A conversation with chef Eric Rivera is equal parts amusing, unnerving, inspiring and mildly offensive. The funny thing is, eating his food evokes those same emotions. Safe and predictable—qualities Seattle restaurants return to for a number of valid reasons—he and his food are not.
It’s been nearly a year since Rivera left his position as executive chef at Bookstore Bar, the Alexis Hotel’s cozy restaurant, and he hasn’t looked back. In fact, the chef—a polarizing character and guerrilla marketer who has crammed a lifetime of professional experience into a decade of cooking at both humble and high-profile locations—hasn’t stopped moving. Instead, he’s been running Addo. This pop-up turned semi-permanent restaurant has a location in Capitol Hill and, more recently, in Ballard, where he can—and does—do any damn thing he pleases. That includes offering ambitious 15-course tasting menus ($125 per person), like the one I experienced earlier this year, as well as (though less regularly) Puerto Rican comfort food, Dick’s-style cheeseburgers, karaoke nights, collaborative doughnut pop-ups, you name it.
If Addo (Latin for “inspired”) sounds unfocused, well, it is—but that’s the point. Rivera doesn’t like to play by any rules. “It’s everything and anything,” he says of Addo. His long-term plan for the project is an incubator of sorts, where he can give a 90-day jumpstart to folks trying to launch food-related businesses. He’s also scouting a brick-and-mortar Capitol Hill location for Lechoncito, a casual Puerto Rican restaurant he hopes to open and that he calls purely selfish; it would give him—and Seattle—access to the food of his heritage.
There are other offshoots in the works—Rivera’s mind works a mile a minute, and his business plans can barely keep up—but he says his opus will be Silva (Latin for “forest”), a concept he’s currently testing as a pop-up. He hopes it eventually will become an “evolved bed-and-breakfast,” and envisions a 20-seat restaurant celebrating the foods of Washington, with an unparalleled dedication to hospitality, set in the woods near Snoqualmie and with 10 micro accommodations surrounding it. “I can see it. I understand what it is,” he says of Silva. “I’ve even written the menu. I just need X amount of millions of dollars…” he stops and laughs. “But that’s OK. That gives me something to push towards.”
If you want to eat at Addo (at either the Ballard or Capitol Hill location), a reservation is required, and when you make it, you’ll also have to pay for your meal up front via a ticketing system. This is a touch Rivera picked up from his years of cooking at Alinea, the Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant that pioneered the system to discourage no-shows. (Locals tell him it can’t possibly work in Seattle, but he’s proving them wrong: He sells out many nights.) Along with your reservation, you’ll get a questionnaire that asks not only about dietary restrictions, but preferences as well. What kind of music do you like to listen to? Are you celebrating anything special? When I made my reservation, I briefly toyed with the idea of setting up some ridiculous scenario to see how well he would roll with the punches, but ultimately, I eat (and listen to) anything. I was there to get the answer to this question: Is Rivera really as great at cooking as he is at marketing himself on social media?
The short answer is yes. And no.
Chef Eric Rivera in his Capitol Hill kitchen.
Wild-eyed and curly-haired, the 36-year-old chef, who grew up in Olympia, has a résumé that includes cooking at local seafood stalwarts Seastar in Bellevue and Blueacre downtown. That was followed by his career-making experience at Alinea, before he returned to Seattle and worked at Huxley Wallace (Westward, Great State Burger, etc.) with Josh Henderson, Bookstore Bar and Café and other spots. None of these gigs lasted too long. That’s not uncommon in the industry, but Rivera also admits that since he likes to call the shots, he’s not exactly easy to work with.
All that experience was laid on the table during my 15-course dinner at Addo. There were fancy molecular gastronomy tricks, but there was also toast.
There was crispy-skinned Puerto Rican pork with plantains. There was wok-tossed crab marinated in chili oil, served with a tangle of greens. There was a single paper-thin roll of daikon in some weirdly delicious broth made with Japanese mayo; it was paired with a mushroom dish so earthy it was like falling face down on the forest floor.
