Just over a decade ago, Eater Seattle’s 2018 Chef of the Year, Eric Rivera, couldn’t get a job in this city.
“When I first started in Seattle cooking, I went to all of the chefs. I met them all in person or at events, and I really would stand there with my resume, saying ‘I will work my way up through your kitchen. I will start at dish.’ None of them ever got back to me. Like, zero percent,” he says.
He admits that perhaps he was a little too excited or eager — and that’s why he didn’t get any offers — but that’s just who he is. “I’m excited about stuff and I want to make it happen.” Faced with no job prospects, Rivera made the decision to go a different route.
“And it was a very expensive route. It was going to culinary school. When you drop $50,000 in loans for a two-year program, that’s crazy but I was like, that’s the only avenue I have where I’m going to be able to work in a restaurant.”
He attended the culinary school at the Art Institute in Seattle, eventually landing a gig at Chicago’s famed Alinea, working alongside Grant Achatz as the Director of Culinary Research Operations. After Rivera returned to Seattle, he worked with the Huxley Wallace Restaurant Group, the Derschang Group, and as head chef at Bookstore Bar before eventually starting to run two-seat pop up dinners inside his apartment, which grew into what Addo is today.
His culinary school credentials helped open doors and hone his skills, but if there’s one thing spending the money on school taught him, it’s that it’s not for everyone.
“Nobody ever taught me how to cook Puerto Rican cuisine, I just ate it and engineered it in my head. Is that something that I needed to learn from another chef? Fuck no,” he says.
Rivera knows there are a lot of people like this — people who grew up with their own cuisine or just have a knack for cooking.
“Are they going to be doing 20 course tasting menus? No, that comes with a little training. But it doesn’t mean they don’t know how to do that shit, they just need a stage.”
And Rivera? He’s the guy providing the stage.
Addo is the kind of restaurant that has “experiences that nobody is even thinking about.” This translates to extensive tasting menus, theme dinners, chef incubators, classes, and of course his Puerto Rican pop-up, Lechoncito. There are all different price points represented, but the common thread is a focus on the diner experience.
“At a certain price point you don’t want it to feel like a bad first date. The worst feeling I had in higher-end restaurants or even restaurants where I didn’t expect I was going to spend that much [was where] I spent $300 on everything and no one gave a shit. Like, the restaurant doesn’t give a shit. You’re just a turn and burn. I hate that.”
Rivera says people are often surprised when they purchase a ticket for a dinner and he’s the person greeting them at the door, cooking the food, and serving them, but that’s the way it must be for him.
Otherwise, “That’s not a restaurant to me. If you want to do it that way, buy a franchise Panda Express. Do your Panda Express or your KFC or your McDonald’s, do your turn and burn, but if you’re actually going to do a restaurant, you have to get in everybody’s head. You have to know what’s going on.”
However, sprinkled in between all those dinners with Rivera at the chef’s counter are nights devoted to people looking for a space and a stage to showcase their food.
Not only are there a lot of moving parts (sometimes literally), with a restaurant that balances multiple concepts and menus — sometimes in a single day.
“I can’t do everything, so why not open up the space. Everybody does an open mic night or a call for art. Why not just do it with food and give people a chance to hang out and do their thing.”
That doesn’t mean anyone gets to host a pop-up at Addo. “We have tastings, we have a filter,” he says with a laugh. But it wasn’t always this way. Rivera’s trademark enthusiasm has gotten him into a bit of trouble a few times.
“Initially we were doing a free-for-all, but we had people who didn’t know how to flip fish in a pan. Or they were writing a Pacific Northwest menu and they’ve never cooked mushrooms before.”
Now things are running like a well-oiled machine and Rivera has found himself in the position of being a mentor as well as a chef.
“I’ve always kind of been like this. I think that’s the reality of actually being a chef rather than someone who wants to be famous,” he says.