AMY J. BARRY, Special to The Day
Food is a lot more than sustenance for Eric Shelton. It's a non-stop career filled with passion, creativity, competition and risk-taking.
The successful young chef, who grew up in Mystic, is imprinting his signature style on the national scene. He learned the basics of cooking at Grasso Technical School in Groton and honed his skills at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Shelton quickly rose up the restaurant food chain. In 1998 he moved to Texas to become the executive chef at the five-star Wyndham hotel in downtown Dallas and worked days off with Chef David McMillan at the city's Nana Grill, and with Marc Cassel at the Green Room in Deep Ellum.
In 2003 Shelton became executive chef of Culinaire International in Austin. In 2007 he moved back to Dallas with his wife Emma and two children, where he became executive chef of "M" Dining at the Music Hall.
Shelton recently won the executive chef title over four other chefs at the new Kitchen LTO, a "permanent pop-up" restaurant in Trinity Groves in west Dallas that reinvents itself every four months with a new chef and designer.
In January he was featured on the Food Channel's "Cutthroat Kitchen." The reality cooking show hosted by Alton Brown features chefs who are each given $25,000 to sabotage each other with items up for auction. The winner of the competition - selected by a celebrity guest - gets to keep the $25,000 minus any money spent on anything bought at the sabotage auction.
We recently caught up with Shelton on his busy schedule to talk about his culinary endeavors.
Q. How young were you when you knew you would become a chef and what were the circumstances?
A. I was in elementary school. We had a plot of land at the side of the house where my mother cultivated a garden. We had a large family, and it was a way of saving cash, supplementing our food. She'd have us out there picking weeds, picking vegetables, watering. I hated it as a kid. Now gardening is evolving with the culinary arts industry, it's become more popular for sustainability. We were doing it then for survival.
I also watched 'The Great Chefs of the World' on PBS when I came home from school. And, my mother watched a show called 'The Victory Garden' and Julia Child's 'The French Chef,' which I watched with her. I liked the cooking shows more than sitcoms like 'The Brady Bunch.' I picked up my artistic sensibility watching those shows, and her having us garden. We also went to an upscale fruit market - Sandy's fresh fruit and vegetable market in downtown Mystic - I was eating artichokes, plums; different stuff normal inner-city kids wouldn't have the opportunity to eat. And, my brother Drew (Coleman), who's a youth counselor in New London, also gave me a big push during my high school years to strive for my goals.
Q. Being a chef is truly a nonstop career/lifestyle for you. Can you talk a little about your philosophy of cooking?
A. My philosophy is 80 percent to give customers food they can understand and 20 percent to introduce them to something new. For example, everyone across the planet knows garlic exists but people don't know black garlic exists - or orange cauliflower. My philosophy is to educate through eating.
Q. As executive chef at 'M' Dining you customized dinners both seasonally and around the plot of each production. Can you give an example of a favorite or particularly challenging menu?
A. 'The Color Purple' (was performed) during the summertime and here in Texas okra is very abundant in the summer. Oprah Winfrey was the producer, so I made the Okra Winfrey salad. For 'Rain,' which was a tribute to The Beatles, I did another play on words: Liver in a Pool of Onions. And I did fish and chips with pan-roasted cod and for the chips, fried root vegetables instead of French fries - I used all elements from the original dish and modernized it.
Q. How would you describe the food you are serving during your four-month stint at Kitchen LTO?
A. The menu is not pretentious; it's all about how I present it. As the seasons change, I will implement what's available to me. Each month I'm going to pull things off the menu that are not so popular and add new things.
Q. Was it hard to stay calm and collected last month when you were competing on national TV in "Cutthroat Kitchen?"
A. It was actually extremely easy because some of the places I've worked, you had to think on your feet. Every job I've had, I've had a deadline; things aren't always going to go right, and sometimes you have to improvise. That's why I think I was able to excel to the last round.
Q. Did you expect your career to take off on such a big scale when you were first imagining becoming a chef? Are you surprised?
A. I had no idea up until a month or so ago. I thought nothing was going to happen to me, I'd go home. Everyone gets a break, you never know. I had these opportunities, people offering me different jobs, and now wanting my autograph, pictures with me.
Q. What is your favorite place or places to eat when you come home to Mystic for a visit?
A. Abbott's - they have great clam cakes and great lobster rolls. Seaswirl - little clam shack place, very casual and good to sit outside. It reminds me of being there as a kid, ordering at the window. It brings back a lot of good memories I didn't appreciate as a kid. And obviously Mystic Pizza with their thin crust pie. I always go there.
Q. Tell us about F.I.S.H (Food Inspired by the Seasonal Harvest), your new venture that's now in the planning stages.
A. This is my first venture to provide personalized chef services - catered events, invitational dinners in your home, and cooking classes.
Q. Do you plan to open your own restaurant someday?
A. Yes. I plan to get an investor and open up a restaurant of my own - create a brand. What I love most about cooking is the evolution of it all. There are more marketing opportunities, it's easier to get your product out there. It's a little more accessible for chefs these days, easier to make a good living without having to be in the restaurant every day. The culinary arts are more exciting every day. My success isn't because of me but because of the team I've built.