During this culinary performance, Rivera interacted intimately with his guests. He lit stuff on fire. He handed out bibs. He served dishes on mismatched plates and slabs of wood. The whole experience lasted only two hours, a breakneck speed for such an elaborate meal. It was like a giant slap in the face with flavor—mostly in a good way. “Over time, you get bored,” he says, talking about how he reinvents the menu every night. “So you start thinking, maybe this will work? And it does, and that’s awesome.” And what about when it doesn’t? He laughs. “Then you’re eating Hot Pockets alone.”
Rivera’s willingness to take risks means you’re not going to love every dish. I didn’t. But every dish was surprising—some in big ways, others more subtle—and there aren’t a lot of dining experiences that stop you in your tracks like that. I’d venture to say there aren’t any in Seattle. “You have to keep pushing and creating,” he says. “Being safe, in any kind of restaurant, is the ultimate downfall. That’s plain and simple.”
He slams a lot of subjects during our chats: Italian food (“biggest scam in the entire world!”); the sort of people who think that just because they can make a decent burger they ought to open a restaurant (“so can everyone else!”); and Seattle’s dining scene in general, which he considers fairly pedestrian (“You couldn’t take a concept here and move it to Chicago, New York, San Francisco. That’s not talking sh**, that’s reality”). Having grown up here, he’s earned the right to be a disrupter.
That doesn’t mean he’ll be successful. As liberal as Seattle seems, this city notoriously has a hard time with restaurants that push the envelope too much. And Rivera knows how crazy his business plans sound. “I’m at a point in my career, and my age, where I just don’t give a f**k anymore,” he says. “It’s either going to end spectacularly—like I’m the Titanic of Seattle—or I’ll be able to stand on top of the city.”
Know Before You Go
Dining at Addo can be as formal or informal as you’d like. Choose brunch or a dinner where cheeseburgers or Puerto Rican lechon are served if you want casual, inexpensive and predictable. If you want to be wowed, sign up for the pricier tasting menus for a more formal experience, where you’ll also control less of the meal.
Regardless of what you choose, there’s no dress code (“I’ve had sweatpants in here next to a suit coat and dress,” Rivera says), you’ll be eating comunally at just a couple of seatings per night and Rivera occasionally turns up the music a little too loud. Reservations are required and paid for in advance.
Find out exactly where and what type of dinners are offered in Ballard and Capitol Hill at ericriveracooks.com/addo/.
BONUS: See descriptions of dishes in this story below:
Foie torchon set with smoked cream, Perigord truffle and candied walnut
Puerto Rican pork, rice and beans
Flank steak marinated with Puerto Rican sofrito, cooked a la plancha and seasoned with sazon
Kimchi and petrale sole fermented together, served warm and tossed with a macadamia nut puree, with chili thread to garnish
Long-line ling cured in salt for an hour then cooked in saute pan with almond oil. Served with soft almond slices, fresh wasabi, and an emulsified almond-and-wasabi sauce
Cured Neah Bay Black Cod cooked over binchotan charcoal on a konro grill with charred nori and sake lees mixed with koji
Served with dish above.
Cured King salmon belly cooked a la plancha with a sauce of fermented red bean and quickly fried shiso covered with fennel pollen
Kale, collard greens and beet greens all cooked separately in different broths: Kale in mushroom broth, collard greens in a sherry and port broth, beet greens in yucca broth. Brought together with pieces of Parmesan in between and sauced with a seaweed-and-rose oil
Beet cooked in duck fat for 12 hours and dipped in black pepper to finish
Black trumpet mushroom jus: Heavily reduced mushroom liquid for dipping of black trumpet mushrooms, or to drink alone. Fortified with pine needles, pernod and beef fat
Nisqually oyster cured in kasu then cooked over binchotan. (The kasu has binchotan-cured soy sauce made by taking the charcoal and dropping it into soy sauce.) Charred dulse seaweed and a charred fresno chili oil
Dungeness crab combined with kewpie mayo, charred avocado and seasoned with roasted turmeric and smoked paprika
Scallop set like tofu with cured trout roe, seaweed and extracted cashew oil made in a pressure cooker.
Black trumpet mushrooms, binchotan-cured soy, fermented black bean and black miso. Lit on fire at the table