Brian Enyart spent almost fourteen years as the chef de cuisine of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, the wildly popular, media-buzzed and much-awarded restaurants of celebrity/humanitarian/culinary god Rick Bayless. (As the Frontera website says, "The Government of Mexico has bestowed on Rick the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle–the highest decoration bestowed on foreigners whose work has benefitted Mexico and its people.") After leaving Topolobampo in 2011, Enyart traveled the country consulting for companies such as Lettuce Entertain You before popping up in Louisville to take over as Executive Chef of El Camino in early December 2013. Eater recently sat down with Enyart for an introductory conversation, where he discussed his decision to leave Rick Bayless, his plans for El Camino and what happened when he stopped smoking.
Frontera was pretty much your first gig, right?
Brian Enyart: I was in culinary school for about a year before I started at Frontera. I went to the Cooking Hospitality Institute of Chicago [now The Cordon Bleu]. Then I worked the line full time and went to school full time. I took about a year off [after high school]. I was interested for a little bit in, um, painting. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with my life. Then it dawned on me that I just liked to eat, and liked to cook. So I started to focus on that.
Do you still paint?
BE: I have not painted for number of years. In an effort to make myself healthier, I quit smoking about eight years ago. I haven't been able to paint since then. It's the craziest thing. I can't sit down and just stare at a painting anymore.
What do you do instead?
BE: Now I just go through cookbooks and do research.
Can you tell us about your time at Frontera and Topolobampo?
BE: I started on the pastry line. I was there about nine months or so and was promoted to pastry sous chef, because the pastry chef had left at that point. So I worked for a couple of years in pastries, wrote the menus and had a good time with that. About three or four years later I moved over to food, and started learning the sauce work, learning the line and all that. Then in 2004 I took over both restaurants as managing chef. In 2007, Frontera won Most Outstanding Restaurant of the Year from the James Beard Awards. We came back from that and Rick really wanted to rebuild Topolobampo, our fine dining restaurant, and really wanted to start to stretch and push, so at that point I took over Topolobampo exclusively and started to kind of rebuild the restaurant from the ground up with the menu concepts. We won our Michelin star when Michelin first came to Chicago. They still have it to this day, which is awesome. We were the first Mexican restaurant to get any recognition under the Michelin system.
Why did you decide to move on?
BE: I had spent all my twenties with [Bayless]. I was traveling with him, all over the country, all throughout Mexico. That's a complicated relationship. It's a hard thing to kind of say "I'm ready to take the next step" when I was so close with him and his wife. But it was time to move on.
Were there any tears?
BE: It was hard for all of us but they were nothing but professional with me. It was emotional, for sure. Rick and I definitely had that relationship where it was not just the boss and an employee. On my last day the entire staff got together and cooked all of my favorite dishes, so I ate all day long, and I still have my chef jacket that all of them signed.
How did you meet Shawn Cantley and Larry Rice?
BE: I met Shawn and Larry through a mutual friend of ours named Fred Sarkis, who does some great bar work out of Chicago. Freddy is kind of like an ambassador of food in the United States. You go to just about any city, and Freddy knows somebody. Larry told Freddy he was working on this [El Camino]. Freddy said "Hey, I know Brian!" and got us together. I came out and did two consulting trips, kind of helped the former chef Jonathan [Schwartz] get on his feet, tested a bunch of recipes and stuff. Larry and Shawn saw I got along well with everyone in the kitchen, so when Jonathan decided to move on they got in touch with me. I came back and it's been a blast.
BE: Married in September, no kids. Restaurant is the life that we do. It's an intense life. My wife is actually still the pastry chef at Topolobampo.
How does that work?
BE: Shawn and Larry have been great to kind of organize my days off so I can go home and see my wife when she's got time off. It's a lot of commuting but we've been together about two years. She's an amazing person. We made this decision together. And, she's crazy about Larry and Shawn, and they're crazy about her.
What are some differences between Frontera/Topolobampo and El Camino?
BE: El Camino speaks to my own sensibilities as to where I'm at right now. I have this huge amount of knowledge of Mexican food, but Rick—he's like an archaeologist, an educator. What I love is working in restaurants and making delicious stuff. So I'm kind of trying to take the knowledge that I have from working with Rick, but have a lot of fun with it and just relax and serve delicious food that people enjoy. You come in here on a Saturday night, we've got this really awesome sort of fresh surfer punk vibe in here. The tiki just makes it a lot of fun. So what we want to do with the menu, and what we've been transitioning into is to have everybody's favorite Mexican things but also to show kind of a fresher, lighter side of Mexican food.
How's Louisville been treating you so far?
BE: Love the city, been having a blast. I've been to Proof a bunch, love that. Went to Nam Nam recently. I went to Hammerheads and it like blew my mind. I thought it was incredible. But I've mostly spending a lot of time here. But I hope to keep trying to see what's going on with the rest of the city.
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