Photo by Isaac Harrell
Eric Lewis left a job as head chef at Buckhead's — one of the Richmond area's premier high-end steakhouses — to go to culinary school. After graduating from Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., he spent about nine months refining his cooking chops at the luxurious Inn at Little Washington, a restaurant that has earned national as well as international acclaim.
Now he's back at Buckhead's with some ambitious goals. "I really want to win the Elbys," he says of the restaurant awards program that Richmond magazine launched this year. "I would like to get a James Beard nomination." And, he adds, "I want this to be the best restaurant in the city."
Since returning to Richmond, the 27-year-old chef wrote the menu for the "Taste of Virginia" luncheon hosted by Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell in March for legislators' spouses. He and several other members of Buckhead's culinary team prepared potato-crusted oysters with lemongrass and green tea emulsion; a goat-cheese salad with apples, almonds and orange-tarragon vinaigrette; grilled lamb chops with Cabernet France glace; pan-roasted rockfish with chive beurre blanc; and a dessert of dried cherry clafouti with citrus shortbread and lemon cream.
At Buckhead's, "I've been trying to step it up a notch," he says. To do that, Lewis is adding small plates and making charcuterie items such as bacon, pancetta and sausages in-house. (During an interview, he mentions that he's about to go prepare some duck proscuitto.) A charcuterie plate is included in a new bar menu that Buckhead's introduced in July. The dinner menu is also getting a makeover, which Lewis expects to be finished in August. In addition, the restaurant has started to make its own sorbets and ice creams, and Buckhead's is buying more meat and produce directly from farmers in the region.
Lewis and Mark Herndon, Buckhead's managing partner since 2006, are also developing a small farm with a greenhouse in Goochland County to grow their own produce. "We've been a steakhouse for 18 years," notes Herndon, who served as head chef at Virginia's Executive Mansion during the Allen, Gilmore and Warner administrations. While the overall concept won't change, he says, "we want to add a little more creativity to the menu."
Lewis describes his culinary style as "French basics with a Southern twist." Growing up in Hanover County, he often helped his parents in the kitchen. "I always enjoyed baking," he says. "I'm a cookie fanatic." He's been working at restaurants since he was a 15-year-old prep cook and dishwasher at the Smokey Pig in Ashland.
Lewis began his relationship with Buckhead's by working a couple of nights a week in 2006, while he was still sous chef at the former Manakin Grill in Goochland. After taking three months off to recuperate from a broken leg, he returned to Buckhead's as a full-time sous chef in 2007. He held that position for eight months, then became the head chef for two years. At Johnson & Wales, he was able to complete an advanced program in eight months, during which time he also helped open and write menus for JackBeagle's restaurant and Salvador Deli, both in Charlotte.
"I like food," he says. "I like working in restaurants. I like people who work in restaurants. It's the lifestyle for me."