Circus Chef Mentors

Executive Chef Erik Carlson sat us down to answer a few questions about his new protege he has been mentoring:  Samantha Hoehne, Senior at Monroe High School and a culinary student at Sno-Isle Tech. Here’s the scoop (or spatula):

1) What do you enjoy most about being an executive chef?

I love the food service industry. I love the duality, that it can be a mainstream art form AND our jobs to feed others. I love the intimacy of feeding people (which is such a personal thing). That being said, my all-time favorite reason  for being a chef is creating new and exciting menu items with such great local resources. We (chefs) are the new rock stars!!

2) What are some key steps to make a menu?

The first step is to know your guests. Second, here at ZinZanni, I do a lot of research. I investigate the era or the main characteristics of the upcoming show and develop the menu to run parallel. Next I  brainstorm, writing what sounds great with no rules. Then I develop the recipes for my menu. This leads up to the big one: tastings and re-writes. Finally, complete the recipes, price them out, and train the staff.

3) What were the steps you had to take to become an executive chef?

In the beginning it was just lots of hard work. After that I chose to go to culinary school. Right out of school I found a chef I really wanted to apprentice with and bugged him until he took me. After five years of working under him and learning tons, I went out and started working with other chefs and developed my style through observation.

4) What do you feel is the most important part of your job?

Each job is so different for each chef. Here at ZinZanni I believe the most important role I play is to design and deliver a menu worthy of a world-class theatre/circus show. On a personal note, I aim to create a unique kitchen experience that is very positive and fosters a high level of creativity and energy for all my team members.

5) What kind of education did you go through?

A lot of my training was from my grandmother actually. She taught me what it meant to really love feeding people. After that I worked through all the positions I could then went to culinary school. Upon graduation I apprenticed under Chef Brian Poor for five years. However, I firmly believe that in our industry a chef’s real education comes from trial and error.

6) What is some advice you would give to younger people who want to become an executive chef?

Understand the service industry first. We work when others play. Being a chef requires a lot of sacrifice and a mountain of hard work. Don’t be afraid of hard work. Pay attention to everyone cooking around as almost every one of them will have some knowledge you do not. Embrace your failures and learn from them. Develop a ‘taste library’. This is the area in a chef’s brain where through time spent they can ‘taste’ a menu by just reading it

7) What do you feel are some of your greatest accomplishments in the culinary world?

Well, I am very proud of what we put out nightly. I think we truly have forged new ground in ‘dinner theatre’. I am extremely proud of my FareStart Dinner, it was a culinary dream of mine to do an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ dinner, and it was amazing! I have had several recipes published that I am proud of too.

8) How does Teatro ZinZanni differ from other restaurants you have worked in?

Well, it is actually closer to a banquet kitchen than a restaurant. Our shows and menus are themed  and have unique design challenges:  a 12-foot slide we send our desserts down or we have to make sure is or plates are ‘danceable’ (each course has a choreographed dance routine with full plates in the server’s hands). We have a 4-month menu rotation that requires a complete re-write with supportive recipe pieces each time.

9) What is the most difficult part of your job?

I am lucky in that I really love what I do. So, I guess the difficult parts are the same as always, lots of personal time sacrificed. I work some very long weeks when the shows ‘changeover’.

10) How do you feel becoming a mentor?

At first, I was very nervous, as this was my real teaching chance. I have always been nervous about being a mentor.  I’ve always felt like the guy who’s cooking. What do I have to impart on others? Upon reflection I realize the 25+ years of experiences have given me some insights, things that are second nature to me, things I thought everyone knew. After meeting Sam,  I felt more at ease. Her disposition seemed great for my first shot at mentoring and I get to help her design menu items, my real joy. Now, I can’t wait to get started because  this will be fun and beneficial to us both.


Chef’s Corner

The lights dim, the music begins its thud-thud, the tantalizing fragrance of sweet summer berries wafts through the air… your senses have been welcomed. You have entered another world, a world I call home: Teatro ZinZanni. I am Erik D. Carlson, Executive Chef, and the creator of the food for your otherworldly experience.

Photo credit: Amaryllis Images

Chef Erik Carlson. Photo credit: Amaryllis Images

The decision to run away and join the circus came easy for me, and in 2011. I jumped in with both feet and never looked back. And let me tell you it has been one wild ride! I am excited for a chance to share with you the view from the kitchen. The best place to begin is with a little bit about myself, and my inspiration to make it all flow together under the hoods of the kitchen and to bright lights of the tent.

When asked what genre I fall into within the large world of chefs, I’d say perhaps somewhere between the crazy kid in a candy store and a seasoned cook who lives and breathes in extreme kitchen conditions. I began at culinary school, where I learned French basics at South Seattle Community College. After graduation I spent time apprenticing for some ground breaking local chefs such as Brian Poor and Emily Moore, then working my way around the Seattle area.

My tutelage is not a fancy pedigree of fine dining houses and prix fixe menus; please don’t hold it against me. Instead I spent the last 30-years working in environments that taught me about restaurants and food culture, instilling a constant wonder at all the fantastic foods available around the world, especially here in the Pacific Northwest. Admittedly this makes me a food geek but by no means a foodie elitist. The dishes I create come from a comfortable, unpretentious place that our guests will love and relate to with gusto.

Here at Teatro ZinZanni, it is my privilege to create a new menu every four months for each new show. I start with a general synopsis of the upcoming show. Inspired by a theme and a time period or locale, the real fun begins with homework, homework, and more homework. It is a very exciting place for a chef to be! That kid in the candy store reference. Using the unbridled freedom to take guests on a gastronomical journey, as a character would in our show, I tinker with ideas silly and strange. The culmination is a menu designed with fun in mind, offering up a unique way to approach dining that is slightly divergent of the norm.

Photo credit: Matthew Worden

Photo credit: Matthew Worden

There are, however, some interesting challenges here at Teatro ZinZanni that needs to be taken into account. How does one make sure the dessert doesn’t fly off the plate as it shoots down a 12-foot slide? How will the food rest on a plate when our excellent service staff “tango” it to your table? In the end these challenges only make it more fun, more Teatro ZinZanni. I cannot imagine doing anything else anywhere else.

That’s my spiel my friends. Moving forward, I will use this forum, as a bit of a window in to the world that is our Teatro ZinZanni kitchen. With some humor, some insights and a few recipes too, join me in our culinary travel down this rabbit hole of love, dinner and chaos.


Chef Erik D Carlson