of his restaurant and encouraged me to do my own thing.

How would you describe your style of cooking? From where do you draw inspiration?

I’m inspired by different cultures — I’m one-quarter Mexican and try hard to remember the things my great-grandmother cooked for me when I was a kid. I try to create food that captures the time and sense of a place, the season. I’m usually inspired by the produce that’s available at the time, too. My view of food seems to be different than a typical Midwestern view. I try for a mix of sophistication and locality and try to make fine food accessible. Presentation is key, I do focus on detailed plates as a fine dining restaurant would, but I don’t sacrifice taste for detail. Taste is first, looks are second, sort of. More 50/50, actually. Neither one should overwhelm the customer. It’s really about the total experience. I try and use the best product available whether local or not. Our butter here at the bistro comes all the way from Vermont, but for our pork, we get whole hogs from Hinterland Farms. T and T Heirloom Farms is where we get a lot of our produce. He’s constantly calling to tell me what is at peak season, and I only want to use what’s at peak. If I put sweet corn in a dish, it’s going to taste like Iowa sweet corn should.

If you could cook for and dine with anyone, who would it be?

I met this restaurateur, Mossimo, from Italy, at a Food & Wine event a while back. I started following his story and reading articles about him, his restaurants, his approach. He’s both extravagant and really humble, and he really cares about the whole process — the art of food, taking good care of both staff and farmers and caring for the people dining which is really important.

What’s it like cooking professionally? Are you always in chef mode?

I’m not always being creative. Sometimes I need to step back. At the restaurant we make family meal every Friday and Saturday night. It’s a good way for others to come up with new ideas, new ingredients and try them out. We make pasta, pizza, mac ‘n’ cheese — using leftovers from the day’s prep.