Ba Bar's Eric Banh on Why He's a Hard Boss and How He Knew Germany Would Win World Cup
Eric Banh has been a popular staple in the Capitol Hill dining scene since opening Monsoon in 1999, not long after moving back from Alberta, Canada where his family landed after moving out of Vietnam when Banh was 15-years-old. In Edmonton, Banh held several cooking jobs and even had his own restaurant called Lemon Grass Cafe.
In 2011, he opened Ba Bar and somewhere in between he owned Baguette Box, which he subsequently sold to finish building Ba Bar. Today, he’s getting ready to open another restaurant in the former glass blowing studio right behind Ba Bar. Other than that near-nothing detail, he’s staying pretty tight-lipped, but does admit that the new place will be more casual than Ba Bar (“Fine dining is dead,” he says).
I could sit and talk to Banh all day. He’s got a lot to say about the industry, his pet peeves, why he’s hard to work for and the state of the new crop of wannabe culinary superstars. Here’s just a sampling of a three hour conversation I had with him yesterday.
How do you feel about all the new restaurants opening in Seattle?
I truly think it's good for Seattle. Competition makes you strong. It’s the law of nature. It will weed out…if you don’t have solid menu and solid plan and solid operator, you won’t make it. It’s a damn hard business. Romance alone is not enough. You have to be passionate and at the same time a little bit stupid or crazy. Sophie (Eric's sister who runs Monsoon) and I are still working 10 hours a day. I still remember Tom Douglas saying, ‘You want a raise for yourself? Open another restaurant.’ He said opening your second [restaurant] is the hardest one. Third, fourth—you have a system in place, you have managers.
I just feel like a lot of people know and have more respect for veteran restaurateurs after they do it for 5 years minimum. They understand the pain, they understand the ups-and-downs. Everybody’s the darling the first year. Can you stay after that? It’s a very punishing business. The thing is, good is good. But at the same time, when you catch somebody on a bad day, you can be screwed. And by bad day, I mean the chef, the line cook, the server. There’s so many moving parts, it’s scary.
Tell me about your new pastry chef, Rogerio Martinho.
He’s a kick-ass, cantankerous old French guy. I love working with him. My first job was working at a formal French restaurant in Edmonton, Alberta called Bentley. I was a busboy. It was like working for the military. I was 15. I’d always go to the kitchen and I just loved it! I remember going in there and preparing the Caesar salad table service. White cloth napkins, all this Romaine lettuce on ice to chill it and then get the mis en place for the Captain: anchovies, caper, egg, garlic. I loved it! And then later on, I said, ‘Hey, can I come into the kitchen and work with you guys?’ and that’s when it all started. Of course, I started washing dishes.
Do you think that happens as often as it used to? Chefs starting out as dishwashers?
Do you know why I love Roger? He started his first job when he was 12. He didn’t even get to bake at all; he cleaned pots and pans for one year and then he wanted to quit. Finally, they let him learn how to make a croissant.
Why are you opening a new restaurant now?
We must grow our kitchen, otherwise a lot of our staff won’t be able to stay with us. It’s like we have four people living in a one bedroom apartment.
Are you excited to get back in the business?
I’m excited, but at the same time, I want to go really low-key. I don’t want to make a big splash. We’ve been there. We just want to move very methodically, logistically. I’ve learned now that when you have a big splash, there can be a false expectation. I prefer to be slow the first month, three months or even six months, as long as we figure out how to do things properly. I’m not going to open because it’s cool, because at the end of the day, we provide for more than 100 employees (between Monsoon and Ba Bar). If you have a crappy concept that’s not executed thoughtfully, people who work with you, you’ll have to eventually lay them off. We have a huge responsibility.
Did you have that space scoped out a long time ago?
Actually, when we got much busier than we anticipated, I said to myself, “It would be nice.” Because honestly, if this place back then was the whole building, I probably wouldn’t have taken it. So everything happened for the best because four-and-a-half years ago it was very difficult to get money from the bank.
Do you think people think of you as a hard person to work for?
Absolutely. Do you know why? This is my career, this is my office. If you think it’s a fun place [to work] you’re in the wrong place. I don’t make it to be a frightening place, either—I want it to be a professional place. A lot of people mistake it as a fun place, it’s loosey-goosey. You can work at a crappy restaurant and be loosey-goosey. That’s why I love Le Pichet so much. It’s casual but very on top of it. Professional. You’re there to give the customer a good experience, but when you try to project being cool and working in a cool restaurant, it’s almost a false sense of security thinking they need to listen to you.
That’s why when I looked at the German team [during World Cup] at the very beginning—I should have bet!—I said, ‘These guys are going to win!’ They’re very systematic, very disciplined and trained really hard and no superstars. When you have too many superstars, prima donnas—just like a restaurant—it doesn’t work!
What type of person should be working here?
I want somebody that wants to work at a busy restaurant and wants to learn and be detailed and make good money. An old guy like me would not be able to work this floor.
I think I learned not to be frustrated and have quick disappointment. I realize everyone just learns a little bit differently. Some are audio, some are visual, some repetitive. And you have to learn how to teach them because we’re all different animals that learn differently.
How have you managed to stay successful?
If you’re not passionate, you don’t pay attention to details. I think passion is the most driven force and if you’re not detail-oriented and don’t have high expectations, you won’t make it.
In other news, Banh says Monsoon’s new cocktail bar will open sometime next week, led by bar manager Jon Christiansen.