Chef Nick Erven has earned quite a resume around town with noteworthy stints at Saint Martha in Koreatown, fundamental LA in Westwood and his own namesake, Erven in Santa Monica, a vegan restaurant Jonathan Gold raved about when it first opened. But now he’s grabbed the reins at the three-month-old Rappahannock Oyster Bar at the Row DTLA. We talked to him about when he finally ditched his Chuck Taylors for kitchen clogs, why he doesn’t play punk music in the kitchen, and how having a toddler makes it hard to grill.
Who are the chefs that changed your life?
There’s this guy Seth Greenberg who I met a long time ago. I was not good, and I don’t know if he just liked me, but he sort of took me under his wing. I worked for him for years and years. I worked with him at a restaurant in Long Beach called Bigs, which was forever ago. And I worked with him again at the Huntley Hotel here in Santa Monica for a long, long time. I’d say [he] and Amy Pressman were sort of the two biggest influences on me as a cook. Those two really gave me a chance to change the whole trajectory of my life in a sense. And I’m forever grateful for them.
What specifically did you learn from them?
Different things from each one. From Seth it was about technique and creativity and thinking about things in a certain way; you have to know the rules before you can break them. And from Amy, it was about trying to put out a really good product and simplicity: using good stuff and not trying to mess it up too much. Also, she bought me my first pair of kitchen clogs like 17 years ago. I was cooking in Chuck Taylors in the kitchen and she was like, “You gotta stop this,” and bought me some shoes.
What’s the most pain-in-the-ass dish on Rappahannock’s menu that probably shouldn’t be there but just has to be?
Let me think. Our skirt steak dish is kind of a pain the ass, but it’s my favorite thing on the menu. It’s skirt steak that we marinate in Coca-Cola, soy sauce, oranges and a bunch of other stuff. And then we serve it with a mole BBQ sauce, which is actually called a manchamantel, but no one really knows what that is—it’s a Yucatan-style fruit mole. And we serve it with fries that aren’t made with potato. They’re made with Maseca. It’s one of those dishes where a lot of things have to happen for that dish to happen. It certainly takes more time than other things on the menu, but I’m not getting rid of it because it’s just too damn good.
What music do you like to listen to in the kitchen?
It’s weird. In the kitchen I don’t listen to much music. I used to be a musician and I grew up playing in punk bands. And I think what got me into the kitchen initially is sort of this idea that being in a restaurant is kind of similar to being in a band. Typically, if we do listen to music in the kitchen, I like stuff with no words. Something like Tycho. It’s this electronic type thing. It’s kind of mellow when kitchens can be this stressful place. I used to listen to a lot of aggressive stuff like metal in the kitchen, and I was getting way too aggro. But now we’ve dialed it back a little bit.
Were you into the punk scene?
I got really into the early ‘90s skate punk scene, so I was listening to a lot of Pennywise and Guttermouth and those sorts of bands. Yeah, that was like the world for a long time: sitting in my room, playing guitar to CDs over and over.
Did you play in any bands?
Yeah, but I wasn’t very good. But that’s the thing about punk music; you don’t need to be good. It’s about the attitude and the energy more than anything.
Let’s finish with some summer questions:
What was your go-to order at the ice cream truck when you were a kid?
Neapolitan is my jam. It’s the best because you get all three: vanilla,strawberry and chocolate. Why would I get anything else?
No Choco Taco?
No. I’m more of a purest when it comes to ice cream; I want the simple stuff. My wife likes cookies ‘n cream, and I can deal with that, but give me vanilla. I don’t need the [other] stuff in there.
What kind of grill do you have at home?
It’s probably a Weber. It’s a charcoal grill that I don’t use nearly enough because I have a two-year-old and I just spend most of my time at home chasing her.
What’s a good spot for late summer nights?
Oh, that’s a good question. It’s been so long since I’ve been out. I would say the go-to spot lately for my wife and I, because we live in Venice, is MTN because they’re open late and their wine list is really good. I wish I could say that I still went out late, but at this point, not so much (sighs).
ALL PHOTOS BY STAN LEE, FRIED CHICKEN SANDWICH STUDIOS AND 2016 JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION VISUAL STORYTELLING AWARD WINNER